Keeping the Faith in Paris

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The legacy of African-American performers in Paris is legendary. Since the introduction of jazz to France during World War I, singers, dancers and musicians have made their way to the City of Light to establish or enhance their careers. Some even achieved international acclaim . And increasingly, gospel singers are taking their place alongside jazz and blues artists and enjoying success in introducing yet another form of black music to the French. Brooklyn’s Manda Djinn (Manda Jean Loison) is one of these performers. She first went to Paris in 1984, where she sang jazz in popular Left Bank clubs such as Aux Trois Mailletz and Le Bilbouquet. But in addition to her jazz concerts, Djinn also performs gospel and Negro spirituals. Djinn began her career as a dancer, performing tap in Long Island clubs and opening for the likes of Bo Diddley and Sonny Till as early as the age of eleven. She developed an act involving Latin, Calypso and African rhythms and danced to this music until the 1960s, when an injury ended this phase of her career. She then began singing the music to which she once danced, performing in Hartford, Connecticut and other cities along the east coast. She was discovered by Thelonious Monk’s manager while performing with Mongo Santamaria’s Latin jazz group, and then began her career as a jazz singer. She played at many of the same clubs as Monk, again on the east coast. Jazz took Djinn to Singapore in 1984. She performed at the Bistro Toulouse Lautrec for four months there, and then set out for Europe. She stopped briefly in London to check out the music scene before moving to Paris. When she arrived, she discovered that she had left her music behind, and had to develop a new jazz act. In 1987, Djinn was chosen to headline at the Folies Bergère in Paris (the same theater in which Josephine Baker wore her famous banana skirt for the first time). She replaced black singer/actress Bertice Reading in the show and left the jazz circuit during this performance run, which lasted almost two years. Her stage name prior to the show at the Folies was Jean Bonnard, but the management of the theater objected to this name because French audiences could mistake it for a French man’s name (“Jean” is the French name for “John”). Djinn’s husband, Raphaël Loison, encouraged her to change her stage name to Manda Djinn – using her given first name and changing the spelling of her middle name Jean to “Djinn”, so that her fans could say it properly. Djinn began performing gospel music and Negro spirituals in 1989. Having been invited to perform at a sacred music festival in the cathedral at Lescar, France, she developed yet another act for the occasion. She then took this music on the road, performing it at church concerts while she concurrently performed jazz at festivals and clubs. Singing “classical” gospel, Negro spirituals and her own gospel compositions throughout France, Djinn is ever mindful of the fact that this musical genre is relatively new to the French. Because her fans often have little concept of the origins of the music or the meaning of the lyrics, she explains why Negro spirituals and gospel music developed, and gives a brief summary in French of the lyrics of each song prior to singing it in English. She wants her audiences to understand that the music is spiritual, and that she is praising God at the same time that she is entertaining them. Gospel music has rapidly gained popularity in France, and particularly in Paris, since 1991-92. It is performed in venues as varied as open air festivals, nightclubs/restaurants and churches. There are many non-American groups performing the music, both in French and in English. Djinn is not certain how much non-Anglophones who perform gospel in English actually comprehend its true meaning. For the past three years, she has conducted a gospel workshop in the town of Nanteau-sur-Lunain in an attempt to convey this meaning to future performers. Djinn continues to perform jazz music in France, but says that gospel has the advantage of being sung in church, “surrounded by beauty and spirituality in an atmosphere charged with emotion”. She finds it bizarre that gospel is often performed in clubs in Paris. She recently gave a moving performance at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church in Paris, where roughly 200 people assembled to hear her lift her golden voice to the heavens. Not content to exercise her creative talents solely by composing and singing, Djinn has ventured into the world of writing. She has written a novel, an autobiography and several plays. Though her novel and autobiography are unpublished as yet, her plays have been read at literary salons in Paris. Her latest play, entitled Gospel Truth, incorporates her love for gospel music with her enthusiasm as a playwright. It was performed at the Espace Pierre Cardin in Paris in December 2002. Djinn loves her life in Paris. Her favorite pastime is exploring the flea markets, particularly the one at Saint-Ouen (Porte de Clignancourt). She collects toy soldiers, dolls, fabrics and “how-to” books, “the stuff that dreams are made of,” she says. But though her life is full and her creativity is constantly being fed and exercised in Paris, Djinn says that she still loves New York and always yearns to return there. She loves to wander the streets of the city and enjoys chance conversations with people at the bus stop. And she still has family and friends there. Thus, Djinn’s life might be considered a tale of two cities. It is good on both sides of the Atlantic. Copyright © Monique Y. Wells
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