ListN Up: Jen Shyu (May 28, 2021)

ListN Up is a weekly series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Guggenheim Fellow, USA Fellow, Doris Duke Artist, multilingual vocalist-composer-multi-instrumentalist-dancer Jen Shyu is “one of the most creative vocalists in contemporary improvised music” (The Nation). Born in Peoria, Illinois to Taiwanese and East Timorese immigrants and the first female and vocalist bandleader on Pi Recordings, she’s produced eight albums, performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is a Fulbright scholar speaking 10 languages. Her album Song of Silver Geese was among the New York Times’ “Best Albums of 2017,” and she just released Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses. During the pandemic, she has moved her teaching, salons, and projects to her growing global Patreon community. She is also a Paul Simon Music Fellows Guest Artist and a Steinway Artist, and co-founded Mutual Mentorship for Musicians with Sara Serpa.

Hey! My name is Jen Shyu, and I have always been obsessed with the voice, because it is the great connector of humanity between ancient and future. So through these songs, I want to take you on a journey through the power and spirituality of the human voice across generations from my mother’s homeland of Timor-Leste, to Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and back home to New York City. Enjoy, and support these voices. Thank you for listening.

“Thinking Back (思想起)” by Chen Yin (陳英)

I first met this wonderful folk singer Chen Yin (陳英) in 2007 during my search to learn more about the folk and Indigenous music of my father’s homeland, Taiwan. My cousin had first told me about the legendary folk singer Chen Da, who had died in 1981, and when hearing his music for the first time, I immediately had the desire to learn this tradition of singing with the Taiwanese moon lute (月琴), and was led to Chen Yin and a community of elder moon lute players. Her family actually knew Chen Da, which was especially meaningful.

“Maryanne Revisted” by Fay Victor

Fay was one of the first vocalists I met in NYC after I moved there in 2003, and I have always felt she is tapped into something beyond what we know. As you can hear on this track and in all her music, her voice is limitless and her messages are always clear in whatever context she creates, whether it be singing the music of Herbie Nichols, Nicole Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, William Parker, improvising with Tyshawn Sorey, or leading her long-standing groups. Don’t miss her world premiere with Samantha Boshnack on Day 2 at the Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) Festival on June 13, 2021.

“Dan no Ura (壇の浦)” by Kinshi Tsuruta (鶴田 錦史)

My dream of studying the Japanese biwa was born in 2003 on my first fieldwork trip to Taiwan, when my late 6th Auntie brought me to a souvenir shop where a series of CD recordings caught my eye immediately, called the World Music Library (King Records). From this amazing collection, I discovered the sound of the Satsuma biwa and Kinshi Tsuruta, most known to Western music audiences as performing in the premiere of Tōru Takemitsu‘s November Steps in 1967. In 2017, I fulfilled my dream of finding a biwa teacher and was introduced to Arai Shisui (荒井姿水), an amazing Satsuma biwa singer in Yokohama. I am eager to continue my studies with Arai Shisui when pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Festival of San Pedro of Ataúro, East Timor

This was filmed by my good friend David Palazón, a filmmaker and researcher, whom I met on my first of many trips in 2010 to Timor-Leste (East Timor), my mother’s homeland and where I also share dual citizenship. Here you see and hear the ceremony, music, and dance of the annual festival of San Pedro in Makili village, which I was able to attend and later organize a special recording with the clan of Paulino Ximenes, where I met an incredible singer, Maria de Jesus, who allowed me to record her and learn from her. A traditional chant she taught me in Resuk language from this village inspired me to compose and release a song called “When I Have Power” on my latest album on Pi Recordings.

“Tràng An hoài cổ” by Phạm Thị Huệ

While I was on my Fulbright in 2012, I was invited to speak at a conference held in Hanoi, Vietnam. Though we only had a few days there, I, as always, wanted to meet traditional musicians, and was introduced to Phạm Thị Huệ, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, teacher, and leading figure in the revival of Ca trù, a musical storytelling tradition sung by a female musician. I saw her perform at the exquisite Thăng Long Ca trù Theater, which she co-founded to promote and teach Ca trù and where she performs weekly. She gave me a lesson at her home the next day, and asked me to return for longer. I am thrilled to share her phenomenal voice and advocacy for keeping this tradition alive. Phạm Thị Huệ is playing the stringed instrument (đào đàn) and singing. The sticks (Phách) are played by Đoàn Linh Hương; and the drum (Trống chầu) is played by Đoàn Văn Hựu.

“Santi Mulya (Laras Pelog, Pathet Lima)” by Nyi Ngatirah

Throughout my Fulbright years in Indonesia 2011 – 2014, I had the great honor of learning from one of the most revered pesindhèn (traditional female vocalist who sings with the gamelan) in Java, the late great Nyi Ngatirah, most famous for her recordings with wayang kulit giant Ki Narto Sabdo. She allowed me to sit next to her during her performances at Ngesti Pendhawa, a wayang wong theater of historical greatness in Semarang. Born the same year as my mother, she sadly passed away in December 2020, at the age of 75. Rest in power, Nyi Ngatirah.

“Ladrang Mugirahayu – Cengkok Darsanan (Laras Slendro, Pathet Manyura)” by Peni Candra Rini

One of the young maestra pesindhèn from Java whom I most admire is Peni Candra Rini, who not only enriches the tradition but also composes and creates her own works and experiments with artists. Collaborating with her during my years in Indonesia has been one of my great joys. You can hear the blissful quality of her voice in this video. The male singer playing slenthem and singing gerong (the male chorus part) was one of my main sindhenan teachers in Surakarta, Pak Darsono “Vokal,” whose vocalization she is displaying and honoring here.

“Indangsoo” by Kwon Song-hee (권송희)

In 2013, when I was still in Indonesia after my Fulbright officially ended, still seeking more knowledge, I learned of an opportunity to study Pansori, the Korean epic storytelling and sung tradition, which was a long-time dream of mine since watching Im Kwon Taek’s film Seopyeonje in 2010 just after returning from Timor-Leste. My close Javanese friend introduced me to Kwon Song-hee (권송희), a young Pansori singer who was also a songwriter. She was my main teacher, and we also became fast friends. Here is one of her experiments.

“Excerpt from Simcheongga (심청가)” by Kim Su-Yeon (김수연)

I was very lucky to see and meet one of Song-hee’s main teachers, the great “myeong chang” (maestra) Kim Su-Yeon (김수연). Here she sings a section of the work which I began learning with Song-hee called Simcheongga (심청가). You can hear the raw power in her voice, and it might be clear how she has influenced Song-hee’s sound.

All of the remarkable music above, performed by beloved women and non-binary artists of color, have influenced me in countless ways, as I continue to experiment with internalization, deep study, and adoration for and collaboration with these teachers and friends, throughout all my own musical composing and lyric writing.

Jen Shyu is currently Composer-in-Residence with ACF’s ChoralQuest program


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