This time last year, you had to be on the New York jazz scene to have heard of Cyrille Aimée, the young French singer who makes her UK debut at the Dundee and London jazz festivals this week and who recently released her joyful debut album. But that was before a certain Stephen Sondheim personally selected her to sing his songs with a jazz band and Curtis Stigers invited her to duet with him on his new album – et voila, a nouvelle star was born.
It all sounds too good to be true – but even more Hollywood movie-sounding is the story of how Aimée came to be gypsy jazz’s new poster girl in the first place. This part of her CV involves tales of her climbing out of her bedroom window and defying her parents to hang out and make music with the gypsies.
Aimée grew up in Samois-sur-Seine, a small town near Fontainebleau famous as the birthplace of the original gypsy jazz star, Django Reinhardt, and now the location of an annual festival in his honour. Consequently, she was exposed to gypsy jazz from a very young age but it wasn’t, she says, the music she heard there which attracted her to the gypsies; it was the other way around.
She explains: “It was only when I got to know the gypsies that I was drawn to the music – because I only understood the music when I had got to know the gypsies. I was attracted to their way of life and their spirit and how free they are and how they live every day like it’s their last.”
Was this quite different to the way she had been brought up? “No, not at all. It’s just different to the way that most people are, because they never went to school so they haven’t been taught how to behave, to put your hand up to speak or to ask to go to the bathroom. They’re kind of primitive in a way and they actually reminded me of my mum’s side of the family – she’s from the Dominican Republic. I felt at home with them.”
From the age of 14, Aimée spent as much time as she could with the travellers who came to town every year for the festival. “I would spend time with them after school and during the summer holidays and I missed them so much when they left. I would count the days for them to come back the next year.
“My school friends didn’t really understand it. The gypsies don’t let just anyone in the campsite and in the caravans so it was really my own thing. Some of my school friends didn’t even know who Django Reinhardt was!”
So how did Aimée manage to get in with them if they don’t just welcome anybody? “Well, I was up town to get a baguette in the boulangerie, and this gypsy girl was looking at my bike a lot – she really liked it – and she asked if she could borrow it. And, to her surprise, I said yes – I think mostly they get ‘no’. (There’s a lot of prejudice.) And when I said ‘yes’, she called her four other cousins over, so there were five of them on the bike, and I hopped on too, and we all went down the main road through town, which is very steep. We went down that hill, all six of us on the bike – and after that we were friends.”
Initially, Aimée’s parents were not happy about her spending time at the gypsy camp. “The town townspeople would tell them: ‘I saw your daughter with gypsies – be careful.’ So I would get grounded. But I would still go out my window and cross the back yard and cross the forest to go see them.” Luckily, Aimée’s parents came round. “First of all they realised there was nothing they could do and second of all they understood the kind of people they were and their music, and now they’re as much friends as we are.”
And it was thanks to her new friendships that Aimée’s talent as a singer became apparent. “At first, when I was with the gypsies, I started to play guitar and then one day one of them asked me to learn the song Sweet Sue because they knew that I spoke a little English. I sang it in front of the whole family, the gypsy family, around the camp fire and when I saw everyone smiling and how it had made everyone feel, I realised that’s the feeling I wanted to spread all over. So I kind of let go of the guitar and started singing more.”
At the age of 19, Aimée (who is now 30) applied to appear on Star Academy, France’s equivalent of The X Factor, not expecting for a minute that she would be one of 16 contestants picked out of 5000 applicants. “I sent them a video because I had just gotten a video camera and I thought it was a fun idea – then I got called back every time.”
Just before filming was about to begin, Aimée – whose picture was already on magazine covers to publicise the show – was given a contract to sign. At which point, she freaked at the lack of freedom she would have – especially over song choices. “I said: ‘No, thank you,’ and I went to the Dominican Republic! I had so much to learn, and I was just falling in love with jazz, and Star Academy was not the place for jazz!” Her story became something of a cause celebre.
From the Dominican Republic, it was a short hop to New York where she studied music and began gigging in 2009. These days she is living the touring musician’s life, seldom home in Brooklyn and almost always on the road; a 21stCentury jazz gypsy.
* Cyrille Aimée plays the Gardyne Theatre on Wednesday at 8pm. Visit www.jazzdundee.co.uk for information, and phone 01382 434940 for tickets.
First published in The Scotsman, Monday November 17th