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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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