If not for Hurricane Maria, Miguel Zenón and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Festival Jazz Ensemble, led by conductor Fred Harris, would have been on tour in Puerto Rico this past January, performing concerts throughout the island and visiting schools as part of a series of educational outreach events. The trip, however, would have to be postponed, possibly until 2019, as the devastation became apparent.
In the meantime, the MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ recipient and multi-Grammy-nominated artist has found another way to be with his native Puerto Rico. On March 2 at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, and March 3, at Hunter College’s Silberman Auditorium in East Harlem, Zenón will be playing alongside the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble in a pair of benefit concerts that will also feature clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn—with the proceeds of each performance going toward the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund. Moreover, Zenón will premiere his latest composition for jazz ensemble entitled, “En Pie De Lucha,” which he discusses, among other things, in a recent Q&A with Centro Voices.
Centro Voices (CV): What specifically does the title of your new composition “En Pie De Lucha” mean to you in the context of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath?
Miguel Zenón (MZ): In the wake of the mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the US that came as a direct consequence of the damage caused by the hurricane, I was very impressed by those who—for some reason or another—decided to stay on the Island. To me, these Puerto Ricans are willing to put up a fight during the most dire circumstances, with the hope of building something better than what was there before. I wrote the composition to symbolize the idea of these individuals heading out to battle after the disaster.
CV: Are there any stories in particular of resilience or courage since the storm hit that have resonated with you on a personal level?
MZ: A few. Many from artists and small business owners. But I think the thing that touched me the most was visiting the island about a month ago and seeing Puerto Rican flags everywhere; homes, cars, storefronts, you name it. I had never seen that before and it struck me as a symbol of unity and resiliency.
CV: When did you decide to begin working on the piece?
MZ: The basic cells for the composition have been in my head for a little while, but I finally started putting all the pieces together a few months ago and finished it earlier this year.
CV: What was the process like?
MZ: My process for writing music is usually very similar. I put together a few different ideas and a roadmap for the piece in my head, and then proceed to work on it little by little, sort of filling up the blanks. Writing music for the MIT ensemble is unique in the sense that you have to make sure that what you’re writing is clear and accessible for them. They’re all very busy at the school and I want to make sure that whatever I write is not going to be too much of a stretch for them, musically speaking.
CV: What do you see as the overall role of musicians in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria?
MZ: Hard to say, because everyone is different and feels very differently about what their involvement should be, if any. From my perspective, I feel that if I have the means to do something for my country it is my responsibility to do so. And I’ve always felt this way, even before the hurricane.
CV: What is your hope for Puerto Rico as the recovery effort continues?
MZ: To be honest I find it very hard to stay positive about the situation. Puerto Rico was in bad shape already, and it just seems like these hurricanes sort of kicked us while we were down. The response from the US government has been poor to say the least, and the local government seems to have its priorities in the wrong place; too caught up on a web of political warfare and corruption to actually be able deal with the basic needs of a country that is struggling to get up after taking all these hits.
But there are people doing great things for Puerto Rico, going to battle for the country. I think as long as there’s someone willing to put up a fight there’s something to be hopeful for.
For more information on the two concerts and to purchase tickets, click here.