Culture | Music

Jonathan Karstadt interviews Hungarian jazz singer Claudia Campagnol

13/06/2014

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I am at the very chic 606 Club in Chelsea, where jazz singer Claudia Campagnol is due to perform as part of the club’s Musician XChange programme, whose aim is to expose top class acts from around the world to a British jazz audience. Originally from Hungary, Campagnol moved to Sweden with her family when she was a young child, and now lives in Copenhagen. She is renowned throughout Europe for her nuanced improvisational abilities, and counts songs in Swedish and Hungarian alongside the traditional jazz standards in her repertoire.

Claudia Campagnol

Claudia Campagnol

Both of Campagnol’s parents were highly accomplished musicians, and it is thus no surprise that she showed an incredible flair for music very early on in life: “I was 2 years old when I started to sing in harmony,” she tells me, “My mum would be singing in the kitchen, and I was playing in my room, and would sing in harmony with her. And that was something I thought everyone could do – until I went to school…” She was not always interested in jazz, but once she stumbled upon the genre she soon became obsessed: “I was all into Maria Carey and Celine Dion, the Backstreet Boys and all those – but then I found some jazz records at home that my parents hadn’t told me about: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Miles Davis. And also some fusion, George Benson, stuff like that. So I was totally hooked. And I was just totally in that world and I went to the library and came home with dozens of records, all of them jazz records, and that’s how I began to sing jazz.”

Despite her Scandinavian upbringing, Campagnol was always aware of her Hungarian origins, not least because this was always intricately tied up with her family’s heritage as members of the country’s Roma community. “There are things that you cannot really let go of – you just have it in the blood,” she says, “We are very dramatic, and music is like everything. I don’t sing if I don’t feel that in the music; there’s something about gypsies and music.” She agrees that there is a particular devotion to jazz among Roma people in Hungary and the rest of central Europe; exactly why this, is she’s not sure, but it could have something to do with the similarities to traditional gypsy folk music: “There are a lot of chords in gypsy music that are similar to bebop, and there’s something in the expressiveness that is very similar.”

Once she became a professional musician, Hungary was one of key places that Campagnol wanted to play: “Almost all of the hip jazz musicians in Hungary now are gypsy, and my father knows many of them: they grew up together. My dad told me a lot of stories, and I was always thinking ‘I wish I could be there and see that.’ Swedish jazz music, and all of the other jazz cats are great, great musicians and everything, but there is something about Hungary; the gypsies have this whole way of playing and a special way of being, this special passion, and you can almost feel that they have suffered and they still suffer. So there is a very strong connection in that.” However, she is less than enthusiastic about the current state of jazz in Hungary: “The scene is in very bad health because the economic crisis is ruining everything. Not only for musicians, but for everyone. I think there are more jazz musicians than there are listeners.” She concedes that the situation is much the same in Sweden, but she is considerably more positive about her new home: although Copenhagen is only separated from Malmö by the 8km Øresund Bridge, the jazz scene there, she tells me, is completely different: “In Denmark it’s a totally different story. Jazz is much more popular, there are a lot of clubs and a lot of jazz – and a lot of musicians come to Copenhagen to play because there’s good money.”

She is excited to be playing in London for the first time, albeit a little disappointed that her tight schedule prevents her from getting to know the city. Under the Music XChange programme, visiting artists play in bands made up of established local musicians, and she is also excited by the prospect of playing live with a whole new band: “As a musician you really feel like a little child. You just come and play, and when it’s improvised music, you really feel that you are sitting in a sandbox and making something together with other children. It’s really a great feeling.” Above all it is this playfulness and childlike enthusiasm that makes Claudia Campagnol a thrilling and beguiling singer.

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