Jen Shyu Returns Home & Unpacks Her Ancestry

Time flies. When I got a call from Jen Shyu the other day, we realized it had been more than two years since last we spoke at her Bronx apartment for a Wall Street Journal story.

Here’s how I began that piece:

Lettered tiles crisscrossed the coffee table in singer Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment, remnants of an unfinished game of Bananagrams—a sped-up, free-form variant of Scrabble. How fitting. A playful yet rigorous approach to language animates her stirring music. Sounding fierce at times, ruminative at others, displaying tonal precision and an intuitive rhythmic sense, Ms. Shyu is among New York’s most invigorating vocal presences. And perhaps the most enigmatic.

Yet it’s inadequate to call Shyu a singer. In a video for her new multi-media work, “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths,”—a collaboration with the celebrated Indonesian director, Garin Nugroho—she calls herself  “an experimental jazz vocalist and composer, a multi-instrumentalist, dancer and researcher”—which sounds like a mouthful yet also seems accurate.

When last we spoke, Shyu was about to leave for year in Indonesia, her great-great-grandmother’s birthplace, on a Fulbright scholarship to study dance and improvisational singing traditions. But her planned year in Indonesia turned into almost three, she explained, traveling also to South Korea, East Timor, and Vietnam, among other places, where she studied, composed, performed in villages, taught and, and collaborated with local artists.

Before she left, a friend urged her to watch Nugroho’s film, “Opera Jawa,” in which Shyu sensed the  “fresh marriage of tradition and modernity I was seeking in my work.”The new piece is “the culmination of a decade of field research in other countries, mainly following the sound of my ancestors,” Shyu said, “about the collision between tradition and modernity as manifested through a woman alone, traveling and seeking threads throughout the chaos she encounters.”

Solo Rites: Seven Breaths will have its premiere at Brooklyn’s Roulette on May 28. There’s also a unique opportunity on Tuesday, May 20, at the Indonesian Consulate NY (5 East 68th Street, between 5th and Madison Aves): As Shyu explains, “we are giving people the chance to enjoy an Indonesian buffet dinner, a live preview of Seven Breaths, and intimate Q&A session with Garin and me.” (It’s also a chance to support the project through the Hatchfund website.)

Shyu’s new work, for which she will sing, dance, and accompany herself on instruments including the Taiwanese moon lute, East Timorese lakado, Korean gayageum, and piano, will also include footage drawn from her research trips and residencies in several countries, as woven together under Nugroho’s innovative direction. And it will no doubt reflect what bassist Mark Dresser, one of the many musicians who have been drawn to work with Shyu, once told me:

“She’s fearless. She studies traditions and then does what she wants.”

Photo/ Miranda Lichtenstein

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