Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved to sing so much that she would make up songs about her neighbours as they passed by. She listened to a wide range of music and sang every chance she got.
In the Bishop Anstey High School Choir, under the direction of Jocelyn Carr-Sealy, the little girl—now a young woman—fell in love with opera and musicals. She worked with Derek Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. She sang classical music with the BBC National Chorus of Wales. Captivated by the magic of drama and musical theatre, she also did a stint with the Immortelle Theatre
Company and it was there that the direction of her life changed. “I was exposed to elements of Japanese theatre, like kabuki, which is so stylised, beautiful and unlike anything I had ever seen. This made me determined to study Japanese and experience the theatre and culture for myself.”
But by the time Alicia Saldenha made it to Japan, she had begun her transition to performing jazz and soul music, and only attended one kabuki class in Tokyo. Now, she divides her time between singing and teaching at university. Hers is no lightweight résumé: she has sung with George Clinton at the Nice Jazz Festival and more extensively with bassist Paul Jackson (of Herbie Hancock fame) in Japan. “My singing style and compositions are unique to me,” she says. “My music reflects my broad international experiences and influences.”
Saldenha’s sound is “funky soul with a twist of island sugar-cane;” she began her singing career in Japan by doing a lot of jazz covers—Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. Even though she was writing her own songs, she wasn’t yet confident enough to perform them. “Since I knew nothing about arranging music, I wasted a lot of time looking for a producer. But no one understood exactly what I was trying to do. Eventually a friend suggested I just do it myself,” she explains. “It was great advice and now here I am.”
She is bridging the gap between not only musical genres, but cultures. One of her more popular songs, Ooh Boy, is a fascinating mix of English and Japanese lyrics that meld seamlessly over a reggae beat. To Saldenha, the juxtaposition makes it interesting: “My philosophy is that music makes us one. Simply walking on stage with my Japanese band speaks volumes about culture and our common humanity. It is very powerful and I feel privileged to have this opportunity.”
Dance with the Sun is her first solo album, which she co-produced and released herself, despite offers from record companies. “It might have led to fame,” she says, “but not to growth and satisfaction as an artist”. So she kept writing and biding her time. Then, last year, her favourite Japanese band, indigo jam unit, invited her to record an album with them. Rose turned out to be a beautiful album of jazz and soul covers which made it to Japan’s Billboard chart: “It gave me a lot of exposure and confidence to complete Dance with the Sun, featuring my original songs.” Her album also features musicians of an impressive pedigree—Barney McAll is a Grammy-nominated pianist and composer; bassist Mark Kelley tours and records with Meshell Ndegeocello. Of the making of the album, Saldenha says, “We recorded all together, live in the studio, so the album is raw and honest. It takes you on a journey, from mellow reggae to foot-stomping soul, funk and go-go, then back to beautiful ballads. Some songs are sweet and some are saucy. There is something there for everyone to enjoy.”
By “everyone”, she means the world. “I’m planning shows around Asia next year, starting with Malaysia, and a European tour next summer,” she reveals. “I also plan to release a song which I wrote for Haiti when the big earthquake struck in 2010. I’d like to release it in January for the third anniversary of that earthquake and to draw attention to Haiti’s ongoing tragedy with the cholera outbreak and damage from Hurricane Sandy. I’m also writing new songs and thinking about the next album or two or three. I always have a million and one things on my list.”
She may even perform in Trinidad next year—and whenever she thinks of home, Alicia Saldenha can’t help but remember when she was a little girl who simply loved to sing. “What I’m most happy about is that I’ve been able to pursue my dreams and live on my own terms. To be independent as a woman, as an artist and to be able to do what I love. I owe so much of this to my mother, who never tried to temper my wild imagination and grand dreams.”
• Listen to Alicia Saldenha’s music on her Web site lovealicia.com or via her Facebook page.