“Sometimes you enter a culture that’s not yours, but you feel so at home,” says Jen Shyu. “That’s what I felt in Indonesia … I didn’t speak the language at the time, but I did three months of private intensive language lessons and basically became fluent to the point that I could go to another city and do my research”
Shyu is a self-described experimental jazz vocalist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, dancer, producer, researcher, and educator, and was a 2014 recipient of the Doris Duke Impact Award. She has spent much of the past decade traveling the world to study musical traditions and particular improvisatory traditions outside of those immediately available in the United States.
That journey, according to Shyu, began in 2001 with a trip to Cuba, which was followed in 2003 by another trip to Cuba and her first trip to her father’s homeland, Taiwan, as an adult, aside from a family visit at age 7.
“2003 was a big year for me because I went to Taiwan for the first time on my own, which was closer to my roots, a sort of redefining journey,” she says. “Starting in 2003, I repeatedly went back to Taiwan on my own dime, and again in 2005 to study Mandarin.”
The information that Shyu gleaned on those trips proved valuable for future research pursuits.
“In 2007, I applied for an Asian Cultural Council fellowship, which was actually the first grant that I ever got,” she says. “Since I had gone to Taiwan on my own, I knew exactly what I wanted to look for.”
Further research trips included months spent in mainland China in 2009 to study shuo chang (resulting in commissioned works at The Jazz Gallery shortly thereafter) and East Timor, her mother’s birthplace, in 2010.
“That was my first time there, where my mom was from, which was very powerful. The trips kept getting more powerful, plus I was honing my fieldwork technique,” she says.
“I never studied ethnomusicology, but I found my own way to do fieldwork, and it was all toward creative work. Nothing for me is ever for a degree or a kind of academic requirement; it’s purely for life, the creative side of things, the inspiration.”
Shyu’s most recent trip overseas included 13 months in Indonesia, six months in South Korea, and another three months in Indonesia. The impetus for this trip, Shyu says, was unexpected.
“When I was in East Timor for three months, I took a break from fieldwork to go to Indonesia for a week to visit a friend of a friend in Yogyakarta. Of course, anywhere I go I look for the songs, so I was wondering if I could learn Javanese singing from anyone in Yogya. She said, ‘Yeah, you could meet my dance teacher, Bu Tiyah, who knows those songs.’”
“I met her and, right away, because I was picking up things pretty quickly, she said, ‘You should come and stay in Indonesia for a year or two.’ What she said really stuck in my brain, so after I went back to East Timor and then returned to New York, I applied for the Fulbright with the idea of studying this Javanese improvisational singing. A few months later, they wrote me that I got it!”
Shyu spent 13 months in Indonesia on the Fulbright scholarship, but ended up staying an extra 7 months after the scholarship ended. While in Indonesia, Shyu heard about another scholarship in South Korea, and decided to apply for it for the chance to study pansori, a style of Korean musical storytelling originating in the 17th century, and was successful again. As in Indonesia, Shyu immersed herself in her new cultural surroundings.
“Because I’m crazy, I hired a Korean language tutor and then got as many private lessons as possible, spent four to six hours a day studying,” she says. “I was trying to absorb as much as I could while I was there, so I studied pansori, gayageum—which is a 12-string kind of zither like the Chinese guzheng—and I was also learning other vocal traditions: binari, some folk songs.”
After six months in Korea, Shyu returned to Indonesia to begin work with a film and stage director whom she’d met two years earlier on the Fulbright.
“I went back to Indonesia because I had another project that I got funding for through the Asian Cultural Council to work with a filmmaker, Garin Nugroho. Garin is like a celebrity in Indonesia, but he’s so interested in experimental music and art, and what we really had in common was this multicultural sense of art-making. We really just clicked, so over that long period when I was there for the Fulbright, we made these little collaborations and hung out a lot.”
When Shyu received a commission through Roulette Intermedium, she naturally asked Nugroho to direct her project.
“I really needed Garin’s help because he has this big picture, director kind of mindset. I had never worked with a director before in my own work—I had always self-directed and self-produced everything—and it was his first time working with a solo artist; he’s used to working with a company of hundreds in his productions. The piece is kind of looking at 10 years of my fieldwork and travels, and I really needed guidance: how could I possibly choose? I just gave him a bunch of my fieldwork and let him choose, and amazingly he came back with this beautiful structure.”
Solo Rites and Jade Tongue
Shyu’s solo work, directed by Garin Nugroho, will be featured on our stage during the first set this Saturday, September 20th, 2014, at 9 p.m. Here’s a description of the work, which unfolds over seven parts or “breaths,” in the artist’s own words:
“The first breath is the world of leaving home, or breaking free, or setting sail. My Chinese name means “autumn goose,” from a Li Bai poem, and so much of that Tang Dynasty poetry is about autumn geese flying to the south. My dad gave me that name and it’s so appropriate, so the world of leaving home; and the next breath is Java: the world of deep meditation, women, and fate, focusing on the woman and oppression of women in not just in Java, but everywhere. The third is the world of story told, so that’s going into Taiwan and Vietnam. The fourth breath is the world of South Korea, of ceremony and mysticism, so I sing some pansori and traditional Korean music in that part of the show.”
“Then we go back to Indonesia, to Kalimantan, an island where I did fieldwork for two weeks, which is the loss of macrocosmos. Kalimantan is famous for its rainforests but is now suffering extreme deforestation. There’s a ton of mining and burning of peatland, and it’s like a disaster zone due to man and corporate industry. In the sixth breath we go back home to the world of return, to East Timor, and I end with a piece about the rape of Timorese women in the time when Indonesia’s military invaded East Timor in 1975. It ends in the seventh breath, which is the world of zero: the anonymous world. It’s an idea of emptying the stage and having a no-zone, like you’re in an anonymous place and back to zero.”
Shyu’s second set at 11 p.m. will feature a familiar set of collaborators: David Binney on alto saxophone, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums, who collectively form the band Jade Tongue, plus special guest Djaduk Ferianto on voice and suling, the Indonesian bamboo flute. The band released its eponymous début five years ago, and has reconvened numerous times over the years to continue pursuing the themes invoked on its original release—most notably issues of Asian-American diaspora.
Although Shyu has lived in New York for years, her time abroad continually reminds her of the responsibilities of the artist as she conceives for herself.
“If I want to heal someone with my sound, then I should go for it! If people from thousands of years ago did actually do that—shamans and all these healers that I got to meet who were truly functioning in these societies—if they can do it, why isn’t it something that we’re striving for as artists more? It was like a reminder that, yes, this is what I’m here for, so the challenge in New York is just to retain that,” she says.
“As artists, we have the capacity to really wake people up. I feel like that’s our responsibility, and when people get stuck in their careers, they want to give something that people will accept, will love them for, and then make them famous for. It’s the opposite thing: we should actually be trying to shock people into new thinking.”
Jen Shyu performs this Saturday, September 20th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The first set at 9:00 p.m. (please note the special set times for this evening) will be Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, featuring Shyu on solo vocals, Taiwanese moon lute, gayageum, East Timorese lakadou, and piano. The second set at 11:00 p.m. will be Winged Rain in Diamond Light with David Binney on alto saxophone, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, plus special guest Djaduk Ferianto on voice and suling. $22 general admission, $12 for Members. Purchase tickets here.