In their new releases, both collaborations with adventurous string quartets, Brooklyn-based Mexican singer and composer Magos Herrera and Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón make their statements about the current administration’s casual cruelty at the border and its callous neglect of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria simply by putting a spotlight on Latin American musical traditions.

In the right hands, beauty can be a quite effective blunt instrument.

Dreamers, Herrera’s ambitious collaboration with Brooklyn Rider — Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; and Michael Nicolas, cello — examines a broad Ibero-American repertoire connected by a history of pain.
All the poets and songwriters featured in Dreamers come from countries that have suffered state violence. Such is the history of Ibero-America that you can pretty much throw a dart at the map blindfolded and come up with terrible stories and splendid musical choices.

The list in Dreamers includes songs by Violeta Parra (Chile), Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón (Argentina), Álvaro Carrillo (Mexico); Joao Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil (Brasil), and Vicente Amigo and Federico Garcia Lorca (Spain). Herrera also contributes by setting to music texts by Mexican essayist and poet Octavio Paz and Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario.

“The title of the recording, Dreamers, has many layers, but the main inspiration was obviously the current political scenario, and not only in the United States but around the world. The last couple of years have been so challenging, and they really pose important questions for all of us: Where do we stand? How did we end up like this?” she said recently. “And I’m not only talking about US politics and immigration politics but everything that is happening around the world. It really raises a lot of questions about how are we living our lives.

“And as a Mexican woman artist, I wanted to change the narrative. I moved to New York for exactly the opposite reasons of everything the current administration represents. I moved here to create dialogues, to create bridges,” he said. “Now there’s a narrative criminalizing immigrants and immigration. We wanted to express the dignity and beauty of these cultures.”

To re-imagine these songs for voice and strings, Herrera and Brooklyn Rider called on an impressive group of arrangers, including  Jaques Morelenbaum, Guillermo Klein, Gonzalo Grau, Diego Schissi, and Brooklyn Rider’s resident composer Colin Jacobsen.

In the year of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, Jacobsen recalled one of his most famous quotes, read after the assassination of President Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

More than half a century later, it echoes louder and louder.

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Saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón studied in Boston and has been a New York City resident since 1999, but he was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and he sounds pretty certain about his identity.
It’s not written in what he does, but in what he doesn´t.

Even as he continues to probe the various Puerto Rican musical traditions, such as jibaro (country) music or bomba y plena, Zenón doesn´t show a need to make a spectacle of his Latinidad. He has avoided sentimentality or the temptations of facile, postcard views of his culture in favor of serious study and exploration, testing how a traditional form could be disassembled and rearranged, or pushing to see what else could be done with a particular rhythmic pattern.
For my money, that’s the best way to honor a tradition.

Yo Soy La Tradición, Zenón’s collaboration with Chicago-based Spektral Quartet — Clara Lyon, violin; Maeve Feinberg, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rolen, cello —  might be his richest reimagining of Puerto Rican musical traditions yet.

In this suite-like collection of eight pieces for alto sax and string quartet, Zenón sets in play elements of European classical music, jazz, and Puerto Rican musical traditions, blending, crashing and re-energizing each other.

Yo Soy La Tradición, which was commissioned by the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, will be released this Friday and, if you happen to be in Chicago, you can hear it while supporting a good cause. The record will be presented in a benefit concert for hurricane relief at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center

“The guys from Spektral are from Chicago and it was their idea,” said Zenón. “We were making this record a year ago, right at the time the hurricane was hitting, so [the hurricane and its aftermath] has a personal connection for them as well. They saw me on the phone, trying to speak to my family, watching the news while we were making the record. So [when it came to presenting the album] they said ‘We really want to do something, so we should just make it a benefit.”

Besides raising whatever little money we can raise, to me, this is more about awareness, it’s about letting people know that this is still going on and that people still need help. This is still a crisis.”


Check the interview with Miguel Zenón next week.