Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Introducing Val Jenty (Excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz")

With the help of a wonderful copyeditor and a wonderful proofreader, I am pulling together over 350 pages of interviews and introductory material for what will be my first book, entitled Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. We're taking our time to make sure the book is nothing less than spectacular, and there is still much work to be done. In the meantime, I would like to share with you some excerpts from the book. Each interview will be presented in a straightforward, Q&A format, so that the reader can "hear" each musician's story in her own words.

I hope you enjoy these previews of what will be a truly expansive, entertaining, and in-depth look at jazz and the musicians, specifically women, who are taking the music into the future.

Val Jenty (electronics, percussion)

Any book that purports to speak accurately about the roots of jazz must ac-knowledge the role Afro-Caribbean culture played in its conception and evolution. For example, in the case of the Haitian religion Vodou, author Michael Ventura writes: “The question of how Haitian Voodoo [his spelling] came to the continental United States, and the question of why jazz originated in New Orleans, are in fact parts of the same question.”

Like Palo and Santeria in Cuba, and Candomblê and Umbanda in Brazil, Vodou represents a new world formulation of African religious practices, practices that include sacred drums and rhythms. Beginning in 1817, these rhythms found a public forum in New Orleans’ Congo Square where, every Sunday afternoon, slaves were permitted to congregate, dance, and play music. To this day, Vodou, both as a religious practice and a musicological source, continues to have a pervasive influence on New Orleans’ culture.

Haitian-born electronic artist and percussionist Val Jeanty began playing Vodou drums at the age of 5.

“I pretty much grew up in what we call ‘lakou,’ ” explains Jeanty. “A lakou is just like a yard, and that is where all the ceremonies happen, all the prayers happen, all the drummers practice, all the singers practice, and all the dancers practice.”

Now based in New York City, Jeanty uses an array of electronic instruments and controllers, as well as sacred hand drums, to create music that is poetic and multi-layered, combining Vodou’s rhythms, rhythms that signify and call to its gods and goddesses, with modern electronica- and jazz-infused beats.

Given the breadth and complexities of Vodou’s influence, even the most conscientious historians and anthropologists may confuse its practices with its misrepresentations in popular culture. For example, in her 1935 collection of African-American folklore, Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston uses the word “hoodoo” interchangeably with “voodoo” (“as pronounced by the whites”) and inadvertently misaligns African- and Native American-based medicinal practices with the tools of religious worship. Such confusion continues to this day in souvenir shops across the southern U.S. where dolls, mojo bags, gris gris, powders, and charms are inaccurately branded and sold as accessories of Vodou worship. And I could write another book listing and describing American films and television shows that perpetuate ignorant and racist stereotypes about Vodou in the name of cheap thrills and gore.

However, there are several thoughtful, thoroughly researched books and film documentaries about Vodou, including Maya Deren’s 1953 book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti and film of the same title (shot between 1947 and 1954), Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown, and Darius James and Oliver Hardt’s recent documentary, The United States of Hoodoo [2012]. Jeanty is featured prominently in James and Hardt’s film.

Jeanty ’s musical skills and sensitivity match that of any so-called “traditional” musician. Not surprisingly, in addition to performing and recording as a solo artist, she has collaborated with several highly respected musicians from the world of contemporary jazz, including Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, Steve Coleman, and Geri Allen.

In her interview, Jeanty describes how sound, especially rhythms and specific frequencies, can compel a spiritual awakening in the listener, even if the listener is unaware of the historical origins of that sound. Her music often surprises even the most seasoned of jazz musicians.

“When I’m playing with a jazz musician,” says Jeanty, “I’ll play something, and they might say, ‘You know, I heard you play some African stuff, and I really, really like that.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah!” [laughs]

Haiti Lévé performed by Val Jenty

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