Afra Kane

Afra Kane – Photo: Anoush Abrar

Afra Kane, winner of the 2019 Montreux Jazz Talent Award, is an Italian pianist, singer-songwriter and composer with an immense range of musical and cultural influences.

The Neue Züricher Zeitung writes about Afra Kane:

“Afra Kane cannot be pigeonholed. The pianist and singer grew up in Italy as the child of Nigerian parents. She studied in Wales and Geneva. She combines jazz and soul in an innovative way.

The paths of music are often unfathomable. For example, Afra Kane can’t really explain why she got stuck on Chopin as a girl and not, say, Eros Ramazzotti or Italian hip-hop. This childhood preference sent her on a unique musical journey, the outcome of which is still written in the stars. She passed a milestone last fall. A jury that included Stanley Clarke, Chilly Gonzales and Chucho Valdés awarded her the solo prize at the Montreux Jazz Talent Awards. The formation with which the pianist and singer entered the competition did not conform to the conventions. Instead of performing in the usual jazz trio formation of piano, drums and bass, she had herself accompanied by cello and violin. “I liked the idea of arranging my jazzy soul music for a classical piano trio and presenting it as part of a jazz competition,” she says. “It was a challenge to play without drums. In exchange, I enjoyed more freedom as a pianist.”

It all started when Afra’s mother missed the piano during chants at church. She sent her nine-year-old daughter to lessons, hoping she would grow into the role of church pianist. Afra was born in Vicenza in northern Italy, but her parents came from a Christian area in Nigeria.

So Afra learned European-style harmonies in class, but thanks to her parents she also grew up with music from their African homeland. However, she got to hear less the stars like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé or Majek Fashek, who are also known in Europe, than the Afro-Gospel, a percussion-emphasized style with a consistent clave and euphoric question/answer chants that can easily last half an hour.

Afra liked the piano so much that she chose a school that allowed her to attend the conservatory in the afternoon. The conservatory became her second family, she says: “I was the only black student. But my experience was very positive. Even today, I visit my teachers when I’m in town.” Meanwhile, a friend had introduced her to the joys of Motown, Marvin Gaye, Etta James and Aretha Franklin. It was a perfect combination, she says: “In classical music, everything was geared toward perfectionist interpretation. Singing soul, on the other hand, I could express my feelings without having to worry about technique in any way.”

Attempts to continue her studies in Cardiff, Wales, were less enjoyable. Afra missed the passion in her fellow students: “They practiced for six hours, and afterwards they didn’t care about the music,” she reports. At the same time, she says, they had precise ideas about how a career should go. She belonged to a cover band that played Motown songs. No one was interested in her own songs: “They said I had to earn my spurs as an entertainer first, there was no other way.”

She turned her back on the island and, through the Erasmus program, ended up at the Haute Ecole de Musique de Genève, where she eventually earned her doctorate. It’s ironic, she says: In England, she says, people kept telling her she had to move to London to make the most of her opportunities; in Switzerland, that never worked. “Yet, especially in Switzerland, I very quickly found flexible musicians who enjoyed playing with me and who appreciated my music. That gave me self-confidence. I realized that I didn’t have to be pigeonholed. I could be the musician I wanted to be.”

It’s safe to say that no one else is equipped with an even remotely similar palette of influences. In addition to Chopin, Afra Kane cites Debussy, Ravel, Bartók and Scriabin as pillars of her muse. Particularly close to her heart, however, is the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saëns, “a life’s work to deal with this piece,” she says. She also cites Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson as sources of inspiration, as well as the Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal and, as a kind of wild card, the experimental composer Sofia Gubaidulina and Nikolai Kapustin, whose compositions have one foot in jazz.

“But,” she notes, “you can be influenced by someone and still sound completely different.” All of her songs, she says, are autobiographical at their core: “Every song starts with an experience. I write songs to process my experiences and my mood with them.” She has just followed up the EP “Scorpio,” released last fall, with the single “Mouth Shut.” “Sometimes I get told it’s not ‘black’ to play classical music,” she says. “Then other times it’s, ‘Typically black, the way you dance.’ Yet I’m just a human being. Like all other people, I combine different identities within me. My song is a plea to stop associating skin color with stereotypes.”

(Neue Züricher Zeitung, 22/06/19)

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On Tour

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31 May
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29 Aug
06 Sep
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18 Oct
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Afra Kane – Ancient Greeks
Afra Kane – Mouth Shout
Afra Kane – Live

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