Marika Šaripo — a classical pianist that has found her soul in jazz
To be a dude, grow yourself some thick skin and be a dark humor pro — it’s not that simple being a girl in a man’s world…
We live in a world full of stereotypes, they surround us and follow us wherever we go. They can be very different, like — a woman can’t drive a car properly, or a singer is not a musician, or a person with tattoos isn’t willing to work hard. A well known stereotype for musicians is that — once a classical musician — never a jazz musician. I was lucky enough to talk to a girl that proved the stereotype wrong, that if you put your heart and mind to it, you can do whatever you want, the most important thing is to not give up! The hero of this conversation is Marika Šaripo, a classical pianist that heard the cries of her heart for jazz. She represents a simple truth — a work well done pays off and everything is possible if you really want it!
Let’s perhaps start from the very beginning? How did you start playing the piano?
I studied in Jurmala music school, played classical piano. I played and played and suddenly my grandmother said — I know some people who organise a camp in Saulkrasti, you should go! Ok then, I had no idea what was going on there, since I had no internet, no CD’s, I only knew that the camp would be dedicated to music.
At least you knew that!
That I did, and that the camp would be in Saulkrasti! (both share a laugh) I was some 11, maybe 12 years old.
Wow! That’s quite young?
Well yeah! And so on I went. There were a lot of cool people there, like Nic Gotham, Raimonds Kalniņš, Tālis Gžibovskis, Māris Briežkalns, pianist Johnny Manhattan Taylor, a lot of cats! We were only 6 girls and all the rest were guys. And then imagine the first concert… Absolute shock! That music, rhythms, harmonies, and the most important — the people on the stage, they were communicating with each other, they had fun on the stage, they lived on the stage! And you know that in classical music everything is serious, don’t you dare smile or turn your head the wrong way, such a stress! And here — absolute freedom!
And you understood that while still being 12 years old?
Yes! I saw it and I thought — wow! Then the camp ended and I couldn’t bare it! I was counting the days until the next one!
But then you had to go back to your music school, how did those two worlds coexist together — the jazz cam and the classical mundane?
You see, if at that time there were all those internets where you could find everything, then it would have been crazy. But I had nothing, I didn’t even have a normal audio system at home, just some old vinyl. In my memory it all stayed as a feeling, and all year before the next camp I was waiting for it to come back. It was an event of the year! And I’m not saying I could play like them! I was a regular at the camp for 8 years after that.
Ok, so what was next?
Then I graduated and enrolled into Jāzeps Mediņš music school and then to the Academy of Music, classical department.
Why classical if you liked jazz so much?
When I was in my final year in Mediņi they’ve just opened the jazz department and I told them that maybe I could start from the beginning and learn jazz? But they refused to let me do that. Said that it was out of the question. Forget about it! Who does that? Maybe I was too soft and let the circumstances influence me, I was told that I only had one year left until graduation, why throw it all away? Maybe I should have thrown all of it away then…
Then I enrolled to Riga Dome Choir School’s evening jazz department, and during day I was a student in the Academy of music, classics.
You studied both jazz piano and classical at the same time?
Yes! But it was horrible! Just try imagining it — during the day you’re there, during the evening you’re here. You have to retune your brain all the time, but I want to flow with the music, but I suddenly have to play Mozart. In time I started realizing more and more that this was not my thing, that it limits my mind and my personality. You’ve got the scores and you have to play exactly as written, but what about the fun? I feel some sort of… Yeah, limitations. I want to break free, but they keep stuffing me in a box. That’s what I felt then. Also, while studying at the Dome School I started composing a little bit and that fascinated me so much! And then the inner protests begun — why should I play something that is already written if I want to play my own notes? I was at my second year in the Academy when I told my parents that either I’m going to the jazz department, which would be to start again from the first year, or I’m not doing music at all. They were shocked, started persuading me with those «It’s just two years, you can finish this one and then do what you want…» arguments, but no. I didn’t even utter a word to my coursemates, just arrived at the school on September 1st as a fresh jazz department student.
You were one of the first students of the newly established jazz department in the Academy, right?
Indeed I was! When I first applied to the Academy there was no jazz department yet, but as soon as they opened it I enrolled. Ta-da!
How did your parents react?
Said: «You had only two years to finish!» (laughs) But on the serious note, when I enrolled to jazz department, I said that finally I would be able to compose, to attend different ensembles. They saw the positive impact of jazz on me. Now when I see them, they usually ask: «Are you still composing?»
So how was it at the jazz department?
I was overjoyed! I liked everything, every lesson, it didn’t matter what it was as long as it was connected to jazz. But it was also extremely hard, it doesn’t happen in one day, this breaking point when it just clicks and you become a jazz pianist. It took me a while. The first two years were crazy, I was breaking myself in all the time and I couldn’t conquer jazz. Do you know how that feels when you like something with all your heart, but you just can’t do it. It just doesn’t sound right. You hear what you want to play, but you can’t play it. I was so upset. To tears. You have to change your way of thinking. I often heard from the teachers, that if you were a classical pianist, you’ll never be able to play jazz and other stereotypes, and I reacted to them on an emotional level. And then one day jt turned out that I’m no longer a classical pianist and not a jazz pianist as well, then who am I and what should I do next? So I just kept on fighting, even if you think that there’s no point. When on my 2nd or 3rd year Madars Kalniņš (my teacher) told me that: «This is actually starting to sound like something good…» I figured I was in seventh heaven. Now music became whole, finally it became whole.
And then you left for Erasmus?
Yeah… This adventure was unforgettable. I went to Holland, met Tilmar Junius, whom I knew from the Brass&Jazz workshop program in Riga, where I realised that I want a chance to study with him more. I didn’t even care where he lived, it could be Africa just as well, I knew I would follow, because his way of explaining things to me was… different. I went to him and I played every single day. And on Sundays when the school was closed, those were the craziest days, because I had nothing to do. I rode my bicycle, explored every corner of that small place I lived at.
I had all kind of classes there, even some classical piano! You see, I couldn’t get rid of that for good, although after I enrolled to jazz department I haven’t played classics for years. It a reaction of sorts. And then after these years i sat at the piano, took some pieces I already knew and I nailed them, and I even enjoyed it. All because my view of the instrument had changed.
Erasmus gave me some time to myself, I had a lot of time to think, because everyone around me had their own things to do, places to be, and they also didn’t really want to speak English to me, they preferred to communicate amongst themselves. So you sit there a day, a week, a month, they talk Dutch and bit by bit you start meditating, looking into yourself. You go deeper inside your mind. Sometimes it was scary, but also necessary. When I came back it was a totally different life again, a rush, I had to pass all the exams, at the same time I had nowhere to live, I changed flats for 11 times! Two weeks here, two weeks there, the bags stayed unpacked, an interesting time which also distracts.
You did your Masters Studies in Holland as well, right?
Yes, and that was even more interesting. I went to the same school, but for a long time I couldn’t understand what did they want from me! Here you go to school, receive the list of your classes and study. There they say: «Here’s your budget, now you have to tell us what you want.» At the beginning I didn’t understand what it was all about. What do I have to do? Turned out that you can put together your own set of classes. You do have to write a Master’s thesis, but what concerns the classes, it’s up to you… I was told that I could even spend all the budget on a recording of an album and not take a single class. I took some classes with teachers from other schools, went to other cities, I only had to make sure it fits in the budget. For the first year I stayed with Tilmar and two other local guys that improvised Chopin with everything else, which was fun and liberating. The second year I took classes with Harmen Fraanje from Conservatorium van Amsterdam. I liked it a lot, on my second year I already knew what I wanted.
When you left, did you plan on staying there or returning home?
For a long time I thought that I would stay there. But the living conditions, how it all is for musicians there… It’s even worse for foreigners. I’ve worked some regular jobs there — for example, at the restaurant, it was hard physically. Also psychologically, but physically even more. On my second year I found a job as a nanny and also gave private piano lessons. But that first year… Crazy.
I realised that I wouldn’t be able to live in that country a musician’s life. Their attitude to music is also different, as if it was leisure of sorts, just play something with one finger and that’s it. Their attitude towards music is different from ours, they see music as something entertaining, something you can’t earn a living with, parents say that to children all the time. They do study music, some even professionally, but that attitude… I studied from dusk till dawn, they did so whenever they were in the mood. Amsterdam, though, is different, they have people from all over the world, each with his own baggage and aspirations, but in a small town — not at all.
Have you considered staying in Amsterdam?
The living is very expensive there. You have to work somewhere, in a store, a restaurant, you can’t survive only with music. At least I couldn’t manage. Although I’ve met a couple of people with Bachelor degrees, they said: «5 days I make French fries, and Fridays and Saturdays, if I’m lucky, are left to music. If I manage to get some gigs.» This is just sad. I couldn’t see myself there, so many years wasted and to live like that? Sad.
What’s with the situation with music in Latvia?
When I came back I was so happy! I can work as a compist, as a music teacher, play concerts, give private lessons, and the people keep coming and they want to learn more! You’ve got so many options in your profession. I was so happy, because after that restaurant… How did I manage to work there for a whole year? Every day I wondered what the hell I was doing there. And then I come home and I work in my own field. That’s what happiness is.
You are a girl and most of the musicians are boys. How do you feel being a girl in a man’s world?
(A long laugh at that) I can tell you! Few… When I studied at the Academy, there was Elīna Silova, but she left pretty fast, on her second year already, and I was the only girl left. It was hard. I grew some thick skin concerning the dark humor. It was like that — you come to the class, everyone starts rehearsing something and then it begins… Brutal. Once even a teacher said that enough is enough. Maybe they didn’t see it as something bad… Now when I find myself in a group of people that «joke hard», the girls are usually shocked, but I’m ok with everything. They teach you to not take things too personally. And you can’t show them they’ve hurt your feelings.
What about the professional life?
No one will say anything to your face. But I’ve soon realised that they have their own party to which I’m not invited. That is a completely different energy. He is a dude, you’re a girl, an emotional at that. They have their connection, you have to be a dude to have that, to be in the game. I sometimes wonder, why I’m not a dude, because sometimes it was really hard. I don’t know, maybe something has changed since then.
What keeps you busy now?
I stayed at Riga Dome Choir school teaching the piano, both jazz and classical, also as a compist for jazz vocalists. I had a lot of concerts where I played solo or together with Beāte Zviedre. Now I have another project with my friend Ilona Pantele, we’ve met at Saulkrasti Jazz years ago. We play emotional music, everything is improvised, we use chimes, gongs, Tibet bowls, etc. I also started singing! It’s all about the feelings — you feel you need to do something, you do it.
Last summer one of my dreams finally came true — I’ve played at Saulkrasti Jazz festival. I’ve had that dream since my first day there, when I was still a little girl, I wanted to play on that stage. Then I was suggested to take a vocalist in my band, I was nervous, because I thought: «Damn, now I have to get the lyrics somehow!» I thought I cannot write lyrics. Turned out I can.
I like improvising and playing my own compositions the most. I also came to the conclusion that you can’t force things in life, it will not lead to anything good. If something doesn’t work out, then it shouldn’t, give it a break, it’s not the right time. I’m always searching, and you have to find the right people, the ones that share your musical language with you, the same wave, to exchange energies. It’s possible to play with everyone, but I want to find that special unity feeling. I’ve caught it once, now I’m searching for it again.