Dutch treat

For jazz vocalist Denise Jannah, unless you do something individual and genuine, ‘it simply isn’t art’.

Denise Jannah 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Denise Jannah 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jazz has long incorporated musical strands from many different cultures, so there really isn’t any reason why the daughter of a church minister from the former Dutch colony of Suriname shouldn’t become a jazz vocalist.
Even so, 54-year-old Denise Jannah did take her time before deciding to make music her career. That she has made up for lost time will be evident during her upcoming tour of Israel, together with Cuban pianist Ramon Valle, as part of the 2011-12 Hot Jazz series (September 5-10).
Jannah was into music, in its most universal forms, from a very early age.
“I am the oldest of four sisters, and we would sing along to just about everything,” Jannah recalls. “We’d sing, in four-part harmony, to radio commercials and to records by Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Bach, Ella Fitzgerald and Christian music. We’d all swap parts, so we sang different harmony voices. That’s a great way to learn music. I grew up with a very broad spectrum of music. I never really thought about something being or not being jazz. It was all just music.”
She kept up her musical endeavor through her teens and into her college years as the family relocated to The Netherlands, but she initially opted for a far more mundane line of work. “I studied law for four years. I only had one year to go to finish my degree,” recalls Jannah. “But I decided that music was my way forward.”
Once she’d made her mind up, she really went for it. “I was so happy when I decided to devote my working life to music. I thought ‘Yes, this is what I really want to do.’” It seems there was also some genetic history to the move. “My parents brought us up to think and do what we wanted but that we should follow things through and complete them. I didn’t do that with my law studies, but my dad also studied law before he became a church minister.”
Besides all the jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, classical and liturgical musical tidbits that nurtured Jannah’s love for music as a youngster, she also imbibed the local ethnic sounds and rhythms of her native Suriname. “That definitely informs what I do as a jazz artist,” she says. “You know, jazz has become world music as well. You can incorporate every rhythm in jazz. For instance, if you listen to the rhythms of New Orleans and the south of the United States, I remember one time I came to The Hague for the North Sea Jazz Festival and I heard this music near the entrance of the building, and I thought ‘Hey, there’s a Surinamese band here’ and then I saw this marching band, I think it was from Louisiana or somewhere else from the Deep South. That sounded just like the rhythms we have in Suriname.”
Jannah says her penchant for rhythms of every ilk is a strong artistic meeting point for her and her Cuban cohort on the upcoming local tour.
“Ramon and I have been performing together on and off for a year. I just love rhythms with odd meters, which you get in Cuban music. Ramon and I work well together.”
Their Israeli gigs will comprise original material by both Jannah and Valle, as well as some jazz standards.
“But we will do them our way,” Jannah hastens to add. “There is no point in just doing stuff the way it’s been done before. You have to bring something of your own, something individual and genuine to what you do, otherwise it simply isn’t art.”
This will not be Jannah’s first visit here.
She was part of the Hot Jazz series in 2005 when she performed with Dutch-based Azerbaijani pianist Amina Figarova and American bassist Ruth Davies. That time around, the trio slipped in an intriguing and emotive rendition of “Eli, Eli.”
So, can we expect some more Hebrew songs this time. too? “I have to do ‘Eli, Eli’ again,” says the singer.
“It’s such a wonderful song. And I am also working on [Shlomi Mandel’s] ‘Layla Tov.’ I am really looking to forward to coming back to Israel. I just wish I could stay longer.”
Denise Jannah and Ramon Valle will perform at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem on September 5 (8:30 p.m.; Zappa Club in Herzliya on September 6 (doors open 9 p.m.); Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 8 (9 p.m.) and September 9 (9:30 p.m.); and Abba Hushi House in Haifa on September 10 (9 p.m.).