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Ruth Glasser discusses her new book

Ruth Glasser Talks About Her New Book, My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities 1917 - 1940

by David Carp

Ruth Glasser's fascination with cultural nuance and ethnic relationships began as a student at George Gershwin Junior High School in the East New York area of Brooklyn. Her first brush with community organizing happened as a teenage VISTA volunteer in rural North Carolina. After finishing her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison she entered Yale University's graduate program in American Studies. She received her PH. D. in 1991; her doctoral dissertation was revised under the title "My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and their New York Communities 1917-1940" and published in the spring of 1995 by the University of California Press. She's active as a public historian and is currently working on a book about urban renewal and its impact on Puerto Ricans in Waterbury, Connecticut (where she's lived since 1991). Ruth's book is the first full-length study of a remarkable "Golden Age" of Puerto Rican music created as part of the 1920s and '30s wave of Puerto Rican migration to New York. The landscape of this book is populated by figures such as Rafael Hernández, Manuel "Canario" Jiménez, Pedro Flores and other key figures in Puerto Rican music who spent much of their professional lives in the "Iron Babel". It's heavily based on primary source material, including interviews with Bobby Capó, Mario Bauzá, Victoria Hernández, Paquito López Cruz, Ernesto Vigoreaux and many others. From the first page the author's love of, and dedication to, her subject matter is evident - here is a young woman who does nothing by halves. Dr. Ruth (sorry, I couldn't resist...) begins her book by asking "What's a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn doing studying Puerto Rican music?" (a question that she's gotten sick of being asked in interviews...) The following discussion with WNYC producer and researcher David Carp is an attempt to at least partially answer this question.

DC: You got involved in American studies as a graduate student at Yale University. How did you get involved in field work in Waterbury, Connecticut?

RG: I didn't understand that there was a field of public history but I always had the idea that somehow I wanted to combine stuff I had done as a community organizer through VISTA and other channels with my scholarly background. I found out about a project that involved studying ethnic music in Waterbury, in its social context, for a series of radio programs at Connecticut Public Radio. I decided to pick two of the ethic groups that were being studied in Waterbury do the field work and then write a paper in addition to producing interviews which could be integrated into the radio show. And I guess what happened was that because I was the only person associated with the project who spoke any Spanish - my Spanish wasn't particularly good at the time because it was all academic - I was asked if I wanted to interview the Puerto Ricans so I said "Well, OK, I'll check it out". I went and met a whole bunch of people in Waterbury and started hearing their music and talking to them and I fell in love with the music. I just thought the music was the most wonderful thing I'd ever heard.

What types of Puerto Rican music were you listening too?

The first Puerto Rican music I heard was la música jibara, you know, the stuff from the mountains and that's what I first loved and then I heard the bomba and the plena. I was interviewing this man Pedro Vélez, who was one of the first people who ever had a Hispanic radio program in Waterbury, and he told me there was this guy Rafael Hernández and his music was very beautiful and that he was just somebody who was really worshipped by Puerto Ricans. I started reading Max Salazar's articles and came to the one where he talks about Rafael Hernández sitting on the street in El Barrio with a tin can full of coffee, sitting and playing his guitar and composing "Lamento Borincano", that was the image that stuck in my head. I said "I have to find out about this. I have to find out about why this music was written in New York". I realized that almost all the writing done on Latin music concentrated on Cuban music and mainly focused on the period after World War Two. Here was all this great music written in the '20s and '30s and all these groups that had been written about superficially at best. I said to myself "There's a dissertation topic here".

You have a very distinguished list of people that you've interviewed. How did you find these people?

First of all, I went to the Record Mart in the subway at 42nd Street and started bugging Harry Sepulveda, just saying "Harry, you know, here I am, I'm interested in doing this, can you help me?" He gave me a couple of names, he gave me the name of Mike Amadeo, he gave me the name of Ernesto Vigoreaux [1906-1989, distinguished Afro-Puerto Rican trumpet player and composer]. I found out that in Puerto Rico there was this incredible network of people who collected 78s of precisely this kind of music and who knew a lot about it. And so I tapped into that network and when I went to Puerto Rico I became involved in meeting people like that and they helped me to meet some of the older musicians. I have to say, though, that with my first few contacts I felt a sense of a little bit of distance. In retrospect I think what it was is that people like Harry Sepulveda always gets lots of people who are interested in the music and it's very important to them because their music is so important to them. They don't want to give you too much information because their contacts are people who are their friends and if you turn out to be some sort of jerk they don't want to expose their friends to your jerkdom, so to speak.

Your book has fluidly interrelated but discrete chapters. How did the book's form develop?

The structure of the book evolved over time. I was very intrigued by the fact that so many musicians had had sort of normal working class jobs, factory jobs or trades and so forth, and that the music was kind of a sideline for them. And so I wanted to explore what those lives were like - where did people live, what kinds of jobs did they work on, did their day jobs have connections with their musical jobs, did they make contacts through that? I was really interested in the whole process of inter-ethnic interactions because I really had this instinct that Puerto Ricans did not live in some sort of an ethnic vacuum and that they related to people of many other cultures. See, the thing is that the way I do my research is different from the way a lot of other people do their research and I suppose in a certain sense it's the difference between historians and other social scientists.

What's the difference?

I don't start with a preconceived theory, I start with a series of questions that makes things open-ended. So instead of saying that my theory is that Puerto Ricans musicians of a certain class have a certain type of music and so forth I would ask the question of what music do Puerto Ricans of the working class play as opposed to what kinds of music do Puerto Ricans of a more educated or professional class play. I would try to ask open-ended questions so that I don't lead the informants, because a lot of times in the whole dynamic of doing oral history - which a lot of my research was based on - if you ask leading questions and you have a rapport with your informant they want to please you and they try to answer the questions in the way they think you want to hear the answer.

I think that many readers of your book will be surprised by or disagree with some of your observations about "uptown" and "downtown" musicians and audiences. Any comments?

I think there's a tendency - and again this has to do with coming in with a theory and wanting things to be in unambiguous categories, I think there's this almost like a human need for clear-cutness and getting rid of ambiguities, but what I keep finding is that every time you try to impose some sort of grid on the music it would sort of escape those categories. What your referring to, I think, is that some of the previous writers on Latin music such as Isabelle Leymarie and John Storm Roberts - both of whom I found had some very interesting things to say - tended to create this division where they would say "Oh, well, there were these folksy trios that operated in El Barrio and they were the authentic homespun music and they never left the Barrio and then there were these big, glitzy orchestras like Xavier Cugat who played watered down music to please Anglos". I found the situation was much more complicated than that. Look at Rafael Hernández, he was already a world traveler before he came to live in New York - I mean here was somebody that had played all over the Island, who had gone on to play in James Reese Europe's band all over France, who had gone to Cuba and worked in a cinema orchestra, who ended up in New York and played in vaudeville shows at the Palace Theatre, who played for American high society with the great stride pianist Luckey Roberts. Look at another Puerto Rican musician who came to New York in the '20s, Paquito López Cruz [cuatro player, 1907-1988] - he performed American and Latino dance music at a midtown speakeasy; he worked with Cuban trumpet player Pedro Via on an NBC radio program; he played at different Hispanic-nationality ethnic clubs and at going-away parties for Puerto Ricans returning to the Island; by the early '30s he was recording with the small groups of Canario, Pedro Flores and Rafael Hernández. López Cruz played Latin music for Americans and American music for Latinos. If you follow the trajectories of these careers you find that very few of these musicians maintained a purity - this goes against the nature of what musicians do for a living, a musician can't survive by being a purist. And it's not like you have this population uptown that's not asking for some of the same standards as the downtown audience - I mean the situation is so incredibly complicated that it's difficult to explain. I tried to map it out some in the book. But the point is that none of these divisions and barriers that we try to set up as intellectuals are actually that accurate.

Think about current writing on Latin music in general and Puerto Rican music in particular - where do you see it going and what would you like to see change?

I think there needs to be a lot more digging into this hidden history of Puerto Rican musicians, both of the '20s and '30s and of later periods. I think there needs to be just a lot more work done on their social conditions, on the different kinds of groups, on the different kinds of clubs they played in, what the audiences were like, what the dances were like and so forth. I'd love to see more people follow up on the work I do. I'd love people to argue with my work and say "Hey, I think you're right about this but I think you're not on target with this" or "You could have explored this more" instead of throwing back the challenge to me (which people have already done) and said "Why don't you write a book that goes up to the present?" - I'd like other people to take that up 'cause I'm actually working now on some other projects that don't have to do with music. I'd like to see the field multiply with more people being interested in older Puerto Rican music and demanding not only more research but more re-releases and more reissues of the music because there's very, very little that's actually available now commercially.

Imagine that something as important as "Lamento Borincano" was never issued on anything other than the original 78s - I'm speaking, of course, about the 1930 recording by Canario and his group - I mean that's outrageous!

Yeah, oh absolutely. I mean why do we have Trio Matamoros in re-releases and not Trio Borinquen? Why don't we have Cuarteto Victoria, why don't we have Cuarteto Flores, Cuarteto Mayarí and Cuarteto Marcano from that period? We should have full length albums of each of these groups with good liner notes and we should have documentaries on these people. I'd be happy to collaborate in any of these areas but I think It would be really great to have more people working in the field, especially younger Puerto Ricans. Because, interestingly, I found that there are younger Puerto Ricans who say "I never knew about this stuff and this really inspires me and fills me with pride about my heritage" so if more people who are coming up now can work on this I think it would be wonderful.

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