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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

French jazz singer Laïka wears her heart proudly on her sleeve

Laïka Thomas (nee Fatien) can only sing what she believes; and right now, she's singing about love.
French jazz singer Laïka decided at the age of 16 that she wanted to sing. Sylvia Plachy
French jazz singer Laïka decided at the age of 16 that she wanted to sing. Sylvia Plachy

Laïka Thomas (née Fatien) only sings about things she believes in, and right now she’s singing about love.

The parentheses in the preceding sentence are more than mere formality. She got married a few weeks before our interview and was still pondering which name to use professionally.

Frequently billed live as Fatien, it’s likely she will just take the name Laïka henceforth.

“I can’t sing a song just because the melody is beautiful – if I don’t relate to the lyrics, it’s impossible,” says the French musician, introducing her programme of standards made famous by Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Nina Simone and other greats. “I’m really into the mood of these songs right now. What I sing is always my life.”

In truth, love has always been high on the lyrical list of Laïka’s life. But it’s the way she has sung about it that has evolved with her relationship status. Her last album, 2012’s standards collection Come a Little Closer, she describes as being “about” two men – the man she was leaving, and the one she was leaving for.

It might thrill jazz enthusiasts to learn the first was drummer Daniel García-Bruno, with whom she had a 15-year relationship, raised two children, and shared a bandstand with countless times. And the second? Renowned American trumpeter Roy Hargrove, with whom she had shared a youthful romance about a quarter-century earlier.

“I decided to leave the father of my son for Roy. After 15 years we separated,” says the 47-year-old in one of several frank concessions. “Because it was never finished with Roy.”

Come a Little Closer catches this transitional phase – Hargrove plays flugelhorn and contributes the album’s sole original song, while symbolically there are no drums at all on the record.

When Laïka played the album to her lost love for the first time – on headphones, on the banks of the Seine – he cried.

As it turns out, neither the drummer nor the trumpeter worked out – but the bassist did.

Laïka is now married to Chris Thomas, a jazz musician with famous friends, including drumming star Brian Blade and – you guessed it – Hargrove. No hard feelings.

“Roy saw on Facebook that we were together and he sent me a message saying: ‘Say hi to Chris,’” says Laïka, adding that the happy couple will be catching Hargrove in concert in Paris on October 24, two days after her Abu Dhabi performance.

Laïka’s deep connection between jazz and her emotions can be traced further back.

Born to a Moroccan-Spanish mother and a father from Ivory Coast, in the same central Paris suburb she lives in today, Laïka was raised on the Arabian music of her grandmother.

But by the age of 12 she was frequenting Paris’s jazz clubs alongside her aunt’s fiancé, drummer and Joe Zawinul collaborator Paco Séry.

While collecting records in her teenage years, certain voices took on a new significance when Laïka’s mother died when she was 16.

“They were all women singers, like mums,” she says. “It was just a voice, a feminine voice, that wasn’t there anymore. That’s when I knew I really wanted to sing.”

While Laïka quit three consecutive music schools, she found a teacher who spotted her gift and was encouraged to audition for her mentor’s job fronting a big band.

“That was my school – seven years surrounded by men, learning all the standards,” she says.

Eventually, Laïka strode out alone. In 2003 she recorded her first album, teasingly titled Look at Me Now!.

An international breakthrough came in 2008, with Misery: A Tribute to Billie Holiday, which featured a then-rising-star (now fully fledged jazz superstar) Robert Glasper on piano. The American crossover sensation is one of a number of musicians she credits with helping lift her own anxieties.

“He’s super light,” she says. “Of course, he has problems, but he chooses to be light.”

It’s not the first time Laïka uses the heavy/light analogy popularised by Czech novelist Milan Kundera. She repeatedly asserts that, after decades of inert heaviness, it was meeting her husband two years ago that put her on the path to contention.

“I’m trying to be more and more light. I’m a very serious person and I used to define myself by that – I thought a light person was never deep, not an artist,” she adds. “I’m suffering, of course, but I’m making a much better moment in my life. I changed my man and I feel real, real love.”

Laïka performs at Frioul, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, on Wednesday, October 21 at 8pm (free entry, set menu available) and at Hilton Capital Grand Abu Dhabi on Thursday, October 22 at 8pm (Dh100)

rgarratt@thenational.ae