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This interview is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

Shapeshifting: A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa Laren McClung

Early this year I met Yusef at the Blue Note in New York City. Cuban percussionist Candido Camero was performing in celebration of his 89th birthday. Candido moved very, very slowly to the stage – he used a beautiful wooden walking stick to aid him. But when he stood in front of the congas he transformed entirely, body and soul. He suddenly had such agility and it seemed he conjured a tremendous and vibrant spirit as I had never seen at the congas. His hands moved so fast they literally appeared transparent. By manoeuvring from his right to left elbow on the drum-skins he would create enough tension to shift the pitch while he’d use his free hand to slap the drum. Yusef was so engaged with him. Before the show started, I was able to talk a little with Yusef about his experiences with jazz and with poetry. Though the interview began at the Blue Note, it is the culmination of conversations that have happened on many occasions over a period of several months. Our discussions seemed to take and change shape on their own. This interview became another place of discovery for me, and perhaps for Yusef as well.

LAREN MCCLUNG: Where did you first discover jazz?

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA: I grew up listening to blues and gospel. I had to leave Louisiana in order to discover jazz. I think I was in Puerto Rico and a friend was listening to Thelonious ...


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