28 Feb 2024

Folk singing jazz

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 28 February 2024

Simona Smirnova does things her way.

The Lithuanian-born, New York-based jazz singer accompanies herself with a very home-grown folk instrument, the kanklės.

Singing jazz with such a traditional instrument (it's a Lithuanian zither) raised a few eyebrows in folk music circles back home, but as the title of her latest tour says, she's "unapologetic".

Lithuanian musician Simona Smirnova in the RNZ Auckland studio with her kanklės.

Have kanklės, will travel. Simona Smirnova in RNZ's Auckland studio. Photo: Andre Upston

Speaking to RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump, Smirnova says she's been "taking heat" for the way she is all her life.

"In Lithuania, always too loud, too outspoken, I always stuck out, kind of like a black sheep, that's why I moved to the US, and in New York I kind of found my tribe."

Smirnova's radical streak however, is rooted in traditionalism.

The history of the kanklės goes back thousands of years. There is a belief in Lithuanian folk-lore that when people die, their souls inhabit trees, and if that tree's wood is used to make a kanklės, that soul gets a chance to sing again.

"When I sing and play, I really feel that ancestral calling, sort of like a communal feeling of experiencing art and something beyond that."

But it's been through jazz that Smirnova has been able to find her own voice.

"I feel like there is a hidden power and chamber of strength when you start accessing and owning your story and owning who you are unapologetically and constantly making a conscious decision and practice - it's like a muscle - to be your authentic self."

When she's not accompanying herself on the kanklės, Smirnova performs with one of the newer instruments on the block, the theremin.

"When I perform in New York jazz clubs, I'm singing singing singing, and then I play the kanklės, and then I jump out and I play theremin, and then I dance a little."

Simona Smirnova

Smirnova also digs a bit of theremin action. Photo: Supplied

Alas, Smirnova left her theremin at home this trip, but she has been performing with some local jazz musicians, Bill Martin in Dunedin, Alan Brown in Auckland, and in Wellington, Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa, Ayrton Foote and Johnny Lawrence.

Back in New York, Smirnova's latest album aims to bring her beloved kanklės to a wider public.

Kanklės in New York is designed to represent the instrument for the first time in the global music industry. It comes not just with sound but also sheet music to allow others try it out.

The album's a mix of jazz, rock, new age, bossa nova and children's songs, as well as Lithuanian folk.

"I just wanted to show the instrument in the light of different genres and styles."

If the project gains traction, a whole lot of Lithuanian souls are about to be set free.

Simona Smirnova

Simona Smirnova Photo: cepla.lt