Samora & Elena Pinderhughes on Composing Transformations


Siblings Samora (left) and Elena Pinderhughes collaborated on The Transformations Suite, which was released on Oct. 16.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artists)

Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” out of sheer rage over the events that had occurred during her lifetime, namely the murder of activist Medgar Evers, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. In the 1960s, musicians like Simone served as a voice for the voiceless, frustrated by the injustices taking place in the United States.

Fifty years later, our country faces new problems of racial injustice and inequality. Jazz artists are addressing these issues by releasing music with sociopolitical themes, from Terence Blanchard’s Breathless to Christian Scott’s “KKPD.”

Pianist Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformations Suite, which was released in October, takes full advantage of this rich precedent, through music, spoken word and live theater.

Pinderhughes, 24, worked for more than five years on the wildly ambitious Suite. He got assistance from his sister, the 21-year-old flutist Elena Pinderhughes, who topped the category Rising Star–Flute in the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll.

The siblings grew up together in Berkeley, California, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. Not only are they the children of community organizers, but their uncle, Charles “Cappy” Pinderhughes, was a Black Panther.

DownBeat sat down with Samora and Elena at Bondfire Radio, a local station in Bushwick, Brooklyn, just days after their album release show on Oct. 16 at Littlefield in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

First, let’s break down your respective journeys in music. Even though you two are siblings, you’ve taken somewhat different paths musically.

Samora: We’ve been close since we were very, very little. But definitely independent as well. I started playing percussion when I was 2 years old, mostly Afro-Latin percussion from Venezuela and Cuba. I had some amazing teachers in the Bay Area, where we grew up. And then I switched to piano when I was about 7.

Our parents are both academics and community organizers, so I was always interested in sociology and politics. When it came time to go to school, I applied for all academic programs except Juilliard, not expecting to get in.

When I did, I figured that ‘I gotta try this now if I’m gonna do it.’ Went to Juilliard, had a very amazing and interesting time there in a lot of different facets. Met some of my closest friends and collaborators. Had great teachers, including the incomparable Kenny Barron, who was my personal piano teacher. I graduated in 2013 and started touring with José James, Emily King and Branford Marsalis.

At a certain point, [while] still loving to play with other people, I wanted to prioritize my own voice and to start my own projects. The first project that I did start on my own was The Transformations Suite, which I’ve been working on for the last five years. During that time, I started doing other types of projects: film scoring and working in theater with [actress/playwright] Anna Deavere Smith. She’s been kind of a beacon for me, along with other artists, in terms of creating multidisciplinary art—art that crosses the boundaries of music, politics, identity and social dynamics.

Elena: I started playing because Samora played. And I wanted to be just like him. Around the age of 4, one of his teachers had a Venezuelan group. There was a flute player and apparently, as I’m told, I went to one of the shows, looked up and said, ‘I want to play that one!’ I pointed to the flute. But I was too small; my fingers couldn’t reach the keys yet. Every six months or so, they used to measure me on the couch and put the flute in my hands to see if I was big enough to play.

Finally, when I was big enough, I started playing the flute. I grew up singing and dancing. Once I started playing, immediately Samora and I started playing together. To be honest, Samora is truly my first and main teacher. There’s something pretty special about playing with a sibling, especially to have grown up playing together and learn from each other. As we’ve grown as musicians, and as people, it’s grown with us.

I came to NYC shortly after he did, and still in school now, at Manhattan School of Music. And I started playing and recording a lot, as soon as I got here, which has been a really big blessing. I’ve done some records with a lot of people around NYC and all over: Christian Scott, Ambrose Akinmusire, Terri Lyne Carrington, most recently I’ve worked on Common’s new record [Black America Again] that comes out in November, which I’m really excited about. I got the chance to really work a lot with him, Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper, who produced it.

I’ve been working on my own music for a year and a half now. Samora’s been working on it with me, we’ve been writing everything together. And I can’t wait for people to hear it.

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