5 Questions to Val Jeanty (Afro-Electronica composer, turntablist, drummer)

The music of Afro-Electronica composer, turntablist, and drummer Val Jeanty (aka Val-Inc) blends Haitian folkloric rhythms with digital instrumentations, weaving a tapestry of pulses that are both archaic and modern. As a SoundChemist, she has spent years pioneering her own musical subgenre, “Vodou-Electro,” which features pulsing tracks built out of staticky electronics and turntable scratches, mixing in cut-up vocals and recordings with the haze of club beats.

Albums like On (2007) exemplify this style, foregrounding her textural and pattern-oriented approach to crafting music. Her music feels natural, moving in loops and swirls born from delicately interwoven phrases. But while she has a subtle touch, every piece she creates holds power. “When I’m playing, I don’t think; I’m more of a vessel, let the spirit do its work,” Jeanty said in a 2019 interview, and in every vibration of her music, you can hear that engulfing rapture.

Jeanty is on the faculty at Berklee College of Music, where she works with the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. Her work has been exhibited at many prestigious venues, including the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Venice Biennale in Italy, and the House of the World’s Cultures in Berlin.

Jeanty was recently named one of United States Artists’ 2024 Music Fellows. The award recognizes “the most compelling artists working and living in the United States, in all disciplines, at every stage of their career.” Winning artists receive an unrestricted gift of $50,000 to support their artistic practice, which gives them the rare and vital flexibility to create whatever they want using these funds. We asked Jeanty more about the award and her Vodou-Electro practice.

Congratulations on your United States Artists Fellowship! What does receiving this unrestricted award mean to you, and do you know what it will help you fund?

Oh, thank you! I am so honored to be a United States Fellow recipient. Receiving this award as an independent, queer, Haitian woman avant-garde musician means fully funding my creative ideas and projects. Three of those creative ideas and projects include a solo Vodou-Electro album, a duo album with harpist Cassandra Watson Francillon and a collaboration with multi-media artist Colette Bresilla.

How did you get started creating music?

I started creating music at the early age of four through my imagination, and started playing Haitian drums at five years old in a cultural setting called a “Lakou,” which means the “Yard” back home in Haiti. When I moved to the U.S. in the 80s, I got into DJing in high school, then later purchased an Akai MPC 2000 and started to create from the space of exploring the unknown through improvisation. That process still continues… exploration of the sonic unknown and the practice of Sound chemistry.

It starts as a feeling for me, which is how I channel and connect to most of my ideas. Then, that feeling becomes a bit annoying, and that lets me know that I need to express it.

Why did you first conceive of your Afro-Electronica/“Vodou-Electro” practice?

Afro-Electronica/Vodou-Electro is a part of my cultural practice as a Vodouist, and it was conceived to project the African/Haitian cultural traditions into the future and beyond. Afro-Electronica, also called Vodou-Electro, is a hybrid of traditional Vodou music and avant-garde electronic improvisational compositions with sound installations that are performed live to evoke and celebrate my Haitian culture.

What are the key elements of Afro-Electronica/”Vodou-Electro”? Walk us through creating a piece in this subgenre.

The three key elements of Afro-Electronica/Vodou-Electro are:

  1. Vodou drum patterns inspired by Haitian Vodou culture
  2. Esoteric samples or sounds from nature like winds, water waves, crackling firewood, and sounds from the “Lakou,” which includes prayers, laughter, and sometimes rooster samples
  3. Channeling my ancestors and processing the sonic codes and structure of a composition

It starts as a feeling for me, which is how I channel and connect to most of my ideas. Then, that feeling becomes a bit annoying, and that lets me know that I need to express it. I try to be very attentive to the sounds that are connected to this feeling, then I’ll choose my instrument to convey that feeling as purely as I can. And because I’m a drummer, I usually start with a rhythmic pattern that’s asking for a melody as a response, to create that call and response feel and vibe of that “Lakou.”

After that, it’s a lot of listening to the idea and letting the pieces fall into place, as I most likely will add more sounds and stay out of my own way in the process to let the composition breath itself into shape. The process sometimes takes hours and sometimes days… it never really ends, and that’s the fun part of creating for me.

What advice would you give to an artist about finding their own niche and voice in music-making?

My advice to finding your own voice is lots of practice: stay creative and get out of your own way. The more you practice, the more in tune you are with your instrument. When you stay creative, you get more ideas and it keeps you busy. And the last one is a big one — get out of your own way and fully enjoy the creative process.


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