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I am the peninsula, with all its colours

An interview with Jamala, Ukrainian singer, performer and 2016 winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. Interviewer: Anna Arkhypova

February 7, 2024 - Anna Arkhypova Jamala - InterviewsIssue 1-2 2024Magazine

Jamala at the world premiere of the new album QIRIM in Liverpool. Photo: Andriy Maximov

ANNA ARKHYPOVA: You are an incredible example of personal cultural diplomacy and the promotion of Ukraine in the world. The results of your American tour have impressed many. At the same time, you are a voice of conscience. I remember that once in a conversation you stated very clearly that the war is not a reason for more hate. Have your musical talent and social sensitivity always gone together or have they blended as a result of the war?

JAMALA: I have always listened to artists who inspire me with their philosophy and social contributions. That’s why I never separate my personal thoughts and convictions, which are always in me, from my artistic work. This is how I have been since 2009, when I participated in a music competition in Latvia. I am Jamala from Crimea, a Ukrainian of Crimean Tatar origin, a Muslim. After that come other things, such as social projects, my support for women, or promotion of tolerance.

What is your motivation today?

My positions and my philosophy of life have not changed much. I believe to exist people need to have solid foundations. For me it is my family and my homeland. These are things that I am trying to protect with all my might and means. So yes, my motivation today is a heightened sense of justice. That is why, when I see that the wider world is not paying enough attention to us because it has other problems such as the pandemic, economic challenges, other wars, and many other things, I want to shout. My goal is to bring peace to our homes as soon as possible and to bring our children back to where they belong: their own rooms and play areas.

The situation is extremely tense now. What are the “secret ingredients” of your cultural diplomacy that are a result of your experiences?

I definitely didn’t choose to be an activist, or, as you said, a “cultural diplomat”. It came unexpectedly to me at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and it has been a part of my life for the last two years now. This mission accompanies me at every event: a solo concert, a tour of the United States, the Global Citizen Now gathering in New York, or the ceremony of the Kennedy Center Honors. These are large-scale venues, again, like Eurovision. But the most important thing is that no matter how much time you are given, be it 30 seconds or an hour, wherever you are and whatever time you have, you have to use every moment of it. That is why I even participated in the Polish TV show called Dancing with the Stars. That was unique! Every time we went on the floor with Poland’s top dancer, Jacek Jeszke, we raised money for Ukrainian children. I was so impressed with the courage of the Polish television staff. For the first time in the history of the programme, they raised funds for Ukraine. There were many other concerts and cultural events that were held in Poland in support of Ukraine. For example, I performed at a festival with Kayah, a well-known Polish singer, and we are now very good friends. In Rzeszów we also sang together a song titled “Thank you stranger”. I dedicated this song of gratitude to all the countries, especially to Poland, for opening their doors to us. The concert was held on the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Can you name a situation and event that took place in your life that will stay with you forever?

Oh there have been lots of them, including the memories of my childhood in Crimea and my great-grandmother’s stories of the 1944 deportation. But among other events that I will never forget are our family musical evenings in Crimea and of course meeting my husband in Kyiv, the births of our children, and winning the Eurovision Song Contest. There have been so many such memorable events in my life. The last one was the morning of February 24th 2022, but then that feeling was of despair and hopelessness … However, as a mother you cannot succumb to that. You have to take your children and leave, even when you do not know what will happen next. Missiles may be flying over you, but you need to go. And you know for sure that you will protect your children. Perhaps these are the “secret ingredients” of my cultural diplomacy.

What impact has this last event had on you?

It has had a great impact on me. I have become even more careful about what I say, where I am, who I am with, whether there are any provocations where I perform. And here I am grateful to my husband and manager, and to the whole team, who constantly guard and check everything carefully. It would be difficult for me to do it all by myself because of the volume of engagements that I have. Let me just say that after the 800th interview, I stopped counting. Of course, I remember all the meetings with top officials and celebrities: Anthony Blinken, Julia Roberts, U2, Pharrell Williams, Tom Odell, Ed Sheeran, the Spice Girls. The list goes on. There have been a lot of meetings where people come up to me, hug me and express their support for Ukraine. And this always requires me to be focused, to be grateful. I guess this is what has defined me over these two years: no matter how much I say thank you, it will never be enough.

Let us turn to Ukraine and the situation inside the country. Do you think our country and its society have a culture of honouring memory and traditions, and, ultimately, a certain protocol of clear actions to preserve the creative works of artists during war? Something that would not be only kept in families but as a national treasure that would form the basis of the culture of independent Ukraine today, and in the future?

I personally lost some close friends who were also artists. For example, Pasha Li, a Ukrainian actor with whom I worked in the filming of the movie Taste of Freedom, died as a hero while rescuing children from Irpin. I also knew our singer Nina Matvienko and the famous Ukrainian religious scholar Ihor Kozlovsky, who both died in 2023. Also, the loss of Serhiy Krutsenko, who was an incredible human being, but also a philosopher, composer, director, sound producer and most importantly a great friend of mine, was extremely devastating. Serhiy was one of those few sound artists who could record complex orchestras and complex music and who knew and read scores very well. He was unique, with an absolute ear for rhythm. His death is such a great loss for Ukrainian culture. That is why I would like to see more honouring of Serhiy – for example a street should be named after him. We recorded the QIRIM album in September 2021 with more than 80 instrumentalists – a symphony orchestra and a group of folk musicians from Crimea. All the material, terabytes of data, was stored on the computer at the recording house. When Kyiv was being bombed, I called Serhiy asking what we should do. It seemed that we had lost the album. I was scared that a rocket was going to hit the building, and there will be nothing left. He told me not to worry and said: “I’ll get there, I’ll save it.” He risked his life but saved the album. The last time we met was on December 23rd 2022. He was then full of hope and life. He lost his life on January 7th 2023. It’s been very difficult. Serhiy’s death was entirely the result of the war. All these artists that I mentioned died because of the occupier.

Have you come across any good examples or traditions, in other European states or parts of the world, that are worth praise when it comes to honouring artists and their work and including them in the canon of national heritage?

It’s a difficult question, I don’t know such European examples but I think that we can, for example, make documentaries to preserve the memory, we can collect works of art and yes, we can make films. I would really like to see movies made about our national composers Myroslav Skoryk and Boris Lyatoshynsky and our national poet Taras Shevchenko. These films would portray our artists who have already inspired more than one generation. And how many more they will still inspire. As for our work, it was Serhiy Krutsenko who came up with the idea that in order not to lose the sound of the violins, due to the sound of the winds, we should separate them during the recording process. That is why we recorded all the strings first and then all the wind instruments, so they wouldn’t interfere with each other during the recording. He followed every note, score, rhythm. We sat together in the studio: myself with other artists, Max Gladetsky and Artem Roschenko. After a week of work, we created what I would call a real “island” of Crimea. For the outro, where the orchestra had already been mixed, I wanted to include what was happening in the cities such as Mariupol, and Bucha at that time … We can say that this is one of the few compositions with the sounds of bombs and rockets. Serhiy agreed with me and added them to our music. The music we created together was based on such a great faith, strength and professionalism. It may sound bold coming from me now, but I have never seen such a high level of recording. At least I have not heard anything like this in Ukraine.

I think all these efforts are being recognised now. On September 27th 2023 your album QIRIM won the independent national Muzvar awards in the category “digital music heritage”. You also received a special award for your contribution to the Ukrainian music industry. What does the award mean to you?

It is important because of what is happening in Ukraine now when our country is at war. Of course, we don’t expect any awards now and the most important thing is that the information about us gets out. I was very pleased when Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended my album on his Twitter page. It was very nice! Or that QIRIM hit the World Music charts. This is also an achievement.

The world premiere of QIRIM took place in Liverpool in front of an audience of 15,000 people who do not know the Crimean Tatar language, and was accompanied by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. The rapid popularity of the album in different countries is evidenced by the number of radio networks that are broadcasting it. What is the global reach of the album now? Are you getting feedback from listeners in other countries of the world?

When we released it, unexpectedly for us, the album was at the top of Spotify in Croatia. The album was also played in Poland, Greece, the US, Canada, Georgia and Jordan. Thanks to Apple Music and World Music it was very widely distributed. Yes, we have been getting feedback from everywhere. It was very nice to hear from some composers who write music for Hollywood movies and Netflix, or from Canadian artists and musicians, or the American singer Gregory Porter and others.

In a joint project with Spotify Singles, you added Crimean Tatar motifs to your own version of a song cover of the iconic American singer Madonna. And your performance of the Ukrainian national anthem in London during the Game4Ukraine charity football match also brought new musical features to the traditional sound, which provoked a strong reaction from the audience. What do these gestures mean to you?

What was important to me about covering Madonna’s song was that Madonna is one of the stars who has a lot of influence. She was one of the first to support Ukraine and I wanted to thank her, but in my own way. I wanted to cover her, adding my own characteristic pieces and the part in the song “Frozen” that was symphonic became a “mugham”. You mentioned the anthem of Ukraine; here I added more American soul to it, which is characterized by “melisma”. We have already seen different interpretations of the American anthem by Whitney Houston or Lady Gaga and that is why when I was invited to London, I wanted to add something new and bright to the composition. It was made in America by Andrey Chmut, my friend, saxophonist and arranger.

Tell me a bit about your cooperation with Netflix. On June 26th last year the Eurovision comedy, The Story of a Fiery Saga, directed by American director David Dobkin, was released. You acted and sang in this film. What was your experience working on this production? Do you have any plans for further collaborations with the cinema industry?

It was a great collaboration. For three days we were shooting in a castle near London with other performers chosen by the director. It was a really cool experience. All the actors we worked with sang my song “1944”. Believe me, it was really amazing. When the main character, Rachel McAdams, sings to you in Crimean Tatar, it is worth it! Also, on February 29th 2024, another film production, The Taste of Freedom, will premiere in Ukraine. 

You spend a lot of time on the road, performing at concerts and various events. Sometimes you say, with pain in your voice, that you hardly ever see your sons. Can we talk about them a bit?

It is true that I do not see my children enough. My boys have an ear for music, they have musical talent, which is already clear. But they also play with toy cars, Batman and Spiderman characters, like all boys their age do. They love to listen to music. Yet, the younger one gets very jealous when I sing – he thinks that then I am at work. That’s why I don’t sing so much in front of him. But children change you, make you wiser, more sensitive. My children are currently living in Warsaw and speak Polish. For my youngest son, Selim, Polish became his first language. I will never forget this and I will always be grateful that Poland has accepted us so well.

Has the war affected your stage image? Have your costumes and concert outfits changed? I remember in Liverpool you had this cocoon dress and symbolic jewellery…

Of course, the war has influenced my stage image. Believe me or not: when I was first invited to Berlin, on March 3rd 2022, for their Eurovision National Selection, the first thing I thought was that I had nothing to wear. This is because when I was quickly packing our things on February 24th 2022, I didn’t take any clothes for performing with me. I had one tracksuit. All my clothes, which every artist should have at hand, stayed in Kyiv. I went to my sister’s house in Istanbul and borrowed a regular black pantsuit. I travelled in that suit for quite a long time. Later I asked my husband to get me my black jumpsuit with a red cape. I performed in it in Hungary, Italy and Spain. I didn’t pay attention so much to what I was wearing. At some point, Ukrainian media wrote to me asking me to please change my clothes on stage for different performances. They said it was getting hard for them to distinguish between each event because I was always wearing the same clothes – but you know I didn’t even think about it. Probably the first time I dressed consciously was on independence day in August 2022, which we celebrated in Kyiv. Then I put on a yellow and blue suit. For safety reasons, we filmed the performance in the subway.

As for my images for the QIRIM album, this was a continuation of the theme itself, because I am this peninsula, with all its colours! Maybe you noticed that the album cover shows that it is dawn, around five or six in the morning. The sand is also pink … We created a separate print that became the colour of dawn, the colour of rebirth. These are the same forms as stone and water. It’s a texture like our planet, which has mountains, the sea, moss … it all matters. I really wanted to create this unique world where I want to be.

Jamala is a Ukrainian singer born in Crimea. She won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016 with her song “1944”. Her latest album is titled QIRIM – which is Crimean Tatar for Crimea. The popular European online magazine Beehype, which talks about current music from around the world, named QIRIM’s (Crimea) album one of the best albums of 2023 among musicians from more than 80 countries around the world. The album QIRIM for the month of January 2024 holds the position of the top 20 albums of the World Music Charts Europe.

Anna Arkhypova is a Ukrainian journalist.

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