Jen Shyu Sings Her Story in Five Languages


When I last wrote about Jen Shyu—a singer and musician who is as remarkable for her diligence as for her talent—in The Wall Street Journal four years ago, here’s how I started the profile:

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.
Part of the intrigue, especially through her highest-profile role, in alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s Five Elements band, is the question of language. “People always ask what I’m singing,” she said. “The answer is a variety of languages, including ones from China, Taiwan and East Timor, which are points in my ancestry. When I’m improvising, I’m singing in all of them. Or none of them. I’m taking bits and pieces, making it sound like it could be a language.”
Ms. Shyu’s fluency in seven languages and several traditional musical styles is based on far-flung and deeply immersed study. (She leaves later this month for a year in Indonesia, her great-great-grandmother’s birthplace, on a Fulbright Scholarship to study sindhenan, the traditional singing of Javanese gamelan music.)

Having completed that and other research, Shyu has sythesized this knowledge into something utterly and beautifully new—“Sounds and Cries of the World,” her terrific new album.  (You can find my Wall Street Journal review here.)
On this latest recording, Shyu sings original lyrics in five languages: English, Korean, Javanese, Indonesian and Tetum, the language of East Timor. She plays instruments that originated in four different countries. Despite these facts, and even the album’s title—“Sounds and Cries of the World” (Pi Recordings)—this is neither world music nor fusion of any sort. Continue reading “Jen Shyu Sings Her Story in Five Languages”