‘Men in Ireland are better ... they have greater education’
Jazz musician Aleka Potinga arrived from Romania in 2012
Aleka Potinga: ‘men here are better and have this greater education’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Aleka Potinga grew up in a household filled with classical music. Her mother was a professional chorister and Potinga attended a school dedicated to musical development. She was three years old the first time she visited the city opera house and remembers singing arias around the house “with perfect pitch”. When she was 10 years old, her mother uprooted the family from their home in the city of Timisoara in western Romania to Bucharest so that Potinga could study cello with some of the best teachers in the country.
“I always knew from the beginning that I would be a musician. There was no other option really. My mum made me learn cello because it was an instrument that would bring more money. Orchestras and quartets don’t have many cello players. I liked singing too but I was very influenced by my mum and Romania’s classical music industry was very developed at the time. Jazz wasn’t such a big thing.”
Potinga does not regret the years she spent developing her classical music skills. From the age of 14 she was playing paid gigs and went on to join chamber groups and orchestras before graduating from the Bucharest conservatory of music. However, it became increasingly difficult to ignore her love of singing and despite her family’s insistence that she continue working as a classical musician, Potinga felt drawn to the improvisational, slightly more unpredictable world of jazz.
“I didn’t know anything about jazz music until I was 18. I’d never even listened to it. It was all just classical music. For me, classical music was doing what’s written on the page. Of course there’s your own input and interpretation but with jazz it was like wow, you can play around and make your own sound. When you’re in an orchestra you just do what the conductor says. It’s still very creative but I needed a different step.”
“It didn’t seem like such a good idea to be in huge debt from the astronomical fees that you have to pay in the States.”
Potinga was in her early 20s when she decided to move abroad to study jazz. She was initially accepted into New York’s School of Jazz at The New School but knew it would be impossible to find the money to cover the course fees. “It didn’t seem like such a good idea to be in huge debt from the astronomical fees that you have to pay in the States.”
She began researching schools in Europe and applied to the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin. “It was kind of like pins on a map. The UK was very expensive and Spain is a great place but everyone knows there’s no money there. I sent a CV and CD to Newpark. I didn’t even come here for an audition. I didn’t know what Dublin looked like, I just came here.”
My family couldn’t give me lots of money so the first two years were a bit hard."
In 2012, the budding jazz singer arrived in Dublin and moved into a small apartment on Mountjoy Square. With limited finances for socialising, Potinga spent most of her free time locked in a rehearsal room developing her voice and devising new musical soundscapes. “My family couldn’t give me lots of money so the first two years were a bit hard. I was just locked in my house or practice rooms practising and going to gigs. It was a non-stop thing – you go to classes for four to five hours and then you go home and practice all day.”
After graduation, Potinga was offered a job teaching at Newpark and this month will move to the school’s new location on the DCU campus in Drumcondra. She says teaching has played a role in her own progress as a musician. “I love teaching. Well, of course it depends on the student. But I’ve noticed huge progress in myself since I started teaching. You have to discover what someone else can do better and then try to apply it on yourself.”
Potinga misses her mother and admits that she has found it difficult to build lasting friendships with Irish people during her five years in Dublin. However, she is happy to be living in a country which she says enjoys a “healthier society” than back home in Romania. “I think it’s a pretty tolerant place. Of course there are things here that are definitely not healthy like the Eighth Amendment. But I’ve learned to be more tolerant, political and involved in the community here.”
“I was only 22 when I came here and was still young. I’ve become more political and interested in what happens around me.”
Like other women interviewed for this series, Potinga also feels more comfortable in her own skin when walking around Dublin. “When I was back home I used to think I was fat. I had that impression because all the women back there are very skinny and all lips and ass. It took a while, but here I feel more like myself. I also find men here are better and have this greater education. In Romania they have a culture around women which is not healthy.”
Despite the challenge of making Irish friends, Potinga has developed a strong relationship with jazz musicians here, both Irish and from abroad. “What’s great about jazz is you don’t even need to speak the same language. You can just meet people and create music together.”
Potinga is preparing for the release of her debut album next year, which she says will use influences from her classical education combined with “eastern rhythms, bossanova and Michael Jackson. I want to think of it as contemporary jazz but it’s very much influenced by pop. I also play cello on the EP. It’s not like that just disappeared. But I improvise and play bossanova on it.”
While the Irish jazz scene remains relatively small, with only a handful of venues offering a stage to jazz musicians, Potinga is happy with the work/life balance she has built in Dublin. “There’s ups and downs with the jazz scene here and you can’t really compare it to huge cities like Berlin and Paris. But for me, there’s a good balance in this country between your career and how you feel as a person.”