Turning Jewels Into Water
Photo: Ed Marshall
World Music Innovators Turning Jewels Into Water Fuse The Spiritual With Digital On Their New Album
"What is world music? What is global music? Do you have to show up in ethnic gear with a tabla and a sitar for you to consider me Indian?" drummer Ravish Momin says, with some exasperation. "Or what if I just showed up with an electronic drum pad? If you were a quote unquote, world promoter, you'd be like, 'No…that's not right.'"
Momin and Haitian-born drummer Val Jeanty's electronic music project Turning Jewels into Water draws on influences and collaborators from across the planet, but, as Momin says, their music isn't easily slotted into any one genre. On their new album from FPE Records, Our Reflection Adorned by Newly Formed Stars, laptops sound like traditional instruments and geeky experimentation is indistinguishable from spiritual yearning. It's music that pounds and shakes and shimmies so hard it lifts off from any one country, drumming in the stratosphere, and points higher up.
Momin's been difficult to pin down ever since he was a child. Though he was born in India, his father's job at an Australian bank kept the family on the move. "We lived in the Middle East for a minute. We lived in Australia for a minute. We lived in Hong Kong for a minute. We were just traveling around, and I was picking up music in all those places," Momin told me.
The family finally settled in New York in the late '80s when Momin was around 14. He was interested in jazz, and started taking drumming lessons. But he had trouble finding a teacher comfortable with his range of influences. "They'd be like, man, all that stuff you're doing, we've got to work on getting rid of all that and making you a real jazz drummer," Momin told me. "And I felt bad for a long time, like, oh shit, I'm doing something totally wrong here." It wasn't until after college when he studied with the great avante garde drummed Andrew Cyrille that he started to see his background as a resource rather than a hindrance. Cyrille, Momin says, "was the first drummer I'd gone to who listened to my audition and said, okay, cool, I see what you have. But I also see what you don't have. So let's find a way to make that work."
Momin went on to lead the global/jazz band Tarana for 14 years. He gradually became more and more interested in incorporating electronic percussion into his music. But, he says, "I immediately found out [I] was not accepted in the so-called jazz world at all. You can't be a legitimate jazz musician and have a laptop on stage. That was just heresy for a long time. It's still stuck, believe it or not, where Miles [Davis] left off. There are innovators, obviously, that have been pushing it, but it really hasn't kept up with electronic innovation happening elsewhere."
Looking for a new direction, Momin invited Val Jeanty to jam with him while he was in residency at Brooklyn's Pioneer Works. The two, who were already friends, clicked musically. Their first album as Turning Jewels Into Water, Map of Absences, was released in 2019.
Jeanty "was the first person that I met who was channeling electronics with this spiritual vibe," Momin says. "And I'd never really experienced that. I'd only heard experimental electronics like blips and screech, or very much four-on-the floor techno in New York. So it was incredible to hear this historical, organic rootedness, and have it still be all digital."
Jeanty started drumming with her family in Haiti during Vodou religious rituals. "You can think of it like church music, but in a different culture," she told me. "The drums are very important; it's like the heartbeat. Each rhythmic pattern is dedicated to a specific ritual."
For Jeanty, raised with drumming as part of religious festivals, all music is a spiritual practice. "In our culture, there's no separation between what we do and the music. It's all one. It's all a prayer. It feels for me like a spiritual practice, whether I'm listening to classical music, whether I'm listening to John Coltrane. It's the same thing."
Working with Momin has been exciting, Jeanty says, because "in the Indian culture, the music is very spiritual. So, we have that connection instantly. And he's also very progressive pushing it as far as using triggers, using Ableton Live. That's the stuff that I love. It's just great to have similar aspirations as far as keeping connected to the culture but working with electronic instruments."
One of the album's most ambitious mixtures of traditional and electronic music is "Crushed Petals and Stones Fall On My Drum." The track features South African percussionist and musician Mpho Molikeng, who plays a range of African instruments, including the lesiba (a mouth-resonated bow), and the mamokhorong (a kind of single-stringed violin). On the collaboration between Molikeng, Momin and Jeanty, electronics and indigenous instruments drone, thump and shake around each other as Molikeng chants, and it's virtually impossible to tell the analog from the digital. Here and there, meatspace and binary realm stomp and change places in a joyous dance or trance. And then they get up and do it again on a remix by Shanghai producer Laughing Ears, who ads a vivid club-ready techno sheen. From Haiti to India to South Africa to Shanghai, the petals fall everywhere, nowhere, and on all the spots in between.
"Swirl in the Waters," is another collaboration, this time with Washington, D.C.-based Iranian singer Kamyar Arsani, who plays the daf, a wide drum, and fronts the punk band Time is Fire. "I've been trying to get people involved in the project, who can again span different worlds and can do different things," Momin says, and, sure enough, on "Swirl in the Waters" Arsani moves seamlessly from spooky post-punk intonation to ululating Middle Eastern chant. "I used to be a goth when I was a high-school teen," Momin laughs, "and this track has that dark energy."
The album's title track, "Our Reflection Adorned by Newly Formed Stars" is a tribute to the Siddis, a group of Indians of East African origin who are believed to have come to India in the 600s AD. Momin says he was not aware of the Siddis while growing up. Their history is not commonly taught in much of India, a fact which Momin attributes to anti-Blackness. But, Momin says, "they have been here in India for a long time, and they came in not as slaves, which is really important to know. It's one of on the first instances of Africans ruling a non-African population."
The video for the song, designed by Art Jones, includes historical Siddi images, and a dancer rotoscoped in angular blocks of color, so they seem to pulse from future to past and back again. "It's capturing the spirit of the Siddis and the dancers and the movement. It's an imaginary timeline of what would have happened, if they had never lost their grandeur, and were still regal. It's creating awareness of the Siddis and their plight."
A track about the Siddis, and their mix of African and Indian culture and art, fits naturally on an album by a duo from the African and Indian diasporas, creating music steeped in where they're from, where they are and the journeying between the two. A tribute to the Siddi was initially Momin's idea, Jeanty says, but it made sense to her. "We're all connected. Especially right now with all this separation and division, I think it's important for us to know that we all belong to one thing, to one mother."
Work on the album began before the coronavirus made travel impossible, but the collaborators had to finish it in isolation, sending files back and forth. Jeanty acknowledged that the conditions were not ideal. "There's something spiritual about being in the same space at the same time," she said. "The virus is disconnecting us more, so it was a little bit more challenging than if we were together." The disconnection and the need to focus made the recording process "a little bit more intense. I do feel like there were some really potent moments that I couldn't get if this COVID thing wasn't happening," she laughed.
Our Reflection…is an album about bridging distances, that didn't seem bridgeable by music, boat or byte. "We want to just showcase the idea that, hey, look, we're still doing all this stuff, where we're bringing all these rhythmic and melodic and other practices from our folkloric traditions, but we're doing it in this new environment," Momin says. That new environment is the whole world, and some newly formed stars as well.