Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

1. Being an American Composer

TANIA LEÓN: I have always had a lot of situations where I couldn’t define myself, not only being born in a family that had people that came from different parts of the globe, and settled, and the only thing that they had in common is that they were poor people. So it didn’t matter how they looked, or what kind of, you know, ethnicity, if you wanted to call it that way, they qualify for, or they can codify. You know, I arrived in the United States with this mentality, that, you know, it didn’t matter what you look like, because you never knew what was under or behind. In Cuba we have a saying that says “where’s your grandmother?” because by looking at the grandparents, you possibly can actually trace, you know, the many things that this person is about. So therefore, coming here in 1967, and actually walking into the situation with the walks of Martin Luther King and also the death of Luther King, the death of Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, being at New York University trying to learn English, and being thrown in rallies by my friends and asking what people were saying, you know, and they said don’t worry about what they’re saying, just shout, we don’t know what we’re shouting about! [Laughs] So that is how I landed here, and then the year meeting Arthur Mitchell and actually embarking on the first project that I ever embarked in my life which is the Dance Theater of Harlem, and the foundation of a company starting from zero, that is what actually has shaped, I think, the Tania that I am right now. And I’m totally anti-labels, I’m totally anti-pigeon-holing the person under something because that actually demarcates the boundaries of that person and it limits the person, and you know, it has been quite a ride and I think that I am still in the middle of a journey.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s been a very exciting journey so far, and one of the things that I find so fascinating is that you say that your career as a composer really began through collaboration, and that sort of embodies your whole outlook on the world: it’s a battle, joining forces with other people, and even to the point that you composed a piece of music with Michel Camilo, the great Latin keyboard player and this is so unusual in the concert hall tradition, for somebody to co-write a piece of music with someone else, but it’s so natural, and the work flows, the two sensibilities come together as one coherent whole.

“Collaboration goes back to my upbringing.”
RealPlayer  [98 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
TANIA LEÓN/MICHEL CAMILO: from Batéy
Performed by Puntilla and New Generation with the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble,
Conducted by Tania León
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)

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TANIA LEÓN: Collaboration goes back to my upbringing. When you live in a household where there is not too many means, everybody collaborates with everybody. So at a given time I had to collaborate with my father in order to actually have the electricity running in the apartment, so therefore, I learned, through him, how to put electrical wires together and how to make connections, so I became his sideman at that time. It was not: “She’s a girl, she’s not supposed to do this.” So therefore, by the time I went out in the world, my whole outlook about working with people didn’t have that much demarcation per se. And actually, beginning with the Dance Theater of Harlem, the process there was that Arthur invited dancers and people in many, many walks of life to put this whole thing together, and everybody actually contributed by painting the walls, doing the floor, you know, it didn’t matter if you were the pianist or not, you were doing the same thing. And the thing was, actually, the process of building, building up, and that is something that I have applied to my associations in the arts, and whether it has been with a choreographer, with another composer, with a painter, with a poet, with a writer, with a theater director, it has always been like that, it hasn’t been, per se, a fight. It has been more like a merging of ideas and propelling into a new way of realizing something.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said at the very onset of our conversation that you don’t like labels. I’m going to ask you a loaded label question. Do you consider yourself an American composer?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I consider myself an American composer. Do you know why? Because I have been born in the Americas. The Americas encompass North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. This is the continent that was discovered by the so-called people from Europe. I say “so-called people from Europe” because, I mean, since man was born on this planet, I don’t know how many years ago, all right, after Big Bang, people have been moving around. You know, the people that so call themselves European, do we know if they come from that spot or they migrated from somewhere else?

FRANK J. OTERI: And certainly, when they came here, there were people here already.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. You know, that’s another thing, you know, it’s a civilization that actually took over another civilization. You know, if we’re going to talk about genocide, what happened here in the Americas, where are the Indians? The real natives of these lands. Are we really Americans?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s one of the things I find so fascinating. You talk about American culture and America is a culture of immigration and the only people who are indigenous to America are the Native Americans, but they themselves are an ethnic minority in our society, they are not the mainstream. I would argue that there is no mainstream. And that’s one of the things that I think makes American culture exciting, and I guess, now when I’m saying American I’m specifically referring to the United States. I had a friend when I was in college who was from Venezuela who would say: “You’re not American, you’re North American. We’re all Americans.”

TANIA LEÓN: [laughs] We talk about the division of the hemisphere. North America, also includes Canada and Alaska. All of that is actually North America. Then Central America, from Mexico on down, and then you have South America from Venezuela on down. You know? And then what are you going to do with the Caribbean? Throw it away?

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

TANIA LEÓN: Then you have the Caribbean, and, you know, the Virgin Islands, it’s part of the hemisphere, the same way that you have, actually, you know, when you talk about the European hemisphere, you include England. You know? You get that island and attach it to the continent, and then you have the continent until you get to Asia.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that’s another really murky distinction. Where does Asia begin? Turkey is physically connected to Europe but we call it Asia. Russia is further east than Turkey and we say it’s Europe. And it extends all the way to the Pacific. So these terms are more political than they are geographic in a lot of ways.

TANIA LEÓN: I believe so, I mean, any study of history and old maps from centuries ago, and you see all the changes of names, and all those changes of criteria of how the world was divided according to the last scientific theory. So in other words, according to the era we are living in, that is how we actually classify and codify ourselves.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I could say if there’s anything that we could say is definitively American for me, it is this mix. Being American is about having a mixed tradition, a mixed heritage, a mixed set of ancestry, a mixed set of ideals. It’s not one thing. And all of the music that’s been created in this country that’s disseminated throughout the world is the product of either immigrants or children or grandchildren of immigrants. And that’s what I think makes us unique in the world. You can describe a Russian musical style, or a Senegalese musical style, or a Chinese musical style. Is there an American musical style? I don’t think there is. There are many.

TANIA LEÓN: There are many. I think that also it has to do with roots of cultures in a specific region. You can go back, for example, if you analyze the music of Spain, music in the north, music in the center, music of the Basque, and the music of the south. And you can actually trace the input of the Moors in Spain if you go to the north. You can hear the inflections in the music, you can hear so many different things. And, I mean, for example, the music of Cuba. The music of Cuba also is a very small territory in comparison with the United States. So the roots of culture in Cuba are much more apparent, you know, and you can actually trace all that mix in a much more apparent way. For example, there’s a lot of talk now about Afro-Cuba, which is something that I actually don’t buy, not because of not giving recognition to the African culture that actually gave so much power to the rhythms in Cuba. But the thing is, that if you isolate only this aspect, you are negating the aspect of the Spanish input. You are negating the aspect of the Chinese input, the French input. I mean, there’s so much going on in that music that is just incredible. So therefore, I mean, only to isolate, the rhythmic impulses that might have a relationship with Africa, is negating the existence of the Cuban music itself. So if you say Afro-Cuban music, what is the other music? Which other one?

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