Her otherness has many faces, but one stands out: her voice.
Wearing a tall turban, singer Jamala burst on to the Ukrainian music scene only a year ago with a look and sound from another planet. Her future, however, can easily be imagined outside Ukraine. And her first album recorded in English shows why.
A Ukrainian jazz singer, Susana Jamaladinova, a.k.a. Jamala, has only one song in Russian, but it helped her star rise. Recorded in jazz-pop style, it was balancing on a thin line, appearing in the pop-music festival New Wave in 2009. Grotesque, flamboyant and decidedly strong, Jamala was voted the best. The next item on her wish list is representing Ukraine in the next Eurovision song contest. But for that she has to win the selection rounds in Kyiv.
Jet-setting between London, Amsterdam, Istanbul and Moscow to sing at countless concerts, Jamala, 27, briefly touched down in Kyiv recently and met with the Kyiv Post in her studio. She wore a bright-yellow long dress, high heels and a big smile. Thoughtful and reserved, she left a totally different personal impression than her wild and eccentric stage presence.
There is everything in this name, you know, the East, classics, jazz, soul, ethno."
Her family history has probably something to do with that. Born into a Muslim family in Kyrgyzstan, she was taught to be conservative. She doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol. She said her great-grandparents were deported from Crimea during Josef Stalin’s infamous cleansing of the Ukrainian peninsula after World War II. Jamala’s father took the family back to their ancestral land when the singer was only one year old.
With her mother playing a piano and father conducting a choir, Jamala didn’t see any other future for herself but on stage. “During math classes, I used to get bored and would start humming a song, which made my classmates laugh at me,” she recalled. “But my teacher loved my singing and used to give me Cs or Bs in advance, which made the rest of the class go mad.”
Jamala sings in her stylish turban during the media awards ceremony ‘Teletriumph 2008-2009’ on Sept. 4, 2009. (UNIAN)
Vocals of four octaves as strong as Whitney Houston are now a good reason for other singers to be jealous. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s classics and American jazz legends like Herbie Hancock, James Brown and Billie Holiday were among her musical idols. “Today I prefer singing in English just because it is the true language of American music of the ‘60s,” she said. “I got used to it and enjoy it so much.”
In 2001, Jamala followed her older sister and entered an opera faculty at Kyiv Tchaikovsky National Music Academy. The sisters lived in a dormitory and were often rebuked by their neighbors for long hours of opera singing and playing the piano. Opera lyrics from all over the world helped Jamala study foreign languages. Today, besides speaking Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean Tatar, Turkish, Armenian and English, Jamala said she can converse in Italian, French and Spanish.
Around this time, college mates started calling her Ja or Jam. She liked the idea and later adopted Jamala, which means beautiful in Arabic, as her stage name. “There is everything in this name, you know, the East, classics, jazz, soul, ethno. Susana sounds too sweet.”
Sweet and mainstream are two words missing from Jamala’s vocabulary. While still in the academy, she said she was invited to teach singing in a private school. “The director told me there were only VIP children in that school and I was not allowed to rebuke them or downgrade them if they did not do their homework. I said OK to all of that. But then he said these kids liked to sing Glukoza [a Russian pop singer with questionable vocals]. And I replied ‘sorry, goodbye. I can’t do what I do not believe in’.” She wanted to teach students only classics.
Since then, she has said “no” on many occasions. Winning an international opera contest at 24, she was invited to stay and study in La Scala’s school for promising singers. “But something snapped inside. I heard of the [New Wave contest in] Yurmala and, in one day, without even telling my mom, I packed everything and left.”
Today I prefer singing in English just because it is the true language of American music of the ‘60s," - Jamala
After winning New Wave, she gave another “no” to her producer and famous choreographer, Olena Kolyadenko. Jamala said Kolyadenko insisted on a pop singer’s image, which would alter her singing style and clothes. She said she also could not stand criticism about her knees, which she bends in a peculiar way when singing.
With media naming her Idol of the Year, she could get away with that and carry on with the way she was – bright and different. Jamala’s new video for the song “It’s Me, Jamala,” costing her $110, 000, will appear on music channels in the middle of October.
Asked what was next for her, she gave the usual list – Grammy, a big house and a husband. It turns out that Ukraine’s It-girl has pretty normal dreams. It also appears that she – and her fans – will enjoy seeing them come true.
To see a schedule of Jamala’s concerts, visit: http://jamalamusic.com
The date of the Eurovision song contest selection rounds will be announced later in October.
Kyiv Post staff writer Iryna Prymachyk can be reached at Prymachyk@kyivspot.com.
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