Making the voice your instrument: Brigitte Beraha
By Line Hilton
UK jazz artist Brigitte Beraha is known for her dulcet tone and renowned collaborations with some of the top dogs on the jazz scene. From John Parricelli and Bobby Wellins to Henry Lowther, to name but a few, but her accolade does not end there. She has produced four albums to date, one of which, Babelfish, was named in the top three by the founder of LondonJazz. Now the singer is touring the country, gigging and sharing her talent in workshops and events throughout the summer. iSing caught up with her to find out more…
Brigitte Beraha: I started off as a pianist, I always played piano growing up, and sang too without thinking about it, as I guess most people do. Then when I went on to study music in London as a pianist, it was always my ‘random’ singing that seemed to get to people, rather than my piano playing! I always worried about getting things ‘wrong’ in a performance on the piano, whereas with singing it always felt so natural and very freeing. It’s my best way of expression I guess.
iSing: Why jazz?
BB: Jazz because it allows me to be free and improvise and I can use my voice in so many different ways. Jazz is a very broad term which encompasses many styles, but I guess I generally connect with Jazz more than I would with pop say, because of the richness of the harmony and the fact that one piece can take you on a beautiful journey, which might be completely different to the next time you hear it played – or indeed perform it yourself, due to the improvisational nature of the genre and the interaction between players.
iSing: What else do you do to earn an income?
BB: I also teach Jazz voice at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, The Guildhall School of Music & Drama and at the Welsh College of Music & Drama. I also lead workshops and summer schools, such as Loire Music, a great jazz summer school in France and the Falmouth-Yamaha Jazz Summer School in Cornwall.
“Jazz allows me to be free and improvise and I can use my voice in so many different ways”
iSing: How do you feel about the need to supplement your income with work outside of singing, writing and performing?
BB: I feel absolutely fine about it, as long as the balance is right. I am lucky that my teaching is completely connected to my performing and I love it. When I first started teaching it was so I could survive as a performer, but then I discovered it was something that I loved doing. Furthermore, the fact that I mostly teach jazz singing at higher education level keeps me on my toes and I learn so much from my students too. I have to keep checking out new music and practicing what I preach as I constantly come across such amazing talent; so this helps me stay on top of my game as a performer and writer too.
iSing: What is the state of the jazz vocals scene in the UK?
BB: I think the state of the jazz vocal scene in the UK is extremely healthy at the moment. Apart from the already established singers such as Norma Winstone, Anita Wardell, Christine Tobin, Ian Shaw, Claire Martin and Liane Carroll etc., there are now lots of brilliant younger contemporary jazz singers, many of whom have come out of music college, who either keep singing jazz in the more traditional way (like great singers such as Georgia Mancio), or who have a more modern approach and are clearly also influenced by other music, such as Emilia Martensson (who fuses jazz with folk traditions), Lauren Kinsella, Nia Lynn, Alice Zawadski, Fini Bearman and many more.
iSing: What is the biggest challenge you face as an indie jazz artist?
BB: I suppose the biggest challenge I face is making a living out of being a jazz artist. There are so few artistic gigs that can pay properly due to the lack of funding currently available for jazz and even though the jazz scene is really exciting at the moment and seems to be thriving with more and more talent, this also means it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get gigs as we are all going for the same ones, whether the artist is established or up-and-coming.
iSing: What do you enjoy most about your work?
BB: I love playing, creating and improvising music with others and seeing the joy that the audience gets out of this.
iSing: What’s your typical daily/weekly routine?
BB: It’s hard for me to have a daily routine due to the current nature of my work and that is probably the most challenging thing in my life; to try and keep a healthy lifestyle. I do try and slot in around the current weekly teaching/ gigging that I do, a healthy dose of vocal and piano practice, some composition and lyric writing (I have a silent piano so often end up writing at night) and as much cycling as possible. I also try to see a gig and meet with friends – often for food – at least once a week… This seems to keep me sane!
iSing: What is your writing process?
BB: I try to vary my writing process and often tend to be at my most prolific during more difficult times. If I’m feeling melancholic I tend to just want to sit at the piano and start playing and singing without really thinking about the process and let it just happen until something will just stick; I’ll want to keep playing it round and round until the neighbours have had enough. That’s when I know I’ve got something special that I (and the neighbours) won’t forget; this will often be the bulk of a tune, which I’ll then bring to one of my bands to play and fine tune. Only then will I know if it’s any good! If I’m not feeling as inspired I might start with a bass line, or a few chords, or some kind of hook, or a melody. Once that particular fragment is strong enough, usually the rest follows quite naturally. Regarding lyrics, I might write the lyrics first as a poem, or after, to the music and that in itself generally helps keep my pieces quite contrasting from each other.
iSing: Can you explain your process of vocal improvisation and do you have to improvise to be a jazz singer?
BB: I’ve always thought of my voice as an instrument, so I think I approach my process of improvisation the same way another instrument would. On stage my aim is to ‘lose’ myself, so that I have no inhibitions when it comes to improvising and sing wherever my voice or mood will want to take me, according to what’s happening musically around me. However in order to achieve this, at home I practice improvisation in a much more structured way. I’ll make sure I practice vocal technique so that I can feel I am in control of my instrument and can take my voice wherever it might want to go. Then I will practice harmony, rhythm exercises, scales, patterns etc. on specific pieces that I might perform (assuming I am not playing in a completely free jazz setting). If I feel I know the pieces inside out (their melody/rhythm, form, chord progression, etc.) I am more likely to feel free and let go. If I am improvising around the song and with the lyric, I will approach improvisation in the same way but whilst trying to always retain the meaning and the emotion of the lyrical content, as the improvisation needs to serve the lyric and the emotion of the piece, not hinder it.
I do believe that in essence, if one calls themselves a jazz instrumentalist or singer, this means they will improvise. For a jazz singer, that does not necessarily mean they have to scat sing (improvise wordlessly), but I would expect them to improvise in a way that their rendition of a song will be unique. If I hear a singer sing a song one night and hear them sing a song in exactly the same way the next night, however beautifully sang, that for me isn’t a jazz singer. They might be a great singer, but not a jazz singer. Of course we all get into patterns and will often sing/ play in the same way as before as it’s impossible to always improvise, all the time. But as a jazz musician, we strive to bring something fresh to the table at every performance. A big part of what excites me about hearing a great jazz singer is that I don’t know what they are going to do next and similarly, when I go up to sing, I am excited about the fact that I’m not sure where the song and the musicians involved are going to take me, which means that something beautiful might happen, but then it might not. That is the risk and that is the excitement.
iSing: Why should a singer explore the jazz genre?
BB: I know a lot of singers that have benefitted from exploring the jazz genre as it has helped them put more creativity in whatever other genre it is that they might love to sing. Jazz singing is very freeing, one often feels, after exploring jazz, bolder and less scared of making ‘mistakes’. You know that if you sing a certain phrase slightly differently to how you intended, it might help you take a slightly different route, which is no bad thing. It often also opens ears to new sounds and broadens the possibilities and the colours of one’s voice. Often when exploring jazz, singers also (if they haven’t already) get to find out more about chords, structures, forms, therefore learning to approach the music as a more rounded musician. And, it’s fun.
Bablefish Chasing Rainbows Promo
iSing: What was the inspiration behind your latest album Babelfish?
BB: The inspiration behind Chasing Rainbows is love, the cycles and stages of relationships, just love in many different forms – including love for sushi.
iSing: What is the aim of your band, Babelfish, and why that name?
BB: The band’s ethos is to play music that we love, regardless of where it comes from, which is what we’ve done with this album too. A mixture of originals, little free improvisations, songs from the Folk, classical contemporary and Latin repertoires; there should be a little something for everyone. As the name Babelfish suggests (from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), we translate any genre of music into one that hopefully feels universal and accessible to all.
iSing: What’s next for you?
BB: Babelfish are currently organising a UK/ European tour which will take place in 2016 onwards, so watch this space! I have also recorded a debut album with this amazing sextet Solstice which will come out later in the year, in which every member of the band contributes writing, and where I use my voice both as an instrument as well as with lyrics. I am also a member of a few other bands so I am looking forward to doing more concerts with these various ensembles throughout the year. If you’d like to know more about those, visit my website or sign up to my mailing list. This summer I will be busy teaching at the Loire Summer School for three weeks and at Falmouth -Yamaha Jazz Summer School in Cornwall for one week, then I’ll be heading to Edinburgh at the end of August to do a week of gigs as part of the Festival Fringe.
Bablefish – Sushi Hero