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NEPM brings you our annual Spring Music Series focusing on New England musicians.

Showing The World's Similarities: A Musical Interpretation Of Immigrant Stories

Felipe Salles.
Felipe Salles.

“The New Immigrant Experience” is the latest work by saxophonist Felipe Salles. It’s a multimedia project on a subject very much in the news.

Funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, it’s inspired by conversations Salles videotaped with people who are brought to the United States as children and are currently protected from deportation under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Salles emigrated from Brazil in the mid-’90s and became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. He said he wanted to explore the similarities, if any, between his immigrant experience and the so-called “Dreamers.”

“What does that mean in terms of your identity, you know? Your cultural identity,” he said. “How do you feel? Do you feel one thing, the other, both? Sometimes I feel both. Sometimes I feel neither. It’s a very strange situation to me, because sometimes you feel like you’re an insider in two clubs. And sometimes you feel like you’re a member of neither one.”

Salles, who teaches music at UMass Amherst, said he was inspired to write the project partly by meeting pianist Tereza Lee several years ago. Her complex immigration status led Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to introduce the DREAM Act back in 2001.

The work, which features Salles’s 18-piece Interconnections Ensemble, premiered earlier this spring in Amherst and New York City.


Salles said his project involved writing music based on interviews, where people would go on camera to tell their story, talk about growing up in the U.S., their struggles, their family history and their identity — whatever was important to them.

“Each movement of the suite — there is an introduction, and there’s a coda, and there’s nine major movements,” he said. “Each movement is based on an interview. And when you listen to the music, there’s excerpts of those interviews that are going to be projected in the background.”

Salles said the interviews informed the music and the way he emotionally processed the stories.

“There’s also other things,” he said, “such as the speech patterns; the way people talk; the rhythm or the melody I heard within their speech; or the things they said, sometimes. I turned specific words and specific ideas into melodic or harmonic motifs. And so I tried to create sort of a musical interpretation of their story.”


Most of the interviews were done in English, Salles said, because people felt more comfortable telling their story in English.

“But the way their stories are in their culture relate a lot to their original language, their dialect, their accents and things like that,” he said. “So sometimes people switch halfway through a sentence. Not very often, but sometimes they just can’t find the words in English, and that was turned into Spanish or Portuguese, or whatever language they speak.”

Salles said the process of finding people willing to tell their story was a little more complicated than he thought it would be.

“There’s a lot of different people that you might not even think who are Dreamers, you know?” he said. “I met this woman who was born in Dubai. There’s also a young woman who was born in Portugal. You don’t think about Dreamers coming from Europe, necessarily. I was kind of surprised.”

Salles said he's not sure if his own status as an immigrant actually helped him attract interview subjects.

“I think some people are comfortable and some people are afraid,” he said. “I had people cancel on me because their family didn’t feel comfortable with them doing this, and then I had somebody who said to me, ‘This was the best thing I did. It was like therapy that I needed to do, and I was so afraid of talking about my story.’ I was just glad I found the people I found, and I was honored that they wanted to talk to me, and tell me their stories, which takes a lot of effort, you know?”

It’s very personal, and emotionally charged, Salles said.

“I think we cried pretty much in almost every interview, because people struggled a lot, you know?” he said. “It’s not an easy place to be. And it makes you have a lot of perspective, and I was very lucky to be able to be here as an immigrant who never had to go through that kind of situation.”

Salles said his music is prompted by conversations that make him think about the world — and about music. This project was a little different.

“This time around, I wanted to bring that conversation to something that is very important at this point in time in our society,” he said, “which is the understanding that we need to talk to each other, and we need to understand each other as individuals, as human beings, and we need to stop putting each other in boxes, and judging people, without knowing who they are.”

And he said that's true on both sides of the political aisle.

“My idea here is like: show the world that we are all very similar,” he said. “We all have struggles. We all have fears. And as a jazz musician, as a musician in general, we’re a kind of artist that — unless you’re like a songwriter, a pop musician — I don’t think I have ever felt like I could really contribute to that conversation, until maybe this project.”

Salles said he plans to spend this summer finishing editing the music and video project so they can each stand on their own. He said he hopes to have “The New Immigrant Experience” released in early 2020.

Check out the NEPR Spring Music Series here.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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