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Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

We last spoke with pianist Samora Pinderhughes in April when he appeared at The Jazz Gallery with his band, Tha Unit. We caught up with Samora this week to talk about “The Transformations Suite,” a work that he composed and premiered while enrolled at The Juilliard School. About the composition, he writes:

“The Transformations Suite” is a one-hour composition in five movements, combining spoken word and music. It examines the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in order to discover how his vision can continue to live and breathe in the present day. Continuing in the tradition of artists such as Bob Marley, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and Tupac Shakur, the suite uses music to paint a picture of life for people throughout American society, and seeks to continue the universal struggle for human rights, justice and equality.”

Click here to check out the event listing in The New York Times, and read below for our conversation with Samora:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you talk a bit about the origins of “The Transformations Suite?”

Samora Pinderhughes: It came about three years ago while I was still at Juilliard and it was premiered for the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. My idea came out of thinking about Martin Luther King, specifically how most of the time the tributes that are paid to him represent only one part of his body of work—basically 2 years out of his entire work—which are his “I Have a Dream” speech and the point in his life when the Civil Rights Act was adopted. That’s what people focused on, and it seemed to me like a concerted effort to shift and shape his legacy after his death into something much more comfortable for us to look at in our present-day society.

We focus on things like personal racism, how we don’t have as much of people calling each other “n———” on the street, so we’re “better.” People tend to ignore the other parts of his life—how he was staunchly pacifist and against the Vietnam War and got flack for that—but we also focused on his interest in economic freedom, especially concerning the racial issue. If people want to be free, they can’t just have the opportunity to vote while whole communities are being redlined. Those were the things that made him more dangerous—the things that got him killed—so the piece is focusing on the last few years of his life up to when he was killed and examining the issues he was focusing on during that period while reflecting on those issues in the present day.

TJG: What was the reception of the piece like in Brazil, where you toured in 2011?

SP: It was very fascinating because we went to Bahia, to Salvador, which still has the most concentrated percentage of people of African descent. You find drum groups who are doing the African-based drum tradition, Santería, all those African-based traditions. It was interesting because they knew a little bit of our history in terms of African-descended people in America, which is primarily where the piece is coming from. There are certain things that are different, but a lot of things are shared coming from the point of view of the African diaspora. There were lots of points of connections we could discuss, and I think the things that came off the most in terms of commonalities was this concept of calling us by our names.

They were fighting not only for economic autonomy, but also for people to have their contributions be acknowledged, and for people to acknowledge difference—not to acknowledge difference as something to be gotten rid of, but something as real. Difference is not the problem; power is the problem. Having my heritage be different from yours—that’s not a problem, that’s actually a really wonderful thing.

One of the unique things about America is that there is this all-encompassing concept of Americanism—the American dream, what it means to be American—that is very tied into white supremacy: this concept of whiteness, which isn’t really a thing. The Irish are not white, they are Irish, but when they came to this country they had to prove that they were white so that they could be treated better than black people.

It’s this weird history that hasn’t been talked about much, and we went down there and talked about it. They were able to take care of their African traditions in a little more concrete way than here because they weren’t as assimilated. There are good and bad things about that: they don’t have some of the protections we have, like here we are acknowledged to a certain degree constitutionally as people, whereas in some cases they are not.

In the piece, we do connect everything to this diasporic concept because although we do focus on America, this concept of white supremacy in America we’ve inherited does come from European colonialism. That’s who learned from, and you can see that in this whole diasporic concept, how people are similar in Costa Rica, Cuba, Brazil, and so on.

TJG: In the EPK, you start by saying, “The role of the arts in social change is enormous, and it has always been enormous.” What do you see as the role and responsibilities of the artist?

SP: That’s a good question and one we’re trying to answer all the time. There are several ways to answer the question; one is the concept of what I see the role of artist to be in general, which essentially comes from James Baldwin. Baldwin, one of my heroes and an inspiration for this piece, talks about how the artist’s responsibility is something that only the artist can do, which is to really describe the truth, the whole truth of what it means to be a human being in a given situation: what it means to die, what it means to love somebody, what it means to undergo traumatic experiences, all those different things.

As much as we don’t want those things at certain points—to be connected to larger issues of politics, etc., it’s impossible not to be. My ability to love somebody in a situation is affected by how I’m seen by society, how I’ve been taught, what I’ve had to go through. I think his point is that the best art is intensely personal and particularly honest in terms of how it deals with the private life, and that’s a very fascinating question today also because so much today is public, what with Facebook and Twitter and all that.

The private life of now is very different than the private life that Baldwin was writing about, but the point is that even on social media, we present a very different idea or persona of ourselves that may or may not be real. The point of being a true artist to me is really truly to describe what is going on in the world. In order for you to do that, you really have to deal honestly with what’s happening around you. Most people don’t want to do that because most of the time what’s going on around us—we don’t want to deal with it, we don’t want to hear it.

It’s something I think is deep-seated that leads to what we see a lot of: that the things that are the most popular and make the most money, in terms of what people call “art” or what I’d call “entertainment,” are things that will distract us from what’s really going on. We’ve got enough stuff to do during the day just to get through it that we don’t want to deal with everything else when we get home. I think the artist must first and foremost deal with what’s happening and find their own selves in it, and that’s the artist’s responsibility.

The other way I look at it is that there’s always a soundtrack to a revolution. We may not know that it is what it is until afterwards, but if we think about any moment in time, we know what the art was at the time. When we think about the Spanish Civil War we think about Picasso’s “Guernica,” and when we think about Civil Rights we think about “Strange Fruit,” so we have more power as musicians than we think. We have the power to make people think in a different way.

A lot of our responsibility is to affect how people think and the questions people are asking themselves, and it’s usually easier to turn away from those questions than to answer them. My goal with pieces like “The Transformations Suite” is to get people to ask those questions of themselves when we’re in the room at that moment.

TJG: You mentioned Baldwin as a major inspiration. Who else has been an inspiration for you as an artist?

SP: Baldwin is probably my biggest influence in life, mostly for the reasons I was telling you about what it means to be an artist. Somebody else who really inspires right now is Anna Deavere Smith, a playwright and MacArthur “genius” who writes one-woman shows based on whole series of interviews based on specific issues. She’s done one on healthcare and another on the post-Rodney King riots where she interviewed all types of people.

One of the things that’s difficult in terms of artists doing this kind of work is that often it seems very binary: either an artist is not political at all or is intensely political, maybe even dogmatic. They don’t think about it from a human perspective because they’re facing so many forces against them, so they become very dogmatic and it becomes not about the human anymore, but the idea.

What I enjoy about her work is that it’s always about the human. When you’re acknowledging everybody’s perspective and treating people like human beings, then you’re able to see a conversation emerging that is intensely honest, again, and intensely human, which I really like about her work and which is very difficult to do.

I really like her work and she’s been a mentor to me during the last year or so. She’s taught me so much about the way I look at performance and practice, and also about the way that I look at life, the music in how people talk, and the practice of listening. I’m a musician, so I talk to a lot of musicians about the process of listening, but the most I’ve learned about listening has been from her, as well as from Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran.

The other person whom I’d say I really appreciate is Ambrose Akinmusire, a person who I grew up with (he’s from Berkeley). He’s been like an uncle to me and my sister. Thinking about the things going on now in Ferguson and the musicians who are or aren’t responding to it, the fact that he put tributes to Oscar Grant and Trayvon and people who’ve been gunned down by police in the last few years—he put those tributes on his record and didn’t do it in a fanfare way, but said that this is just a part of his statement as a human being, not when something happened, but over time.

That’s what I realized about performing this piece over three years: the problems are the same. They might be getting better or worse, but they’re the same. The need to present the piece feels just as pressing now as it did then. I think a lot of times we respond when things happen, but it’s not always preventative. We respond when there’s pressure to respond, so I appreciate that Ambrose did something like this.

TJG: Any parting words or thoughts about this upcoming performance of “The Transformations Suite?”

SP: The only thing I would emphasize is that I’m hoping that this piece will be a space where people can voice their opinions on things that are going on—that they feel that there’s a space to be free in letting emotions be acknowledged about what it means to be a human being in the time of Ferguson and Eric Garner. I hope that there will be a discussion following the piece, both immediately as well as ongoing, specifically on how artists can organize around trying to make their voices present in these issues and how we can aid the cause in terms of people really organizing and making a system of change.

When those things happened, on Facebook we saw an outpouring of grief from the musicians’ community as well as many other communities about how they felt on this issue, but I think it’s easy for this to be a passing thing because people have so much to do. I’m hoping to offer up this gig as something that, among the things you have to do in your day, you can remember. And thanks again to The Jazz Gallery, which I think is the epitome of a space that’s free for people to voice their ideas, to collaborate. Ever since I’ve done this project I’ve wanted to bring it there, and now it’s happening.

Samora Pinderhughes will perform “The Transformations Suite” this Thursday, September 11th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The performance will feature Pinderhughes on piano, Jeremie Harris performing poetry, Jehbreal Jackson on vocals, Riley Mulherkar on trumpet, Tony Lustig on baritone saxophone, Lucas Pino on tenor saxophone, Clovis Nicholas on bass, and Jimmy Macbride on drums. The first set is $15.00 ($10.00 for Members); the second set is $10.00 for everyone. Purchase tickets here.

Please note that sets are at 8 and 10 pm., our new set times starting in September.