Dario Moreno and Sephardic Cosmopolitanism


Dario Moreno (1921-1968), a Jewish singer who took the world stage as a popular artist and film star in the late 1950s and 1960s, perhaps best encapsulates the new role of Sephardic Jewry in the mid-20th century. Moreno symbolized a kind of pan-Mediterranean cosmopolitanism, not unknown in the earlier Ottoman centuries, but generalized in a secular way beyond parochial concerns and local interests. Like the famous elevator, the asansör, in his native Izmir, built by Nesim Levi in 1907, Moreno to his Turkish countrymen became a symbol of modernity, Europeanization, and progress. Yet, he always acknowledged both his Turkish and Jewish identities, never renouncing or hiding his nationality and ethnicity despite reinventing himself in France, the epicenter of his career.

Born David Arugete, Moreno was a cabaret singer and film actor who played Sancho Panza to Jacques Brel’s Don Quixote. He danced with Brigitte Bardot and rode the wave of new entertainment technologies in the mid-20th century. These were impressive achievements for a man who spent his early years in an orphanage. Later, reunited with his mother, he attended Jewish communal schools and clerked in a lawyer’s office, while studying French at night at the public library. Acquiring a guitar, he played at bar mitzvah parties, and further honed his musical skills while doing military service in the Turkish army, where officers noticed his abilities and encouraged his musical talent. The Turkish Army served as a springboard to Moreno’s career. He became adept as a polyglot singer in Turkish, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish. He served as a soloist in military clubs in Turkey’s major cities, and soon was singing jazz for American forces stationed during the Cold War in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Traveling to Athens, Alexandria, and Istanbul, he performed popular songs like the theme from the film, Never on Sunday, and the French-Arabic, Mustafa. It wasn’t long until an impresario telegraphed from France, and Moreno’s career moved to Cannes and Paris.

In France, Moreno continued to work in resort hotels, nightclubs, cabarets, and to experiment with new forms of entertainment. He was featured on the Scopitone, a machine that showed film clips, perhaps the earliest type of music videos. He became a supporting actor in 32 films, even winning the French César Award in the film, Oeil pour Oeil (Eye for an Eye). Other awards included France’s Grand prix du disque (1958) for one of his many albums, and special recognition from the Turkish Cultural and Tourism Board (1962). 

Dario Moreno’s repertoire was indeed cosmopolitan. It mixed song genres from Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. None of the songs for which Moreno was famous were “Jewish.” They were secular, cosmopolitan, and commercially produced. Most of the songs were love songs, film themes, nightclub anthems, and nostalgic glimpses into the Mediterranean lifestyle. He would often sing the same song in several translations. Moreno became a specialist in Latin American and French songs. His “Istanbul/Constantinople,” a song later made famous by the rock band They Might Be Giants, was sung in French with jazzy breaks and stereotypical Turkish riffs. The nightclub anthems, “Vodka, Raki, Sharap,” and “Ni Na Nai Nai” were Greek-Turkish mixed language songs that shared musical elements.

Dario Moreno’s life and work was a kind of reversal of Jules Dassin’s character in the 1960s hit film, Never On Sunday. Unlike Dassin’s American writer who traveled to Greece, befriended the kindly prostitute played by Melina Mercouri, and attempted to understand the mysterious “Oriental” or Eastern qualities of Greek life, Moreno traveled West to France. Moreno not only understood the mysteries of European life, but he successfully emulated them, perfected his French so that there was no accent, learned the latest and most fashionable dance steps, and became fluent in so many, divergent popular song genres.  His records and films were popular throughout the world.  

Moreno embodied success and acceptance. He was popular in France. He had achieved what Sephardic Jews in Turkey had dreamed about in the late 19th century. French was seen as a vehicle for modernity and success. Families who aspired to the middle class fell so in love with French language and culture that they spoke French as their first language at home in the early 20th century, leaving behind their native Judeo-Spanish. Moreno’s name embodied this kind of pan-Mediterranean identity: “Dario” could be French or Italian; “Moreno” was definitely Spanish. In Turkey, both Jews and non-Jews, those of Muslim and Christian origin, saw themselves as citizens of a secular, Turkish state. Members of the middle class also looked West in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Dario Moreno’s life was cut short by a stroke in Istanbul when he was only 47, but his legacy lives on today on the Internet, on many websites: YouTube, MySpace, and tribute pages posted by Turkish musicians. Turks point to him with great pride as a famous son of Izmir. Sephardic Jews see him as an emblem of their integration, acculturation, and success: the heritage of polyglot, non-Muslim minority cultural traditions in Eastern Mediterranean port cities; the benefits of mastering French language; the ultimate in sophistication in mid-20th century popular culture; their pride in the State of Israel where Dario Moreno is at rest in Holon’s municipal cemetery.

Links to Dario Moreno on YouTube:

(1) Deniz ve Mehtap
(2) Istanbul Hatirasi
(3) Mustafa  (1960)
(4) Coucouroucoucou (1957)
(5) La Marmite
(6) Les Mouettes de Mykonos (1966)
(7) Ni Nai Nai (1963)