I am not Gaga! It’s me, Jamala!

By Svetlana Ancker

or someone who has lived in Ukraine, and followed her music since 2009, meeting Jamala (real name, Susana Jamaladynova) in London was exciting. With the London Olympics and city attractions serving as backdrop to our interview, Jamala, with her signature smile, talked about her excitement about performing in London, one of her favourite cities.

– Six months ago I made a wish to come back to London, not as a tourist, but as a singer. So I got very excited when I found out I would perform within the cultural programme of the Olympic games at the Bosco Club, host of the Russian Olympic team. To sing in London is a big honour for me. It’s home to many great music styles which inspire my own writing and music. 

Jamala stands out in Eastern Europe, famous for its cheap ‘euro trash’ pop, not only because of her unique voice with its four octave range, but also performing songs, in English, that are a fusion of jazz, soul, world music, gospel and blues. Born into a family of professional musicians, it is her upbringing Jamala thanks for a profound love of classical music, diverse musical taste, and a strong foundation that supports and inspires her music today.

– I was destined to be a singer. At 8 I already told my mother, “I don’t know what else to do when I grow up, I can only sing!” I was surrounded by great music 24/7, be it Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Bach. My parents guided me as my music tastes developed, which was critical at that age.

Not many know that Jamala was originally trained as opera singer, and was preparing to take Italy’s La Scala by storm; but fate decided otherwise. As someone used to participating in (and winning!) many singing contests in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) since early childhood, in 2009 she entered an international contest for young pop singers, ‘New Wave’ in Jūrmala, Latvia. Participants from 15 countries competed on the stage that served as a launch pad for many contemporary Eastern European singers. But Jamala is hardly a pop singer, so tensions with contest organisers were perhaps inevitable.

– From the application stage onwards, I’d been told that this is not a jazz contest, and I didn’t fit the format of ‘New Wave’. I was asked to change my programme, yet I stood by my choices and succeeded! It was a mini ‘revolution’ in music that I have to continue.

After showing her unique vocal abilities and expertise in a wide range of musical styles, Jamala took the coveted trophy home, waving her plans for La Scala good-bye. She became an overnight sensation and her busy performing schedule took her around Europe and beyond. In the same year, Ukrainian Cosmopolitan named her ‘Discovery of the Year’, and Elle presented her with ‘Singer of the Year’ and ‘Person of 2009’ awards. With her unusual voice and singing style, coupled with an extravagant dress style, journalists quickly labelled Jamala the ‘Ukrainian Amy Winehouse’ or ‘Lady Gaga’. To that, Jamala, who wants to be celebrated for her originality, retorted with “I’m not Gaga, I’m not Amy; it’s me, Jamala!” in a song from her first album, ‘For Every Heart’. Today she works with some of the best musicians and writers in the region, and shoots music videos with top Western directors, such as Charley Stadler and John X. Carey.

But what does the future hold for Jamala? As someone a little superstitious, she didn’t want to verbalise every dream, yet she did open up about the quality of music in Ukraine. 

– I am a big dreamer! I want my audience to grow bigger and I want to reach their hearts and minds. Maybe not all will hear me, but I hope to pave the way for younger musicians, giving them hope that they can succeed. Unfortunately, situation with music in Ukraine is much worse than in (other parts of) Europe. We are 20-30 years behind, and we don’t have a culture of listening to quality music. My plans are to influence music in Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the CIS. I want people to know that besides silly pop songs, there is music that remains in our hearts forever; music that has meaning, that has soul.

Given that her music is based on many styles, I had to ask Jamala about her favourite singers and sources of inspiration.

– From contemporary performers, I have recently discovered UK singer, Lianne La Havas. Also, Michael Kiwanaka, and Adele, of course. As for jazz, it’s mostly traditional singers, such as Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I also think Gregory Porter is number One among contemporary jazz singers. As for inspiration – it can be everything! Travel, music, and people I meet randomly! There are so many sources and reasons for inspiration. Yet one shouldn’t wait for inspiration to come. Every person should keep moving forward, set goals and make wishes. That’s important!

Something else that sets Jamala apart is her multi-cultural background, which finds its way into her music. Born in Kyrgyzstan, Jamala is half Armenian and half Crimean Tatar, but grew up in Crimea, Ukraine. She feels equally comfortable in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, making her “our” singer in many regions.

– I don’t even know who I am! The most important thing is not one’s nationality and where they are from, but how they feel inside, and whether they live in harmony with themselves and their surroundings. Who you truly are, what you feel inside, and what you have to say to others are things that matter the most.

 I asked for her favourite city or country.

– They all are very different. I’ve been to Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Cuba, and often perform in Russia and Kazakhstan. I love Kyiv, Simferopol and Alushta in Ukraine. Barcelona is one of the best cities in the world. London is a city where I am very comfortable and want to come to over and over again. I’ve also been back to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, where I feel like I am at home. I love cities for their people, with whom I have connection  and get attached. Let me say: I don’t have favourite cities, I have favourite people whom I enjoy meeting. I have many people in my life I want to see again and again regardless of where they are.

Currently working on a much anticipated second album (due spring 2013), Jamala, as a typical perfectionist, is taking her time on each song, making sure it will meet high expectations of her fans around the world. At the end of the interview I asked Jamala to tell me what top 5 songs would make her playlist.

– It’s going to be very diverse music, which makes it even better.

  1. Billy Holiday ‘Don’t Explain’
  2. Radiohead ‘No Surprises’
  3. Villa-LobosBachianas Brasileiras No.5’
  4. Joni MitchellBoth Sides Now’
  5. Stevie Wonder ‘Ribbon in the Sky’

…and one of my songs, ‘Find Me’!

 For more information about Jamala, visit: www.jamalamusic.com

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