photo: Marcos Padilla, Paula Padilla and Helena Amado, the voices of O Sister! performing at Sala Cajasol in Seville, February 2015. / JUAN LUIS MORILLA
O Sister! is one of very few Spanish bands honoring the tradition of swing and dixieland music of 1930s America. Here two of its members explain their history and the source of their inspiration.
A dim, warm light fills the recording room studio. Paula Padilla (contralto), Helena Amado (soprano), Marcos Padilla (tenor), Matías Comino (guitar), Camilo Bosso (double bass) and Pablo Cabra (drums) perform ‘I Hate Myself’, a classic song from the American era of swing and dixieland jazz. The room transforms into a classic New Orleans swing bar, mimicked down to the canotier hat and kitten heels worn by the singers. Swaying back and forth, the group sings with eyes wide open and faces full of enthusiasm for the music and its lyrics:
“If you don´t come back, I know I won’t last long / (Feelin´low, worried so) / Like a weepin’ willow weepin’ in the rain / (Sad am I, gonna cry) / How can I feel right done have done wrong / My spirit is gone / I hate myself for being so mean to you.”
As if plucked from the 1930s, O Sister! creates a harmony so full of swing that it is easy to forget that it is the year 2014. With their convincing representation of old American music, they make it quite hard to believe that this room, with its strong old-time New Orleans air, is actually in Sputnik Recording Studios in Seville, Spain and that the band members are not from Louisiana but instead from Seville, Buenos Aires, London and Madrid.
“The idea of forming the group came to me the day I heard for the first time a song by the Boswell Sisters” says Paula, who was before an experienced singer in the classic and contemporary choral repertoire. Connie, Martha and Vet Boswell were three sisters who grew up in New Orleans during the 1920s. Like Paula, her elder brother Marcos, and Helena, the other singer in the group, the Boswell Sisters had a broad musical education. They developed a musical language of their own based on closed-harmonies, continuous tempo shifts, sounds that went beyond the normal use of the voice and a taste for playing around with the lyrics, adding syllables and creating “gibberish.” The Boswell Sisters were pioneers in vocal jazz and were imitated and admired by later bands and singers like Ella Fitzgerald.
Paula finds performing swing and harmonic jazz to be an excellent way of letting off steam, and says that O Sister! always tries to maintain the authenticity of the music to which they pay tribute. This means sacrificing a level of formality to effectively portray the goofiness of the music and create an art more approachable for the public. “We’re not scared of being silly while recording and performing,” she says. As the music comes from an era in which there was more freedom to say things that today are considered politically incorrect, it contains irony and humor that must be effectively expressed by the band.
photo: O Sister! recording “Spooky Sessions” at Sputnik Recording Studios, March 2014. / JUAN LUIS MORILLA
Paula smiles slightly as she compares the Great Depression of 1930s America to the current economic crisis in Spain. “This music in its time was a reason to dance and express oneself during the difficult time of the Great Depression in the United States, and in the same way I find it is still relevant today. This type of music was a way of having fun.”
Although the career of The Boswell Sisters expanded greatly from 1925 to 1935, vocal jazz didn’t become very popular until 1930 and, therefore, left much of their work unnoticed. “We like to consider our work as sort of an extension of their short career,” explains Paula, who enjoys discovering music from the Boswells that has yet to be heard by many people.
Though established in Seville, the band was lucky enough to catch the eye of Kyla Titus, Vet Boswell’s granddaughter, after posting a performance on YouTube. In the video, the band is featured singing in the streets of Madrid in May of 2011 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Vet Boswell’s birth in New Orleans. Kyla, who serves as a representative of the Boswell family, has so much confidence in the talent and future of O Sister! that she shared with them sheet music from her grandmother that had never been performed. One song in particular, “You-dle-ee-oo-de-oo,” was originally given to them as an incomplete melody. Since then, O Sister! has transformed it into a fully harmonized piece, with which completion they honored the Boswell Sisters. “It’s nice for Kyla to know that there are younger people today still singing the music that her grandmother loved so much,” says Paula.
After raising more than 12,000 euros with a crowdfunding campaign, O Sister! travelled to New Orleans in October of 2014 to participate in a harmonic jazz festival entitled “The Boswell Sisters: Their Music Goes Round and Round,” which celebrated the sisters’ vibrant, artistic legacy that remains to this day. As the only European representative, O Sister! performed alongside five American bands and one from Australia.
There is a surprisingly large fan base outside of the United States for swing and dixieland music. As a co-host of April’s Festival of Swing Music in Seville, O Sister! is helping to bring jazz groups together from Spain and other European countries.
Before becoming fully involved with the band, the members of O Sister! held occupations outside of music. Now they use skills acquired in previous professions to help develop the group: Paula, who once studied graphic design, creates the group’s album covers and publicity materials; Camilo, the bassist, teaches English and helps the lead singers with their pronunciation of English words.
As a band, O Sister! is extremely self-sufficient and tries to pre-sell as many CDs as possible to pay for the recording of new albums. So far, the band has released Crazy People (2009), Shout Sister (2012) and Spooky Sessions (2014). They share a recording studio with other musicians and self-produce their own work.
Now, O Sister! spends most of its time on the road. “During a typical week, we are so busy that we hardly sleep,” explains Marcos, the tenor. “We are always preparing new material and working on developing the band.” Last week, they performed in an educational program for school kids in the province of Huelva, east of Seville, and are currently preparing for their upcoming performance at the International Dixieland Festival in Tarragona, Catalonia.
“The language of music is universal,” explains Marcos, who says it’s only natural for them to be drawn to music that’s so different from that of their cultural traditions. “Music has many different roots, such as flamenco in Andalusia. Just as the history of different places can interest and excite people, music of different roots can as well.” •