It tends to surprise me, though at this point it shouldn’t, just how quickly a catastrophe gets swallowed by the news cycle. In the day prior to Miguel Zenón’s arrival in Chicago for our recording sessions, the front pages and top-of-the-hour newscasts were strewn with images of a submerged Puerto Rico – of razed homes and trees at improbable angles.
Professional musicians are familiar with the experience of “playing through” adversity: playing a show hundreds of miles away with an ill family member at home, or heading to the concert hall in the midst of a national tragedy (my grad school orchestra didn’t cancel rehearsal on 9/11). So it made some kind of sense that Miguel was drilling rhythms with us at a time when getting a phone call through to the island was a minor miracle. He knew that his mother was safe, but the country was flooded and without power, and at each rehearsal break, he’d steal away to a quiet corner to check in.
And yet now, after a photo op of the president tossing paper towels to victims of the hurricane, the national conversation about the rebuilding Puerto Rico has been pushed to the interior pages of the newspapers. Aside from recent reports that the death toll is not 64, but closer to 3,000, the plight of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico seems to be a footnote, rather than an ongoing effort in the continental US.
Given the sheer amount of crises we read about daily, it’s natural that one cares more for those events in which one has a personal interest. I’d like to think that I would have been just as immersed in the situation had it not been the case, but the fact that the artist I was spending my days with was calling home every couple of hours certainly made the experience far more immediate. Conversations at lunch and dinner inevitably turned to the latest news from the island. In this case, though, with a disaster of epic proportions upending the lives of fellow citizens, it seems almost barbaric the way in which many of us have moved on. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think that had Hurricane Maria wiped out Jacksonville or Charlotte, those cities would not still be largely without power a year later.
This is why we’ve chosen to make the record release event for Yo Soy La Tradición a benefit for Puerto Rican artists affected by the hurricane. As with any benefit we’ve participated in in the past, we looked for where our tiny effort could make the most significant impact. Infrastructure must be rebuilt and homes must be replaced, for sure, but Puerto Rico is home to vital and unique artistic traditions, and we hope to make a small but meaningful improvement in the lives of these artists. It’s a bit overused these days, but the truth of Winston Churchill’s rejoinder to the question of whether or not he would cut arts funding to support the war effort, remains timely and potent: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Working with our album release venue, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, we’ve made general admission tickets available at a reasonably low cost. Since all proceeds of this benefit-concert-slash-album-release-party go directly to Chicago Hurricane Aid for Puerto Rican Arts, though, we hope you’ll consider purchasing one of our VIP tickets.
Together, we can do some good, and have a blast in the process.