Interview with jazz vocalist Ona Kirei. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off?
Ona Kirei: – I grew up in Barcelona, Spain, and I’m passionate about music since I have memories… I started singing in choirs when I was 6 years old. In my choir, I would spend the recess playing their piano while the other kids were playing outside, learning songs by ear. One day at school my music teacher saw me improvising something on the piano with both hands and he told my parents, so they took me to take piano lessons and rented a piano so I could practice at home. Since then, music has been my life. I have had other professions, like being a flight attendant, but even then, I knew it was temporary, that music was what gave me joy and purpose. So, one day, I left my job in an airline and started my career as a musician. I didn’t know if I could make a living or not, but I knew that I couldn’t do anything else anymore.
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JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
OK: – When I was living in Spain I wanted to sound as they told me a jazz vocalist should sound. I sang in English, I tried to get rid of my accent and the Spanish and Catalan (and other styles) influences that wanted to naturally show in my voice. When I came to the US, I had an identity crisis. Suddenly, I was a different person for the people around me. That made me question a lot of things about me, what I had been told, and I realized the importance of being authentic and accepting my roots. So, I started to sing more in my languages (Spanish and Catalan) along with English, and instead of trying to get rid of my identity, I would allow myself to naturally incorporate elements of my culture and my other influences in the way I sing and in the way I compose and arrange. One year ago, I went through some major changes in my life that made me go through another identity crisis. Focusing on music was my way through the trauma I had experienced, and I feel like my identity as a musician, my own voice, came back stronger than ever. That opened a door to a musical (and personal) freedom that I had never experimented before.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
OK: – Regarding my instrument, every voice is different and have different needs. In my case, I have found that doing low pressure exercises and putting extra attention on my chest voice are very important for me, so I can maintain what in voice we call a ‘healthy mixed voice’.
Transcribing is very important for me, too. There are many ways to transcribe. I know some musicians prefer to transcribe specific leaks and apply them consciously in certain changes. I have done that, but I have found that, in my case, transcribing an entire solo works better, as I feel I absorb the language in a more intuitive way, almost as a child learning to speak, without analyzing at first, and then that language comes to the surface naturally when I’m soloing. That way I incorporate new language, but through my own filter. I don’t want to be perfect in one style, I want to keep my personal identity.
Regarding the rhythm, I play some percussion (cajón, shaker, etc) and I’ve found that singing and playing really helps not only with coordination as well as with my vocal ability to play freely with rhythm while having a solid structure foundation.
Regarding harmony, I learn while doing. When I’m composing and I’m hearing something intuitively, I always try to understand what my ear is telling me and why. For me, music intuition comes first. Also, when I’m listening to new music, I often try to analyze what I like from other composers, the things that surprise me. I also love reading about harmony, watching youtube videos…
Also, I have a duo project Orilla, with the (outstanding) bass player Alejandro Arenas, and we have been rehearsing together once a week for more than one year now. I feel so lucky of sharing music with someone who is so align with my music values and energy! That has been key in my practice routine and helps me to grow in every possible way as a musician.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so, why?
OK: – Yes, I’ve become more authentic. For me surrendering to my own voice has been a paradox, as I have really gained control of what I do, artistically and technically. I made the conscious decision of using my music intuition first, trying to being a channel for music instead of writing through my ego. At some point, I wanted to impress other musicians. As a woman and as a singer, it’s very often very hard to be taken seriously, so I wanted people, and especially musicians, to know I’m a musician the same as them, but I was doin.
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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
OK: – I have a very strong (personal) opinion about this now: the intellect must be at service to the soul. I don’t mean one must not cultivate the intellectual part, on the contrary: the more intellectual tools you have, the more you understand what you’re doing, the more ways you can have to express your message. But, at least in my case, the soul (heart, ear, intuiton…) leads the way.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
OK: – I love delivering people with emotion, that’s why I do what I do. I feel like my mission as a musician is to be as authentic as I can with my music, put it out there, and let the music transform with each listener’s needs, story, emotions… once the music gets out of me, it’s no longer mine.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
OK: – One time Alejandro Arenas told me “jazz musicians where improvising and getting creative over popular music of their times, like movies songs. Why are we not doing that anymore?”
I think we all must remember the truth about jazz, about its origins and its philosophy. Jazz should not be about the standards or even about the style, but about the freedom and soul of the musician, as well as about this music genre openness. When we understand that, jazz can continue to evolve with the new generations. In my opinion, the paradox is that we must let jazz evolve instead of being conservative, to keep it alive. Change is inevitable in all aspects of life and music is no exception.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
OK: – This is a very complex question that I don’t know I can answer in only a few lines! I think we find spirituality in our personal connection to something greater than us, that has a different name and shape for every person… God, goddess, nature, running… in my case, music is my main spiritual channel.
Pablo Picasso said that “the meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give it away”. His words very much represent my personal view of life. We all have gifts, and false modesty can be a form of ego. Realizing your gifts allows you to put them to service, and it’s not about you anymore.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
OK: – I couldn’t choose only one! I’ll say I’d change the way commercial music is often made, based on a formula. I don’t think we need more entertainment, we need art, made by humans being human, imperfect, honest… we don’t need music created to make money and keep people distracted. Also, I don’t think the answer to this is intellectualizing music. I think the answer is honest art.
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JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
OK: – Too many things! I listen to a lot of music, and very varied. I love when jazz meets with roots and with modernity or originality at the same time: Petros Klampanis, Camila Meza, Silvia Pérez Cruz, Thana Alexa, Tomas Khonstantinou, Avishai Cohen, Richard Bona… I love Michael Mayo, Becca Stevens… Munir Hossn… I listen to a great variety of music… I have a lot of Venezuelan friends, my favorite Brazilians: Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes… Milton Nascimento, Ginga, Monica Salmaso, Rosa Paso, Marisa Monte… and I have also been digging in to flamenco lately…
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
OK: – I like the present moment where women’s rights, race equality ????
JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
OK: – What’s your purpose with this magazine and this interview?
JBN: – In order to be able to meet quality and good-willed musicians, I will sponsor their activities, they will them perform at 15 festivals organized by me, and I will enjoy their live music!!!
Interview by Simon Sarg
Note: https://jazzbluesnews.com/2023/03/19/useu-jazz-blues-association-festivals/ You can express your consent and join our association, which will give you the opportunity to perform at our Jazz and Blues festivals, naturally receiving an appropriate royalty. We cover all expenses. The objectives of the interview are: How to introduce yourself, your activities, thoughts and intellect, and make new discoveries for our US/EU Jazz & Blues Association, which organizes festivals, concerts and meetings in Boston and various European countries, why not for you too!! You can read more about the association here. https://jazzbluesnews.com/2022/11/19/useujba/