Thursday, October 1, 2015

Language in Music, as Music

It would be simple to say that "Sounds and Cries of the World", the new recording by vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue (Pi Recordings) was a collection of songs adapted from the composer's journeys through  East Timor, Indonesia, Korea and Taiwan.

That would not be doing justice to this amazing recording.  Ms. Shyu sings in various languages, often changing in the middle of verses, and the music created for her impressive quartet of musicians - Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Mat Maneri (viola), Thomas Morgan (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums) - is not just steeped in contemporary jazz but also often sounds like a language of its own. The way the voice wraps around the instrumentalists on tracks such as "Mother of Time", incendiary "She Held Fire", and "Rai Nakakun Ba dada Ona" (with words from the poetry of East Timor poet Naldo Rei).

photo by Steven Schreiber
This music has great power and drama, no track more powerful than Ms. Shyu's "Song for Naldo" - with only the gat kim (2-stringed Taiwanese moon lute)for accompaniment;  the lyrics tell the story of multiple attacks on the people of East Timor.  The off-putting melody behind much of the vocal sounds strangely like "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks but the severity of the lyrics and the splendid vocal work (sounding, at different times, like Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, and Sheila Jordan) gives the song so much strength.

When you spend time with this program, you realize that the musicians are an integral part of each track on which they appear and not just there to play the melodies or long solos.  The blaring trumpet and the soothing yet often moaning viola wind around the voice on "Moxa" while Weiss's drums skitter about and Morgan's bass throbs.  There are moments on "Aku Yang Lahir Dari/Bâwâ Sidâ Asih" when the trumpet shadows and then illuminates the vocal lines (there's also a fascinating use of Ms. Shyu's field recording fromIndonesia on the "Bâwâ Sidâ Asih" section).

The album closes with "Thoughts of Light and Freedom", Ms. Shyu's musical adaptation of a poem by the late Taiwanese poet (and nuclear engineer) Edward Cheng (the composer and bassist Mark Dresser have perform the piece in concert - see a video here).  The interaction of the musicians with the spoken word, then the vocal, features Akinmusire's growling trumpet (a la Lester Bowie), Maneri's keening viola, the occasional bass lines and percussion interjections with the forceful vocal creates great tension and ultimate release.

"Sounds and Cries of the World" is more education than entertainment, more theatrical, dramatic, filled with pathos and empathy, joy and fierce ardor.  There is less "swing" than earlier releases (check them here) but a wider spectrum of sound.  The message of persecution and unfair treatment of minorities, topics Jen Shyu has explored before, is loud and clear and the music she has composed  is much more of a fusion of East and West with folk elements from the lands she has visited over the past decade.  Take the time to explore this music, read the poetry, listen closely to the blend of instruments and to the marvelous instrument that is Jen Shyu's voice.   Take the challenge offered by this artist and it will change you.

For more information, go to and/or

Here's a live version of "Song for Naldo":

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