Jeanine De Bique, Trinidad-born classical singer, on the influence of her upbringing, and why Trinis “could do anything” — as told to Caroline Taylor in the November/December 2018 issue of Caribbean Beat
I went St Gabriel’s RC School in San Fernando, and was in choir participating in the Music Festival and SanFest. I had a love for music, and was very good at it. I believe it helped my school work, so I began entering examinations for piano, up until professional studies level.
Our lives changed when my mum had to move to Port of Spain for work. I transferred to St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. The choir director there and my piano teacher said to me, “You know, you could have a career in this.” One thing led to another, and I got into the Manhattan School of Music. I did my undergrad, master’s, and then one year of professional studies. And from there it started.
I think my journey is completely different from anybody else’s, especially somebody who’s coming from here. I grew up on St John’s Road, St Augustine [east of Port of Spain]. My mother was single, with three kids. It wasn’t easy for her, but she wanted each one of us to have our own idea of who we were, and what we wanted to be, and create the space to be able to achieve those things. One of us is a doctor, one is a physiotherapist, and one is an opera singer.
I always try to remind people that it doesn’t matter where you come from — it matters your support network, the energy that is around you. My team is my agency, my teacher, my mum and family, and my partner. Work, family, and love. All of this comes together. They always say keep your eye on the target, but there’s more to that. It’s really your whole being, your whole self, knowing you have something bigger for yourself. Your whole being, the universe, feeds off of that energy, sucks it in, and gives you back exactly what you give out.
Nobody’s said “you can’t do it” to me. I wouldn’t even allow that. I’ve never faced any major blocks in my development, other than from myself — me fighting against myself, which is kind of the worst struggle to be in, because you could just be going around and around. I told my agency maybe five or six years ago, “Look, if I’m not making it . . .” I said maybe I should go back to school for business or something. And they said, “Jeanine, just wait five years. Don’t quit yet. You have to put your all into this.” And then the Scottish Opera happened, the Salzburg Festival . . . And the BBC Proms came because they saw a viral video of me on Facebook.
Those things that I did last year are meaningful in a different way than people think. I was overwhelmed and proud to be at the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms. But it was only while I was there and things were happening to me on a racial level, a social level, that it became way more important to be there. So when I look at those things, I remember St John’s Road. And I remember my grandfather always wanting to see me perform in England, and he didn’t get the chance. There’s so much strife and tribulation around people who are otherwise discriminated against because of who they are, what they love, what they look like, and no one is really addressing those issues.
When the Chineke! Orchestra went up to perform at the BBC Proms, we did not know each other. I met that group two days prior. And when you got into that room, you felt like you were home. This whole thing took place in, like, seventy-two hours. The BBC was there to interview me that day when I arrived from Salzburg. That miraculousness of it — it was more than just being at the BBC Proms. When you see four black singers on the Salzburg stage, which has never happened before in the history of Salzburg, there’s something more to that than just being at the Salzburg Festival.
I love to be a part of new productions, where people have new concepts. Friends of mine who are in jazz say that, in classical music, we have what’s on the page and we just do what’s there. We have to change that perspective. What I would love audiences to further appreciate is that there are different voices, different backgrounds of people, different experiences — that we all bring ourselves to the paper, to the music. So what I would express in my voice, in my instrument, would not be the same as the people who they love listening to on CDs and records from back in the day.
I listen to every other type of music. I explore other singers and other operas, but I also widen my range and keep up with what’s happening in the rest of the world. Those other artforms teach me about life and how to bring different elements into my acting, into my craft, into my appearances — because ultimately our artform is competing with them, so we have to know what’s going on in other artforms. Of course, I am from Trinidad and Tobago, so soca and calypso is a must. And I’m also learning more about our folk songs. So that’s been an eye-opener, with learning more about my heritage, and about why we have so many sad, sad folk songs. That is overwhelming. And if it’s happy, it’s about food!
I don’t want to be a specialist in any one period or composer — I want to sing everything. Hey, I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. We could do anything! Everything! Anything you put in front of us — we know how to do it, because we were taught here in school to achieve anything. Convent was good for that. Part of my vision is to highlight that the classical artform is part of our heritage in Trinidad and Tobago, in its own right, and has influenced the evolution of folk and steelpan music and other indigenous artforms. It should not be dismissed but rather valued. So I want to keep working, keep my vision board in check, stay very close to God, and to keep spreading the message of equality and diversity through my music.
I am just starting. Last year was a whirlwind, and it’s propelled me forward. The roles I have now are roles I want to do, should be doing, and safe for my voice, to help it grow. People might say that because of my age, there are other people starting earlier than me . . . or some people might say that I’m very young and I have a lot of time. I think that I am in a really perfect place right now. It couldn’t be more perfect, honestly, with my career.