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.” Continue reading “Jen Shyu Returns Home & Unpacks Her Ancestry”