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Tuesday 19th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Chris Searle reviews Sounds and Cries of the World by Jen Shyu and Jade Tongue

Jen Shyu and Jade Tongue: Sounds and Cries of the World (PI61)

JEN SHYU was born in 1978 in Peoria, Illinois, the daughter of a Taiwanese father and a mother from East Timor.

She is a powerfully versatile musician: a multi-instrumentalist, singer, dancer, composer and scholar of the music of her parents’ birthplaces, as well as Korea, Indonesia and China, but she has also found a deep kinship with jazz stalwarts from the saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Chris Potter and the late veteran Chicago tenorist Von Freeman, to the brilliant pianist Dave Burrell, and her sound creates a proud and unique amalgam of all these sources and sounds.

In her cosmos of an album, recorded in Brooklyn in 2014, Sounds and Cries of the World, she has some capacious jazz brothers like the Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, Mat Maneri playing viola, bassists Thomas Morgan and drummer Dan Weiss, while she swings between piano, gat kim (two-stringed Taiwanese moon lute), gayageum (12-stringed Korean zither), ggwaenggwari (Korean gong) and kemanak (Javanese gamelan idiophone). I doubt if jazz has ever known the like.

She begins with the Song of Kwan Wen, telling of an encounter with a mother and her child in the grasslands of Timor. Straight away you sense the absorption of the US musicians within the music, with Akinmusire’s chantering horn with her every step.

Morgan’s bass throbs like the earth through Bloom’s Mouth Rushed In, a song about a flower, its “single stem in both hands, hungry and alive.” But this flower is fear itself, and Shyu’s voice, like a hummingbird’s wings, marvels at its power and tempting beauty.

Aka Yang Lahir Dari Air Mata is an Indonesian song, its title translated as I was Born from a Tear.

As Shyu sings beside Akinmusire’s lonesome trumpet notes: “I made rain from my sweat, I surrender and turn to dust,” there is something close to an Asian blues streaming from Shyu’s voice.

The she segues into a Javanese love song, Bawa Sida Asih, as she sings: “Never apart, not even one hair’s width,/Though far, you are close in my heart,” you think: “Java, Brooklyn, Timor, Peoria? Where are the frontiers?” for this music annuls them with its power, its internationalism and its beauty.

The long struggle of resistance in East Timor led by the liberation movement, Fretilin, is invoked in the song translated from Tetum, Day is Getting Darker. 

As Shyu sings: “Your footsteps marked the history of this land,” the wars against Portuguese colonialism and attempted Indonesian annexation suddenly find the sounds of jazz as “the waves of the sea grow menacing and wild.”

Who could believe that a music that was born in the streets of New Orleans could travel so far and change so profoundly as it voyaged?

Shyu’s piano resonates, her voice soars and Maneri’s viola vibrates beside her between Weiss’s scuttling drums.

In her Song for Naido, Shyu asserts that “in the past, our ancestors left us nothing but culture, and it’s like gold.” It’s a commentary on her album, as well as the versatility of her artistry as she plucks her strings and wails her words of her mother’s life and her task as a singer: “Mother! To heal her bleeding brow/I thought she had died but no, she survived/To sing the Timorese woman’s sorrow.”

Listening to this album, I was left wondering whether Akinmusire, Maneri, Morgan and Weiss ever conceived that they would play and record such music before they met Shyu and her words and sounds, and indeed Sounds and Cries of the World is a marvel of jazz and the astonishing places that it can go.

The final track, Thoughts of Light and Freedom, a praisesong to the power and discovery of light, exemplifies that sense of sonic miracle.

“Human wisdom knows how to make the fire,” she sings, “Light the oil lamp, use the electric light/Letting me see instantly you and all things.”

For Shyu and her US brothers, sound becomes light, illuminating the discovery of knowing the other.

It is a record which shines its own timbral light on the world’s future.