Hello and welcome! Tell me about yourselves and a bit about your lives.
Jessie: My name is Jessie Strutzel. I’ve been playing flute for 25 years, with a focus on classical music and jazz. The latter genre is what brought me to play in the group Charanga Agozá. I also play in an Irish band. The flute is the instrument that allows me to play different kinds of international music.
Amber: I’m Amber Dolphin, and I’ve got two degrees in violin performance. I also studied classical music but I wanted to expand my consciousness by learning a different style of music like Latin music and jazz. I went to Argentina to study tango so I’ve played a little tango in local groups. I don’t do it anymore though, the majority of the groups moved. But, above all else, I’m a viola and violin instructor on the east side of Madison, and I teach at the orchestra at the university. There’s lots of variety which entertains me.
Carrie: I’m Carrie Backman. I teach full time in the jazz program at Edgewood High School. I have a degree in Euphonium performance. The euphonium, also called bombardino, is an instrument similar to the tuba. I also have a degree in music education and direction. What I do above all else is direct and teach students how to play their instruments. I also play the euphonium and trombone in classical music and jazz groups. I play the piano as well and Charanga Agozá has been a good way to learn to play other types of music and to learn about other cultures.
Rin: My name is Rin Ribble and I’ve played the violin pretty much my entire life. I have a jazz degree for violin, which is rare these days. I mostly play jazz, and a little bit of bluegrass, but I grew up playing classical music. I play with three other bands besides Charanga Agozá ( the Five Points Jazz Collective, the Gadjo PLayers, and Sortin’ the Mail) and I really enjoy writing music and improvising. I love playing with Charanga Agozá! The last event we played, Dane Dances, was my favorite of the summer. I had a ton of fun and I loved being on-stage with the girls!
Yanzel: My name is really long and complicated! It’s Yanzel Mari River, but just Yanzel is totally fine! I started to sing when I was 7 in a children’s choir in San Juan. It was a very prestigious choir at the time and we went on many international trips. I got my bachelor’s at the music conservatory in Puerto Rico, studying under a very famous bass baritone who’d had a great career. Afterwards I got my masters at the University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign and got to study with another great soprano. I moved to Ecuador for 3 years and worked for the Teatro Nacional Sucre directing a program for singers. That last chapter was a really great challenge and it was there that I discovered my passion for teaching. I like to teach not only singing, but also literature, diction, languages, and how to prepare for auditions and to know the competitive world of classical singing outside of Ecuador. Afterwards I came to Madison to pursue a doctorate in singing which I am still continuing. I did my ‘minor’ in art administration and that’s my new passion. My training is purely classic, but obviously I grew up in Puerto Rico so Salsa, Mambo, and Rumba are all rhythms that I carry in my veins. Being with Charanga Agozá is a great challenge. I was really scared at first because I’d never sang in a tropical music group, but now I love it!
Listening to everybody’s answers to my first question, I noticed that you’ve all got a different musical path. How do you manage everybody’s different experiences and musical histories in a way that’s unifying into a single specific genre like that of Charanga Agozá?
Carrie: What Amber said is true! Returning to all seriousness, all our careers have a classic background, which means being able to read music in different ways. Other people in the band refer more to the tradition of playing by ear. It’s interesting how, during rehearsals, one in one manner and another in another, we all play together and are able to stay on the same page.
Rin: Yes, reading music is important, but I’ve also felt that playing with Charanga has been a natural step, since I feel comfortable playing this type of music. True, I agree with Carrie when she talks about these two different traditions, reading the notation versus playing by ear, but we all manage to play the same thing.
Yanzel: I’m gonna say something a little simple. A song always has a structure; there’s always an introduction, a chorus, a verse, a space to improvise, etc. So, since we’re all classically trained and can read, it’s really easy to organize ourselves by section.
Amber: Cuban music, like salsa, is more rhythmic and perhaps more simple, and don’t need to be super harmonically complex like a jazz solo. They can be complex though, and we all bring part of our capabilities to the table. I think that’s what makes the group more special.
Is being musicians a profession or a pastime?
Jessie: It’s practically a pastime for me. I have a full time job, I play with Charanga, with my Irish music group, and I’m part of the Flute Club of Madison. I try to stay active. I love to play music, but it’s too much work to try to maintain oneself with it. To me this is a detriment to the magic of music. I think it’s different for those that teach music or instruments and are able to return to their childhoods.
Amber: I’d like to add something to what Jessie said. Just because you have another job in another field doesn’t mean you’re less of a musician than someone that makes music as their main job. I’m one of the fortunate individuals that has worked for decades developing different jobs through music, maintaining myself without the need for other work. We all love music and we love making it. Charanga is, without a doubt, a group to have fun! We definitely don’t do it for the money! But it’s so fun that it’s my favorite group. The chemistry among all of the components is fantastic. We all have so much fun practicing and on-stage. Many years ago I thought that I didn’t want to play any more, because it wasn’t fun any more. It became just a job and nothing else. It’s draining whenever someone tries to sustain themselves with a single job. Then I went to a music camp in California that brought back the joy of playing and I understood that I only had to try to have fun while making music, to bring back the joy in my work. I’m back to enjoying what I do, and It’s great!
Carrie: I agree with what Jessie and Amber said. I’m also fortunate to work with music full-time without getting tired of it. But the motive behind that is that I can do different things. As an instructor of course I don’t lack time playing but it’s important that I play in groups so I can be a better educator. It also exposes me to playing different kinds of music than what I’m used to playing. It’s a lesson for my students that can see how people with different backgrounds and with other day jobs can still get together and make music. That way they can make music their whole lives, without it being a full time job. I like to be around people like this, because it balances my life that’s made up only and exclusively of music.
Rin: I also teach violin. I’m self-employed. When I was younger, I went through a period where I didn’t want to play violin ever again because it was really hard to make a living. I abandoned it for years, but I noticed that I was honestly unhappy. When I returned to playing, I began to understand that I could do improvisation, and that re-lit my passion. For that reason I got a master’s in jazz. When I teach I want my students to have a mature and well-developed education that contains different styles of music. I teach classical, Jazz, Bluegrass, and pop. It’s important that they play what they’re passionate about so that they have a connection with what they’re doing that allows them to enjoy it. I sustain myself teaching and playing with 3 different groups. What I earn isn’t very stable, but that’s how I can make a living through music.
Yanzel: Well, that’s a really difficult question. The world of singing and opera is very competitive. It’s really easy to get frustrated and want to stop, or to feel depressed. This is especially in the world of classical music where there’s big emotional clashes. You can start presenting a performance with a great group of people, and end up going home totally alone. It lowers all of your adrenaline, so it can be a really strong emotional shock. One asks themselves to what point can they tolerate it. But, because they like music, they think of living off of it, doing whatever, as long as it’s connected to music. Whether it’s singing, teaching, or supporting an organization without hopes of profit because it is connected to music or art in general. That’s how I can say, that until now, despite everything my family thought, I’ve always been able to make a living through music. It’s always hard for families to understand that one can have a living as a musician. For me the important thing as a singer isn’t being famous, but enjoying what I do, reinventing myself and searching for new things I enjoy like our Charanga group. We put together Charanga for fun, to fill our souls, not our wallets!
What type of music does your group play?
Yanzel: We play Cuban music, which is made of lots of different genres, like rumba, cha cha cha, and salsa which has developed in the United States by Cubans. The focus is on Cuban music mixed with jazz.
How hard is it to be women, workers, and musicians all at the same time? Can you manage everything without stress?
Carrie: I only want to be respected for what I do, regardless of whether I’m a man or woman. But I realize that this isn’t possible, and that’s the world we live in. Because of this I also think it’s important to accept differences. I know I have to work at this in order to be able to talk about it as well. Because a lot of the time, I don’t even think about it, I just do what I do.
Rin: Being a woman that plays jazz is something that I always think about, because there aren’t a lot of women that play jazz. When I went to college I was one of 3 women in the whole jazz department, and I was the only one that did it as a ‘Major’. But I also don’t want to be pigeonholed because I’m a woman. I want people to enjoy my music that was made by a woman. I’ve had experiences with men that had preconceived ideas about what it means to be a female musician. They thought that the role of a woman on-stage is their appearance and to look good. I’m the only woman in the other groups I play with. I try to be strong and to be a good example for other women that want to make art. I’m a counselor for Girl’s Rock Camp in Madison, that motivates young girls to express themselves through music. I love being a part of this group because it’s led by women, for young women. I can tell that there’s something changing in this new generation of women. I see more women that put themselves out there. So, perhaps, the future can be better, and it won’t be a big problem to see a woman on-stage.
Amber: I always try to support younger ones to take the risk of putting themselves out there more, because I think it’s important as an instructor to lend that support and that feeling that anything is possible. I also found myself as the only woman when I studied jazz and classical together. It can be difficult, but I want to communicate the message that a woman can be capable like anybody else regardless of genre. A big of pride helps.
Jessie: I agree completely with everything my colleagues said! I think that we have to begin to trust more in what we’re capable of, and that we’re capable of doing anything men can do.
Amber: I need to say something before I forget! I’m the mom of the group, and doing everything is really a challenge, a good challenge, but I have to balance it all. You have to be good at this! Sometimes I have my low points because I think I can’t do it all. But when I see that I really can do it all, I feel super great.
Yanzel: I think that there’s several aspects to that question. There’s the personal component, and the part that I want for myself at the professional level, and what it is that the public wants from me. Within the context of classical singing, it’s difficult for everybody, regardless of if you’re male or female. These days it has a lot to do with your image as a singer in general. You have to be beautiful, in shape, and skinny. Your looks are really important. Being a woman can make things more difficult. But when we talk about singing, being the only voice, because you need a distinguished sound, you need men and women. My competition, for example, are other sopranos, not other women, and I need to go against sopranos. male or female. Personally, I’m mother of two dogs, I don’t have kids, but coming from Latinx culture, and speaking from personal experience, I’ve always had (Latino) boyfriends that were very machista (patriarchal). They didn’t want to give me any independence, were very possessive, and didn’t understand my passion for singing. My husband and current partner is a choir director and musician so he understands me perfectly. We support each other mutually and it has nothing to do with gender, it has to do with having the ideal person next to you. I always try to tell my students that everyone is unique and has something special beyond just being a man or woman.
Do you have any new music projects?
Yanzel: Personally, I just finished my doctorate at the university, and there are two operas about to take off. I’m going to act in a solo in December and I’ll be participating in another piece (La Boheme) in February with the UW Opera. Another project will be a series of concerts, one per month, in the Grace Church. The concerts don’t have anything to do with church, there will be different types of music (jazz, rock, salsa) starting in October.
Rin: I’ve got three bands. We’re writing music and will soon have a CD. I play every tuesday at the Mason Lounge on Park St with the FIve Points Jazz Collective. We play from 9 to midnight. It’s free and it’s really good vibes!
Carrie: I’ve got a project at the school working with Lo Marie. Almost all of the students read a novel and Lo Marie will work with them to compose different music in small groups based on something that inspires them or are passionate about. Lo Marie will also compose something for the whole orchestra and it’ll be performed with her and her band. We’ll see how it goes!
Jessie: I’m getting ready for an audition with the Madison Flute Club Ensemble.
What does it mean to you to live out and develop your talents, listen to your hearts and follow your dreams?
Jessie: I think it means believing in yourself and follow your own mission. If it’s a disaster, it’s ok, maybe you have to try different routes. To follow your heart, and try to be a person that’s always improving.
Carrie: To find a passion and make it successful, and to be sure to do what’s more important to oneself.
Rin: It’s important to be honest with oneself. When you reach for something it doesn’t work, to not let it become a reason to stop. I’m a stubborn person, and I’ve had lots of disappointments and low points, but I’ve always continued trying to reach for what I wanted. Plus I’ve always had other dreams, one dream has never been enough.
Yanzel: What’s important is doing what makes you happy. To be authentic and in my case, find my own voice, my sound, what makes me different from the rest. To understand my potential, and what I’m capable of. What is going to challenge me but can also make you shine. To avoid what isn’t healthy for my voice.
Have you ever taken any risks in regards to trying new things? What’s an example?
Jessie: When I was in 8th grade, I took the risk of learning a new instrument. I did it so that I could enter the jazz scene. I began to play the alto saxophone, but there were too many alto saxophones, so they put me to play baritone sax. I played it for the rest of my time in school, and it’s been a marvelous experience. This exposure to the field of jazz allowed my transition to the flute. But to make jazz, choosing the saxophone has been a great decision.
Carrie: I’m naturally a very peaceful person who doesn’t love being in front of a lot of people. So whenever I play in front of people I’m taking a risk. A risk to me is doing something uncomfortable. But music makes it less uncomfortable!
Rin: I’d like to share a couple examples of success and disaster. I’ll start with the disaster! It’s been a big risk for me. A country band was looking for a singer and instrumentalist. I’m not a singer of all things, but I like to sing and I decided to audition. They liked me and took me on. We almost started, and then they changed their minds. This left me greatly disappointed, and it took me a while to overcome it. I walked away from it with a better voice because I worked at it. So while it appeared like a disaster, I learned a lot from the experience and I feel stronger for it. The other example is that nobody had made a career of playing jazz violin, so one was made specially for me. I had to work a lot, and being the only woman in the department and the only violin doing jazz hasn’t been easy. But I came out of it with a great education and my path to become a good jazz violinist. I’m very proud of that.
Yanzel: Each audition is a risk to me. To have to display who you are and what you are capable of in five minutes. When I was 22 year old, I had just finished school and decided to participate in my first competition in Puerto Rico for the Metropolitan Opera House. It’s an important competition, full of famous people from Puerto Rico. I didn’t do too bad. I got in fourth place and the encouragement prize. Another risk that I took was accepting to sing with Charanga Agozá because I’d never sang this type of music. It’s a very beautiful challenge and I’m enjoying it!
What does it mean to listen to your ‘inner child’?
Jessie: I think that it’s a good idea to listen to them, and it’s not a good idea to push them away.
Carrie: I love the fact that all day every day I’m with kids, because being able to see the curiosity they have, and the enthusiasm they put into things, is like a reminder to not lose the girl inside of me. So maybe I don’t always hear the girl inside of me, but I always hear the voices of the children around me, and that helps me a lot to be a better person.
Rin: I also spend a lot of time with kids and that helps me hear the girl inside of me, to connect with that voice. To be honest I’m a kid dressed as an adult, look how I dress! I listen plenty to my inner girl! I like to laugh and play.
Yanzel: I believe that all musicians always have our inner child active. I like to talk with older folks, because they’re like kids. They’re funny and they have a lot of wisdom. A man once told me in the street that the day that we stop thinking and acting like kids, art will die. I like your question a lot because without a doubt we have to have that inner child and be spontaneous, break the rules, the rigidity and try new things. What my inner child always says is do do what’s ridiculous and to not be afraid of being ridiculous, or what people say, to experiment until you find the way to communicate what you want through art. This is how you free yourself to do whatever you want!
Is there something you’d like to say to the audience that’s going to read this interview?
Jessie: Thank you for reading this article and for taking the time to understand what musicians attempt to do for the public. This is what we do, showing all our emotions, and attempting to make the public happy.
Carrie: Thank you for helping art survive.
Rin: Thank you for taking the time to learn more about us. I’d also like to remind people that music has the capacity to unite people of different background. In this moment, in this country, things are so divided and scary that it’s important to come together and celebrate life in the hopes that things don’t get worse.
Yanzel: Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed, for giving us the space to talk with our Latinx community. I would like to tell them to always be open to learn about art in general, whether it’s visual, theatre, or music, and all genres of music.
Thank you to these women that listen to the girl that they used to be and to the woman who they’ve become; that do what they want; that take the risk to try new things, knowing that they can fall, but then are able to get back up; and who display that working and following a passion can happen at the same time.