One of the leading talents on the UK Jazz scene, improvising vocalist and composer Brigitte Beraha is a force to be reckoned with amongst women in jazz. In celebration of International Women’s Day, she reflects upon her experiences, achievements, gender balance in music and more. Interview by Sandie Safont.
LondonJazz News: You’re a highly respected vocalist/instrumentalist and educator. Can you tell us about your musical background and training?
Brigitte Beraha: I grew up in a household where my dad would often play the piano and sing at home – he used to play piano for a Turkish pop star before I was born. I loved to listen to him then copy him, working out songs by The Beatles, Elton John or Dire Straits. As a teenager I became obsessed with classical music and would sit at the piano for hours so my mum eventually got me lessons. I’d also sing from memory alongside a beautiful record of La Traviata I was given; I always loved singing and playing but it never crossed my mind it was something I could do as a living. It wasn’t until I moved to London in my twenties that I had formal training. Alongside my later studies I also started teaching to earn a living, but soon realised that had become a passion too so went on to develop my skills as a teacher.
LJN: Some of your early albums have songs written and sung in French. Can you tell us more about your French connection?
BB: French is actually my native language. Although I was born in Milan to a Turkish dad and half Turkish/half British mum, we moved to the Côte d’Azur where I grew up. So when writing, occasionally words come to me in French and I love setting French poetry to music, as I did on the latest Babelfish album.
I would love to do more performing in France in the future and act more on my European heritage; I think now more than ever it’s important that we connect with everyone around us regardless of any enforced borders.
LJN: Something ethereal in your voice and the way you use it as an instrument is very much rooted in the tradition of Norma Winstone, Gretchen Parlato and Luciana Souza. Are they big influences on you?
BB: Yes, all three are wonderful vocalists. I discovered Norma Winstone during my studies at Guildhall, starting with Kenny Wheeler’s Music for Large and Small Ensembles and the trio Azimuth. I also had a tape of Norma and John Taylor live in concert at the Guildhall. The freedom with which Norma sings in all of those different contexts really spoke to me. Realising I could use my voice as an instrument in that way was perfect for me as it also allowed me to be part of the band rather than your usual singer fronting the band, which suited my character better.
I discovered Luciana Souza a little later: her approach and sound similarly attracted me. Her delivery is always emotionally connected to what she sings and her time and feel are also off the scale. I love listening to her Brazilian material but also to her own beautiful compositions.
LJN: International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women on a global scale. Is there anything you’d like to say about it?
BB: I think it’s a wonderful thing and important to be celebrating the achievements of women, as it is to celebrate those of any beautiful human being. Without the achievements of the incredible strong women of our world I wouldn’t be free to be who I am and do what I do today and I am of course so grateful for that.
LJN: Who are the women that inspire you?
BB: On a more personal level I am inspired by my mother who runs one of the quirkiest accommodations in the UK all by herself – the New Inn Brilley. Also Cathy Giles, who is a force of nature: aside from being a great cellist and looking after the band in Strictly come Dancing, she also taught me some important lessons about being a professional musician. And of course all the amazing women who are part of our wonderful UK jazz scene, many of whom I am privileged to know and love.
LJN: Gender balance in the jazz community seems to have improved yet female instrumentalists are still a minority in jazz ensembles. What’s your take on this?
BB: Re-addressing this imbalance is a very important issue that everyone should be made aware of, but I think one has to be careful it’s not done in an ‘unnatural’ way. As an educator I see that more and more young women jazz instrumentalists are coming through conservatoire so this is extremely positive and so many people are working behind the scenes to help achieve this. However the jazz scene I am currently part of is still very male dominated, and this is a fact – so to try and enforce a 50/50 gender balance for example at this point in time in the UK to me has to be done with caution: the danger is that by doing so, some female musicians will be put in the limelight for being women rather than for their wonderful playing/ being at the top of their game, so ultimately forcing such parity may be a disservice to the cause itself.
However, thankfully, with the amount of female artists of real quality across various scenes these days, it’s probably never been easier for promoters to put together a more balanced programme. Incidentally, on International Women’s Day (8 March, 4pm) I will be part of a wonderful concert at the Vortex Jazz Club: the London Jazz Orchestra celebrating a programme of music solely written by women composers in the band, past and present.
LJN: What has been your own experience?
BB: I have always chosen the people in my bands regardless of their backgrounds, race, gender or age. Just amazing musicians who I was lucky to hear, meet and play with and felt a musical connection with. Looking back it so happened that most of them were men, because I guess statistically that was bound to be the case. I was recently on tour with Tori Freestone and Alcyona Mick, as a guest vocalist on their album Criss Cross, though the fact that we are women is by-the-by; we have a musical connection and love playing together, and we hope that we are booked because of our music and playing rather than our gender. My new band (Brigitte Beraha’s Lucid Dreamers – more below) features George Crowley, Alcyona Mick, Tim Giles and myself – my first band of 50/50 parity! This is of course brilliant, although this choice came from the fact that I think they are wonderful musicians and human beings, regardless of their gender.
Personally I have never felt that I was treated differently on the music scene because I am a woman, but maybe I’ve been lucky with this, and am aware that it is important to be a good role model for emerging female instrumentalists and vocalists. To be honest I think I have found more stigma around being a vocalist, with people assuming that being a singer means I am not an instrumentalist or musician, and this I have had to fight for a little more. I see myself as a musician who just so happens to have chosen the voice as their instrument and also just so happens to be a woman.
LJN: What are your current projects and what’s next for you?
BB: Current projects include Babelfish – a collaboration with Barry Green, Chris Laurence and Paul Clarvis. We released our third album Once Upon a Tide a few months ago. Our next concert is at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on Sunday 19 April.
Solstice, a sextet collaboration with Tori Freestone, John Turville, Jez Franks, Dave Manington and George Hart/Will Glaser, has a new album out soon. I’m also doing a more standards-led project with John Turville on piano. And I’m touring with Andre Canniere’s band in April and May.
As to what’s next, I am extremely excited to be leading the above-mentioned new band Brigitte Beraha’s Lucid Dreamers, which is the first one under my own name in more than ten years. We’ve recently done a live recording to be released very soon!
Brigitte Beraha’s Lucid Dreamers premieres on Monday 20 April at Milton Court Concert Hall at 7.30pm as part of the Guildhall Jazz Festival, with a pre-concert talk hosted by Women in Jazz.
This English version is being co-published. Sandie Safont’s profile in French is appearing at Citizen Jazz (will be linked when published)