To stop and find your own musical identity
Ronja Burve’s trip through music, studies and things that change your view of arts
At the very end of February, right before the borders were closed and at approximately the same time the concerts started being cancelled, Ronja Burve, Latvian jazz singer, and Christos Yerolatsitis, pianist from Cyprus, managed to give one last performance in Ronja’s homeland. A concert by an international duo «Tree of Dawn» dedicated to their soon to be released album «Electric Tree» took place at a local book store and tiny concert venue «Robert’s Books». The listeners were entitled to enjoy snippets of the upcoming album, as a small teaser of what’s to come in May. Ronja herself doesn’t live in Latvia anymore, her journey has been quite exciting so far — Latvia — The Netherlands — India — Cyprus. I have managed to steal Ronja away from her admirers for a little chat right after the concert, where we talked about a vocalist’s life in the Netherlands, travels and musical experiments.
You live in Cyprus now, correct? Tell me how did this happen?
It’s a long story… I went away to study in Holland, there I met a cypriot, we moved in together, then we moved to India, spent 11 months there and then came back. We considered staying in Rotterdam, but the leases were so expensive that we decided — eh, let’s stay on Cyprus for a while. A while turned into almost two years as it usually happens… That’s a long story short.
And you went to The Netherlands right after graduating from Riga Dome Choir School?
Yes, I went to Hague. There I met Christos. I just arrived, but he had already graduated from Hague and was getting his masters in Conservatorium Van Amsterdam. We played together for some time and well, things just happened.
How did your story with the Dome School begin?
It feels like such a long time ago now… I didn’t go to any music school, but then suddenly decided that I needed to learn jazz, although I didn’t know a single thing about it. I had to study very hard for the entry exams, I needed to learn basically everything — solfege, piano and what else there was… I almost didn’t sleep and got in! Of course, when I started I knew close to nothing, but then the school turned out to be a great place to find yourself, a very creative environment that gives you the chance to understand things. They «tortured» us, that’s for sure, but it was a good turning point in my life. I think the most important thing about the Dome Choir School is that the teachers really care that you succeed, they fight for you, that is something I’ve missed while abroad. While away, you are one of the thousands, nobody cares about you, but that feeling I got in the Dome School that there should be a point in your music, the meaning to it, it stayed up until now.
How did you decide that music is your thing?
Well, while a child I sang in a choir, just as every kid does, you know? I really wanted to go to music school, but my parents were against it. My sister studied piano, so I learned something from here. It was our therapy, every time we argued and when we reached a certain point of anger, we went to the piano and played together, it helped us to get rid of all the negative energy. It’s totally unexplainable, really. I even wrote some tunes but nothing serious, it was a process of sorts. I think I always had this music inside me. I had this CD of classical hits at home, it was the only CD I had, I used to listen to it all the time and somehow… I don’t know how it all turned out the way it did.
Where did the urge to learn jazz come from?
There was a teacher in my school, he led the ensemble class, so he had a couple of tunes arranged in jazz and we sang them in different events. I also had another teacher when I was 12, when I decided I wanted to learn how to sing, not jazz specifically, just anything, and then there was this statement that came out of nowhere and isn’t completely true, that if you know how to sing jazz, you’ll be able to sing anything! So this teacher started pushing me towards Dome School, she said I needed to learn jazz! I said — ok, if she thinks it’s the right thing to do then that’s what I’ll do. I didn’t really like jazz, but oh well… But then it got to me. I remember there was this concert, two singers came to our school — Elīna Viļuma and Baiba Jurkeviča, they sang some Christmas tunes and it inspired me so much, I thought — wow, to play the piano and to sing so beautifully… I want to sing like that, too! I had no illusions that I will sing like them, but it urged me to try. Something like that.
When did you graduate from Dome Choir School?
2013. And then I went to Hague. But in reality I wanted to go to Berlin, I was very naive… I thought that maybe I should apply somewhere else, but I was so convinced that they’ll take me that I didn’t. And of course, they didn’t take me, so Hague was the only available option, I was late for everything else. I knew there was a very good teacher there, I’ve met her here in Saulkrasti, Anka Koziel. I had huge problems with my voice and she’s very knowledgeable in the singing technique, so ok, I decided to go there. I don’t think they had a huge competition there. Asked some stupid questions during the music theory exams, I had to sing some major scales or something. Later on it became very serious, naturally, but the exams were weird. We, Latvians, have a very strong advantage — we all improvise. Foreigners are afraid of improvising, they’ve never done that in their high school years, so that’s something we have over them.
What are the most important things that studies in Hague gave you?
I have two. First — the technique. I didn’t know how to sing correctly and my voice is fragile, I think, every time I overexert myself there are problems. But then I went to Hague and before that I had an operation, it became so bad, that they had to cut off some nodes from my vocal chords. Then I went to study with Anka and did everything she told me, all the crazy exercises, and that changed everything for me, it changed my singing and it changed my life.
Another thing I got lucky with — I managed to enroll in a class with a saxophonist Simon Richter. There was a course of choice, improvisation class. I fought hard to get into that one, because they don’t really teach vocalists anything about theory or harmony, nothing about the laws of bebop and stuff. They say — you don’t need to know that, you’re a singer, why bother. It really is so there. I asked multiple times, every time the answer was the same — no, you’re a singer, you don’t need it, choose something else. I thought — hey, I’m paying money for the education, I should be able to choose whatever I deem necessary, right? And then I got lucky, because I couldn’t manage at the time of the class for «dummies» and got myself into the group of saxophonists, guitarists and I’m the only singer in his improvisation class. That was a harsh training, I recorded every lesson on my phone, listened to it again and again at home, transcribed everything played there, and it opened my eyes on a lot of things and helped me a lot with improvisation. I still go back to those notes from time to time when I need to.
I’ve heard stories that vocalists sometimes aren’t welcome at jam sessions?
Sometimes it’s just that you go to a jam session and they don’t have a microphone. Maybe partially it’s because they don’t care who comes, whatever. But sometimes it could be that they don’t want vocalists, that’s true. There are a lot of vocalists that help establish a bad reputation that spreads on other vocalists. I had several course mates who didn’t know their keys, who couldn’t improvise, had no clue about the stylistics, harmonies, nothing. Sometimes I couldn’t find a single vocalist to talk things through with, it was lonely in that sense.
Of course, there are knowledgeable vocalists and those who improvise well. But there are different experiences, like the one with the class I told you about. There was an opportunity to divide your specialty in two, to take one part with a vocal teacher and another with a saxophonist, the improvisation part. But at some point the school decided that it’s not a necessary thing and shouldn’t be available to vocalists. I don’t know why, other specialties could do that, but vocalists didn’t anymore. I think maybe because some vocalist without any knowledge in improvisation and theory came to the class and the teacher got irritated or whatever, I don’t know, but… When I was in that class, the teacher didn’t care about your specialty, as long as you manage to do everything just as everyone else. But in theory I shouldn’t have been there, because the class was meant for instrumentalists. It’s not normal, it’s weird. I don’t know, maybe it’s a European tendency, because all American vocalists improvise, right? That’s why I’m so proud of our Latvian singers, they all improvise!
Tell me about the «Tree of Dawn»?
«Tree of Dawn» was founded in 2015. Christos always had this idea of playing his own tunes with a singer and to explore new ways of self expression, to do experimental music. At the beginning we just jammed for a bit, right at the first jam we wrote our first tune and then we continued writing and then we recorded an album, when we had enough tunes. After the album was released in 2016 we took a little break and moved to India. Then we came back, three years had gone by, it was time to start something new. Christos started experimenting with synthesisers and yet again, totally by accident it all began anew. We took part in a showcase in Cyprus and Christos said — why don’t we take my brother for this gig, he can play the guitar. We didn’t think he’d stay, but he did and our new repertoire now is more multifaceted, has different styles, more different synthesisers, because India opened our eyes a bit, made us look at the music differently. I think it’s normal that while you study music, you circulate with certain people and it all makes you become a bit snobbish, like — oh, but that is just not serious enough… I don’t know, it’s stupid. And then you get away from «your people» and start being in a completely different environment where people are more interested in other styles of music, like R’n’B, hip hop, but not so much of jazz. India has a lot of fusion music, a huge American influence. And everything happens very professionally, not only the musicianship, but managing every concert. When you have a gig, the organiser sends you a ready artwork with instructions to publish this and that here and there and how many times, then there are articles in newspapers and elsewhere. Each concert is very promoted and you as a musician don’t have to think about it, just follow the script and do your music…
Where exactly in India have you been?
Mumbai, one of the biggest cities. Christos got a job at the «True School of Music», I went along as a tourist. The time in India was very busy for Christos, he didn’t have time to practice himself at all, he had to always teach. He also had a lot of concerts, but no time for rehearsals. And the performance had to be on a very high level, because each venue had at least 70 people and each ticket was sold for about 30 euros, so you couldn’t disappoint people by being unprepared. It means that you have to know how to organize yourself in spite of all the complications, garbage, noise, you run through the crowded streets with your instrument, or grab a rickshaw and all the time this contrast of scorchingly how air vs heavily air conditioned. You have to be professional all the time. It left a huge impact.
Why did you decide to come back?
I think because this kind of experience you get for a while only, but you can’t really stay. Cyprus isn’t our final destination as well, but we don’t really know what comes next. Cyprus is a bit too calm in the sense of arts, you know? They are more into family and a good meal. Everything else… Why go anywhere and do something… Maybe it’s different for traditional music, but concerning jazz it’s… calm. Still in the development stage. There are a lot of good musicians, but the listener is not educated enough for them. They come to the concert and talk loud. That’s why we choose to play less frequently but in places with a good atmosphere, where people care about the performance, where they listen. It’s better than gigging every week, playing your soul out and getting nothing in return.
So, what’s next?
For the first time in my life I am experiencing the feeling when nobody wants anything from me, when I have a chance to stop and understand what my musical identity really is all about. I have spent a lot of time working on my sound, on my voice, I think I’m getting close to finding out how the real me sounds like. I write my own music, maybe someday I’ll start something of my own. I try doing more management for the «Tree of Dawn», it is something new to me, dealing with the publicity and marketing. The direction is set.
Tell me about the new album!
It has various styles in it, something from R’n’B and soul, something psychedelic, some instrumental tunes, this and that. The main line is probably the synthesisers and the things you can do with them. The sounding is still jazz inspired, but all in all it’s hard to label the music. It was a challenge — to try out something new and unused by us before. In May the album will be published, we’ll see how people will react to it, what the feedback will be like. The music is interesting to us, I think that maybe that’s the most important, to be really into the music you do.