Photo: © Garry Corbett
Sylwia Białas is a Polish-born vocalist, composer, lyricist and producer who moved to London in 2014 from Wurzburg, Germany, where she studied jazz singing and music production and collaborated with many outstanding German musicians. Together with internationally renowned Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis she co-leads the acclaimed Sirkis/Białas International Quartet. Her other passions include photography and sound engineering. An interview by Tomasz Furmanek:
LondonJazz News: You were born in in Knurów, Poland. Before moving to the UK you studied jazz singing and music production in Germany. Why Germany?
Sylwia Białas: Yes, I was born in Knurów, a town near Rybnik in the south of Poland. At the age of 19, after graduating from the secondary school, I moved to Wrocław to study vocals and drums at the music school, where I prepared myself for the music studies abroad. I chose Germany because it was the nearest interesting option and I already knew some musicians from Würzburg, so my decision was pretty straight ahead from there.
LJN: How did you find the jazz scene in Würzburg?
SB: During my studies I worked with many great jazz musicians in Würzburg. Many of them were unique in their style of playing and writing. People like Bill Elgart, Chris Bayer, Hans-Peter Salentin, Michael Wollny, and members of my own band Prisma strongly influenced my musical development!
LJN: A few years ago you decided to move to London, did you find what you looked for here?
SB: Yes and no… In the musical sense my answer would be yes, there’s a huge abundance of amazing artists here, a great jazz scene and a melting pot of various cultural influences. I feel very happy and accomplished to co-lead the Sirkis/Białas IQ and tour together playing our own music.
In terms of making a living and building up the social environment, which is very important to me, I honestly find it difficult to grow into the scene. It simply takes loads of time and persistence to “dock in”. You’ve got to live very close to the centre of the city which recently got barely affordable for a freelancer. This might be easier for young students easily getting some opportunities to jam, interact and make contacts.
LJN: How did the collaboration with Asaf Sirkis start? Tell us please about Sirkis/Białas International Quartet.
SB: Well, it was a pretty funny story. I and Asaf met on myspace, if you still remember this online music platform. We connected there to tell each other how much liked and appreciated each other’s music. Five years later our paths surprisingly crossed again at the Jazz Ahead Conference in Bremen. We’ve recognised each other there and started a chat which had to be interrupted, because Asaf had to go to play a gig there and I had to rush to see a performance of a new trio I wanted to check out – the Lighthouse Trio. I absolutely did not realise who was the drummer of this trio and was pretty surprised to see Asaf marching on the stage. We both had to laugh about that. We basically made a huge circle going in opposite directions to meet in the same room.
Soon after, we met again in Würzburg, walking in the forest and planning who will we ask to join our “dream band”. We thought about choosing musicians who we truly love, both as artists and as human beings. We ended up creating this fantastic band.
LJN: You consequently write your lyrics in Polish and perform them in front of the international audiences…
SB: Yes, I do. Passionately. I`m getting “serious goose bumps” listening to Indian, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, African, Scandinavian, Neapolitan, Georgian, Corsican… any native and soulful singing even if I don`t understand the lyrics. The meaning of the words is just about a part of the entire expression. The rest is the intense, universal emotions, understandable for everyone, no matter which nationality. I never intended to mainly target the Polish audiences. I just hope to cause the same “serious goose bumps” to any foreign listeners because I believe that Polish is so much worth it. It is a deep, rich, quirky and sonically exciting language. I feel very thankful that Asaf and the rest of the band encouraged me to stick to my roots.
Photo: © Irmgard Hofmann
LJN: So it’s about expressing and showing the sources of your own identity?
SB: Yes, very much so.
LJN: Wayne Shorter once said, that “vulnerability is the birthplace of authenticity, and authenticity connects”. Does singing in Polish in front of a non-Polish audience make you feel that way?
SB: Absolutely. What always makes me truly happy and thankful are those few beautiful people, coming after the gig and expressing how much they’ve been touched, moved or taken on a journey to places they`ve never visited before. It is priceless.
LJN: You mentioned a star pianist Michael Wollny as one of your collaborators – what kind of project have you worked together on?
SB: Michael is a dear friend of mine from the times of my studies in Würzburg. We went to the same music university and I even happened to have some piano lessons with him. The lessons didn`t really work though, because instead of studying we always ended up playing our butts off (he played the piano, I sang) mostly forgetting the time and everything else. Later on, we had a project together with a bass player Eva Cruse (from the Trio EM), the trumpet prof. Hans Peter Salentin and Christoph Holzhauser on drums.
LJN: LJN was able to use some of your great pictures of the first Ambleside Days – what was the experience like? Is photography something you do seriously?
SB: Photography is just another form of expression for me, another kind of passion and real fun.
Ambleside: tons of beautiful music and musicians, mesmerising landscapes, Mike Walker`s hilarious jokes, Tim Garland‘s family occupying the fireplace, star gazing with Dave Holland, Joe Locke spreading sunshine, rolling kilometres of cables with Paul Walker…
LJN: New Sirkis/Białas IQ album Our New Earth is due for release soon. Which music areas are you travelling to on that record? What other plans/tours are in the diary?
SB: The new album is much edgier and intense from the previous one. Epic fusion meets European Contemporary with tons of ethnic influences from different parts of the earth. It is our sonic interpretation of the events we’re going through on our planet now. The sound of the church organ, waterphone, crotales, Fender Rhodes, grand piano, konnakol, overtone singing, and some sounds of nature add up some vibe to the compositions. It still sounds like us, only the sound ambience is kind of darker and bigger.
We are planning to tour the UK and Germany with the album. More details coming soon on our websites.
LJN: This interview appears on 8 March – the International Women’s Day. What do you think about this date in the calendar? Does it mean anything to you at all?
SB: For me the 8th of March is a great opportunity to remember what the entire mankind should acknowledge and understand once and for all: the universal meaning of being a human being does not differentiate between genders no matter from which culture, race or religion we are coming from.
LJN: Are there women in jazz, past or present, that you admire?
SB: Both, I think. As a passionate teacher, I definitely can say that there are tons of extremely inspiring female musicians that will grow to be our future – some unique, self-confident and genuine women of modern jazz.
LJN: Any advice for younger women starting out as instrumentalists or vocalists?
SB: Be you. Search for things that you’re passionate about – then the effort becomes a joy. If you are an instrumentalist, don’t try to get more masculine to belong and be acknowledged, there’s no need for that. Many of you, girls, will know exactly what I am talking about. Be your best, look for your own way, don’t copy and cover others. You all are unique – cherish it!