Miguel Zenón: Reconnecting The Circuit Of Puerto Rican Identity To understand what it means to be Puerto Rican in the U.S., saxophonist Miguel Zenón spoke with friends and fellow musicians who share his split identity — and put their stories into his music.
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Reconnecting The Circuit Of Puerto Rican Identity Through Music

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Reconnecting The Circuit Of Puerto Rican Identity Through Music

Reconnecting The Circuit Of Puerto Rican Identity Through Music

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERDED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I definitely consider myself Puerto Rican even though I haven't been - I wasn't born there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "IDENTITIES ARE CHANGEABLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Personally, my relationship with Puerto Rico has always been - I'm not from there but I do consider myself Puerto Rican.

RATH: This is from a series of interviews with Nuyoricans - New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. When you look over the long list of notable Nuyoricans - everyone from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to Jennifer Lopez - it's kind of amazing how much they've contributed to American culture. But what holds this diverse group together?

Some born in Puerto Rico, some who have never set foot on the island and everyone in between - how could a cultural identity be rooted in two different places? That's a subject that compelled saxophonist Miguel Zenon to record these interviews and write a new suite of music to accompany them. It's called "Identities Are Changeable."

MIGUEL ZENON: I was actually born and raised in Puerto Rico. I moved to the States when I was 19. I was very impressed early on by, you know, being around people who spoke my language and ate the same food and listened to the same music, dressed the same. But then you look around and, you know, you're not in Puerto Rico.

You see high-rise buildings, and everything is different. So even at that age, it was very interesting to me. People basically - I guess, they were saying, you know, I'm Puerto Rican, even though a lot of them didn't speak Spanish very well or had only been to Puerto Rico like a handful of times, you know.

It was - it was really touching to me. And just that whole idea had always been in my head, you know, how this idea of identity could be a lot more than just being born somewhere or speaking a language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "IDENTITIES ARE CHANGEABLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I had multiple jobs where I'm the Puerto Rican. Do you know how to speak Spanish? I go, you know, I can try to wing it. I got better just because I kept trying to talk to people.

RATH: Well, what was the most surprising thing that you heard in these interview?

ZENON: Just how different their answers were. You know, I was expecting to find sort of like a general line of thought or train of thought that would connect things for me, but it was very varied. You know, and pretty much everybody gave different answers to pretty much the same questions.

And what that told me was that there is no right answer to this question. It has a lot to do with your own personal experiences. And a lot of the people that I talked to, especially individuals who are older, they talked about, you know, going through different phases. And that really blew me away. It sort of changed my own definition of what all of this could be.

RATH: And in composing this piece with those voices, did you start out with an idea of the music, that you worked the interviews into - or did the interviews kind of drive the music?

ZENON: I worked on the interviews first. And then when I started writing the music - I was writing the music kind of having that in mind that I was going to kind of insert these excerpts from the interviews, almost like thinking about it like a solo, like a feature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "IDENTITIES ARE CHANGEABLE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I definitely feel like English is my first language and now more so than when I was younger. Because when I was a child, I would speak more Spanish than I did English.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The Spanish thing - I think that kind of stuff separates you from being true in my mind as a Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

RATH: Can you give us an example of, you know, something that somebody said in one of the interviews and how that drives the rhythm in one of these songs?

ZENON: Well, sometimes I used it in different ways. Like on a song called "Through Culture and Tradition," in one of - in one of the interviews, Camilo says...

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "IDENTITIES ARE CHANGEABLE")

CAMILO MOLINA: And through the music, I was able to understand my family and understand the language and understand the food. But music was a starting point, you know, understanding bomba y plena.

ZENON: Bomba y plena - he's talking about this traditional music from Puerto Rico, and then I used that rhythm. That's the groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBA Y PLENA RHYTHM)

RATH: Going back to the title of this album, "Identities Are Changeable" - you've been on the scene for a while now. Your own style has changed. You've adapted and incorporated new things. How do you feel your musical identity has changed?

ZENON: Well, the way I like to think about it is, even though I started music early - I started music in Puerto Rico for a little while. I started in classical music. It wasn't until I discovered jazz music that I really fell in love with music, and I realized this is what I wanted to do, you know, for a living.

And it was almost like learning a new language for me. It was like learning English. You know, you learn words here and there. And you learn a little more about the tradition. And you learn to put those words together. And eventually, you learn how to express yourself in a natural way.

But then I said, you know, so what about my music? What about Puerto Rican music and the music that I grew up with? I went back and checked out that music from that perspective and said OK, so this is what's happening harmonically, melodically, rhythmically. And I started getting more and more interested in that.

Basically, the more I got into it, the more I realized that I knew very little about it. So most of the stuff that I've been doing for the past decade or so has had to do with me trying to learn more about Puerto Rican music and history and folklore and just culture in general and trying to see how I can put that into what I do in an organic and honest way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "IDENTITIES ARE CHANGEABLE")

RATH: That's Miguel Zenon. His new album comes out on Tuesday. Is called "Identities Are Changeable." And you can watch him perform this Wednesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern at NPR music.org. Miguel Zenon, thank you so much. Pleasure speaking with you.

ZENON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "IDENTITIES ARE CHANGEABLE")

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