Born in Santiago, Angelina Tallaj displayed a natural talent for music at an early age, performing extensively and winning many awards and competitions. Tallaj earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Brooklyn College, studying with Michael Rogers and Germán Diez. She recently completed a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where she was a recipient of the Presidential MAGNET fellowship. Tallaj is currently Visiting Assistant Professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
A concert pianist who has played with the Kingsborough Symphony Orchestra, the Cibao Symphony Orchestra, and The Orchestra Celebrate! at Lincoln Center, among others, Tallaj enjoys performing the music of Latin America in addition to the traditional classical piano repertoire. As an ethnomusicologist, she has presented her research at many conferences on Dominican and Latin American music.
Professor Tallaj spoke to me about the central role of her Dominican heritage in her work. "My academic work and interests have been highly influenced by the fact that I am Dominican. In my work, I usually study my own identity to study changes in Dominican identity at large. I study my own migration and the changes I went through when I went to New York City and use this experience to theorize larger shifts and patterns. I'm usually both scholar and subject in my work. If I hadn't been Dominican, I don't even know if I'd be doing what I do. I'm very interested in Dominican music because that's what I grew up listening to. I was mostly trained in classical music but there was always this other world out there. I would go to the conservatory and play my classical piano but at the same time there was this other world of TV, popular culture, and popular music such as merengue. In some ways, before starting the PhD I was already knowledgeable about Dominican music because I lived the merengue shifts from the 70s through the 90s. When it was time for me to pursue a PhD, I realized that I knew more than I thought."
Tallaj's musical and intellectual curiosity began developing and branching out in different directions at an early age, shaped by some important influences. "First, there was my piano teacher. I started playing piano at seven, and my piano teacher became like a second mom to me and really taught me to love music. If I had had a different teacher, I might not have come to love music the way I did. At the same time that I was being trained in classical music and grew to love it, in my home I was always listening to merengue and bachata. The women who cooked and cleaned in my home taught me about this other music, outside my bubble as an upper middle class Dominican. I used to go to the kitchen and see them cook and listen to bachata. I knew I wasn't supposed to listen to that music but I loved it. They really influenced me."
Tallaj's interest in the folk cultures and beliefs of her native land, another important research area for her, developed at the same time. "Another major influence was my father, who was a member of the anti-Trujillo forces. He was always into justice. He used to be very interested in lower class Dominicans and as a doctor, he always brought home stories about superstitions and how Dominican beliefs got in the way of medical care, because they believed in the evil eye, or tried to cure by other means. I always knew that there was this other world of folk religion. Those things were very influential for me. I was always aware that there were other things, other Dominican cultures that I wasn't being taught about in school. They seemed very interesting to me but I never had much opportunity to learn about them until I started my PhD and research agenda."
How did she set her sights on a PhD and choose her topic? "I always knew that I would want to do a doctorate. Both my parents were always reading and really valued intellectual activity. Both of them went back to school in their 40s.My dad was a doctor but when I was in high school, he decided to do a degree in economics. I saw a PhD as the ultimate intellectual experience. I knew I wanted to do that but my whole lifestyle was as a pianist. I spent hours and hours of practicing, from the time I was seven until I decided to do my PhD, in 2005. The real turn for me was when I was at Brooklyn College doing my Master's in Piano Performance and one professor, Professor Carrasquillo, gave me a book about Dominican Vudú. I started taking anthropology courses. By 2005 I had an increasing interest in anthropology but also music. The obvious choice was ethnomusicology. When I started ethnomusicology I knew I wanted to do research in the Dominican Republic, but had no idea what. Little by little I began reading, going home, going to some ceremonies, and opening my eyes to experiencing the culture helped me narrow my topic."
I ask Tallaj to explain how music cultures express race and ethnicity. "Through sounds, instruments, melodies, dance moves. When the Dominican merengue incorporates drums or syncopation or call-and-response, the music ties us to an African past and creates a new Dominican ethnicity."
She goes on to talk about how her research deals with the dynamics of Dominican identity. "One thing that my research tries to prove is that Dominican identity is transnational. Dominicans are feeling and getting closer to other African diasporic groups. I use music to prove that Dominican identity is Africanizing in some ways, getting closer to African roots. Another thing we learn from my research is that although a lot of people attribute a denial of blackness to Dominicans-- that's how they are portrayed in social science academic writings-- I try to prove that Dominicans embody blackness as opposed to verbally articulating it. They perform blackness through dance, movement, and music as opposed to declaring it. Although I argue that Dominican identity is Africanizing and Dominican music is getting closer to black genres of music, I have yet to confirm whether the Dominican Republic has moved closer to an acceptance of black identity that will translate into verbal affirmations of black pride. I have yet to see the answer to that question in years to come."
Tallaj's current project explores an intriguing subject. "I am working on getting an article ready for publication. This article discusses the way Dominicans are celebrating voodoo ceremonies in music clubs, and the shifting balance between private and public Dominican identities." The next topic she plans to pursue promises to break new ground in the study of Dominican popular culture. "For the future, I would like to work on the ways in which Dominican culture is becoming more accepting of homosexuality while at same time also becoming more homophobic."
Finally, I ask what music Tallaj enjoys playing most of all. "I love playing Caribbean music, and Latin American pieces generally. I feel they are closer to my heart. Now that I am an ethnomusicologist, I feel I understand where Caribbean rhythms come from. I really, really enjoy that music, its syncopation."