One suspects it was the blues.
That is not to say that the album, a collaborative experiment between Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and Pinson, associate professor of English at the College, can be described in a stroke. As the CD bridges the carnal and cosmic, alternately mocking joy and giving pause to despair, Pinson’s voice carries the sweet and gritty messages with authenticity.
“The blues are part of her identity,” speculated Harris Simon, professor of music at the College, who accompanied Pinson on the album’s title track. “She’s like a train going ahead at full speed. She’s not really a musician, but she has all the right instincts.”
“Hermine is a custodian of the blues, a cultural bearer of the blues,” explained LaShonda Barnett, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a former graduate advisee of Pinson. “This is manifest in her poetry, creative writing and her scholarship.”
Commenting on the CD, Barnett said, “‘Changing the Changes’ cuts across idioms and genres. It is neither all song or all poetry but rather a hybrid of tones, words and instrumentation rooted in the oral tradition. Ranging from blues to post-fusion, this project is both diachronic and synchronic. That is, it charts time and history.”
In a recent edition of “Callaloo,” a journal for American writers, Pinson, herself, described the project. She stressed that the project existed in the present. “The difference between what we are doing and what Ma Rainey or Ruth Brown, Buddy Bolden or Buddy Guy has done is that we are doing it right now,” she wrote. “We don’t have their patent on sorrow or sin or ecstacy, but we are giving it our own flavor, our own accent.”
The prospect of making a CD had been in the back of Pinson’s mind for some time. Those around campus who had heard her sing were prompting her. In the summer of 2003, she met Komunyakaa during a writer’s workshop in Detroit. During the reading, she sang a cappella. He was intrigued. At a subsequent workshop, he brought along handwritten song lyrics, which he had composed with her voice in mind. He passed them to her in a restaurant while they were having sandwiches. She was particularly drawn to “Gotta Have,” and she started singing the words. “I just handed it to her, and she began,” Komunyakaa recalled. “I noticed people doing a sort of double take, but her voice was so sincere at that moment that everything made sense.”
On her album, Pinson performs Komunyakaa’s “Gotta Have” as straightforward rock fusion piece, her voice as crisp and clean as the electric riffs laid down by co-composer Tomás Doncker’s guitar as she lists what people have—“toes,” “secrets,” “woes,” “regrets”—and what many are after—“gotta have me a man, gotta have me a woman, gotta have me a baby, gotta have me a diamond, gotta have me a you and a jaguar too.” On the title track, also penned by Komunyakaa, Pinson’s voice, playing off of Simon’s harmonica, makes clean sense of the challenging ideas—“I can change your image / by changing your destination /change a curse to a good advantage / by changing your situation / I can change your mind / ba do ba de be do.”
Other songs delve straight into Pinson’s psyche. In “From One Music Lover to Another,” which she wrote and delivered on the CD as a “word-song,” she craves the “good note” while tears fall—tears that are useless for geraniums and for finding god. A personal favorite is her own “Redemption Song,” in which she seems to hold diseased pieces of her own body before god and her surgeon father while seeking a sort of atonement of faith from Estella Conwill Majozo, whose advice, she says, has proven to be cryptic: “When singing things back together note stitches.” In this case, the threads, rendered, in part, through interwoven phrasings from an old gospel song—“If I die and my soul be lost, nobody’s fall but mine”—seem to barely hold.
About “Redemption Song,” Pinson said, “It is a model for me of what art should do. It moves people. It’s about something specific. It’s a way to deal with issues of ambivalence about one’s life and the power of the presence of a creator. Can we be saved? The subject of that poem is redeemed by Estella’s unwavering faith. It is an imagined dialogue with her.”
During the recording sessions, Komunyakaa kept his distance, not wanting to “perch over the shoulders” of Pinson and the musicians she had chosen. “One has to trust in order to collaborate,” he said. “That wasn’t difficult with Hermine. There is that upfront negotiation where the strength in a given piece has to do with the collaborators. There’s that give and take, that push and pull, to arrive not necessarily at a preplanned destination but someplace where surprise occurs.”
Concerning Pinson’s pull in the process, he added, “Her assertiveness happened early on in the process. I kept hearing her voice. That was there embedded in the idea of the lyrics. That’s the give and that’s the take, as well.”
At present, Pinson is not thinking of creating a second CD; she is figuring out how to market the existing one. She did enjoy the “give and take” of working with musicians: “They brought a lot of creative energy that inspired me to try to meet their energy,” she said. She also clearly thrived on the process of collaboration. She recalled listening to the final cut of “Redemption Song” and realizing that something special had been created. “I remember being so excited by what the guitar player was doing. I realized everything had come together for us,” she said. “Everyone at that particular moment was in the same spirit of the piece. It occurred to me then to thank Yuself for encouraging me to do the project, even though I may have been uncertain.”
Komunyakaa said that as he listened to the finished CD, he particularly liked the way that one piece influenced how he listened to the next. “The blues can go so many different ways,” he said. “Some people see the blues as down and out. I don’t see that. Blues can be rather uplifting as well because it’s a confrontation and, in her voice, a celebration.” He was not surprised that he was delighted with the album. “The first time I heard her, I knew she was more than a singer,” he said. “She’s an artist.”
Barnett, whom Pinson credits with “walking [her] through the recording process”—even introducing her to the musicians—believes that whatever Pinson chooses to do next, the beauty will stem not only from her energy but from her courage.
“It takes a considerable amount of courage for musicians, indeed for artists in general, to conceive a project that defies categorization,” Barnett said. “We live in a time where creative work that is easily labeled also easily finds a home with a patron. It’s almost as if the art that renders itself to the least amount of thinking is what is likely to be embraced. I’m grateful that Hermine was intrepid in her involvement with this project, that she brought to it equal parts of head and heart and yet was also freed up enough to let the muse have her way.”