Female jazz artists step into the limelight at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem

Other than vocalists, women are poorly represented in the international jazz arena, but in the last decade, more have been stepping into the spotlight.

 ARGENTINEAN PERCUSSIONIST-SINGER Carolina Cohen will perform with Cuban-born singer and pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran as the Furies duo. (photo credit: YELLOW SUBMARINE)
ARGENTINEAN PERCUSSIONIST-SINGER Carolina Cohen will perform with Cuban-born singer and pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran as the Furies duo.
(photo credit: YELLOW SUBMARINE)

One might have thought, given the intrinsic open-ended nature of the arts field in general, that female performers would get a fair crack at the gender whip. 

But how many female jazz musicians are out there front and center? The sad fact is that other than vocalists, women are poorly represented in the international jazz arena.

However, things have been gradually moving along in the desired direction over the past decade or so. One might mention the likes of internationally acclaimed pianist Anat Fort, the first Israeli jazz artist of either gender to record on the prestigious German label ECM. And the likes of New York-based flutist Hadar Noiberg, fellow Big Apple resident stellar clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen and relative newcomer pianist-vocalist Stav Achai have been making their mark on the local and global jazz scene for some time now.

It is also true that there have been, for some years now, jazz events dotted around the world that train the limelight firmly on female performers. That, naturally, helps to offset the male bias. Now, finally, that message is coming through loud and clear here too, 

The Queenta – Woman Jazz Festival, due to take place at the Yellow Submarine club in Jerusalem May 24-26, is certainly a step in the right direction on the local jazz scene. The organizers describe the event as “three days of beauty, grace and exhilaration” and have lined up the requisite firepower and talent to make good on the epithet. Besides the aforementioned Fort, Noiberg and Achai the three-dayer features the likes of unfettered pianist-composer Katia Toobool, cellist Mayu Shviro and vocalists Meital Waldmann and Chen Levy. The latter also serves as artistic director of the whole bash.

EDNA GOREN, a grand dame of the Israeli jazz scene. (credit: PETER VIT)EDNA GOREN, a grand dame of the Israeli jazz scene. (credit: PETER VIT)

There are also a couple of offshore frontliners on the Queenta roster in the form of Cuban-born singer and pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran, who joins forces with 39-year-old Argentinean percussionist-singer Carolina Cohen, as the Furies duo.

Cohen has been making waves, at festivals and music venues around the world, for more than 20 years now. During that time she managed lengthy sojourns in Cuba and New York, where she honed her Latin American and jazz instrumental skills.

Cohen says percussion came her way, as a kid, without too much forethought. 

“Once, during a party at home, I started to play along with my mother and some of her friends that were making some music and, in that moment, I realized that it was what I wanted to do.” Nothing like going with the insouciant infant flow.

Once hooked there was no stopping the youngster, and she began merrily and purposefully banging away on a bongo drum, before eventually getting actual music lessons at the age of 17. However, she got plenty of practice in before the formal education phase began, taking full advantage of all kinds of percussion instruments lying around the family home. 

“When I was younger my dad had a bongo in our home and I played them like a game,” she recalls. “But I even played before bombo legüero [Argentinean drum] and [Peruvian box-shaped drum] cajon without much knowledge about the proper technique but with a lot of feeling.”

Meanwhile, she spread her musical vistas by taking in the sounds, rhythms and textures of a broad range of genres and cultural sources.

“I listened to a lot of styles of music, such as classical, jazz, tango and Argentinean folk, Latin American music, rock, pop, world music. At home, there were all types of music and I was in contact with that.”

The vocals, she says, were always there in the musical mix, helped by some supportive familial underpinning. 

“I started singing since I can remember, because of my parents. They both sing, and they encouraged us to sing with them together. To sing at home was very common.”

Vocalists who have an instrumental background often carry that into their singing. Cohen says her vocals and percussive work have dovetailed and complemented each other throughout. 

“For me, both playing and singing is a way of expressing myself. So one enhances the other.”

As Cohen began to establish herself as a fixture on the international Latin music scene, she began to work with established artists from an older generation, such as Peruvian singer-composer Eva Ayllón and Cuban counterpart Mayito Rivera. These were artists who formed part of Cohen’s educational backdrop coming up, and it was a thrill for her to join them on stage, as well as a golden opportunity to move swiftly along her learning curve. 

“For me, it was an honor and very important in my career. And yes, I listened to them, for [me], that was very intense and I learned a lot playing with them.”

Back in the mid-1990s, when Cohen was in her teens, the world was taken by storm by the Buena Vista Social Club troupe of veteran Cuban musicians who had largely been kept under the wraps, by the Communist regime, for decades. The ensemble, which included septuagenarians velvety-voiced singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Rubén González, and irrepressible nonagenarian guitarist-singer Compay Segundo, also sparked the youngster’s imagination and set her creative juices aflowing. 

Cohen says the 1999 documentary on the Buena Vista Social Club, made by award-winning German filmmaker Wim Wenders, also opened her eyes to new musical possibilities and helped to pave the way to one of her principal avenues of musical expression. 

“Every time I watched that movie I felt completely emotional and dreamed about going to Cuba to study the music I love, which I did a few years later.”

The Furies matchup in Jerusalem, in fact, is only the pair’s sophomore gig, and Cohen says she is delighted to have the opportunity to play with Trujillo Duran again, and that both are looking to take the project further down the line. 

“We played only once, in 2015. That was a short experience, but very intense. But now we want to play more together, and Ariacne decided to create this duo officially, and called it Furies.”

It is a synergy between like-minded and like-hearted musicians. 

“I love the music that Ariacne does,” Cohen notes. “She is a very powerful woman and inspires me. My way [of playing] is very passionate, and she plays with that spirit too, and together it is fire.”

The Argentinean says she is “very excited” to be coming to Israel, and encouraged by the progress being made in showcasing the work of female artists in general. 

“There were some cases when I was told that I couldn’t perform for being a woman. But, in the last [few] years, that has changed and I’m being well considered as a percussionist.” 

About time too. Let’s hope that, before too long, there won’t even be a need to hold woman-based events, simply because everyone gets an equal bite of the apple based on their talent and what they have to offer on the artistic front, regardless of their gender.

For tickets and more information: https://yellowsubmarine.org.il/queenta-woman-jazz-festival/