Identities Are Changeable

Erica Zora Wrightson is an OHMA alum and oral history columnist for The LA Times. In this post, she shares her conversation with jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Check out OHMA's workshop with Erica and Miguel on December 3, 2015.

Identities Are Changeable, the latest album from Miguel Zenon, is as much an oral history of Nuyorican experience from the Puerto Rican-born saxophonist, composer, bandleader, producer, and educator, as it is a distinct musical accomplishment from the Grammy Award winner, Guggenheim and Mac Arthur fellow. For the project, New York-based Zenon interviewed seven fellow Puerto Rican transplants about their ethnic and national associations and their perceptions of home, and then wrote music around and through their voices. A vibrant ode to self-identity and belonging, the narrative of Zenon’s interviews is carried by the warm native voice of his saxophone backed by what he calls the Identities Big Band, a twelve-piece brass ensemble. The first track, “De Donde Vienes?,” serves as an overture for the six-part song cycle, in which the interviewees reveal their name and places of birth as though Broadway actors making their entrance on a stage. While each takes their solo, the band swells behind—an attentive audience, or a village—a familial sound lifting them up.

The album celebrates the freedom and explores the limitations of identity as tied to place. One interviewee talks about being perceived as “black” because of his non-whiteness and about identifying more with the difference that other people seemed to define him by than with his proximity to them. Another admits he feels little connection to his parents’ homeland and doesn’t speak Spanish or know exactly where they’re from. Zenon’s voice surfaces through his horn and when he asks questions, “Tell me your name, where you were born and raised, and where your family is from,” but we never hear his personal story. That’s because this is not a work of memoir, but a portrait of a community. In the liner notes, he speaks a bit about his process gathering the oral histories that would eventually comprise the work:

“Before conducting these interviews, I allowed each individual to choose the location for our meeting (most of them chose their homes or places of work). I did this primarily because I wanted them to be as comfortable as possible during our conversations and to avoid putting them in the potentially intimidating and unfamiliar environment of a recording studio. But I also made this decision because I wanted to have the possibility of capturing some of the sounds of New York City: the occasional car or bus driving by; next-door neighbors talking or listening to music; kids playing in the background or in a park right outside the window. These sounds all ended up finding their place within each conversation, making this project (as was originally my purpose) as much about the city itself as it is about the people that live in it.”

To find out more about the making of his album, writer and Columbia University oral history master’s student Erica Zora Wrightson sat down with Zenon at his apartment in Washington Heights, New York. Below is an excerpt from their interview.

Erica Zora Wrightson: Thank you for being here, Miguel. I have been a fan of your music for awhile and am excited to be speaking with you today. If you don’t mind, I’d love to talk with you a bit about Identities Are Changeable. I’m curious first about how you came up with this project, why you decided to do it, and also a little bit about the logistics—how you decided to interview people and what you told them you were doing.

Miguel Zenon: So the project grew out of just an interest of mine in learning more about the phenomenon that is the Puerto Rican community in the United States, particularly in New York City, which is the largest outside of Puerto Rico. It has been here for almost 100 years. In 1917, a law was passed that made Puerto Ricans citizens, the Jones Act. Since then, pretty much, it's been easier for Puerto Ricans than anyone else in Latin America to come to the United States. And New York, being New York, was sort of the epicenter of that and the whole thing and people coming in to work at factories and all this stuff. Everyone in my family and my wife's family and my generation has a family member who at some point lived in New York. So, it's something that's been going on for a very, very long time.

My father, once my parents separated, he moved to New York and he lived here for the rest of his life, he passed away awhile ago. And I have family here. I have siblings here, cousins and people from my father’s side who are from Puerto Rico, but they made their life here. My siblings live in the Bronx. So, ever since I was little—maybe around 10 or 11—I started coming over to visit them. I was shocked about this idea that people spoke my language and they ate the same food, but then you look outside and it looks different, some people speaking different languages, it's like, "What's going on?"

So that was always in my head for a very long time. And also hearing stories from my mom, she spent a lot of time over here when she was a kid, and my wife's family too, so you get this perspective of like there's almost two sides of Puerto Rico, in a way, people who live there and people who are elsewhere. So when I moved to the States, I got even more into it, being in Boston, playing with Puerto Rican communities there and here and my family and all that. And I would say maybe about four years ago I met this guy Juan Flores, who since passed away. And Juan gave me a copy of this book that he wrote. I met him at a gig and he was like, "Man, you know, I like your music," and I thought he was a musician because we started talking about music. He's like, “No, you know, I'm an academic and have been writing about different things.” And he gave me a copy of his book called The Diaspora Strikes Back. And in that book he interviewed a bunch of different individuals from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic. Specifically talked to all of them about their relationship with these countries and with the States and going back and forth and what that had done to their own personalities and identities.

I thought that was super interesting. I had never experienced that kind of thing of somebody else talking about it. All of their experiences being told differently and talking about race and language and tradition and all this stuff. So around that same time, this performing arts center in Montclair University in Jersey approached me about doing something—I had done stuff with them before—about doing something for them like a commission, writing some music. And I was like, maybe I should do something like this. It was kind of in my head at the time. I was like, "Maybe I could interview some people and use those interviews kind of like around the music. I had never done anything like it. I didn't have any experience at all interviewing people. But I just thought it would be cool. I just thought, "This is in my head, now I'm gonna jump on it." So the way I approached it was, I started just contacting everyone that I knew who had been born in New York, around in New York, raised in New York, but had Puerto Rican heritage.

So I started contacting a bunch of people. A lot of people were like, "Yeah, sure," but they never got back to me. Eventually I ended up with the seven individuals who made it into the recording. Including my sister, including Juan, including all these friends and musicians and friends of my brother. So once I started doing the interviews, my initial thought was that I was going to interview individuals and that I was going to write a piece for each. But then, once we started going through the interviews—because I was pretty much asking everyone the same questions, you know, specific things about language and their upbringing and their connection to tradition and their relationship between the Puerto Rican community and the African American community in New York, etcetera.

Some of them, if they were musicians I would ask them something about music, but in general it was very similar. So all these themes started coming out. So I was like, "Maybe what I'll do, instead of writing music for each individual, I write music for each theme." So one theme would be identity, one theme would be home, one theme would be language, and etcetera, one theme would be dealing with the younger generation. And that's how I approached it. So I did interviews. I checked them out, listened to all of them and picked spots that spoke to me that kind of went with the narrative I was trying to create for that specific theme. Connecting what one person said to another, etc. After I'd done that, then I wrote music that incorporated those little excerpts that I had collected from the interviews. So whenever the interviews come in with the music--I'm assuming you heard the record—

EZW: Yes.

MZ: They're meant to be like a solo. They're meant to be like what's happening at that point. And then that'll disappear and they'll be some solos and some music and then that will come back in and it's kind of this back-and-forth between the music and the interviews. But the music was really written around the excerpts.

EZW: So you wrote the music totally after all the interviews?

MZ: Yes.

EZW: So I'm really interested in the overture. Because it feels like a fanfare, almost like an overture for a musical. People are entering and you get these little snippets of them and you get a taste of who you're going to hear moving forward. How did you envision it when you started writing the music? What was important to you? And how did you pair it with the voices? I feel like that's a pretty difficult thing to do.

MZ: It was super difficult. What I did was, specifically dealing with the interviews and writing the music around it, the first thing I should say is, when I wrote the music, I was trying to find a way to translate this idea of identity. Which, this whole Identities Are Changeable thing is a quote from Juan, it's something that he says in one of the interviews. But this idea of identity being something that could change throughout your lifetime and it could be multiple within one individual and all this stuff. And I basically started thinking about rhythm, because I was trying to translate that into music. And a lot of the stuff that I had done before with Puerto Rican themes or whatever, I was dealing with music. I was dealing with this style of music and trying to get that into jazz. But, in this case, it wasn't music, it was something else. It was coming from a different place. So I was trying to translate that into musical terms.

So I started thinking about rhythm and how you could use rhythm to represent identity or entities. And how you could have different layers of rhythm sort of reacting to each other. And one could be in the forefront, another could go back, and sometimes they'd switch places, sometimes they'd interact. So every tune is written that way. It's written from the perspective of rhythm and everything is built on that. And the rhythmic thing representing identity. And of course, if I didn't say this, maybe it wouldn't matter, but it matters to me because I was trying to find a way to connect every tune so that they all came from the same place ideologically. So, when I started writing the music and started trying to find ways to fit the interviews within the pieces, I would kind of create these sections. I would say, "OK, this is the section where that interview is going to happen. Within the piece, sometimes it would be right before the piece starts. So I had to basically time it. And we played the piece a bunch before we recorded it. So when we did it live, I said, OK, so if the interview started before the music, I'd tell the first guy, the piano player or drummer, when he says this then you start playing and then you play that section six times and we timed it so by the time he ends the interview then the music enters so we did it that way and the record was much easier because I could see it and I could just slide it in. When we did it live, it was like, OK, so this section is going to be six times because that's how long it takes for the interview to run out over that. So that's kind of how I was thinking about it.

For the overture, which is the last thing that I wrote out of the bunch, what I was trying to do was just that. Introduce each person before you heard any of the music. They said their name, where they were from. And I was throwing in snippets from each piece kind over to see each piece from a different perspective I guess, but that was the idea, presenting each individual and presenting each piece on that first thing.

EZW: How did your band feel about playing the music?

MZ: That's a good question. When I wrote all the music, I wrote it all for quartet first, not for the big band. And we started playing the music instrumentally, just on our own, just as tunes, without interviews or anything. Then I started bringing my computer with me on the road and I would play clips on the shows and see how that worked out. And then we started playing it with the big band and putting on the show with the video, interviews, and stuff. So for us, it was a process that went from just playing the music as we would be playing anything else and then adding those layers. For them, it didn't really make much of a difference by the time we added those layers because we had been playing the music for so long it wasn't like it was weird. We're playing these things and the interviews are just going to be on top of what we always play.

EZW: And did you get responses from people who you interviewed about the album?

MZ: Yeah.

EZW: How did they feel about it?

MZ: They were very happy about it. Most of the people that I interviewed, maybe with the exception of one, were all people that I knew really well and were close to me—my sister, and Bonifide [Rojas], who was my brother's best friend, a Nuyorican poet; and Juan, and a couple of musicians, Luques [Curtis] and Camilo [Molina], and this lady Sonia Manzano—she's great, she's always at the shows and we always interact. So the first thing I did was I sent it to them and they listened to it and said, "Oh it's so great." And they were very surprised. And a lot of them had seen the show already before the record came out. So we did a show last year at Carnegie Hall. A lot of them came to that. So they saw it, you know, on stage and stuff and they were very surprised. Because I just did the interview and they didn't hear anything else. They saw how I worked it out and they were surprised by it. But all of them were very happy about their involvement.

I think in general the reaction that I've gotten from the people that I know, from the Puerto Rican community here, has been incredibly positive. That makes me feel really good about it. You of course try to be respectful and trying to give your point of view and all that but just getting that positive thing and just people coming out of the blue and saying, "I heard this thing you did, it's so great," I'm glad. Because there's this whole thing—it's kind of obvious something like this would happen, but—there was a period, even now, of time in Puerto Rico where people were very like, "Man, those guys aren't Puerto Rican," they don't speak English, that kind of thing. It's like we're Puerto Rican, they're American and their parents are Puerto Rican, that kind of thing. So a lot of people feel that something like this is kind of planting the seed for saying, "Ok, there doesn't have to be one way. There can be various ways of looking at what you are and what you represent and you made those choices yourself, etc., etc." So it feels good definitely from that perspective and I get a lot of random emails all the time from people like, "Man, I heard the record and I don't even like jazz but it's this thing, it really touched me because my parents are from so-and-so," you know, that kind of thing. It's really great.

EZW: And have you thought about doing a version of the album in Spanish as well?

MZ: I've never translated the text, but we're thinking about doing a concert in Puerto Rico later in the year and we might just put subtitles in Spanish. But the language thing for me is sort of the key thing about it. The fact that these are people who are English speakers. That's the first language, that's their language, but then they're connected to all these other things, almost as much or more than a lot of the people who speak Spanish, who I know back home. So that was one of the things that was very interesting to me and I wanted to keep it that way.

EZW: Did anyone interview you when you were doing this project? Did anyone give you the same interview you were giving to your interviewees?

MZ: No, it was always going the other way.