Artist Spotlight: Primary

Three women of colour are amplifying their creative voices by playing improv jazz

From left to right: Primary’s Feven Kidane, Suin Park, and KeAloha Noelani perform a different set each time they take the stage. (Aly Laube)

At the heart of any improvisational music is the desire to perform with creativity and freedom, to experiment independently and collaborate with like-minded artists at the same time. Such is the case for Primary, a three-piece jazz-inspired improv group that has been leaving its mark on stages around Vancouver since its debut at the Museum of Anthropology’s International Women’s Day show last March.

Feven Kidane, KeAloha Noelani, and Suin Park came together specifically to play the event after organizers asked Kidane to put a band together for the occasion. That evening—accompanied by local RnB and hip-hop artists JB the FirstLady, Kimmortal, and Missy D as well as the powerful rock n’ roll two-piece Old Soul Rebel—their performance sent ripples of reaction through the audience. Afterwards, excited conversation about keeping up with Noelani’s eclectic percussive style, Park’s multifaceted key playing, and Kidane’s melodic yet unpredictable bass lines filled the concert hall.

Audiences might find themselves listening hard to predict Primary’s next move, but for the trio, the magic in improvisation lies in interpersonal harmony. The three musicians, all women of colour, feel united by their common experiences and hobbies. Part of that unity is knowing the struggle to get ahead and have a seat at the table. This collective understanding helps them to not only compose spontaneously together, but to create a musical style and image that is uniquely their own.

Noelani is heavily inspired by her upbringing as a dancer—tap dancing led her to a drum kit for the first time. Park, who says she takes most of her inspiration from the musicians she plays with, also enjoys using the pentatonic scale she learned back home in Korea when she performs with Primary. Kidane is currently a full-time jazz student at Capilano University, and a long-time fan of prog and experimental legends like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and King Crimson’s Bill Bruford.

The name of the project itself is inspired by “the idea of three components making infinite combinations,” according to Noelani. But more than celebrating their individual roots, Primary gives them the opportunity to have their voices heard in what the trio describes as Vancouver’s predominantly white and male jazz scene.

“I think we also have a lot of the same values in that we all come from not Western cultures as well,”  says Kidane. “We can have dialogue about everything and we feel completely comfortable talking with each other. This is the first group I’ve ever played in that’s all people of colour and it’s really refreshing.” 

“All people of colour and femmes,” continues Noelani. “A thing that honestly makes me so proud and so raw about this group is the fact that we are not white girls and we are not white boys …. It’s exciting to have this as a group because we’re creating great opportunities for ourselves and we’re representing.” 

For her, she says that has been “hugely healing and inspiring,” as well as helping her to “open up her mind to her own individuality and identity.” Kidane agrees, noting how being outside of expectations of what a woman in Canadian music looks like—white and blonde, for the most part—can be empowering in a group that works for you.

“KeAloha and Feven always respect me and always try to listen to what I play,” adds Park. “That makes me want to play more.” 

It also allows them to flex their musical muscles and have a little fun with their craft.

“My whole life I’ve been feeling restricted by music,” says Kidane. “I remember the first and last time I was ever allowed to lead worship in youth group, I was playing bass and doing background vocals, and I’m originally a singer before anything else. I was really on my chamber choir kick, and I was doing all these weird harmonies … and they never let me do it again.”

“I think it was just that they had a structure and I didn’t fit into that because I didn’t want to. It wasn’t an opportunity lost, but it was like, ‘I better find some place for me where I’m going to be embraced.’” 

For her, on stage with Primary is that place. Park and Noelani feel much the same.

“That’s the interesting thing with free music, is that the priority is to listen first,” says Noelani. “We don’t have a part that’s pre-determined, so it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s make this together.’” 

If you’re interested in following Primary, follow its members individually. Feven Kidane can be followed on Instagram at @thehabeshaman, KeAloha Noelani at @kealoha_noelani, and Suin Park at @fermata.park. In the next few months, they’re hoping to start writing vocal parts for their music for the first time.