Let me explain why I sing free jazz or melodic poetry or improvised music. It’s a long, circular kind of story. I was a little girl in love with princesses when I saw Julie London sing Cry Me A River in the film The Girl Can’t Help It. She inspired me to embark on a long love affair with jazz standards with all their romantic stories and singers with excellent phrasing. It was also a way to hang out with my brother when we were kids (no computers! no internet!) doing something we both liked, learning new songs together and performing them for friends and family or in bars where we had to go sit in the parking lot on the breaks thanks to liquor licencing laws. During that deep study of the great American songbook, I discovered that I love to sing.
And then on a sabbatical in Andalucia in Spain when I was around eleven I was struck by the power and passion of flamenco music. This was another way to sing, raw emotions and strong sounds, timeless stories, epic poems. I also spent time listening to the radio wafting in across the Mediterranean, fascinated by the Muslim prayers from North Africa. Back home again in Canada I would loll around singing along to Stevie Wonder and his iconic Songs in the Key of Life. I still just want to be Stevie Wonder. Doesn’t everybody?
But what do you do, as a Dutch-Indonesian immigrant child living by a lake in Northern Ontario, in a mining town? What kind of music can you make to represent your own culture? Recently I had my ancestry dna tested and discovered it is even more complex than I thought. I have dna from eleven different regions in the world, including small percentages from Iberia, North Africa, Native American dna as well as the Dutch, German and Javanese I’d expected. It’s confusing and yet somehow liberating. What box am I supposed to tick off now? I will draw one in that says (to quote Kurt Cobain) never mind.
This issue of what to sing and why has been at the core of my creative process from the start. Thankfully I was in the right place at the right time for discovering free jazz. We had the iconoclastic jazz trumpet player Herbie Spanier coming to our home regularly to jam and he would yell into my ear, just keep singing! Sing whatever comes into your head! Don’t listen to me, just keep going! for hours at a time as we continued, hell-bent on discovery and originality. I saw concert after concert of original music, attended workshops with Misha Mengelberg, sang Jay Clayton’s scribbly line drawing scores along with her at the jazz workshop in Banff, and had the joy of singing Cecil Taylor’s shamanic poems with him, also in the mountains at Banff. In more recent decades I’ve sung alongside the wildly inventive Barre Phillips, whose dedication and energy is always exemplary, as when he inspired us to improvise for 12 hours straight, something he considered slacking when compared to Sun Ra’s week long non-stop music sessions.
I have discovered that shamanism and improvisation are closely linked, because as we open ourselves up to inspiration and spontaneity, all kinds of energies rush through us. Sometimes I sing whatever comes into my head in the moment. More often I sing whatever comes into my head after I’ve written some words down and shaped them a bit, pulling out rhythm and sounds as I go along. Words on paper compared to words that are sung have different demands. What is vital to me is to be able to convey the greatest possible emotion as quickly as possible when making a musical statement, in much the same way flamenco or fado artists are always singing at peak emotional power. There is no time for a slow, tangled build up when singing improvised music. No dipping one’s toes, no plinkity plonk. You want to say what you have to say and swiftly, and if that’s not enough, say it again.
As a result, I write poems swiftly and end up channelling all kinds of ancestral stories, which, considering the amount of ancestors I have globally, keeps me very busy. I also write poems from dreams, which is another great way of harnessing a lot of power. And in recent reading I’ve done about shamanism, notably Martin Prechtel’s Secrets of the Talking Jaguar (a book I picked up after dreaming of jaguars), I understand now that dream songs are prayers. Aha.
When I asked some very talented and accomplished women who are great improvisers (Jay Clayton, Kali Z. Fasteau and Annette Peacock) if they thought mysticism had anything to do with free music, they all unequivocally agreed — it has everything to do with it! They had many helpful and inspiring thoughts for me which are outlined in a series of short video interviews I did back when my kids were babies and I was struggling to balance life and art (which also explains why I am so busty in the videos, btw, engorged frankly, things only female artists have to contend with, lol). I thought, why don’t I go and ask someone who knows? So I did. Annette’s interview isn’t online – she will cue me if and when she wants to share it. Hopefully their thoughts can help and inspire others, especially women and girls, as well.
It is difficult in this age of rampant nationalism to have the freedom to express your ideas outside of the boundaries of genres that are so fraught with identity. I’ve often described myself as struggling with my cultural identity or lackthereof. When I saw the author Zadie Smith (whose latest book is, aptly, entitled Feel Free) in Montreal last year she said, in a prickly fashion, that critics say she’s constantly working with themes of cultural identity but she considers it quite the opposite — she doesn’t care about cultural identity at all because the idea itself is so limiting,never mind culture bound. And that was eye-opening for me because I do agree wholeheartedly. And to think otherwise is a wild goose chase anyway. We need to transcend these ideas of who we are, where we are from. I don’t want my sons or their friends to feel that they can’t sing their own songs because they like to rap and they aren’t African American. I insist, just express yourself, make the music you want that is sincere and comes from your heart and figure out the rest later. It should be your own in any case, perhaps an entirely new genre or a new variation. We all need more music in our lives, and if we love making it, we owe it to ourselves to just do it. Freedom, really, is at the core of everything.