Ilir-ilir, a traditional Javanese poetry song, was beautifully performed by Jen Shyu, a female fromg [gamelan music accompanying sinden] maestro. “They are great instructors who have made me what I am now,” said Jen after practicing a dance at Mangkunegaran Palace Surakarta recently.
Jen arrived in Indonesia in 2011 to conduct research on the art of sinden and langendriyan, Javanese dance-drama with poetry song dialogues, under a US Fulbright scholarship.
Brought up in Illinois, US, she was introduced to music and dance as a child by her father Tsu Pin Shyu (a native of Taiwan) and mother Ana Shyu (a native of Timor Leste). From 6 to 8- years-old, Jen learned ballet, and played the piano and violin.
Jen began singing in public at the age of 12 after her mother took her to a local Cinderella musical audition. Her first stint on stage led to other performances from one theater group to another for four years, until she finally got the role of main singer at the repertory theater production of Diana Morales produced by A Chorus Line.
Her theater experience introduced her to composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerry Herman, Jerome Kern and Stephen Sondheim.
Her exceptional flair for music established the then 16-year-old Jen as the youngest student at Yale University’s drama summer program. After high school, Jen studied semi-classical music at Stanford University, US.
Jen is also known in avant-garde jazz music not only for her singing talent but also her songwriting and arranging capacity, besides dancing and playing several instruments. Starting her professional career as an opera singer while at Stanford, after graduation Jen became a jazz singer at a small theater in San Francisco and joined a salsa band as a café singer. Between shows she also performed at various festivals.
In 2001, Jen studied folklore and salsa in Cuba for a year. This experience, she said, tinged her musical works with Asian and African tomes. A meeting with jazz musician Steve Coleman in 2003 led Jen to musical improvisation. A year later, she released the album Lucidarium.
From then on, she collaborated with a number of famous musicians including Mark Dresser, Anthony Braxton, Bobby Previte, Chris Potter and Dave Burrell. The versatile artist later joined Five Elements, Steve Coleman’s progressive jazz group. “Steve is a wonderful saxophone player. He taught me many things. Apart from teaching concepts and improvisation, he also opened the network of international musicians to me,” she said.
She developed her own music by improvisation and studied a variety of traditional music in Cuba, Brazil and Taiwan. Her studies eventually took her to Indonesia.
“I stayed in Timor Leste for three months and vacationed in Indonesia [Bali and Yogyakarta] to watch music and dance performances. At the time I thought I should conduct research here [in Indonesia],” said the musician who formed her band, Jade Tongue (2006).
She was even more determined to realize her research in Indonesia when she met Hardjito, a gamelan professor from Indonesia at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, US. Hardjito suggested that Jen study the art of sinden and langendriyan.
“I learned Javanese and macapat [sung poetry recitation] at Pujo Kusumo Studio, Yogyakarta, for three months before beginning my research at the Indonesian Arts Institute [ISI], Surakarta. Kitsie Emerson introduced me to the maestros in Surakara, including Pak Suraji [Suraji Sumarto], my sponsor at ISI,” said Jen, who speaks refined Javanese.
While researching, Jen also studied Javanese dance, practiced gamelan and sang Javanese poetry to become a sinden under the guidance of several traditional music and dance instructors from ISI, Kasunanan Palace Surakarta and Mangkunegaran Palace.
After one year in Surakarta, she is fluent in Javanese. Jen has also mastered classical dances such as Gambyong Pare Anom and Gambyong Pangkur, which she performed with several foreign dancers at Mangkunegaran Palace on May 5. The woman of tall stature also has a good command of dozens of gending and macapat poetry songs.
According to Jen who also participated in Srawung Seni Segara Gunung (meeting of the arts) in the Sangiran Museum complex, Sragen, Central Java, in March, traditional arts constitutes the roots of modern music, including avant-garde and contemporary music. Her interest in traditional music and dance is due to the open nature of these arts, which allow for exploration and development.
Jen is not only an eloquent poetry singer with a distinctive Javanese style but is also skilled in improvisation. Her clear and powerful voice is a mix of semi-classical, jazz and sinden tones. Unsurprisingly, well-known shadow puppet performers such Ki Manteb Sudarsono and Ki Purbo Asmoro have often invited her to enliven their shows.
In June, she plans to do a six-month study of Shuo-Chang, an art that combines dialogue and song at China’s centuries-old operas, commonly called Kunqu. “I’m returning to Indonesia at the end of the year and then I’ll go back to the US to stage a solo performance,” added the lady who also speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin and Indonesian.