Aga Zaryan, a jazz singer born in Warsaw, has gained international recognition and star status in her native Poland. Her success might be partly explained by the way she has managed to combine ambitious artistic goals with an ability to reach a wider audience in an original and uncompromising way. Her albums have earned gold, platinum and multi-platinum status and she was the first Polish musician to sign with Blue Note Records. Tomasz Furmanek spoke to her in the run up to International Women’s Day.
Tomasz Furmanek: You spent part of your childhood in the UK, attending primary school near Manchester. What impressions has it left you with?
Aga Zaryan: I lived with my parents in Poynton, a sweet little place near Manchester, for a couple of years. I had my first school there, my English friends. I learned the language and my sister was born there. For me England was a place where I had no worries. I was a little girl from a communist country where there was nothing on the shop shelves. They were two different worlds. In England there were many colourful toys and smiling people, lots of freedom and no stress. Today I visit London from time to time. It’s always a sentimental journey. And I love the British accent. I wrote about all this in Cherry Tree Avenue, a song about my childhood memories.
TF: Most of your albums have been recorded in English, with just two in Polish so far. In which of these languages is it easier for you to express yourself?
AZ: English is easier. Polish is a beautiful language but much more complicated and the pronunciation can be really tricky. Nowadays though, I like singing in both languages. For years English was much closer to my heart but now, after two Polish projects, that’s changed. Some songs sound much better in Polish, some in English.
TF: Some of your albums have been included in the catalogue of Blue Note Records…
AZ: I have a couple of recordings under Blue Note. I am grateful that the label accepted my music and never wanted to change a note in any of the songs. I was always independent and did what my heart told me to.
TF: You were a sporty teenager; when you were fourteen you won the Warsaw Tennis Championship. What lessons can be taken from sport to jazz?
AZ: Sport makes you a stronger person, you learn to lose and still do your thing. In jazz, when you improvise, you let yourself feel free. Sometimes you might go wrong – it happens from time to time, but you still take risks.
TF: On 4 August 2007 you performed a concert of pieces from your album Beauty is Dying at the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The turnout was so high that traffic in the area was gridlocked for hours. What does that very exceptional and moving album mean to you?
AZ: It was very personal. My grandparents were in the Home Army and took part in the Warsaw Uprising. During that concert not only the combatants who were in Warsaw during those 63 days in 1944 were present, but also their children, grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren. For me, singing the songs from Beauty is Dying means remembering all the people who lived through that experience. And also about not forgetting that it was only 75 years ago and that things can always come back if we allow aggressive nationalistic behaviours.
TF: You’ve gained star status in Poland and you play all over the world. How do you perceive the position of female artists in global jazz nowadays and, for comparison, in Poland?
AZ: In Poland, many of the female singers want to become stars. Jazz is not on the cover of magazines; it is less popular than other genres. So, although we have good voices in Poland and a lot of talented young people, we don’t have that many singers who choose this style of music. Globally, women generally have a more complicated situation than men, but it is gradually changing for the better. I believe in women’s power. We can be much stronger than men.
TF: Do you have any other reflections for International Women’s Day?
AZ: I think it should be Women’s Day every day. We should love ourselves and be kind to each other not only on International Women’s Day. Then the world would be a better place for everyone!
TF: Your concert at last year’s London Jazz Festival was enthusiastically received. How do you remember this performance?
AZ: We had a great time on stage and the audience was really lovely! I would love to come back with more music one day.