Samora Pinderhughes was two and a half years old when a teacher at the Centro Vida preschool in Berkeley noticed his musical talent. What his parents thought was just a fascination with making noise by banging on the table, the teacher determined was an uncanny musical ability.
Samora was three and a half when his sister, Elena, was born. From the time she was an infant, her mother Raquel brought her along to Samora’s private music lessons. Soon, she too started to show signs of musical genius. The brother and sister then started to play music together, he on the piano and she on the flute.
Years later, they made their first professional album together at La Peña. Samora was almost 13. Elena was nine.
“They are a very dynamic duo and have been for many years,” said Bennie Maupin, a bass clarinet player who has recorded with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Now the Pinderhughes siblings are going to embark on their most ambitious project yet – a recording of “The Transformations Suite,” an hour-long composition that combines jazz with poetry and spoken word from Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Tupac Shakur.
The suite “paints a musical picture of the current state of social inequality and injustice in the United States,” said Samora, 20, who composed the music while studying at Juilliard in New York. “It’s for young people, by young people. It’s about creating a dialogue and using the power of the arts to create change.”
To raise money for the recording, Elena, Samora, and a group of his classmates from Juilliard made a pitch on Kickstarter.com, the website where artists and others can post a video about a project and ask people to support it. When Samora got the idea for The Transformations Suite he thought the group would be lucky to raise $2,000, so he only set a $10,000 goal on Kickstarter.com. To his surprise, 66 people pledged $12,685 for the recording.
Now Samora regrets only asking for $10,000, because it will actually cost $25,000 to record the album. Much of that money is needed to secure the rights to record the works of Martin Luther King. The group is still seeking donations.
“This is a fabulous project,” said Maupin, who met Elena when he taught her saxophone at the world-renowned Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley run by Daisy Newman. “Young minds always find a way to express what’s going on in their generation,” said Maupin.
After recording the piece, the group plans to take the show to schools and churches around the country to spark dialogue about the issues raised. The group already spent a few weeks in Brazil this summer performing.
Samora and Elena are not only products of Berkeley’s progressive political climate, but of the East Bay’s rich musical community. Their parents, Howard and Raquel Pinderhughes, are both academics — he is a professor in health and behavioral social sciences at UCSF, and she is a professor in urban studies and planning at San Francisco State – and are deeply involved in social change issues. As parents of bi-racial children, the Pinderhughes often discussed power, race, and class around the dinner table. The family once spent six months in Cuba while Raquel did research.
“My parents being professors and being extremely progressive, both my sister and I have been very involved socially and politically since we were very young,” said Samora.
Howard and Raquel are not musicians, but love music and always had it playing in their home.
“Their parents have a record collection that is more extensive than many musicians I know,” said Maupin.
When it became clear that Samora and Elena had unusual musical talent, the Pinderhughes turned to the community for help and support. And they got it. Some of the East Bay’s most talented Latin jazz, jazz, and classical musicians have taught the siblings, including Jackeline Rago, Guillermo Cespedes and Josh Jones, among others. They studied music at La Peña, were members of the Young Musicians Program practiced and performed at the Jazzschool, and had regular gigs at Cheeseboard Pizza. Both Elena and Samora played in Berkeley High’s prestigious jazz program. Elena has also studied classical flute with the San Francisco Jazz Program.
Elena’s primary instrument is classical flute, but she also plays sax and piano and sings. Samora plays the piano and composes music.
For Samora and Elena, one of the pleasures of recording The Transformations Suite will be the opportunity for them to play together again. Until Samora departed for Juilliard three years ago, the siblings played music together all the time. They had a regular show at Cheeseboard Pizza (Elena still plays there every other Wednesday night), performed at Yoshi’s, and practiced at the Jazzschool.
“We have been so close all of our lives,” said Elena. “He’s so fun, as a musician and as a person. People say we are very similar. He catches where I am going, he leads me to a place.”
Raquel Pinderhughs is extremely proud that her two children are such exceptional musicians, but she draws more satisfaction from their relationship to one another.
“What my husband and I rate the most is their relationship to one another,” she said. “The music is an added plus.”
If you are interested in contributing to The Transformations Suite, contact Samora Pinderhughes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can listen to performances by Samora and Elena Pinderhughes on their YouTube channel.
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