Gena arrives at Beehive in the South Side in yoga gear, her yard-long dreads tied back with a headband, and immediately orders a huge chai latte. She’s like a firecracker, shooting notes off and laughing between sips of her fuel. Originally from a small town in Northwest Puerto Rico, the frontwoman of Machete-Kisumontao was raised by a family of musicians, including a piano playing brother, a violinist sister, and a mother “who sings all the time, but not in public.” After being carjacked and kidnapped during her college years in San Juan, Gena decided to move to New York City. “I was a little bit traumatized, I didn’t see the point of staying there, at that point. I was in a ‘who cares’ kind of mode,” she explains. A friend offered to pay her way to the states, and the young women arrived in NYC the next day.
Life in the city was far from A Chorus Line. She told me about nights where a friend from Rosario’s Pizza would keep the place open until 6 in the morning, when she’d retire to Johnson Square park, “every time I go there, I visit him,” she says. “I spoke as good English as you speak Spanish. I know everyone here learns a little Spanish, like ‘hola!’” Gena laughed. This made finding a job difficult, but she soon connected with Theater for the New City and its director, Crystal Fields.
“She doesn’t reject anybody,” Gena remembers, “I started working there, I did lighting, sound, stage managing, usher, acting, everything but directing. That gave me a lot of confidence, working there. And talking to people, and you know, once people give you the trust, they open doors for you. And you become part of a family, a big family. In New York City, so many people come from different places, you’re not going to feel special. In Puerto Rico, I was kind of a weirdo!” She laughs. “We’re all outcasts. You’re a writer, you’re an artist, you’re an outcast. People work a 9-5 job, and then they find out, and they’re like what? You’re writing? But in New York, you become anonymous, and that’s awesome.”
The theater ended up putting Gena in touch with composer Joel Diamond, with whom she’d work on music for the movie The Believer, in which Ryan Gosling plays a neo-Nazi. Despite her success, surviving in New York was a struggle, and when a friend from Puerto Rico mentioned Pittsburgh, Gena was intrigued. “It was something new. It was less pretentious, it was less competition, less running around. New York can be really intense, what is it called? The red queen hypothesis? You feel like you have to run and run and run around, to stay in the same place.”
Pittsburgh brought her to University of Pittsburgh’s African drumming ensemble, which rotates its director every year, to bring a different region of Africa into public consciousness. Her first couple years, Gena worked with directors from Congo, Ghana, and Uganda. Things progressed when she met members of the Latin American Cultural Union, “one of them told me, we’re having our–20th or 25th anniversary?– No, it was the 20th anniversary of the Latin American Cultural Union. They were having a kickoff at the Shadow Lounge, like an open mic Latin night. She wanted me to go there and sing a cappella,” Gena laughs, “I was like ‘I can go sing, but not a cappella! I’m not going to go there and be like, laaaaaa.’ So I actually ask my friends, Ketan and Dino and Vijay, really really amazing guys. Their musicianship is stupid. They had the African drumming ensemble training, so I knew they could connect with Puerto Rico– with Africa as the common meeting ground. So I ask them to learn six songs. It went so well, that from there, we started getting calls! I didn’t have to myself book a gig for a year.”
“What we were doing was basically mixing African rhythms with Puerto Rico. It’s like saying, think about this Americana band that plays super traditional songs, like ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine–’ they have a washboard, and everybody can relate, and sing along. Or like, Amazing Grace, one of these songs that everybody knows cause they are public domain, little anthems of United States culture. Basically these, for Latin Americans. Bringing songs from the 20’s and the 30’s, and even earlier. We’re just doing our own little versions– I’ve seriously had people in tears. Maybe alcohol had a little to do with it,” Gena giggles. “We started doing it, and all of a sudden, six songs is not enough! Seven years later, we’re selling! So we decided to get horn players.”
On her adopted home base, Gena says, “Just by being here, and making connections here and there, I’ve been so lucky. I’ve played with Phat Man Dee, oh! And Kenia, we had a group called Chicks Boom Boom. A bunch of really really cool, awesome musicians. Pittsburgh has so many of them, it’s almost hard not to. It’s been a really really awesome experience. I’ve played at the Rex and Club Cafe, I got to play at the Pittsburgh Opera House. And the August Wilson Center, actually, with a bunch of really really awesome jazz artists, who probably don’t remember my name.”
Gena seems nervous about her show at Pittsburgh Winery Saturday, since it falls on the same night as Lawrenceville’s Art All Night. But if you’re planning to come, make sure you’re ready to dance, or Gena might drag you out of your seat.