Diaspora Jazz: My personal reflection of Miguel Zenon’s Identities are Changeable

Andrew Viñales is a current OHMA student. In this post, he reflects on the meaning of diaspora jazz.

On December 3rd Miguel Zenon presented on his jazz project entitled Identities are Changeable. This work is a composition of interviews that Zenon beautifully frames in conversation with music. Although I am not familiar with jazz, I am familiar with the subject of the interviews, the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York.

I absolutely loved listening to the project, indeed I watched the performance on YouTube, and listened to video tracks multiple times. I listened to the voices of notable figures Sonia Manazano and Juan Flores, as well as other Puerto Ricans from the diaspora. While listening I could hear the voices of people in my Puerto Rican family and imagined how they would answer some of the questions. It was a very personal experience for me.

During one of my intense listening sessions of Identities are Changeable I was riding on the subway. I banged along on my travel bag, as if it were a percussion instrument. Listening to the jazz sounds and interviews I composed my own diasporic patterns. Suddenly an elderly Puerto Rican sitting across from me grabs my attention, “¿Tu tocas?” She asked if I played drums.

“I wish!” I responded, in English.

This experience is exactly what Identities are Changeable is all about.

The track “Through Culture and Tradition” opens with the interviewees answering questions about language. “And through the music I was able to understand my family and understand the language and understand the food, but music was the starting point,” one of Zenon’s interviewees says. This, as a Puerto Rican from the diaspora—a “Nuyorican”—is frankly, extremely relatable. 

From my experience banging on my bag and communicating with a Puerto Rican elder, I could understand completely. As the title of the track suggests, it’s through the culture and traditions that many people of the Puerto Rican diaspora can understand where there is a language barrier.

While composing the music for this piece, Zenon explains he used a traditional rhythm passed down to him from his grandmother. He claims he remembers his grandmother sitting him on her lap and hopping him around to the upbeat rhythm we hear in the track. Funny enough the drum pattern I unconsciously banged on my bag was a basic Bomba beat. Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance that comes primarily from Afro-Puerto Rican communities. Over the summer I participated in a Bomba workshop and a learned how to play some basic patterns. Although Zenon does not incorporate Bomba into his music, my access to the jazz was facilitated by this cultural phenomenon! (For a masterful Bomba performance please check out the video Siembra Maestra - Virginia).

While listening to the music and watching the videos I couldn’t help but listen to the conversation being had about identities. What are the rules for identifying with a particular group of people? Miguel Zenon’s narrators all identify in some way as Puerto Rican. They were not born on the island and they may not have as much access to the language as their parents or grandparents. But something beyond these markers leads them to still consider themselves as such. I would argue it is the rich cultural traditions passed on to them that allows them to continue that identity, or even turn that identity into something else. 

This photo demonstrates what I believe this identity looks like. Many of the people in this photo, my cousins, were not born in Puerto Rico, but with the guidance of my great-grandmother, Abuela Lydia, we still hold on to some cultural practices. Even the decorative cake speaks to how the diaspora holds on to our traditions as best as we can in New York. Notice the “Feliz Cumpleaños” adornments!

I found Miguel Zenon’s work and conversation in the jazz project Identities are Changeable to be a very honest look at the tension I would like to call Diaspora Blues. In this case I would call it Diaspora Jazz! The jazz ensemble picks up on the tension and allows for people to think critically about identity.

During the talk I was able to ask Miguel Zenon if he saw himself as an oral historian. Although he, understandably so, answered that he does not identify as an oral historian, I believe this project belongs in conversation with what oral historians are doing. I hope my thesis, where I plan on placing music from the Lukumí traditions in conversation with oral history interviews of practitioners of the religion, will do something similar to what Zenon has done. Zenon’s interviews (which although they are not of the best audio quality, are structured intuitively like an oral history interview) put people in conversation with his jazz. Here, I see the potential of oral history to facilitate this discussion for people within the Puerto Rican and Nuyorican communities as well as facilitate similar discussions in other communities. In that vein, Identities are Changeable is a model that can be expanded to other projects!