Songbird of the Nature Isle - Marie-Claire Giraud(Copyright ©2008)

IslandWhere, January 2008

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The Caribbean is known for many things- most notably sea, sand and sun, but these days, it appears that song is often lost somewhere on a deserted beach with little more than a lone palm tree for company.

In recent times, the islands have harbored a string of multi-talented artists naturally embracing both ends of the musical spectrum -from Rhythm and Blues to Soul, Dancehall to Reggae. And to fully explore the realms of their passion, these children of the soil have little choice but to abandon the sun-drenched shores they’ve always called home, moving on to dominate international music charts.

Artists such as Jamaica’s Sean Paul, and Rihanna and Rupee from Barbados are the epitome of success for aspiring West Indian musical youths, for many view mainstream music as the only way to make their mark in the industry.

Dominican born, Marie-Claire Giraud, a classically trained singer dispels this myth, as she self-assuredly took up the challenge to flirt with the furthest end of the spectrum, fell in love, and is now a successful opera singer.

“I didn’t choose to do opera. Opera found me in a strange way,” Marie-Claire reveals, her eyes beaming with enthusiasm as she goes on to describe the series of events which led to her becoming one of the region’s most gifted opera singers.

“I was in New York City with my best friend Anna who worked for Polygram Records, and we went to open mike night at the Village Vanguard, where I was asked to sing. I had never sung before, and so I got drunk on tequila because I was very nervous.” Telling the story like it happened only the day before, Marie-Claire, or MC as she is affectionately called, speaks very quickly as if reminiscing about that fateful night for the very first time.

“That night, I had an epiphany. After I sang, I did not want to do anything else- not eat nor drink. All I wanted to do was sing,” says the swarthy Geminian who learned to play the piano at age eleven.

Following her debut performance, the then 23 year old Archeology student, made the spontaneous decision to pursue a professional career in opera after being inspired by a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Such a venture was certainly not too far-fetched for a young woman who was raised in the Bronx with her authentic West Indian upbringing, feasting on codfish and cocoa tea for breakfast every Sunday morning, and in the winter, wearing her ‘wob dwiyet’ to commemorate Dominica’s Independence celebrations.

Though Marie-Claire was a girl of four when she left Dominica, her most vivid memories of island life centre on getting dressed in her well-pressed prep-school uniform, and later that day returning home from school “in a complete mess”, with her necktie wrapped around her butt! At that point, her mother would ask, “did you go to school or did you go to war?”

She also recalls living in a very close-knit community, where she knew everyone who lived on her street. In her view, moving to New York was like leaving a perfect situation for the unfamiliar.

Named after her two great aunts, Marie-Claire was still learning to write her own name and distinguish between the colors of the rainbow when she emigrated; nevertheless this little girl never forgot the little green island she had left behind. “Dominica has always been a part of me. My memories of Dominica have been like my Shangri-la, my refuge”, she confesses.

Fortunately, though she grew up in the Bronx suburb, Marie-Claire was constantly exposed to her Caribbean culture, as she lived with her mother and grandmother who are both Dominican and relocated to the US in their adulthood.

“I grew up surrounded by lots of my West Indian family, my mother and grandmother, uncles and aunts, and so I was very entrenched in Dominican heritage. Coming home to Elder Avenue in the Bronx where we lived was like coming home in Dominica.” The singer, known for her trademark afro-esque hairstyle, says she doesn’t speak the Dominican patois, but understands it fluently.

With the support of her family, especially her mother, Marie-Claire concentrated on her full time study of opera for three years at the Conservatory of Santa Cecelia in Rome, Italy. In her pursuit of operatic excellence, upon her return to the States, Marie-Claire continued her study in Los Angeles and in New York with some of the most renowned professionals in the field of opera.

Her affiliation with the big names in the business led to frequent and varied performance opportunities, including Carnegie Hall in Manhattan with the New York Grand Opera Company, Lounge-Central Park Summer Stage and the 1st Annual Hip-Hop Film Festival.

Opera aside, Marie-Claire admits to being passionate about film and hip-hop. The latter she is currently trying to fuse with opera, to create an entirely original musical genre called ‘hip-hopera’.

“I feel very strongly about hip-hopera. They are both very similar forms of music. Opera is very intense, tragic and emotional- Hip hop is basically the same thing- same foundation. Opera elevates the music.”

As a musical ambassador of the region, Marie-Claire sees the importance of working in the Caribbean, as “there is an incredible amount of talent, and artists have so much to offer. Now that Tarina Simon has won the Digicel Rising Star competition for Dominica, I hope to see more appreciation for local talent.”

She has been collaborating on various projects with Dominican Bouyon bands like WCK, and versatile rap group, Klockerz Crew. Fairly recently, Dominica’s songbird has been very vocal on matters relating to the future of Caribbean music. In the interest of Dominican music in particular, she says “the powers that be should make more effort to market the local music as a tourist product. Music can sell a country.”

The day before my interview with Marie-Claire Giraud, I was invited to have a preview of her new music video, ‘Desperation’ in which she performs a duet with rapper R.I.N from Klockerz Crew.

“In this first instance of hip-hopera, I perform an Italian aria by Antonio Vivaldi, 'Sposa son disprezzata’, and created a hip-hop beat around it. R.I.N then raps about what I’m singing.”

Bringing this unusual blend of opera and rap to the fore is testimony to her belief that “if you can stay true to yourself you can stay true to anything else that’s out there.”

For those who do not know the opera singer, it may seem as though her story is a fairytale with an uninterrupted string of successes, but Marie-Claire will be the first to point out that her journey was not without its share of challenges. In the last few years, two tragic incidents have had profound effects on Marie-Claire’s life at two very critical points in her career.

“It has been up and down for me. When I came back from studying in Italy, my cousin Ian Pringle who was a pilot, died in a plane crash en route to Dominica. This was very hard, as he was my mentor, and for an opera singer a mentor is very important. The saddest thing is that he was the one who funded my studies to pursue my career, and he never even heard me sing.”

The face of tragedy showed up again last summer, when Marie-Claire received news that her uncle Dr Eric Buffong and his 22- year old daughter Alicia were killed in a car crash in Clayton County, Georgia.

“I was very close to my uncle, Dr Eric Buffong — he was the one responsible for my exposure to various music genres. Before becoming a surgeon he was a drummer, and when I was a little girl he introduced me to music of Earth Wind and Fire, Barry White, Astor Piazzolla and many others.”

After the loss of two family members, both of whom played a pivotal role in helping Marie-Claire manifest her natural creative talent, she is even more determined to use her own experiences as a platform to help others.

To maximize her full potential, Marie-Claire Giraud divides her time between New York and the Caribbean region. Though she lives in Dominica when she is in this part of the world, she visits St Vincent regularly where she is involved in various projects. She is currently the spokesperson for ‘Our Lady of Guadelupe Home For Girls’, her charity of choice in St Vincent. The Catholic institution housed in Kingston, was established in September with the aim of providing a nurturing environment for abused girls aged 11-17.

Wherever her career takes her, Marie-Claire is easily making a name for herself with her striking emotive voice and vivacious personality. Among her diverse performing credits, she has been featured at the Mustique Blues Festival, Dominica’s Nature Fest along with Morgan Heritage and Richie Spice, as well as entertained the heads of state of Caricom and the OAS.

Taking her talent to a new level, she has just landed herself a television entertainment show called 240 Volts, with K45 in St Vincent. In November, Marie-Claire Giraud hosted the very first program featuring Buju Banton during his tour on the island. “My interview with Buju Banton was amazing. I have been a fan since ‘Mr Mention’[album] and I still have my vinyl record. I got to meet Buju Banton at the airport in St Vincent and stayed with him up until his show, where I chatted with local artistes on the grounds of Victoria Park.”

It looks like the tables have turned for the opera singer since she was turned down for an incredible opportunity to co-host the World Creole Music Festival for BET J last year.

“I was asked to co-host the festival by Cybelle Brown, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for BET, but the Director of the Dominica Festivals Commission Val Cuffy said I had no talent. He then asked BET to get anybody else but Marie-Claire to host the show.”

Undaunted by opposition, even at home, Marie-Claire Giraud has one message for those who question her abilities. “I don’t think there’s no one that can stop me but me. I am my own worst enemy.”

As she continues to do what she does best, Marie-Claire ends the year with a twelve city tour which she calls “Opera Goes to the Movies”. Starting in Dominica on December 16, she will travel to other islands in the region, then on to Venezuela, Dubai and Cameroon among others.

With a fast-paced schedule, busy lifestyle, and a few thorns poking up every now and again in her manicured bed of roses, has she made the right decision to go after what first started out as a fun night out with a girlfriend?

“Definitely. I can’t really explain, but it’s a feeling that is so true. So positive. So entrenched in me, I can’t move from it- that I know it is right. It’s the only thing in my life that I know. I can say I know ‘this’- and this is what I’m meant to do!”

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