The Day – Thana Alexa, a singer with blurred boundaries, made history in Croatia (and beyond) with her Grammy nomination

Armed with degrees in psychology and jazz performance from the New School University in New York, Thana Alexa stood out even before becoming the first Croatian artist of any musical genre to earn a Grammy nomination last year.

The fact that her nomination came for “ONA,” an album that was inspired by Croatian women in general — and her mother and now 100-year-old grandmother in particular — makes the singer’s Grammy tale internationally acclaimed. even more remarkable.

So does the fact that her Grammy-nominated album features her in both English and Croatian. Released in 2020, “ONA” draws on the musical traditions Alexa learned in Zagreb and New York, where she was born. She has spent almost every summer since childhood in Dubrovnik, then moved to Zagreb with her family when she was 13.

“I’ve always had these two very important identities in my life,” the 2021 Grammy nominee said.

“When I’m here in the United States,” Alexa said, “I’m ‘the Croatian girl’. And when I’m in Croatia, I’m ‘the American girl.’ appreciating all parts of me and that translates, artistically, into the way I hear and make music.

“I take things from both cultures, whether it’s the time signatures of the Balkans and the microtonal folk music of Croatia or the jazz and black American music I listened to growing up.”

Alexa has been hailed on both sides of the Atlantic for her artistic audacity, stylistic diversity and vocal agility. The accolades came for her both as the leader of her own group and as a member of Migration.

The latter is the eclectic ensemble led by her husband, the great Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez, who won a Grammy for his innovative score for Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2014 Oscar-winning film “Birdman.” featured on his 2018 album “Lines in the Sand”.

In any context, Alexa is as adept at digging deep into the lyrics of a new or altered song as she is when performing wordless, horn-like vocal lines. This allows him to deliver melodies and harmonies in unison with the instrumentalists at his side.

Alexa adds a contemporary edge to its music with looping, a digital process that allows performers to record multiple layers of music in real time, then sing or play a live instrument over it.

Using her voice and an electronic keyboard, she demonstrates the process on a video called “Solo Looping” on her website. She also offers loops during her concerts by triggering loops with a pedal or with her hands while singing.

“One of the most interesting things for me about looping and using electronic effects is how I can, if I want to, create the sound of a Balkan choir,” Alexa said. , who started wrapping up gigs out of necessity.

“I did a lot of my own backing vocals on my debut album (‘Ode to Heroes’ in 2014). When I bought the album, record companies and talent scouts asked me, ‘How do you count you do this live?’

“It was Antonio’s idea that I should buckle up. I started using pedals just to recreate what I did on the album. electronics, it informed what I was composing.”

Alexa laughed when asked if looping while singing live with a band required twice the concentration.

“This may be a recipe for disaster!” she says.

“It’s a very scary aspect, when you’re not only prone to human error but also computer error. But I’ve been looping for so long now that using electronics as an extension of my voice can be so rewarding.”

Curiously, 35-year-old Alexa didn’t fully embrace jazz – or singing – until her family moved to Croatia.

Equally intriguing, when her parents, brother and Alexa moved to Zagreb, she was a dedicated young classical violinist who had won accolades in New York for her playing. She credits her inability to speak Croatian at the time for her decision to move away from the instrument.

“I had played the violin very seriously, from the age of 4, and I was the first chair of youth symphonies and my school in New York,” recalls Alexa, who does not use her surname, Pavalic, professionally.

“I wanted to be the next Vanessa Mae and play the violin with all the best orchestras when I grew up. But when we moved to Croatia, I couldn’t enroll in music schools because I didn’t speak enough the language well.

“I found a violin teacher in Zagreb but I had no opportunity to play. And I wanted to connect with the language I could express myself with, which was English. I had always listened to jazz , blues and soul at home. My dad played everything from Louis Armstrong to Bob Marley and Etta James, so that’s what I wanted to sing. I found a singing teacher in Zagreb and everything s is developed from there.

Fortune smiled on her when her parents introduced her to vibraphonist Bosko Petrovic. A figurehead of jazz in Zagreb and beyond, he became her first musical mentor. Alexa quickly discovered that jazz was held in very high esteem in Croatia and neighboring Eastern European countries, where – during the days of the Soviet Union – jazz had been banned by communist regimes. in power.

“One of the beautiful things about jazz in Europe is that it’s so supported in small countries like Croatia. It’s part of the culture there to support great music,” Alexa said. , who noted the irony of his passion for this quintessence of American origin. music ignites in Zagreb.

“When you grow up respecting this music, it changes your outlook,” she said. “When I came back to the States to go to college, I really learned the history of jazz – and it was like my mind had just exploded!”

It was while taking a jazz improvisation class at Northeastern University in Boston that Alexa heard Charles Mingus’ classic 1959 ballad “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” She cites John Handy’s poignant tenor saxophone solo in the song as a profound influence on her vocal approach.

“It was the first time I experienced how the voice could be used as an instrument and sing a song that wasn’t written for the voice,” Alexa said.

“I learned the melody and put lyrics to it, not knowing then that Joni Mitchell had done the same thing (in 1979) with ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’. I started to see how the voice can be a lyrical instrument and experimental. It was a huge, mind-blowing moment for me.

Since no one in her family had ever pursued a career in any art medium, Alexa wasn’t sure if she would do it herself. That’s why, after transferring to the New School in New York, she earned degrees in psychology and jazz performance.

Alexa credits trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and former John Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman as essential teachers, and singles out the Workman-led ensemble in which she had to sing horn parts. But it was former Aretha Franklin/Dizzy Gillespie drummer Bernard Purdie who became his greatest mentor while in school.

Purdie gave him the task of composing and writing arrangements for the New School’s R&B ensemble. He encouraged her to stretch and take musical risks.

“Bernard also taught me about the business side of music and, in particular, how to do things with integrity,” recalls Alexa, who joined The New School’s music faculty last year. “He told me repeatedly, ‘You have to do what you mean and say what you mean. And, if you make a mistake, mean it!'”

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