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Swiss Jazz Yodeler Started 'Dinner With My Neighbor' To Stay Connected During COVID-1906:07
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Gabriela Martina's new album is a tribute to her childhood home in the Swiss Alps. (Courtesy Gabriela Martina)
Gabriela Martina's new album is a tribute to her childhood home in the Swiss Alps. (Courtesy Gabriela Martina)

Freelance musicians have been struggling financially and emotionally since the coronavirus wiped out their performances and livelihoods. But a Boston-based jazz singer and educator – who also happens to be a phenomenal yodeler – found a new way to create connection while highlighting her current economic reality.

How It Started

Back in early March Gabriela Martina received boxes filled with freshly pressed CDs and vinyl of her new album “Homage to Grämlis.” It took more than two years to produce and it's a tribute to her childhood home in the Swiss Alps — a farm in the town of Horw near Luzern where her parents raised cows and grew organic vegetables for 45 years.

“I grew up surrounded by these beautiful trees and animals and amazing food,” Martina said. “The album describes the the cycle of the seasons, the really hard work of my mom and my dad, and also just growing up basically in a paradise.”

The vocalist, composer and arranger combined her love of American jazz with Swiss folk traditions in the new recording. She added cowbells, accordion and her contemporary take on yodeling.

Martina was looking forward to sharing her new songs on a nine-concert European tour slated to start March 10. But the day before she and her bandmates were set to fly out of Boston the trip was cancelled because of COVID-19. Martina was devastated.

“I kind of lost all my money for the tour – which is over $30,000,” Martina explained. She also predicted that over the next few months she wouldn't have any work. Then the artist picked herself up and asked the question, “What can I do to keep myself busy and sane and healthy?”

The solution came naturally to the 35-year-old New England Conservatory masters student. Martina calls her new project – and mission – “Dinner with my Neighbor.

How It Works

“So it's very simple,” she explained, “I cook and I invite somebody who would like to eat with me. Then they come and pick it up and as soon as they're home they'll text me and then we Zoom or we FaceTime with each other and enjoy the dinner.”

Gabriela Martina dines remotely with friends Jorge Perez-Albela, Sissy Castrogiovanni and their son Manuel. (Courtesy Gabriela Martina)
Gabriela Martina dines remotely with friends Jorge Perez-Albela, Sissy Castrogiovanni and their son Manuel. (Courtesy Gabriela Martina)

On a recent Friday night, Martina and her husband guitarist Jussi Reijonen greeted their virtual dinner mates through their computer screen.

“Hello, we can't see you yet,” Martina said laughing. The couple in Ashland got the audio working and they began their meal.

Martina knows Peruvian percussionist Jorge Perez-Albela and Italian singer Sissy Castrogiovanni from Berklee College of Music where they all studied.

Castrogiovanni was tantalized, “What is this? It was smelling so good, I was in the car and I was trying to guess.”

Martina explained the dish called Sennerösti. “Rösti is kind of something like hash brown,” she said, “and Senner, that's a word or a name for somebody who lives in the Alps.”

Martina topped the plate-sized hash brown with a thin slice of ham, cheese and a fried egg. “It's very good Gabriela,” Perez-Albela weighed in, “very tasty.”

More Than 70 Recipes So Far

Martina has been concocting meals for friends, students and colleagues every day since lockdown. So far she's tried more than 70 different recipes – everything from traditional Swiss dishes to pasta with fresh pesto to sushi. She compares improvising with ingredients to what she does in her “real life” as a Jazz musician.

Martina also videos herself in action as she demonstrates what she's making. Then she posts them online.

In the cooking videos Martina briefly mentions her professional plight and gently asks for donations. She's receiving unemployment from the new state assistance program for freelancers, but hopes to make up the lost income for her bandmates.

“A big goal is to be able at some point – whenever all this madness is over – to take my six musicians and go over to Europe and present this album of mine,” Martina said. “It's kind of a weird feeling not being able to give them the work that I promised them, and I just would like to make that happen someday.”

Martina said people have responded enthusiastically to her project with contributions totaling more than $7,000.

Gabriela Martina with band members Maxim Lubarsky, Ben Rosenblum, Kyle Miles, Jussi Reijonen and Vancil Cooper. (Courtesy Gabriela Martina)
Gabriela Martina with band members Maxim Lubarsky, Ben Rosenblum, Kyle Miles, Jussi Reijonen and Vancil Cooper. (Courtesy Gabriela Martina)

When she's having dinner with musician friends — which is quite often — they try to keep their conversations positive. Martina's husband played guitar on her new album and said it's easy to get caught up in how their worlds have been upended by the pandemic.

“There is, for musicians like us, financial concern,” he said, adding there's also the need musicians have for performing live in a room full of people. “Music is such a social ritual between the musicians, and also between the musicians and the audience.”

Martina's friend Perez-Albela said having a few dinners together with Martina from afar is bringing them closer, “and helping us go through this strange quarantine we're all experiencing.”

Castrogiovanni added, “One positive part of the quarantine is going back to appreciating the simple things in life – which is family and which is having the time to have dinner with somebody else, even if it's virtual."

Just Being There For Somebody

Sometimes Martina's dinners are just for her and one other guest, which taps into another motivation behind her assembling ingredients and crafting all these meals day after day. She said right now it's critical to nurture human connections, especially with people who are living alone – and feeling lonely – during the pandemic.

“As much as it is like cooking for somebody, it's really also just being there for somebody,” Martina said, “Yes, we cannot hug each other, but let's stay connected.”

Martina always asks her dining companions about how they're doing and what they did that day. “Like, it's just caring and sending a little bit of kindness into the world,” she said.

The musician has shared meals with more than 100 guests from 23 different countries including Mozambique, Spain, South Korea, Dominican Republic and her homeland Switzerland. She hopes more people will be inspired to do something similar with their own friends and neighbors.

This segment aired on May 28, 2020.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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