American singer Joan Wasser, aka Joan As Police Woman, on hiking Dominica’s Valley of Desolation, music lessons with Pygmies, and the ‘extreme extremes’ of New York City
I was conceived in the town of Orono in the sticks of Maine. My parents were teenagers and because of this, my mother was sent to a home run by nuns to give birth to me. I spent less than a week there before my adoptive parents picked me up. I’ve since met both my birth parents and their families and I’m lucky enough now to have a hearty family tree.
My hometown where I grew up was Norwalk, Connecticut. It’s a bit of a microcosm of New York City: very diverse culturally, with varied economic backgrounds. It’s also on the ocean, like New York City. There were many Spanish speakers; many of my schoolmates were first generation Americans. It gave me some perspective of the world and how much larger the world might be.
It was also on a commuter train line into New York City (pictured, above), which I started to use when I was a teenager. It felt magical watching the scenery change as the train entered Harlem and then Grand Central Station.
New York City is the place that’s been the greatest influence on me. For me, it’s about the people, the quickness, the music and visual art everywhere. The diversity, the extreme extremes, the food. The colours, sounds and the sweetness of this city are still compelling to me.
I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City, USA, Earth… on the east side of the East River, just south of Queens. From my roof, I have a direct view down 34th Street into Manhattan. This neighbourhood still has a strong Polish presence. There are many shops that speak Polish first, English a far second.
There’s been so much money filtered into New York City and Brooklyn in particular, and that’s clearly reflected in my neighbourhood. I can’t lie; I like the better coffee but scratch my head at the pricey pottery boutiques with four pieces in them. I do love it because there’s still a small village feeling. I know a lot of the characters that make this area interesting. I hope they stick around.
My first great travel experience was to Bonaire (pictured, below), which is part of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean, as a teenager. My brother and I did some research and found the place most highly regarded for coral reefs, and then we began to beg our parents to go, which they finally accepted. We spent every single day snorkeling in the ocean for eight hours. We swam with the variety of sea life in wonder and awe: angelfish, barracuda, starfish, spiny urchins... It was life-altering.
I travelled to Ethiopia with (Damon Albarn’s project) Africa Express in 2010. We visited Addis Ababa and the surrounding areas, and Harar, the fourth most holy city to Islam. As you might imagine, this trip changed my life. I’d been to Africa once before, to the Johannesburg area of South Africa, and the two countries couldn’t have been more different.
I had studies with the Mbuti Pygmy people when I was at school. This introduction peaked my interest and had pushed me to listen to all the music I could find from the continent.
What I found in Ethiopia was nothing I could have ever learned from outside the country. I heard two women singing polyphonic folk music that sounded like 10 women singing. I heard bar bands who used drums, bass and synths with all the traditional Arabic instrument patches, where people from the crowd would come up and spontaneously and ecstatically sing.
I went to a ‘Catholic Mass’ that seemed like a combination of Christianity and Islam; it started at 4am and had men free-chanting across the cathedral. I heard drumming and rhythms I’m still trying to wrap my head around. I found people who were friendly and generous beyond explanation.
In late 2013, I met (musician) Benjamin Lazar Davis in New York. We learned we both had an affinity for the solo Pygmy single note flute/vocal music and began writing a record using those melodies as ostinatos (musical phrases) for songs. These songs comprise six out of the 10 songs on the new Let It Be You record.
My greatest adventure, though, was probably Dominica. This place is like a film set of what ‘paradise’ would look like. There are waterfalls at every turn. It’s mostly covered in rainforest.
There’s a boiling lake stemming from the volcanic activity on the island. To get there, you trek several hours through the thick jungle with guides who machete a path for you. When you start to get close, there are gasses escaping from the ground and streams of minerals that create black, silver, red, mustard yellow and green trickles that wind through what’s called the Valley of Desolation.
There are cremation pyres on the Ganges that happen 24 hours a day, with the families dressed in white performing the funereal rituals. 100 feet away, there are devotees purifying themselves in the river. 100 feet from there, women are doing their laundry in the same river. As always, there are cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians and cows in the streets, all battling for dominance.
I met a Mater Sitar player there who I took vocal lessons from. The sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feelings are the strongest I’ve ever experienced.
As for favourite food, this is a tough toss-up with Thai and Vietnamese, but it’s the fish and seaweed that pushed me over the edge into Japanese (pictured, above).
For music, I always love the UK and Ireland. Thank goodness for the love of music that still exists in the UK and Ireland. It reminds me of how I was when I was growing up, in love with finding new bands and buying new records. Somehow they’ve retained this feeling through the digital age.
The new album Let It Be You by Joan As Police Woman and Benjamin Lazar Davis is out October 21 on Reveal Records. A single, Broke Me In Two, is out Sept 30.
Joan and Benjamin are touring the UK from Nov 14-21, including dates in Glasgow, Manchester and London, before heading to European cities in Germany, Belgium, France, Denmark and more throughout November and December. See joanaspolicewoman.com for details.
(All travel photos above, including New York, Bonaire oceanscape, volcanic landscape in Dominica, the Ganges in India and Japanese sushi, are from Dreamstime.)