ONE MUSICAL ENCOUNTER DESERVES ANOTHER © Duncan Graham 2005
On 28 December 2002 former Suriname citizen Denise Jannah was waiting at a bus stop in Utrecht, Holland. Alongside her were two plastic bags of groceries. There was little more on her mind than getting home and cooking a meal.
A stranger approached. As Jannah told The Jakarta Post, this chance encounter “took on its own life” – and changed hers.
By now you probably fear this is going to be one of those awful ‘I met a suicide bomber’ stories. It’s not, so read on. This has a happy ending.
The stranger asked if she could sing Jannah a poem, not knowing the bag lady was a jazz singer. In the chill of a Dutch winter notes were exchanged – of the musical variety.
The last things Jannah had bought with her groceries were a notepad and pen that she used to write down the verse. “It was meant to happen,” she said.
Now Jannah has added a range of poems to her performances, and set these to her own music. They include the offering from the bus stop chat. This translates as: “If I should die tomorrow, tell the trees that I loved them.”
In the first half of Jannah’s concerts in four Indonesian cities were nine sung poems. Her style is reminiscent of British jazz artist Cleo Laine who uses Shakespeare’s sonnets, but Jannah’s work is more accessible.
The results are charming even though the words aren’t always understood. That sounds contradictory because the multi-lingual artist slips to and fro between Dutch, Suriname, Afrikaans, English, Indonesian or whatever. However before each poem she explained its provenance and meaning in English.
So even if you’re not fluent in the tongue of Curacao you’ll not be left wondering. Or wandering.
Making the experience more palatable is Jannah’s ability to segue from chat to chanson with butter-smoothness. Her unfaltering control over syllables and consonants is the result of decades of discipline. Even her self-taught English would challenge the clarity of vowel-queen Julie Andrews.
In Holland Jannah is also a vocal educator. She studied law at the University of Utrecht but switched to a degree in music at the Conservatory in Hilversum.
“I have been gifted by God with the ability to use languages and to sing,” she said. “I’m very much a lyrics person. As a voice teacher I tell my students that song is speaking as a melody. The audience should be able to lean back and let the words come to them.
“The poetry and the poet have to be treated with respect. It must at all times remain the poem and not get lost in the music.”
Jannah, the daughter of a Moravian Church pastor, finds the spirituality of Indonesia stimulating. “I pray and meditate,” she said. “I ask for guidance and inspiration. I sought it in Borobudur ”
Jannah sings of love and betrayal (Muddy Water Blues), and includes popular standards like My Funny Valentine, Misty and Killing Me Softly in her repertoire.
The result mixes golden oldies with original works that showcase her wide vocal range and deft handling of emotion. Apart from love, her themes tend to be drawn from nature.
Her on-stage presence is relaxed. Nothing distracts from the words and music. This is a singer who has no need for glitzy costumes, smoke effects and a leggy chorus to compensate for an absence of talent.
Props include tissues, a plastic bottle of mineral water and a small shaker that she uses while exercising her forearm to the rhythm. Her five-man backing group (contrabass, percussions, guitar, drums and piano) kept well in step with her mood and never let enthusiasm overtake or eclipse Jannah’s presence.
That would be difficult even if the riffs ran away. She’s not a Big Mamma in the Southern States sense, but a large no-nonsense woman with a relaxed stage presence that belies her authority over the music.
Getting the balance right between maudlin sentimentality and raunchiness is tricky for any jazz singer. This is particularly so when performing in a concert hall where the audience hasn’t been anaesthetised by alcohol and lulled by intimacy.
She doesn’t have the smoky edge of Eartha Kitt, and consequently is less sexually threatening - or enticing. The exoticism comes from mystery of the mature woman rather than ethnicity. Here’s a professional who makes singing look so simple that the audience has no reason to do more than relax and enjoy.
This wrongly implies ‘easy listening’, a term corrupted by FM radio stations: Fast-food music – simple to digest, no exercise required and guaranteed free of nutrition.
Jannah’s music is certainly smooth on the palate but it stimulates the intellectual appetite without the audience realising that they’ve tasted soul food.
Jannah is best known in Holland where she moved from tiny Suriname (in north South America - formerly Netherlands Guiana) as a child. She has performed throughout Europe, South Africa and the US and published six albums.
Her concerts in Indonesia were sponsored by the Dutch community – which has also asked her to return next year for a longer tour. So if you missed out keep your eyes on the What’s On pages around February 2006.
You don’t have to be Dutch or European to savour this most talented woman’s eclectic multi-language offerings.
One of the most popular items on this last tour was her use of Jakarta poet Sitok Srengenge’s Osmosa Asal Mula, which translates (with difficulty) as the Origin of Osmosis.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 October 05)