About Christine Vaindirlis
Mama Africa Dances across Continents: Funky Global Citizen Christine Vaindirlis Channels the Spirit of Home
Born in London, raised in Johannesburg, trained in Milan under La Scala supervision and in Boston at Berklee, singer, composer and arranger Christine Vaindirlis is more than a mere globetrotter; she is the world. Yet wherever her free-spirited journey has taken her, she’s always yearned for home: Africa!
Vaindirlis lets her global chops and love for her South African homeland shine on her vivacious debut, Dance Mama! (Ubuntu World Music; November 3, 2009), a shout out to South African jazz greats, as well as to an eclectic mix of R&B and funk icons from Chaka Khan to Tower of Power, all filtered through Vaindirlis’s unique worldly perspective as a classically trained opera singer, former English teacher, audio gear specialist, and corporate executive.
“My inspiration for the album was the concept of ubuntu: helpfulness, caring, trust, unselfishness, what one can do to improve the community, as well as oneself as an individual,” Vaindirlis explains. “‘This is my Place’ is a song of encouragement for the people of South Africa to work as one nation. There is so much ethnic diversity, and the whole blend is such an extraordinary fusion when everyone brings something to the table. I’m calling for us to embrace a new day, to work together for a wave of change and make South Africa, our home, an example”.
Vaindirlis’s faith, along with her deep love of her homeland and its art, shapes her life and music. Title track “Dance Mama!” is a high-energy tribute to the late, great Miriam Makeba and “Pata-Pata,” her hit song. “‘Pata-Pata’ always makes me want to dance,” Vaindirlis smiles. “If I wake up some time in the middle of the night and feel like crying, I know that someone up there is always watching over me and that I'm never alone. Faith is something very personal that one can only experience for themselves. Because of this joy I can dance, and do the pata-pata! It reminds me of home and brings back good memories.”
She tucked little tributes into her complex arrangements: a flugelhorn solo honoring Hugh Masekela, a piano nod to Abdullah Ibrahim, background vocals reminiscent of the Mahotella Queens, horns alluding to Robbie Jansen and the African Jazz Pioneers. She created the design for the album artwork after long days of arranging, inspired by images and colors from Zulu beadwork and colorful geometric paintings on Ndebele houses.
“South African people are very creative, and nature is so beautiful back home. Colors are intense and vibrant: The blues are a deep blue, the greens are a particular shade, the sun shines most of the time and dramatic storms last less than an hour before clear skies reappear,” Vaindirlis laughs. “That’s the way South African music is as well—vibrant and powerful.”
She longed to produce an album that captured this joy, energy, and power and knew that the right South African musicians, along with innovators like up-and-coming jazz pianist Hiromi and fiery Screaming Headless Torsos percussionist Daniel Sadownick, would bring her vision together. She tapped artists like accordion player Tony Cedras and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, both of whom gained worldwide acclaim for their work with Paul Simon on Graceland.
Vaindirlis grew up listening to South African jazz on the radio and enjoying the traditional singing and dancing on the street at any given day in downtown Johannesburg. Yet one major touchstone for Vaindirlis was and remains her first favorite album as a child, Ipi Ntombi, a hit musical rich in traditional African singing, dancing, and powerful drumming. It tells the tale of a young Zulu tribesman who leaves his rural village for Egoli (Johannesburg), the city of gold, in search of better prospects. There he is confronted with the realities of urban life and in his growing disillusionment, wonders, “Is this my place?”
Vaindirlis shared a similar fate, venturing into new worlds and far from home, and the music and the questions of Ipi Ntombi accompanied her throughout her travels. “At each stop—Italy, Cyprus, Boston, and now New York—I’ve asked myself, ‘Is this my place?’” Yet palpable joy and ubuntu of Dance Mama! has taken Vaindrilis far beyond questions of belonging and geography. “People can never figure out where I'm from because they can’t identify my ‘look”’ with a particular race. That’s fantastic because I don’t like being put in a box,” Vaindirlis muses. “If the spirit of ubuntu is there, that’s all that matters.”
Though the headstrong Vaindirlis longed to go to the Berklee College of Music, her parents were nervous about their young daughter setting off alone for the U.S. “You know, they were worried about all the things they’d hear on the news, about all the violence, which was really not all that different from Johannesburg,” Vaindrilis recalls. So after a brief stop on Cyprus to finish off the last years of high school, she hatched a plan: Vaindirlis headed to Milan, ostensibly to study Italian, while the real goal was to audition for the highly respected Conservatorio di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. “It was the next best alternative, and people in Europe always start off with classical training,” Vaindrilis explains. She walked away from the audition with a full scholarship.
After a few years at the conservatory and later working with teachers from opera house La Scala, while singing in church and writing for her rock band, Vaindirlis realized opera just wasn’t her thing. “I can’t act to save my life!” she exclaims. “In the middle of the most solemn moment, most likely where someone had just died, I would burst out in an uncontrollable laughing fit and then the audience would eventually start laughing and I would steal the show…or ruin it. The truth was, I also wanted to express my story.”
And like most musicians, she needed to pay rent. Vaindrilis stepped into the corporate world, but her dream of Berklee and a career in music still beckoned. Before she knew it, Vaindirlis was at the European auditions for the music college. Again, she won a scholarship.
Both her conservatory experience in Milan and her time at Berklee honed her skills as a singer, composer, and arranger, and Vaindirlis still feels she keeps an orchestral approach to songwriting, a love of complex interlocking parts and lush large ensembles rich with horns. “If you close your eyes and listen, little details pop out here and there that make you travel,” she adds. “It’s like listening to nature: there’s so much going but it all makes sense.”
Her skills let her combine her two great loves—South African jazz and down-and-dirty funk—on songs like “Call to Freedom”, and to craft a fitting tribute to her late father, whose love of fishing, the ocean, and hunting inspired ‘Down By the River.’ “Whenever I used to call him with a problem, he would tell me not to worry and that we would come up with some kind of plan,” Vaindirlis reminisces. “When I was little, we would fight all the time. He was very strict and I was stubborn but at the end of the day he was the best father I could ever have."
Vaindirlis’s deeply personal experience and transcontinental life has culminated in her songs and remains a source of profound happiness and gratitude, the sunny disposition that echoes throughout her work. “It's like a house that you build, brick by brick and you never know how long it’s going to take or what it will be like. You cry and scream with frustration in between, but then when you stop, look back, and see the big picture, you think ‘wow!’ It’s fascinating how I got here,” Vaindirlis smiles. “And when you least expect it, it’s time to fly.”