Ravish Momin describes Turning Jewels Into Water as “folk music from nowhere.” He quickly clarifies that this type of folk music has nothing to do with someone like John Gorka.
“I’m talking [about] folk instruments of our time, which to me are the electronics. The guitar was a folk instrument in the ’60s. But now everybody has a phone so to me, these are the folk instruments of our time,” he says. As he thinks about his musical background and that of his bandmate Val Jeanty, he adds, “And for me, it’s about taking all these familiar elements – like Indian rhythms and Haitian rhythms – and putting them together hopefully in this new way.”
Turning Jewels Into Water consists of Momin on electronic percussion and Jeanty on turntables and electronic percussion. Both can lay claim to a wide range of musical experiences, including jazz improvisation. When they connected during a residency at Pioneer Works, an artist-run cultural center in Brooklyn, they immediately began collaborating. Their music moves constantly, not just with grooves but with additional sonic elements coming and going overtop of the steady beat of Momin’s drums. To that, they infuse the music with messages regarding environmental justice.
Momin’s interest in music began while he studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1990s. He played in Ensemble Duchamp, an avant jazz quartet with the unlikely instrumentation of drums, piano, oboe and tuba. Momin enthusiastically attacked his trap kit, combining punk rock enthusiasm with a knowledge of free jazz drumming techniques. “We were ahead of our time,” he recalls. “I hate to use that phrase because it’s a cliché. But we were doing Ornette and Pat Metheny and Kurt Weill. Just weird stuff mixed together. Even now it’s not that common.”
As he talks by phone from his New York home, Momin looks back fondly on the Pittsburgh music scene, recalling the rise of both Rusted Root and Don Caballero in the same breath. The political climate of that time, with the Persian Gulf War, had as much of an impact on him. “That was definitely really important me to me — being aware of [the idea that] you can be a player but there are all these other issues also,” he says. “What is the role of music, ultimately? So I was always trying to think about that. After meeting those free jazz guys like Archie Shepp, it really all sunk in. It’s all part of the aesthetic.”
Momin moved to New York in the late ’90s and took drum lessons with Andrew Cyrille, who played with envelope-pushing jazz musicians like pianist Cecil Taylor. Following that experience, he worked with everyone from pop singer Shakira to free jazz saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, as well as his own group Taranna.
He and Jeanty named their project Turning Jewels Into Water to express their concern for the environment. “The idea — I hope it’s obvious — is really that, in the future, water is going to become a precious commodity. And it’s already happening,” Momin says. “I was reading an article about how a lot of places are losing drinking water and [feeling the effects of] climate change. How do we deal with that?”
The release of their new album Map of Absences coincides with the appearance in Pittsburgh. On the album, Jeanty, whose past collaborations include the late Geri Allen, and Momin might rely on electronics to create their music but they infuse it with the real-time reactions they honed as improvisers. “It’s different from a lot of ‘electronic music,’ where you hit Play and the track sounds the same, 120 bpm,” Momin says. “No, I want to make electronic music that has that fluidity of jazz, but it’s all digital.”