Combining traditional Korean instrumentation with improvisational jazz vocal stylings, female quartet Janya aims to restore the lost art of shamanic music, with an added element of appeal for listeners in the Western hemisphere. Drawing on singer Lola Danza’s background in modern and classical training from Berklee College of Music and the Aaron Copland School of Music, ensemble mates Seungmin Cha, Eun Sun Jung, and Woonjung Sim intermix a lively melange of Eastern rhythms and tones.
Danza talks with Justin Kantor about the evolution of her style and how Janya came to light.
Tell me about Janya. How would you describe the group’s style, and what is each player’s role?
Janya is very new. We met in March through my bass player, Sean Conly. I was looking for some Korean shamen. Sean said he knew these three girls playing this traditional shamanic music who were here on a grant. I was singing at the New York Vision Festival series at The Local 269. They came to the gig, and we told them about me. They were looking for a jazz singer. The Daegeum player, Seungmin, gave me a CD. This music was shunned in Korea a while back; it became this gypsy music when Christianity took over. So, it’s a lost art form which the government is now putting money into educating other countries about. It’s coming back.
Anyhow, Seungmin is also an illustrator and a poet. All three girls schlepped their instruments in a cab to my house. We started playing together, and it just clicked. It was something I’d been looking for the last two years. The instrumentation is traditional, but the music is modern. Seungmin plays the Daegeum, which is a bamboo flute. Eun Sun Jung plays a form of zither called a Gayageum. Originally, it was a pentatonic instrument, but then it was modified for modern music. It first had 12 strings, but now has 18 to 25 strings. It’s played by the left hand pressing the strings while the right hand is plucking them. Our drummer is Woonjung Sim, who plays the Janggo as well as gongs and bells.
So, Janya came together and accomplished a good deal of recording in a very short period of time. Tell me about the process.
Janya is a group effort in every sense. We all wrote the music together. I wrote the poetry and melodies; Eun Sun came up with the harmony; Seungmin Cha composed all the Daegeum parts; and Woonjung did the grooves and feels. We really just improvised together in the studio when we recorded our album. We had no idea how the music would turn out.
The girls and I seem to magically click. What’s so interesting about the group is how well we work together as a team.They have huge ears as improvisers and they are sensitive beings. So, we listen to each other when we play, and we feel each other. No one is trying to show off or shine more than another. We’re playing for the music’s sake.
How did you come up with the group’s name?
In Sanskrit, Janya means “to be born.” In Korean, it means “around dawn.” We were looking for a universal name that Americans could easily remember and understand.
What sparked your interest in Korean music?
This group has special meaning for me. Being Asian-American, having a Korean mother, somehow this music has healed me. I’ve never been prouder of my heritage, to see such delicate women with such a deep, internal strength. You might not see it at first, but you can feel it so deeply through their music. Growing up here in the States, I sometimes felt I belonged neither here nor there. With this music, I feel I have connected with what it means to be Asian and really what it means to be a woman. I’ve never met a group of women that were so giving and loving. So, through this music I’ve learned a lot more about myself; and it has healed that part of me that felt a little disconnected from my Asian ancestry.
Describe shamanic music a little more and how you’re experimenting with it.
The girls are essentially doing court music that would be played for queens and kings in Korea. Shamens are women’s stories passed down. I’ve always loved Native American shamens, which I’ve read about in medicine. Music can also have that healing quality. What we’re doing is improvising with it. As long as we’re listening to each other, it really works.
I always looked up to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, how certain syllables came so naturally to them, and they made them part of their vocabulary. As a student, I tried to copy them, but I eventually found my own scat style through tapping into the rhythmical sounds I would hear when my mother was speaking Korean with her friends. It felt very natural.
You studied at Berklee College of Music and the Aaron Copland School of Music. Tell me about the styles you explored and how they led you to Janya.
I was classically trained. My first voice teacher was Angie Perez, an opera singer. At Berklee, I explored jazz and fell in love with improvisation. But I really felt like something was missing emotionally, so I got into free jazz. It allowed me to let go completely. Some have said it sounded like Yoko Ono, but I really don’t think so. No offense to Yoko; I don’t think she swings. There’s a lot more going on within the music than just a bunch of screaming and making noises. There’s this deep listening aspect and an interaction between instrumentalists that you just don’t get in traditional singing, where you sing a melody and someone accompanies you. In free jazz, I felt like I was on equal footing with the instrumentalists. I wanted to feel deep emotion — so much emotion that it might frighten people or embarrass myself, because it was so personal. I was floored by the effect it had on my phrasing when I did go back to singing a melody over accompaniment. It completely opened me up. I used to wonder how Sarah Vaughan sang those swingin’, fast eighth notes and made it sound like there was so much space in between each eighth note. After exploring free improvisation, I now understand.
Janya recently did a showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One of the songs you performed is “No Escape,” in which you sing about “pain-joy, love-hate.” Is there a lyrical theme to the group’s songs?
Well, studying and writing poetry became a passion for me. I started to write out stanzas, not always being sure what each one was about. I’ll sometimes write lyrics, and 10 years later, I understand what it’s about! In “No Escape,” I’m saying that love and hate are one thing. You love someone, but you hate them, too. They’re almost the same thing. You have to experience one to appreciate the other. We’re all connected in “No Escape,” because we breathe the same ether that penetrates our body and nature.
One unique aspect of your improvisational style is that you incorporate belting. How did that come about?
Studying free improvisation, I was exploring texture and playing with sound. After all that classical training and years of trying to “sing pretty,” I wanted to experience sound differently. When I would listen to singers like Aretha Franklin, I’d hear so much color in just the attack and execution of the notes. She slides, she bends, she swoops, she glides on each note effortlessly. I wanted to find soul in my singing, like her, in every nuance. The same with Janis Joplin, where she sings, screams, and cries. It was missing in my sound. Free improvisation allowed me the freedom to find it in my own way.
What are some highlights of Janya’s performing experiences so far? Anything else coming up soon?
We plan to release our album on my label, Evolver Records, this summer. We actually took this project into rock clubs in New York City and people loved it. We also played a sold-out show at a beautiful theater in the West Village, Bennett Media Studio. Ed Bennett, a former CEO/President of VH1, put the night together for us. Now, we’re planning a tour through Asia and Europe for early next year. We feel blessed to have been invited and we are very excited about all the possibilities.
Visit LolaDanza.com for further information.