Gino Sitson is a singer with a vocal range of four octaves. He soars while others crawl. As a high-flying acrobat, he glides from one place to another in an instant, reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin. He sings jazz; he sings classical; he sings traditional African music. And he mixes them together in a spicy gumbo. His vocal flexibility far exceeds most of his contemporaries. He has a distinct voice that listeners know is his. He often taps his face and chest in percussive accompaniment as he improvises. But he doesn’t just fill the air with endless notes. He understands the necessity of silence.
In March this year, Gino released “Echo Chamber.” It is his eighth and most ambitious album. As its title hints, he performs with a chamber group of Western musicians, who play violin, cello, clarinet, and viola. The Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango also makes a guest appearance on the album playing marimba. An echo chamber reflects the sounds put into it – it’s a symbol of conformity. But, Gino does not conform to one way of playing music. He is a musical explorer, seeking to innovate. But, he comes from a people – the Bamileke of Western Cameroon – with a strong musical tradition. And his music reflects their powerful percussive rhythms. He marries them with European counterpoint.
Astor Piazzolla combined the classical tradition with the Argentinian tango. Gino weaves the same classical tradition in chamber music with jazz, his ancestral African rhythms and melodies. After years of being aware of his music, I decided it was time to interview him about his life and his gift.
DJL: What music inspired you as a young person?
GS: As a child, I was fascinated by sounds, the sounds in our local environment in Buea, Limbe (Victoria), and Duala, Cameroon. As a teenager, it was soul and Motown, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Ritchie, and George Benson. I grew up playing music with my siblings. But back then, nobody knew that being a musician could be a full-time job. My brother Teo Sitchet-Kanda was the first to lead the way, to play music as a professional. He inspired us. It was also important that our parents did not forbid us from playing music.
DJL: I read that your mother was a Director of a Church choir. Is she a powerful singer? Has her singing influenced you?
GS: Oh yes, very much so. My mom has always been a huge influence on my singing through her knowledge of our language, Medumba that I sing in, and particularly her phrasing, in addition to the joy that emanated from her while she sang.
DJL: Did you sing as a child?
GS: I explored singing without knowing I was exploring it. I would hear an instrument and try to mimic that sound with my voice.
DJL: Later, you moved to France.
GS: I pursued several degrees in Musicology, Educational Sciences, Littérature at Paris VIII- St Denis and Sorbonne Universities. I was interested in how music is transmitted, for example, from one generation to the next or from one person to another. Bobby McFerrin invited me to be a part of the PBS program, “Music Instinct: Science and Song.” Listening to the scientist Daniel Levitin talk about his research on music fascinated me. I decided to pursue a PhD in Musicology.
DJL: For your PhD you went to Guadeloupe, an island with roots in Africa, where you studied the Gwoka, a genre that encompasses traditional dance, drumming, and song.
GS: Yes, I enjoy the sentiment, the eloquence of that music. People may improvise vocally out of the blue in the Gwoka.
DJL: You work as an academic and researcher, but you also teach vocal workshops, is that something you enjoy?
GS: Yes, so much, I like helping people to feel confident in their voices, to enable them to let go and to be free. I have a passion for the voice, for exploring and sharing music. If you think about it, we all improvise everyday.
DJL: To explore in music requires confidence. Are you more confident as a singer than when you first started out?
GS: Yes, I remember once, I was doing an audition in France, I had a guitar with me, I was a bit shy. The person in charge of the auditions told me to put down the guitar. At first, I did not understand why he wanted me to do that. Then, I realized it was because he wanted to hear my voice really come through alone.
DJL: You also help young Cameroonian children with music as an Ambassador for UNICEF. Are you trying to build confidence in them too?
GS: Yes I am. I work with street children in Yaunde. I am planning to return to them this year. I try to encourage their musical skills, to teach them a bit about music production, to empower them in a way that they may not have been before.
DJL: And now, how is your current CD, “Echo Chamber,” different from your earlier ones?
GS: It is a chamber ensemble with ingredients from New York, Cameroon and Europe. I am telling my story in my own way. The music reflects my thoughts and feelings. The listener is hearing someone who is able to encompass diverse sounds, but who is more at peace.
DJL: Is this CD more classical than some of your earlier ones?
GS: Yes it is. But if you listen to a high energy track like Upper East Side, you can hear the Bikutsi that is an up tempo rhythm from Cameroon.
DJL: How do you compose?
GS: Sometimes a note will come and then I let it evolve in an organic way. I compose on several instruments: guitar, piano or double bass. It all depends on the moment.
DJL: But the choice of the musicians on this album sounds very deliberate, for example, Maria João’s vocal alongside yours on the track “Night in Molyko.” This is a playful, upbeat song. There is a magical interplay created between the two vocals with the strings playing under them.
GS: Yes, you are right. How did you know that? (He chuckles). I am careful about the specific instruments that go on the album. I want the instruments to sound right together. This is a chamber group. My band persuaded me that the instruments would be recorded all together in one room. Only the vocals were recorded separately. I think it sounds better that way.
DJL: Are you trying to create a new sound that has not been heard before?
GS: I’m following my path by being true to myself. As you know, I’m an Associate Researcher at IReMus (Institut de recherche en Musicologie: Paris-Sorbonne University, CNRS, BnF, Ministère de la
culture), in addition to being a musician. I’m an explorer… it is a quest.