Metrotainment: Black at heart

Being a British-born Jew with Irish and Cypriot roots hasn’t stopped Briony Howden from singing the blues.

Briony Howden 521 (photo credit: Rotem Levy)
Briony Howden 521
(photo credit: Rotem Levy)
Briony Howden’s birthplace and familial cultural heritage didn’t exactly prepare her for her chosen musical path. Mind you, with the rich ethnic blend that courses through her veins, she could have probably gone in any artistic direction she chose.
“My mother was born in Cyprus and is from Sephardic lineage, and my grandmother lived in Jerusalem and fell in love with a British soldier – my grandfather,” explains the singer, who was born in Sheffield, in northeast England. “He wasn’t Jewish, and when they married my grandmother’s family sat shiva for her.
They left for a trip, my mother was born on the way, and they settled in England, where my mother’s brother was born.”
There’s more to the story. “My mother came to Israel for a few years, went back to England and met my father. He made aliya and converted to Judaism.” There is also a generous helping of Irish blood in the Howden lineage.
After that cross-cultural CV rundown, a breather is in order and our attention turns to the matter at hand. Tomorrow at 10 p.m., Howden – who came to Israel with her family at the age of three and goes by the professional moniker “Briony” – will present a program of songs that owes much more to African-American culture than to the folk roots of Yorkshire or Ireland.
The repertoire for the show, which will take place at Jaffa Café in Jaffa and also features pianist Kobi Sandaus, with whom Briony says she clicked immediately, includes such energy and emotion shakers as Aretha Franklin’s anthemic “Say A Little Prayer for You,” the timeless Gershwin number “Summertime,” which has been recorded hundreds of times – Briony will feed off the version by jazz diva Billie Holiday – and “At Last” by Etta James.
The latter played a crucial role in the singer’s decision to sing for her supper.
“That’s the song that really made me want to be a singer and to focus on black music,” says Briony, whose name comes from the flower that grows in southern Ireland. “My mother’s father was Irish,” she explains. “He chose the name.”
The Etta James number may have been the catalyst, but Briony received a different musical grounding from her parents.“My parents used to play records of musicals at home the whole time. I know every song of every musical that ever was,” she declares. “My mother directs musicals – her name is Rosa Howden – and my father has a wonderful baritone voice.”
In fact, Briony is a true child of the musical – literally. “My parents met on stage, when they were both in [the Kern and Hammerstein musical] Show Boat.
You could say that if it weren’t for musicals, I wouldn’t be around,” she says.
But that doesn’t necessarily lead to the music that Briony embraced with such vigor. “I have always said I am really black and that I came out white by mistake,” says the fair-haired singer. “I am a black woman in my essence. I know it, and music – especially black music – has always been a central part of my life. It’s as if I just had to sing this music. There was never any doubt about it.”
That said, it took a while for Briony to get to this point, where she is raring to go, to get on the stage and let it all hang out with her gospel-laced, bluesy, soulinfused program.
“I was in all kinds of bands and I did all sorts of things,” she says. “But this is the right time for me to do what comes most naturally to me. This is the music that I love, that is a part of who I am.”
But Briony appears to be the sum of many musical parts. “When I was small I studied opera,” she says. “That was when I was about 10.” That seems pretty young to train one’s vocal cords in the art of singing works by Mozart, Verdi and Rossini.
“I always had a mature voice,” notes Briony. “I have sung ever since I can remember. But that [opera music and musicals] is so different from what I am in to now. The things I sing today are so deep-rooted in me that I have no logical explanation for where it all comes from. I could have been expected to sing opera or in musicals, but I always had the instinct that I really need to belt it out.”
Briony also has a somewhat enigmatic take on her artistic vision. “My name is the name of someone who sings the blues – black music,” she says, neatly sidestepping the Gaelic origins of her name. “I don’t know, the sound of Briony always seemed to fit the blues.”
The Gershwin number she will sing tomorrow night, from the opera Porgy & Bess, without stretching the imagination too far, sort of marries her operatic background with the blues.
“’Summertime’ is an amazing song which has been recorded and performed hundreds of times,” she says.
“It is a song that will live on for all eternity.”
There was another impediment to Briony’s road to the Jaffa Café gig.
Despite having clocked up extensive stage time, the singer says there is something of a wall to be clambered over to really make it. “It is scary to succeed,” she muses. “So for quite a few years I opted not to address this music by doing all sorts of other things. I worked in TV, I tried to develop careers in all sorts of areas rather than coming to terms with this music. It’s strange. It’s as if I was afraid of failing, and it didn’t seem at all reasonable that I could really make it with something I love. I was afraid of succeeding, I was afraid of failing and I was afraid of being criticized.”
Eventually, the decision was taken out of her hands. “I suddenly realized that no one was asking me whether I should go in that direction or not, that it was all done and dusted and that was what I was going to do,” she says. “I was going to get serious about my music.”
That entailed studying at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon, followed by another couple of years at the Muzik School of Creation and Production in Tel Aviv.
It has been a long and arduous process.
“I did a lot of work on myself, to be able to get on a stage and sing. When you sing you are completely emotionally exposed. It is scary but also a great boon,” she says.
Everything seems to be flowing in the right direction for Briony. She currently earns her keep as a voice teacher and also in coaching. “You know, I help people realize their potential, so why shouldn’t I do that for myself too?” she observes. “This is my time.”
Briony Howden will perform at Jaffa Café in Jaffa tomorrow at 10 p.m. For tickets and more information: (03) 518-1988.