Over the past month Gaitana has survived Ukraine’s national Eurovision selection—and racist slurs from a right-wing politician. Despite her busy schedule and the ongoing controversy, she recently took some time to speak with wiwibloggs. In her first English-language interview, she discusses her Eurovision entry “Be My Guest,” her dream of creating a women’s high heel football team, and the experience of growing up black in the U.S.S.R.
How did your Congolese father meet your Ukrainian mother?
My parents were introduced by their friends, when my father studied in Kyiv. He impressed my mother very favorably and it was even love at first sight. He was charming and had a great sense of humor. Furthermore, he was very creative and artistic, thus, he won my mother’s love. Her name is Tatyana and my father’s name is Klaver. After so many years, both, mother and I still have his surname.
Is Gaitana a Congolese name or a Ukrainian name?
My full name is Gaitana–Lurdes. My father named me so. I lived in the Congo till I was five and then I turned back to Ukraine, and as a result the name was shortened to Gaitana. My name is translated as “strong and great”. I could say that I’m very grateful to my father that he gave it to me, because it grants confidence and strength. Generally speaking, our lives are magical! Nothing happens without a reason!
You speak several languages. Can you please tell us which languages you speak and the order in which you learned them?
When I lived in the Congo I spoke Lingala and French fluently. Then I moved to Ukraine and began to speak Russian and Ukrainian. In Ukraine I found many foreign friends from the whole world and we communicated in English. Now, I speak Russian, English and Ukrainian fluently. To tell you the truth, I began to forget French and Lingala, because of lack of practice. But when I’m in the Congo I recollect everything and communicate with my relatives and friends in their native language.
Growing up, were you the only Afro-Ukrainian girl at your school or town? Was it ever difficult for you?
I studied at several schools and everywhere people treated me kindly. Of course, children always notice some peculiarities of other kids. However, every child is special in his/her own way. Someone is red-haired, others have curly hair. Some are tall while others are small. I was always welcomed as a peculiar person. In my childhood I played table-tennis professionally. I represented Ukraine together with Asian girl at different competitions. Nobody told us that we shouldn’t represent this country. People always rejoiced at our victories. All my achievements both in music and in sport are devoted to my beloved motherland – Ukraine! I was completely unimpressed by negative statements of one political party towards my race.
Did you always want to be a musician, or did you have other dreams?
I never dreamt of becoming a singer. I just adored music and I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I remember, when I was a child I wore my mother’s red shoes, backcombed my hair and sang my favorite songs by Diana Ross with a comb in the hand. I sang in a church choir when I was 16. When religious music sounded it was like a communication with God. I always performed not because I wanted to become famous, but because I adored the combination of music and voice. Music makes me feel free and happy! Speaking about dreams, I always wanted to become a real table tennis coach.
You are a pioneer of Ukrainian R&B music. Was there R&B music in the Soviet Union? How did you learn about this music growing up?
I should say that I found out about R&B thanks to my foreign friends, who brought me high-quality music from abroad. I’ve been visiting closed R&B parties since I was 15. I adored dancing and I was vanishing in music, enjoyed every sound. I was a real music lover, listened to different styles, which influenced my formation as a musician. Frankly speaking, I was lucky, because in the U.S.S.R. such style of music wasn’t available to everyone.
When was your big break? Was there a specific moment or appearance that turned you into a star in Ukraine?
Yes, there was a big break in my career, which happened in 2011 when I signed a contract with the most famous Ukrainian music holding – Lavina Music. My producer Edward Klim believed in my music, talent and saw that I had great chances of becoming famous artist. I’m very grateful to him for that. I always respect, appreciate and admire that person. Due to his support I have come to such heights. At first I sang at the restaurants and jazz festivals, where I was invited to perform as a backing vocalist. But that wasn’t enough… When I signed a contract with Lavina Music my real Gaitana career started. I remember how happy I was when we shot the first music video and released the first album. I’m thankful to destiny and God that everything happened in such a way!
How old were you when you lived in the Congo? Does it influence your music today?
I lived in the Congo till 5… Of course, this country influenced my music. I was called the founder of new Afro-Ukrainian style. Some of my compositions are combinations of Ukrainian and African national motifs, e.g. “Tanci” (Dances), “Ditysvitla” (Children of light). I could say that there’re many similar peculiarities both in Ukrainian and African national music. When you combine these two you can hear an incredible sounding.
Do you still visit the Congo? Do you miss it?
I miss it so much.. I miss my dad, brother, my energetic relatives. I would like to visit them more frequently. I was in the Congo two years ago. I wish to fly there this year. Moreover, I want my brother to come to Ukraine to study, so that he could get his education here. I hope my father won’t be against and let his favorite son come to Ukraine!
Yuriy Syrotyuk of the Svoboda Party recently said that you are not “an organic representative of Ukraine.” How did this make you feel? What is your response to him?
At first there were tears in my eyes and then I realized that all those statements are applied not only to me. The Svoboda Party insulted not only me personally, but also all those foreign sportsmen, who represent Ukraine, and those people, who consider themselves Ukrainians in spite of their skin color, religious or political beliefs, who live in this country and love it so much, bear children and believe in a great future. I’m so ashamed of this unpleasant incident, because Ukraine is a democratic country, where kind and hospitable people live. And the most important that society pays proper attention to the Svoboda Party’s claims. Many politicians, artists and producers such as Vladymyr and Vitaliy Klichko, FC Shakhtar, the winner of Eurovision 2004 -Ruslana and many others condemned party’s opinion. Questions like these shouldn’t be neglected, because everyone in Ukraine wants to fell free, happy and confident in children’s future. People should not be afraid of giving birth to their kids here, in our country and try to leave it in order to find better life.
Do you think that most Ukrainian people agree with him?
No, I’m sure that such statements made by representatives of the Svoboda Party are an exception to the rule. Most Ukrainians are kind, hospitable people, who don’t divide others into “ours” and “theirs.” I receive many letters from ordinary people, who demand an apology from the Svoboda party for their statements. There so many cordial poems and long messages from people, who aren’t indifferent about this situation.
Do you consider yourself Ukrainian?
Of course, I do! Ukraine is my home, my motherland. I studied and grew up here. I developed and improved myself as a musician in Ukraine. Here started my professional career as a singer and creation of music and songs. I love Ukraine very much, because it’s a country of music, beauty and kindness. Good-natured and selfless people live here, the greenest forests, the most beautiful flowers and the most rich-voiced birds are also here. I wish the world learnt such an incredible land!
Syrotyuk makes it sound like Ukraine will not join the European Union if you go to Eurovision. What do you think of this argument?
I believe it’s ridiculous! Our world has been democratic for a long time. I’m ashamed of Syrotyuk’s statements. I don’t want the world to believe that this is an opinion of the whole Ukraine due to some subjective point of view of a one person or party. I hope this situation won’t go unnoticed.
I was offered to sue Mr. Syrotyuk [under Ukraine’s laws against hate speech], however, we haven’t done it yet and, frankly speaking, I’m not sure we’re going to do so. I don’t seek any punishment and trial examination. I just want everyone to understand that it’s a real problem and it’s impossible to live, claiming such statements. I’m not very good in law and I’m used to settle all conflicts peacefully. I wish our government to notice and respond to this situation and take some measures, in order to avoid similar statements in future.
Why did you want to enter the Eurovision Song Contest this year?
This year I created such a great song as “Be my guest,” which I would like to present to the whole Europe and the world. I’ve always dreamed of people living in peace and harmony, so that they could be friendly towards each other and had an opportunity to visit foreign countries without obstacles and knew that they would be welcomed. I decided to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest not in order to present myself as a singer, but because I want people to share my idea. The audience and jury gave me the highest scores and I won National Final in Ukraine. Now I’ve got a great responsibility and I promise that I won’t let you down and I’ll do my best. From the first days after the National Selection we began our preparations to Eurovision. We would like to make a wonderful impression and grant our love, beauty, energy and inspiration to all our viewers.
Can you please tell us about your song “Be My Guest”? What is the message of the song?
The story of song creation is really incredible. At the end of the year I met talented guys from “Kiwi-project”. They wrote me a letter and told that they had a great song idea and they believed I should write lyrics and melody to their music. When I heard the motive of the composition I began to dance from the first seconds. Unbelievable feeling of happiness showed up and the words “Be my guest” came to my mind. The composition appeared just like this and I realized my enormous desire to represent Ukraine at the Eurovision Song Contest 2012. This song has a very profound idea. It calls the whole world for friendship. «Be my guest! Take my hand!». I put all my love and energy in it and I hope to evoke world’s response.
What did it feel like when you were named the winner of Ukraine’s Eurovision selection contest?
It was a feeling of an incredible happiness! I thanked God immediately for his help, strengths and recovery he gave to me. The day before the performance I had serious problems with my health, namely with vocal ligaments. At the National Final I was with my doctor and I had to undergo several procedures before performing. I worried so much about this situation. I knew that I couldn’t let down those people, who believed in me and supported. Thank God everything was ok and Ukrainians welcomed my song and chose me.
I read on Wikipedia that you have a collection of purses. Does this mean that you design purses that are for sale in Ukraine? Or does this mean that you collect purses?
No, no, I adore purses as any woman. People give me a lot of purses as presents, sometimes I buy them. With the time I found out that there was a big collection. But it wasn’t done intentionally, it just happened so. Frankly speaking, I like sewing aprons and I believe this great decoration could be worn not only at home, but also at the stage. I plan to create my collection of aprons, which is going to be devoted to World’s Cooperation and Unity.
I read that you want to create a women’s high-heeled football team. What a good idea! Can you tell me about that?
Oh, you know about it (smiling). When music video to the song “Shakhtar – Champion!” was shooting together with FC Shakhtar I had to appear at the playing field in high heels. Due to the fact that the heels constantly got stuck in the grass I had to stand on the tips of my toes the whole day. It was rather difficult, my muscles were tensed and thanks to that I kept fit. Everyone was impressed by my heroic deed. After the shooting every journalist asked me what the emotions were when you walked through the playing field in heels. That’s why I’ve got an idea to create national women’s high-heeled football team so that they provoke fans’ admiration.
Your web site says that you performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama. Can you tell us about that?
It’s true. It was great honor to perform at the inauguration of Barack Obama. I remember that evening an American couple came to me and said the most pleasant words in my life. They told me that thanks to my songs the man had a desire to learn Ukrainian. I’m happy with a fact that the audience likes my compositions and, as a result, they want to learn my native language. I have many foreign friends and I really appreciate our friendship! I’m going to be the happiest person if the world unites and becomes one big family!
Finally, do you have a message for Europe?
“Welcome People! Be my guest!” I’m incredibly happy to be a part of one big family. I would like all people to make our world brighter and better. I wish all of us to understand that nations are going to prosper and live in a happy, cordial and colorful world with the help of cooperation, without wars, sufferings, only with smiles and warmth in our hearts. Let’s all step forward together! I want every person to know that he/she isn’t alone! We have each other! It’s a pity that the world had to find out about statements made by Ukrainian party. Trust me Ukraine doesn’t share their points of view, because it’s democratic and hospitable country. I invite you all to visit our amazing land! Be my guest! I would be pleased to be friends with you!