Sunday, January 27, 2008

Farewell, Mouskouri

She's a Greek legend, but unlike Jason and Ulysses, not one who had much impact on my formative years, probably because she never clashed with scary stop motion skeletons or appeared in a trippy, portentous animated sci-fi series. Despite her huge worldwide following, I never became accustomed to her distinctive voice, mainly due to her failure to duet with Queen or appear on any of the early Now compilations. She's one of those icons who only existed for me in the lost world only glimpsed through the portals of Morecambe and Wise repeats and faded charity shop LPs. A pre-postmodern world in where Ronnie Corbett was funny, the word 'naff' really meant something and respected broadcasters felt free to joke about much-maligned minorities, such as the wearers of oversized spectacles.

Despite her fuzzy presence on my cultural radar, I'd always been intrigued by the phenomenon of Nana Mouskouri, so I was secretly quite excited about her concert at the Sungsan Art Hall, one of Changwon's main cultural venues. I turned up on the evening, partly out of curiosity, partly because of the sense of occasion that surrounded the show (especially as it was part of her Farewell Tour), and mainly in solidarity with speccy-four-eyes everywhere. I wasn't sure whether to expect an out-an-out riot of kitsch, a moving celebration of musical heritage or a wallow in treacly nostalgia. Of course, what I got was a combination of the three - a highly enjoyable mish-mash of a Europudding, with a hint of Korean whimsy thrown in for good measure.

Nana has long been popular in Korea, for all the reasons that have convinced the world to buy over 200 million records (recorded in 15 languages) over the course of her 50-year career. Her enduring international appeal goes hand in hand with her position at the nadir of cool - she appears entirely sincere in her love of a dizzying range of music, which she interprets with full, unfashionable conviction and a total lack of irony or distance. This apparent artlessness clearly cuts through cultural barriers very effectively, and Nana's star seems to be ascendant in Korea. Her version of
Lascia Ch'io Pianga was recently used as the title song for a hit soap opera, and she gained a lot of kudos for organising a charity concert in aid of those affected by the Taean oil spill in December 2007.

The concert was certainly A Big Deal - one of only four Korean dates on the tour. It was held in the Sungsan's 2000-seater main hall, and brought Changwon's middle-class cognoscenti out in their best winter coats, with a tangible sense of hushed expectancy. I don't think they were disappointed, and despite a few rough edges and grating moments, I was won over as well.

To start the show, we were treated to a film showing Nana's progress from classically trained club singer to
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, via stints as a Quincy Jones protege, Eurovision contestant, teatime TV favourite, muse to Bob Dylan and MEP. Preceded by her band of four dinner jacketed multi-instrumentalists, Nana then slowly struggled on in high heels, hands clasped and head bowed. She immediately endeared herself to the crowd by greeting and thanking everyone in Korean, then set off on a her bizarre odyssey of folk, jazz, pop and show tunes. She began with a shaky wail through Scarborough Fair, but found her stride with some lovely, gravelly chansons, a cache of stirring Greek folk songs and an achingly vulnerable version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Nana's stage presence is an engaging mix of professionalism and gaucheness. Her classical training shines through (and her microphone technique is flawless), but her movements and phrasing are a tad awkward, which I suppose only adds to her gawky charm. At 74, her voice isn't a precision instrument, but is pleasingly lacking in unnecessary ornamentation, and she conveys a real love for music in a straightforward, guileless manner.

The odd vocal crack perfectly suited the songs of lost love and regret that peppered the set, with the directness of Nana's delivery and generally sensitive instrumentation saving the show from becoming too maudlin.
The band members were clearly a cut above the usual bland session plodders, usually providing restrained, emotive textures, and not adding too much noodling in the more upbeat numbers. The guitarist/bouzouki player was particularly versatile and subtle, with the odd moment cheesy excess entirely forgiveable under the circumstances.

A highlight for most of the crowd (and for me) was a version of a Greek song, which was
recently translated into Korean and became a hit here. After finally being coaxed to sing along, the massed voices of the women in the audience sounded quietly haunting, and Nana seemed to do a fine job of pronouncing the lyrics from her crib sheet.

The final stretch of the show featured a version of My Way, which despite being a good thematic fit for a farewell tour, seemed an odd choice for a singer known for her humility and shyness. It was actually rather refreshing to hear a different approach to such a tired standard - I'd take Nana's wistful rendition over Sinatra's smug bombast any day. Everybody Hurts was another surprising show stopper, and although she fudged the 'don't throw your hand' bridge, it still brought a small lump to my throat (although I'd have been in pieces if she'd chosen Nightswimming or Find the River instead).

The many encores felt well-deserved, even though it took Nana an age to totter on and off stage - flat shoes would have shaved ten minutes off the show's running time. Crowd pleasers included the horrendously saccharine Come and Sing (Ode to Joy) and a slightly painful reading of Amazing Grace. To a Nana neophyte, she appears to posses many charming qualities, but grace doesn't seem to be one of them. Her best moments, at least on this particular evening in Changwon, were earthy and heartfelt - she couldn't quite pull off spiritual and soaring. That said, her presence certainly brought an odd kind of old-school glamour to the Sungsan, and it will be interesting to see if any other performers can inspire a similarly rapturous audience reaction.

Watching a doyenne of European schmaltz may seem like a strange way to experience Korean culture, but the show offered a window into a particular section of Changwon society. Lovers of sentimental music, regardless of its origin, are certainly not in short supply here, and for two and a half earnest, warm-hearted hours, I was glad to leave my cynicism at the door and join them.

1 comment:

marielikespavement said...

I was halfway through your review of the show when I realised why you hadn't mentioned 99 Red Balloons...

Nana, not Nena...