Beat in Chicago

by Karen Zarker


Shu Shubat
Courtesy of Russel Brown O’Brien, “Live at Old Town School”
Seay in rehearsal

One thing about Jellyeye: you can’t jam ‘em in jar and slap on a neat little label. Me and my girl’s heads were nodding to the “block-rocking beats” (nod to Chemical Brothers) at their performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and we’re thinking, “Acoustic techno — it’s that primal, physical beat — like Prodigy or Underworld”. But Jellyeye’s Artistic Director, Shu Shubat, will tell you techno beats sound to her like nails being hammered into a board.

“I have to say I’ve always had a low tolerance for techno because of the compressed, claustrophobic feeling it gives me,” says Shubat, “The pitch frequencies of the electronic sounds are irritating to my brain and the beat I associate with it is that relentless, disco thump that I find impossible to dance to ‘cause there’s no breath in it.”

Shubat and Producing Director, Ollie Seay, founders of this 11-year-old, drum opera/performance rock/world beat, Jellyeye, prefer the pounding sound of blood pumping in their veins to any plug-in generated noise. That’s right; they’re into the organic, tangible feel of vibrating wood in their hands and the hard connect to the ground below — when their feet aren’t flying. Think Japanese Kodo drummers, or African Burundi drummers: an intense physical beat right out of the body, onto the drum, into the atmosphere where you take a breath and . . . damn, these guys rock!

And “rock” is just one way to describe Jellyeye. Think Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and how they “danced” with their guitars and you’ll understand what spawned Jellyeye’s dances with drums. Now, think the rhythm ‘n blues of Bo Diddley’s early work, the swing of Louie Jordan, the soul of the Supremes, and you’ll get a sense of their breadth of style.

Jellyeye is a pulsing composite of eight drummers, a sax player, a bass player, and Shubat with her guitar (when she’s not on the drums herself). These musicians, who might come and go, move and change throughout the years, find Jellyeye “like snowflakes find a snowball”. One way to sum-up Jellyeye musicians is a group of music teachers (and other music professionals) who’ve got sport; bike riders, martial arts enthusiasts, runners — they are precise performers who put their bodies into it.

Doing the Math
Jellyeye is geometry, as in complex, interlocking patterns of movement (see the Celtic-looking image on their website, which captures this movement). Jellyeye drummers dance in constantly shifting patterns while drumming equally shifting rhythms and they do it all without missing a beat. “Blood Lotus” is conducted on 12 customized drums (imagine oil drums that have been whacked with a finely tuned sledge hammer, then bolted onto wheels). In this singular piece the patterns of movement and the performers’ spinning tunics flare out to create a stunning, flower-like visual, very much like their logo, which Shubat describes as “part of a very ancient mandala which depicts the creation of life”. The dance of “Blood Lotus” looks like a diagram of atoms and electrons moving, or the orbiting of planets, or a spinning, pulsating, something in the process of being born.

As I’ve seen Jellyeye performances, here and there throughout the years, I’ve always been surprised; they’re never the same. In pieces such as “Blood Lotus”, arms and legs twirl as white tunics swirl, bodies jump and spin from drum to drum, spit and split sticks fly and the sound moves and morphs into motions of transforming rhythms. Next piece; the drummers sit cross-legged on stage, straight-backed and stoic. Cymbals are affixed to their heads by a soft, white fabric tied under their chins, invoking the image of Chinese peasants working the rice fields in their bamboo hats. The musicians raise their arms, unencumbered by the posture, and tap out complex rhythms on their now metallic heads.

Next piece: the bright, surprising presence of Shubat and her guitar, strumming and smiling so big and happy, her voice is clear and strong, sweet and swingy. An observer of their performance piece, “Six Black Horses”, described Shubat and Jellyeye as “gothic Patsy Cline”. Another was going on about Peggy Lipton. “I was thinking ‘What? . . . . Mod Squad?’, says Shubat, “Turns out he meant Peggy Lee. I’m constantly amazed by what people say about Jellyeye, so the Mod Squad thing was almost making sense.” I am caught up in her magnanimous stage presence, glowing brighter than her red cowgirly dress, and I wonder, could Jellyeye so electrify me from a CD as they do from the stage?

The Drum Before the Stick
There is no definite meaning to the word, “Jellyeye”. Rather, it’s a juxtaposition of words that creates a nice visual rhythm — kinda like “Shu Shubat” does. From this wiggly word sprung forth the myth of Jellyeye, the central character in the 1992 play, Avalanch Ranch (yes, that’s another visual rhythmic phrase). (For more on Avalanch Ranch, a collaboration with Bryn Magnus, see Curious Theater Branch).

In Avalanch Ranch , the actors/drummers used tom-toms made with rawhide skin. The drums, covered with paper maché facades so that each drum resembled a little cow, were mounted on wheels. That’s right Avalanch Ranch and its herd of punk-drumming, square-dancing cows, set to the lyrics of a surrealistic Western, was the very seed of Jellyeye. Indeed, the Avalanch Ranch story was fantastic in a surreal, Paul Bunyan kinda way. As we all know, extraordinary things happened in Bunyan’s mythic frontier landscape . . .

” . . . so Pa lashed out with his ax to see if she was real . . . split her forehead wide revealing a hidden jellyeye that opened up with such terrifying force it knocked Pa on the ground . . . Mama ran to the mirror and there it was — spooky and throbbing as a newborn toadstool — the jellyeye.

The Raw Throb
Surprisingly, Shubat and Seay did not grow up with artists in the family, nor did either formally study theater, music, or dance. Shubat, a native of Chicago, has Croation in her lineage, although “Shu” is not a Croation name. A linguistic’s professor told her “shubat” means “February” in a dead Turkish language called “Altac”. A Google search on the word “Shubat” brought up “fermeted camels milk”. Perhaps this mystery of the origin of her name helps explain the undeniably world music feel to Shubat’s mystical, semi-song/performance pieces that bloom out of the Jellyeye beat.

Shubat describes her former life as a “street skater”, and Seay’s music studies didn’t go past a marching band in high school. Seay the quiet, understated type, is a Georgia-raised transplant to Chicago who has, clearly, taken root in this city and blossomed. Watching Seay drum, I could only imagine him exploding with expression in a Georgia football field — stretching the restricted boundaries of a marching band into something far grander — something like a shy version of Devon Miles in the film Drumline (2002). Seay must have drumsticks for bones; he was born with it to the marrow.

And Shubat’s former life was that of a street skater? I imagine her twirling around pedestrians with one leg in the air and a hat in hand while she serenaded startled but charmed pedestrians. That sounds like something one might see in Wicker Park, Jellyeye’s home base. This west side Chicago neighborhood is one of those eclectic, artsy, multi-disciplinary places; a veritable cultural infusion serving up spicy brews of somewhat indeterminate origins. (Guess that makes Jellyeye more like chutney than jam.)

Despite their obvious joy and dedication to what they do, Shubat and Seay express a vague dissatisfaction with their work. When asked if they could compare Jellyeye to other drum groups, Seay says, “We try not to watch other groups. We try to do our own thing.” Hmmm . . . Perhaps Jellyeye suffers from that obsessive perfectionism that so often keeps artists too tightly reined. “Because we plan our stuff out so much, we don’t get that feeling that we’re at rock idiom level . . . (we don’t have) the raw energy of it”, says Shubat. “I’m not happy at all with myself as a guitarist”.

Well, I am. But alas, Jellyeye’s public performances are sparse. Their main source of revenue is corporate entertainment. Shubat and Seay’s immediate aspirations would be a gig for a TV commercial — say flashes of twirling drummers interspersed with a slick, speeding Japanese car. That would be cool. And hey, we all gotta make a living. I do the corporate gig as a day job, too. And I’m happy to have that steady paycheck. But as I’m bouncing in my seat at an arts venue, in which they are too rare to appear, I have a hard time visualizing Jellyeye’s “Blood Lotus” and “Curve” on the same stage as a suit with his podium and microphone.

Yet I can easily close my eyes to their visual spectacle and simply be thrilled by Jellyeye’s sound. Anyone who listens to world music, electronic, and yes, techno, would know that what Jellyeye does would rock on CD. Maybe some day, it will.

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