A jazz state of mind

Ahead of her performance in the Capital, Portuguese-German singer, sitarist Sofia Hoffmann talks to us about her love for the genre and more

Published: 04th January 2023 09:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th January 2023 03:23 PM   |  A+A-

Portuguese-German singer, songwriter and sitarist Sofia Hoffmann

Express News Service

'I sing like I feel’… these words by jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald are what music artists spend their lifetimes trying to achieve—they often aim to evoke emotions through their melodies. Sofia Hoffmann shares that her latest album Rebirth was “designed and musically selected to trigger specific emotions in whoever listens to it”. The Portuguese-German singer, songwriter, and sitarist—she is “inspired by Fitzgerald with regards to the vocal nuances of jazz”—mentions in conversation that it is the “freedom that the genre offers” that she enjoys the most. Ahead of her Rebirth concert at the city’s India Habitat Centre, Hoffmann talks to us about her major influences, merging the sitar with the Western style of music, and more. Edited excerpts from an interview.

Tell us about your journey as a musician.
I’ve been playing the guitar and singing since my teenage years. Music became more serious while performing in Lisbon with local musicians in some of the best pop/jazz venues there. Jazz has spoken to me since I lived in Milan, Italy, and took a master in jazz with Laura Fedele (2008). I came back to Portugal in 2009 and started to work on my repertoire, which included the American jazz standards, and also the Brazilian Bossa Nova standards, performing them with local jazz artists. I really enjoyed the freedom and the interpretation nuances which jazz offers. Also,  the Glenn Miller swing themes, which deliver so many positive emotions, and which I nowadays sing with the Lisbon Swingers big band.

Are there any particular musicians who have helped boost your understanding of the nuances of jazz?
In Portugal, my teacher Maria João was my reference and supported my development as a jazz singer as I started in 2009. The artists who performed in my recent album—namely Carlos Barreto (upright bass), Joel Silva (drums), Diogo Duque (trumpet) and the great Rão Kyao (who started his career in jazz with the saxophone, and ended up in India learning bansuri)—also inspire me quite a lot. Also, the Portuguese Maria Mendes is definitely a reference to look at.
As for non-Portuguese contemporary artists, I recently met one of my preferred singers, Stacey Kent, during her concert in Lisbon. Even Canadian jazz singer/pianist Diana Krall has inspired me quite a lot. Ella Fitzgerald is the singer I hear the most to learn and get inspired with regards to the vocal nuances of this genre. Chet Baker and Nat King Cole are also among my favorite jazz artists.

How has your practice evolved over time?
Listening to jazz and to good interpreters is fundamental. Singing with great, solid jazz musicians is a good platform to explore improvisation. Also, the practice of Indian classical music, especially the vocal sargam and the sitar taans, allows me to expand my creativity. I also like to sing the mantras in the morning, which I've learnt from my Indian classical music and Yoga teachers; it allows me to expand my vocal range and sustain.

You’ve learnt the sitar, how easy or difficult is it to merge this instrument with the style of music you’re originally trained in?
In the beginning it wasn’t easy at all... but it became possible thanks to the spiritual connection which exists with the instrument and with the music itself. Thanks to the resonance, which this kind of music quality creates. This was, and is, perhaps, the greatest lesson I’ve got from my guru, the late Acharya Roop Verma.
In terms of merging the sitar with jazz, I was first taught about Indian classical music. Once you learn the thaats, and you understand the concept of alap, taans, jhala within a specific raag, you blend this kind of improvisation with the Western music and jazz. This is what we aimed for with the Rebirth album, while working with my sitar teacher, friend and guru bhai Arjun Verma, and with the American arranger, producer, and pianist John Beasley, who arranged most of the tracks and produced the album.

Rebirth is your second album after One Soul. How different are the two albums in terms of composition and music?
The first album was my debut as an artist and songwriter in the music industry, and includes only original themes I wrote. There were four musicians playing in it who had performed with me for several years, so there was significant time to play and consolidate each theme before going to the studio and recording it. It also reflects my background and influences in terms of jazz, blues, and pop, and was produced in a rather naive way.

The album Rebirth is about reuniting the world through music, gathering the east and the west in Portugal by connecting three different genres and musicians coming from different backgrounds, after the pandemic. It was designed and musically selected to trigger specific emotions in whoever listens to it. This is achieved not only through the melodic and rhythmic arrangements, but also and mainly through the lyrics of the selected repertoire, and the interpretation I gave through my voice, and each instrument has given in it. The album is also paying a tribute to some of the greatest worldwide artists who have gifted us with their outstanding talent, and made us feel emotionally connected and perhaps happier through their music such as Joni Mitchell, AR Rahman, Miles Davis, Rui Veloso, and of course, my guru Roop ji Verma.

What can the audience expect from your upcoming performance?
Being connected with strong emotions... We will guide you through the album themes with great Indian artists on stage, and also with Arjun Verma (as one of Rebirth’s leading artists, representing east-Indian classical music) who will be joining us from the US.
There will also be an Indian classical instrumental moment, and I’ll sing in four different languages—Portuguese, English, Hindi and Sanskrit. The audience may therefore expect a musical and spiritual journey!

WHAT: Rebirth concert by Portuguese-German artist Sofia Hoffmann
WHEN: January 6, 7:30pm onwards
WHERE: India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Estate


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