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How music heals and connects, with instrumentalist Jen Shyu

Jen Shyu
Daniel Reichert
Courtesy of Jen Shyu
Multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu with the moon lute.

You can forgive multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu for not remembering every instrument she knows how to play or wants to learn. Between playing several styles of lutes, like the Taiwanese moon lute, or the 12-stringed zither as well as playing several percussion instruments, she also wants to learn how to play the flute.

Shyu also dances, sings and is multilingual, speaking 10 languages.

You can say her resume of instruments and disciplines is long just like her fellowships and accomplishments. There’s her Guggenheim Fellowship, being a Doris Duke Artist and a Paul Simon Music Guest Artist. Did I mention she’s also a Fulbright scholar?

Shyu, 44, has also performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If all that weren’t enough, one of her passions is also mentoring underrepresented women and nonbinary composer-performers. And she does that through a group she co-founded called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians or M3, which started when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

“When things kind of stopped, we thought, you know, ‘If we're struggling, what about our peers who have maybe just started out?’” said Shyu. “I kind of had a clear idea of who in our community really needed the most support. And those are [the] folks who are underrepresented in our industry. And so clearly, that includes women, non-binary people, trans, queer — just all of the gender identities, who you are not seeing on stage.”

Jen Shyu2
Ben Doyle
Courtesy of Jen Shyu
Jen Shyu with another of the many lutes she knows how to play.

Shyu is playing Sunday at the Ampersand International Arts Festival in Williamsburg, which concludes its weeklong run the same day.

Her multimedia show, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses, is dedicated to her late father. She says “Ritual” investigates familial grief, but also delves into her feelings on race, technology and fertility.

"Stuff that we don’t talk about a lot, especially as women. And it became an homage to dad … turning a spotlight on stuff that’s usually not on stage — it's background stuff, you know, we just keep quiet,” said Shyu.

She’ll also be featuring a piece called “A Lament for Breonna Taylor,” which is about the death of the 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky apartment by police officers. They had forcefully entered her home as part of an investigation into drug dealing operations. Last August, the Department of Justice charged current and former police with federal crimes related to Taylor’s death, according to a release by the department.

The World Music Show interview with Shyu covers her musical background, and the tragic story behind her multimedia show that she also hopes will inspire others.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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