If there is anything shocking about Gaitana, it’s her normality. She has none of the pretense of a pop star. She likes cooking. She talks easily about God and she dreams of having a lot of children.
Yet this warm and calm person was dragged into a scandal recently after winning the competition to represent Ukraine in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan in May.
Yuriy Syrotyuk, a senior member of right-wing Svoboda party, said that “Gaitana is not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture” and that, since she is black, Ukraine will be “associated with a different continent.”
But Gaitana says that the racist comments make her feel sorry for Syrotyuk. “I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes, so many people are talking about him now, criticizing him,” she sighs.
Still, Syrotyuk’s words came as a surprise for the 32-year-old singer, whose full name is Gaitana-Lurdes Essami. She was born to a Congolese father and Ukrainian mother. She grew up in predominantly white Ukraine, yet says that she never encountered racism.
“It was the other way around! People always tried to place a wreath on my head and asked me to sing a Ukrainian song,” she says. “It looks exotic. Everyone always was trying to emphasize that I am Ukrainian.”
She spent four years of her life in Congo, and then returned to Ukraine as a four-year-old girl after her parents divorced. “Of course I am Ukrainian! I live here, I work here, I sing here, I fall in love here,” she smiles.
She connected with music early in her childhood. “I remember my grandmother playing accordion and singing beautifully,” says Gaitana. “And I used to sing Congolese songs to her.”
Gaitana gives a solo concert on Valentine’s Day. She will represent Ukraine in May’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan.(Courtesy)
But unlike many stars, she never dreamed of being a singer. Her first love was tennis. She attended a sports school to stay on top of her game. Things took a turn when Gaitana was 12. She dropped into a local center to meet up with a friend who was taking a dance class.
“I was waiting for her in the corridor, and the director of a singing studio invited me to his class to not get bored,” she remembers. “At the end of the class he listened to me singing and invited me to his group.”
She has been singing ever since.
She learned to play saxophone, sang in a folk ensemble and wrote gospel lyrics and music glorifying Jesus while studying in the Bible College.
She sang with a Protestant church choir.
“I always was easily inspired by everything that is good,” she says, sipping her latte in a Kyiv bar. Unlike many of her counterparts, she easily agreed to give an interview with no strings attached.
Gaitana often disarms with her openness and sincerity. She thanks God for her fame with earnest sincerity. She even pokes fun of herself. “When I come home, I usually say ‘now I will shower to wash the stardust off’,” she says, giggling.
Along with the stardust goes her public persona. Gaitana loves staying at home and spending time with her partner and friend Eduard Klym, playing music, reading and especially cooking. “Whenever I travel [abroad] I bring back the national clothes, music, and, of course, recipes,” she says.
She would like to have children, and feels she is ready for it.
Of course I am Ukrainian! I live here, I work here, I sing here, I fall in love here.
“How interesting their lives will be with such a mother! Musical instruments will be their toys,” she dreams, adding that she will always let them choose their own way, the same as her mother did when she decided to drop sports for singing.
Until this year, Gaitana had not thought about taking part in Eurovision before, despite receiving offers. “Be My Guest,” the song that she wrote late last year, motivated her to take part in the contest and will now be performed in Azerbaijan in late May.
“I’ve been always claiming through my songs that all people on Earth are a friendly family. This song soaked up all the best lines and emotions from all my songs,” explains Gaitana. “I would like to break all the stereotypes about Ukraine with it, and invite everyone to be our guest.”
Gaitana got the music for the song by e-mail from KIWI Project, a DJ duo from Odessa, and fell in love with it the sound. “I listened to the piece and I loved everything about it: ethnic sounds of trembita at the start, modern electronics, it grooves!” she says.
She wrote the lyrics within days.
Aleksey Mayorov of KIWI Project, said the duo planned to apply to make the song the official anthem of Euro 2012 football championship, but the German singer Oceana had already been chosen.
Still, they hope the song will become an unofficial anthem of the championship, which will take place soon after Eurovision ends.
The song has been criticized at home as hard to remember and unsuitable for a pop competition. But Mayorov hopes that Gaitana will get to at least the top three places in May, while Klym, her husband and producer, is preparing for victory. “We will do everything possible to present the best show we can,” he says.
So, Gaitana is busy picking out her dress.
“Of course, I would like to wear a wreath, but we will see.”
Kyiv Post staff writer Alyona Zhuk can be reached at email@example.com