Juwana Jenkins was featured in a leading, Czech newspaper, The Prague Post. Juwana talked to Tony Ozuna about her new album, what blues means to her and the creation of Juwana Jenkins and Her All-Star Mojo Band. Tell us what you think in the comments below.
After so many years of doing it live, a local singer lays down her tracks.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Juwana Jenkins came to Prague via St. Petersburg after a month of traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express, her return leg from South Korea, where she had gone to teach English as a Fulbright scholar four years earlier. Jenkins got here Sept. 1, 1998, and, upon arrival, “fell head over heels in love with Prague: It was love at first sight.”
And while Prague isn’t where she first started singing, this town is where she first started singing the blues.
“When I think of the blues,” she says, “I think of sultry, hot rooms where the music is so good the people in the room don’t mind sweating, whether it’s 10 p.m. or 3 a.m.”
And this is what Jenkins and her Mojo Band hope to create when they celebrate her 40th birthday with a concert at Jazz Dock Tuesday, Sept. 25, just a few days after the release party for her new CD, The Blues Keeps You Alive Thursday, Sept. 20 at Hard Rock Café.
The CD was recorded from April through August at the Reel Blues Studio in Řevnice with the Hammond B-3 wunderkind Jan Kořínek as producer, who also ended up joining the group as organist and even returned to his original instrument, the electric bass, exclusively for Jenkins’ band.
The rest of Mojo was initially assembled in 2010 for the Blues Alive festival in Šumperk. (The CD’s title refers to this.)
“It was supposed to be a one-off private event, a band formed by special request,” she says. “The organizer asked to make a band so I can sing with certain musicians.”
Those musicians included a new generation of up-and-coming Czech blues scenesters, including the guitarist Marcel Flemr and the harmonica player Charlie Slavík.
And so with this lineup, the Juwana Jenkins Mojo Blues Band debuted at Hard Rock Cafe, then performed at Blues Alive, and, to wrap it up, they went on to Poland.
“‘Why stop after Blues Alive?’ we thought,” Jenkins says.
There are 12 songs on the CD, 11 originals and one cover: “Hound Dog,” first recorded by Big Mama Thornton, but done with a slow latin-rhumba beat. Shortly after Big Mama Thornton’s recording, in 1952, a young guy from Memphis named Elvis Presley also made a quite significant version of this one.
For Jenkins, the CD is her way of offering a permanent collection to those who have sweated it out at her live shows. “After 14 years of living here, finally I have something new I can offer them that would be interesting,” she says.
It is also the latest achievement in a life of dedication to her art. “I don’t remember when I wasn’t singing,” Jenkins says. “I was in gospel choir as a little kid in church growing up in Philadelphia, then I sang in the choir in high school, and in college, I sang in the gospel choir.”
The blues wasn’t such a great leap for her musically once she came across the Ray Charles school of similarities between the sacred and the profound: In church, you sing, “Oh lord,” and in rhythm and blues you sing, “Oh baby.”
She has a long way to go with the music. “I’m just a baby when it comes to singing the blues,” Jenkins says, pointing out the greatest blues singers hit their prime in their late middle age, in their 50s and beyond. For Jenkins, the greatest means Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton and Dinah Washington.
‘My own sound’
Jenkins is the kind of woman who does not go unnoticed by men, and so in 1999 she was recruited to join the group the Double-Deckers. In 2000, while she was on a mission for that band to buy a microphone, she went into a music shop and met Tonda Smrčka, the leader of the Tonny Blues Band.
“I ended up in his band from 2000-11,” she says. “But now, after 11 years together, I want my own band, my own sound.”
For Jenkins, this means a return to her roots. “I always have a soul-gospel element in my sound,” She says. “From the blues to soul to funk, we cover all shades of the blues.”
To emphasize her band is the real thing, not that newfangled blues-rock, she adds, “It’s that old-school sound from Mississippi through the Chicago Blues. We have an emphasis on harmonica (like Little Walter) and then the funky bass and organ (gospel sound). We have the drum and bass for the groove.”
“I play feel-good blues because I associate the blues with a healing source in terms of feelings,” Jenkins says. “I can cry, but I can also sing instead. I can die, but I can sing, instead.”
“At least now I can say I will not die with my song unsung,” she says.
You can see the original interview here.