The Jazz Rhythms of a Puerto Rican Lullaby: Miguel Zenón Jazz Composer, Musician and Oral Historian

Rozanne Gooding-Silverwood is a current OHMA student. In this post, she reflects on Miguel Zenón's oral-history based music as a form of cultural transmission.



“¿De dónde vienes?” Where are you from? It’s the title of the opening track of the oral history jazz compilation Identities are Changeable by award-winning jazz artist and composer Miguel Zenón. It’s also the first question that Zenón asks his Nuyorican interviewees. But he also wants to know where the parents of his interviewees are from. Every interviewee responds that they are from the Bronx. But their parents? Of course they are all from Puerto Rico! Zenón’s question hits the signature note that shapes this musical oral history project concerning the transmission of cultural identity. Zenón’s interviews evidence that as much as Nuyorican identities are changeable, their Puerto Rican parents are, pardon the pun, instrumental, to laying the foundational imprints of cultural identity through language, food, festivals, and, in particular, music.

In OHMA’s latest installation of presentations by distinctive oral historians, musician Miguel Zenón spoke about the progenitors of his project’s informants. These Puerto Rican parents arrived in the 1950s as part of “The Great Migration" or “Operation Bootstrap” in search of employment in the United States due to unfavorable economic conditions resulting from the growth of industrialization in their homeland. The social exclusion faced by Puerto Rican immigrants settling in neighborhoods like the Bronx seemed solidified in their resolve to transmit a distinct cultural identity to their children.

In the OHMA presentation Miguel Zenón credited the development of a uniquely Nuyorican socio-political identity to Juan Flores, the former director of NYU’s Latino Studies department and author of “The Diaspora Strikes Back”. And it is from Flores’ comments on the fluidity of identity that Zenón derived the title of this project. But it is the parents who Zenón puts front and center for their role in transmitting cultural identity. In every track of the project, one hears the attachment to place and cultural pride in the voices of Nuyorican interviewees as they pay tribute to their parents. But one particular track of Zenón’s musical composition gives special attention to the parent-child relationship.

“Second Generation Lullaby” stands out as an endearing representation of parental transmission of cultural knowledge. It features a dialogue between Zenón’s sister, Patricia Zenón, and her young son, Aidan.

The mother asks the same questions of her son that Zenón asks of his Nuyorican interviewees on the “De dónde vienes?” track. “Where are you from?” Without hesitation the boy responds, “The Bronx!!!” Next, she asks, “And where is [your grandmother] Güellita from?” After a bit of nudging, the camera-shy boy responds enthusiastically, “Puerto Rico!!! Puerto Rico!!! Puerto Rico!!!” A musical call and response between Nuyorican mother and son ensues that Zenón incorporates into the track’s jazz composition.

During a class interview that preceded the public presentation, Zenón spoke about his own daughter and how he and his wife make an effort to expose her to the language, music, and cultural festivities of Puerto Rico. But he also addressed the limits of Puerto Rican parents in shaping their children’s cultural identity. Zenón seems to have a flexible approach to transmitting cultural identity to his daughter. And that fluidity is the signature feature of this oral history musical collaboration.

In discussing the track “Through Cultural and Tradition” Zenón spoke of his mother’s influence on his musicality. Apparently, the rhythmic piano riff that opens and runs through the entire track originates with his mother. Zenón tells how his mother would sing this particular tune to him when he was baby as she bounced him on her knee.

This recollection allowed his audience to experience Zenón’s composition as an embodiment of Puerto Rican Nuyorican identity. And as we bounced along to the rhythmic tempo it seemed as if Zenón was also transmitting cultural knowledge to us through the musically kinetic and distinctly Puerto Rican language that he learned from his mother. And what we learn from Miguel Zenón is that the fluid combination of oral histories and jazz in Identities are Changeable functions both as an enactment of and a commentary on Puerto Rican cultural transmission.