it´s got to COME FROM THE HARP

it´s got to COME FROM THE HARP

by Norman Warwick

Athens born to Lebanese-Canadian parents, Lara Eidi, (left) , is an established singer-songwriter, recording artist and jazz vocalist based in London and Athens. Her music has gained her critical acclaim as a genre bending artist  (BBC Artist, 2020), described as ´a singer with true gift of a voice, a kind soul, and a captivating presence.´ by  JazzUK. At the heart of her being as a multi-disciplinary artist, she is sought after as a composer for vocal film scores. She writes as a freelance music journalist, and is in demand as a creative workshop leader. 

I read the article below in Jazz In Europe and so liked her writing style that I searched for further information on line, and there she was, at the site of a place full of touch button access to all her music; past, present and remotely recorded. There are some arty photographs, too, as well as You Tube videos of several tracks such as Sun, of which she wrote both the music and the lyrics. Press reviews of her own work at the site seem to be as glowing as is hers of  harpist, Alina Bzhezhinska.

I had decided after only one reading of that article that Lara is another journalist, far more aux currante than I can be these days, and a far better journalist, asking interesting questions during interviews and conjuring clever phrases in her own prose. It was great to read others speaking well of her, too, and serving as confirmation of identifying her as a great addition to the purveyors of music I love. She is another of those new experts on the block who know all about rhyme and rhythm and all that jazz, and I have already added her name to a growing list of journalists I can trust as a reliable source and an arbiter of good taste. Seek out some of her work, and I´m sure you´ll quickly add her name to your  own ´favourites´ lists of reliable reporters and / or magic musicians.

Lara described Alina Bzhezhinska (right) as an artist whose magnetic presence, incredible virtuosity and authenticity have certified her as a pioneer in her field, as a composer, with the power of her instrument, the Harp.

When Lara says  ‘her’ instrument, she says so ´because it is truly played in a way that defines pre-dispositions of the harp, traditionally known as a classical medium and certainly lesser known in the Jazz World. It is the spiritually evocative phrasing, inspired by a delightful ‘ Hip’ factor ( aka she is known as AlinaHipHarp) and a marriage of electronic layering with traditional Afro- Latin instrumentation that has catapulted Alina into stardom. She communicates a message of hope, unity and sometimes a quiet but empowering rebellion in her music, perhaps reminiscent of the great Alice Coltrane. In my eyes, she is an artist of her own accord, drawing us into a world of beauty, engaging musicality and a definitive connection to her audience, making her truly unique.

´Ah well that’s a really funny story´, Alina replied. ´As a foreigner in a Western world, having a name that’s unusual can be difficult to spell as an artist as I’m sure you can relate, let alone pronounce it properly! In fact, I posted a video on my YouTube channel demonstrating how to pronounce my name, right after my first album ‘Inspiration’ came out (Laughs) I just had to! Since that time, I found that as an artist one wants to develop and search for new ways to grow artistically speaking. In that respect I thought the album ‘Inspiration’ felt right at the time, with a traditional jazz quartet – bass, drums, saxophone and a harp. The album did very well, received wonderful reviews and we toured everywhere. The album was inspired heavily by John and Alice Coltrane, hence the name ‘Inspiration’. But I wanted to explore some new territory and start thinking about new sound for my harp. The change in sound brought about the change in name. So, I wanted people to think the sound was different to the Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet and also wanted to pay tribute to legendary artist Dorothy Ashby who had an album called ‘ Hip Harp’ in 1958. ‘Hip” comes from being different and alternative, so I thought to myself, the combination of words ‘hip harp’ and ‘hip hop’ are also relevant to the sound I am exploring as some of the influences are coming from another favourite artist of mine – an innovative DJ and electronic music producer J Dilla. My platform, HipHarpCollective, created during lockdown inspired me to work with different settings and people. It helped me expand and see how different the Harp could really sound. I also found inspiration in the self- made mixtapes I was making during my youth, full of musical genres that included Disco, Afro Beat, Latin, and Electronic music that ultimately made its way into my new project that will come out as a freshly recorded LP “Reflections” in 2022. I’m so excited for it!

Lara observed that Alina, ´despite the financial hardships brought on by lockdown seems to find inspiration and resources to still channel the creative flow not just as a performer and composer but as a listener´.

´Life, is so unpredictable. Someone said: Tell God your plans and he will laugh. So, going back to my roots, I grew up in a family with very strong Ukrainian-Polish national identity during the Soviet era. Most of the families I knew including mine suffered gravely from the Soviet regime. We knew what suppression was from a very young age and I think we were all born fighters. Resilience and finding ways to overcome despair are deeply rooted in my DNA. Of course, it exhausts me, but I know how to deal with things. Many colleagues of mine were very down during the lockdown, myself included. I had a whole tour supported by the Arts Council England that was cancelled. It compelled me to find a way forward: little inspirations and omens came my way to push me to re-invent myself and that’s how ‘HipHarpCollective’ was founded. It serves as an online collaboration planform for musicians and a teaching platform as well. I’m still learning how to not allow lockdown and the aftermath to overtake me psychologically, but this is definitely a way to beat it´!

Lara agreed with that. ´Absolutely. Through hardship you build character, but also through the love of what you do you grow. What obstacles did you face both as an artist and person throughout your career´?

´I try not to focus on obstacles when I think of my career. When I look back on 20 years as a professional musician, I remember clearly how when I first started playing gigs in the Ukraine, even before I attended the Conservatoire in Warsaw. I would arrive for a concert with my rock band and there’d be no harp! So, I ‘d grab any percussive instrument and a microphone to sing and still feel as a performer. I thought: how much worse can it get with no instrument? That said, the harp is not an easy instrument for most people to comprehend, in jazz and also in classical music.

It’s really not that often that you see a solo harpist in a solo concert. For instance, when classical harpist Marcel Grandjany (left), a French-American harpist and composer, and Carlos Salzedo started doing solo performances in the United States at the beginning of the 20 century, promoters wanted other musicians to accompany them instead of accepting a solo harp performance. I think many times the harp is still seen as a novelty. My goal is to make music that no one expects from the harpist. But sometimes it’s not even about the music. It’s also a kind of ‘art of persuasion’. For instance, when I moved to London 7 years ago, there were practically no harp leading bands around, and it took me some time to convince some jazz promoters to give me a chance to put up my own band. Fortunately, I picked some amazing musicians to work with who understood the music I wanted to create and the importance and infinite possibilities of Harp in Jazz. I am very happy to see the jazz harp boom in London at the moment. There are at least 5 different jazz harp shows at EFG LJF this year. It was definitely worth the struggle.

I think the most significant thing that happened to me in London was falling in love. It made me fly high, inspired to write new music and believe that anything is possible… but it also caused a lot of pain and suffering like most of crazy love does and it made me realise once again – I am a woman and not just a performer. To cherish both and honour both is my biggest goal. Finding the balance between me as a person and me as an artist makes me feel fulfilled and happy´.

Lara wondered how Alina uses such experiences to coach her own students in what the Jazz In Europe contributor referred to as ´this new tech-hybrid musical world´.

´I don’t just teach my students how to play the instrument. I teach them about life and share the experience and knowledge of what I’ve learned from other people; from reading and listening. I believe what students need the most is leadership. For example, if they have a teacher who doesn’t tour and record – that’s not the kind of example. If you’re talking about the challenges of organising gigs and going on tour, physical and mental shape for performance, that’s something that students need to learn from the source, not from an imagined perspective. That said, I always encourage my students to perform live as much as they can, should they wish to pursue performing. Not everyone can be a great performer, teacher or both as we all know. What the younger generation needs from us is the knowledge that comes with music. They do understand this very well already I think, as they know a lot of the business, administrative work, the promotional tools and all the DIY. I myself can learn a thing or two from them. The younger generation are truly multi- talented and very tech- savvy. It’s our job to encourage them to do this and excel in their tasks and hence being successful in their careers´.

Lara agreed that, undoubtedly, this is the reality for most independent musicians these days. In a way, even if we have managers, she wondered, can we honestly say that it’s a bit of a burden for them to really be great at the social media platform and embrace although quite heavy handed?

´I do! the younger generations are better equipped than us. I learned everything I know by simply being on the job. Nothing was given to us, we had selected paths as a teacher or performer. So, commercial success achieved through other means was not taught or even aware to me and my colleagues. I learned later on through experience how to locate good music platforms, promotional tools etc. I’m amazed by the new generation – it’s almost as if they’re wired for financial success. When I started writing my own music – I never thought of royalties but younger people already know about this. And as far as managers go, most of my formal students have managers who are friends and willing to help – so, they have some aspects of the business sorted already. They stand on our shoulders but are more progressive´.

As she commended Alina on being refreshingly honest, Lara also told her that she would love it if the harpist could share what she might feel is one of the most important lessons she has learned as a person as a person, throughout her career, as a message to the world?

´I felt that your music has a meditative and empowering message´, Lara told her, ´all about identity and triumph through struggle culminating into beauty´.

´Thank you. The most important thing for me is truth in music. As Alice Coltrane said: “music has to come from the heart”. That’s the most rewarding thing for an artist. …You do it because your soul needs it. … Searching for the truth, that’s what we’re all doing. This is our ´love supreme´.

So concluded an interview that had introduced me to the work of a journalist (and herself an excellent songwriter and player and vocalist) but also to a musician I had previously been unaware of. So far reaching was the interview, though, that I learned much about Alina, too.

In fact Alina Bzhezhinska, with her positivity and ´good vibes´ put me very much in mind of an interviewee I spoke with about twenty years ago called Catriona McKay. I´m pretty sure the interview was to mark her first gig in England at a Church in Rochdale. Since then she has created an impressive cv of recordings, solo concerts and collaborations in the recording studio and / or on stage.

Catriona McKay (left) is Scottish harpist and composer. She is a contemporary explorer of the Scottish harp (Clàrsach), having collaborated with folk and experimental musicians, as well as co-designing the Starfish McKay harp. A diverse musician who pushes one of Scotland’s traditional instruments to its limits, Catriona is recognised internationally for her unique style, inventiveness and daring rhythmic use of the Scottish harp. 

She is a member of the band Fiddlers’ Bid and the Chris Stout Quintet. She works in the traditional (and sometimes contemporary) folk fields rather than in jazz, but Alina was nevertheless inadvertently echoing much of the aspiration and enthusiasm for her instrument and its sound that Catriona had relayed to me a couple of decades back.

I´m looking forward now to listening to some of her work again and then conducting a compare and contrast between the folksie approach of Catriona and the jazzy approach taken by Alina,……and then I have a lot listening to catch up recorded by Lara Eidi.

It all goes to show that Richard Leigh  and Susanna Clark (left, with husband Guy Clark) got it right when they wrote a chorus in a song that Guy recorded which reminded us

ýou´ve got to sing like you don´t need the money.

you´ve got to love like you´ve never been hurt.

you´ve got to dance like nobody´s watching

´cos its got to come from the Harp* if you want it to work.

  • actually I think they wrote heart, but you get my drift !

The primary source for this article was written by Lara Moloney for Jazz In Europe magazine.

In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit blog knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.

This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.

He is also a founder member of the Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ) with Steve Bewick, writer, poet and radio presenter of Hot Biscuits weekly jazz programme, Gary Heywood-Everett, jazz writer and local historian and Susana Fondon, contributor and reporter at Lanzarote Information. The purpose of forming JUJJ is to share a love of jazz music at the same time as growing our knowledge of the genre to provide an increasingly comprehensive service for our readers and listeners.

Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Tadio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.

As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.

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