Sophia Nelson was born in Ghana, where the local music — high-life — is directly related to Caribbean calypso and Cuban rhythms. This could explain Sophia’s preference for Cuban and Latin rhythms as a jazz singer. Woman in love (Harmonie Production) is her second album, a joyful and colorful celebration which produces an irresistible urge to dance.
A fully fledged Sophia released her first album “Lotty” in 1992 after a successful carreer as a background vocalist for high profile artists like Johnny Hallyday, Celine Dion, Richard Bona… Today she performs in several clubs and festivals around Europe, Africa and the Middle East. She recently performed at the all famous Lionel Hampton jazz club in Paris where Afrik-news.com met with her.
Afrik-news.com: You were born in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there, but it is in Paris that you became a musician, could you tell us how…
Sophia Nelson: In Ghana I used to sing with my school choir and I loved to sing. But in Africa music is not considered a serious career: it is considered a leisure activity. My father sent me to Europe to continue my studies, and I ended up at the “Université Catholique de l’Ouest” near Angers in the west of France. I studied biology and started working in a laboratory. I, however, quickly changed my mind and decided that I wanted to learn music. I therefore took music and singing lessons after which I applied to the jazz training centre in Paris. I started singing in a choir as well as a back up vocalist.
Afrik-news.com: What music did you listen to in Ghana, before leaving for France?
Sophia Nelson: My parents listened to jazz a lot: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and also artists like Harry Belafonte. And of course we listened to high-life very often. In 1979 there was an extraordinary festival in Accra: the “Soul to Soul” festival. The biggest stars performed at the biggest sports stadium in Accra: Tina Turner, Carlos Santana… I went to see them with my sisters… In Accra there were a few jazz clubs we went to. I have always been open to various genres in music.
Afrik-news.com: What has singing brought you?
Sophia Nelson: It is a way to express oneself. There is something about singing which makes you go deep inside yourself when composing, you have to know yourself. It is a very profound work, it implies a lot of research. Care has to be taken when writing the lyrics and the melodies. You just cannot cheat.
Afrik-news.com: You sing in English, but what language do you write in?
Sophia Nelson: I think in Fanti (local language in Ghana) I can’t help it. I can not think in French. Fanti is my native language, my childhood language, the high-life language. My songs are a mix of all my musical trips: jazz, high-life, Latin-American music, and Cuban music in particular… I lived and worked Cuba, it is a country I love as much as its music.
Afrik-news.com: You perform in several countries around Europe, Africa and the Middle East: what perception of the French public do you have?
Sophia Nelson: The French public is very intellectual. When I sing a jazz song I can feel the focus of the public. They listen and listen carefully. Whereas in other countries, people sometimes stand up and dance. When onstage with my band (about ten musicians) we love to do our own thing, we relish it , and we always try to stay in tune with our audience. In some countries people are reserved whereas they are more expressive in others…
Afrik-news.com: You live in Paris: why did you choose this city?
Sophia Nelson: Paris is an interesting place for artists. Most of my friends are also artists and musicians in my band are from Cuba, Tunisia, Guadeloupe, the United States, Cameroun… In Paris we meet a lot of people, there are lots of theatres, movie theatres, restaurants…, and you can go anywhere you want at anytime. You never get bored!
Afrik-news.com: If you had to live on a deserted island and you could take 5 records which records would you take?
Sophia Nelson: Célia Cruz (Cuban artist deceased at age 75) because I love her. I met her, she was an extraordinary woman! Ella Fitzgerald. Incognito (English band). A high life record and of course from the master himself, E.T. Mensah as well as a gospel record.
Afrik-news.com: What African artists do you admire?
Sophia Nelson: Oumon Sangaré, I met him too, what a voice! Paco Sérv I worked with him. Youssou N’Dour. Alpha Blondy and E.T. Mensah of course!