For a Pittsburgh, Penn.-based adjunct music instructor raised in Valparaiso, Ind., the connections between her Midwest hometown and the city of Valparaíso, Chile, run deep. In college, an exchange program sent Emily Pinkerton to Chile for a year, introducing her to traditional Latin American songwriting styles and instruments, reshaping her musical ear.
Pinkerton's eventual "decade of immersion" into the Chilean culture opened her to opportunities to study with musical masters such as Chosto Ulloa and Santos Rubio, among others. "When I started studying with my principal guitarrón teacher, Alfonso Rubio, he became very interested in the banjo," she says. "I taught him clawhammer style, and his first tunes were his favorite Chilean and Spanish ballads."
Although she remembers "feeling lost at first," conducting her graduate research work on the canto a lo poeta singing style with a 25-string Chilean guitarrón turned Pinkerton's timidity to enthusiasm. In fall 2008, she released her first full-length album, Valparaiso, on Green Jeans Records, in tribute to her two Valpo homes.
"Between eight years of graduate school and three years of living in Chile, Latin American music has become the center of my artistic world," Pinkerton says. "At first, in Chile and in the States, I tried to learn traditional music in a disciplined way - really focusing on recreating the sounds I heard. Making Valparaíso was about letting go of that in a way that moved beyond just having my own style or timbre within a certain genre."
Her album contains a collection of 12 songs sung in English or Spanish, with Pinkerton leading on vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddle, Chilean guitarrón, charango and cajón.
"Recording Valparaíso, I created the arrangements long after the core guitar or banjo part was written," she says. "This process is shifting a bit now that I have a steady trio in Pittsburgh with bassist Layo Puentes and cajón player Lucas Savage." Puentes and Savage, along with Pinkerton's guitarist husband, Patrick Burke, performed on the album. "Writing with my husband is fun and challenging," she says, "because it pushes me beyond my usual harmonic and lyrical boundaries. He's a composer who writes a lot of rock-influenced chamber music, and I've steeped myself in folk and traditional sounds."
Her cohorts are able to successfully balance the best of two cultures and songwriting styles. "Sometimes a song descends in one fell swoop [like 'Kingdom Down' or 'El Cerro']," Pinkerton says, "and others are built layer by layer over a few months. With a song like 'La flor de la verbena,' for example, I'm exploring the sounds of a cueca [Chilean national folk dance], with my Midwestern musical ear, rather than trying to replicate a traditional Chilean sound."
Growing up in Indiana gave Pinkerton opportunities that "brought the world to her front door," in her eyes. She became heavily involved in the music and drama clubs at Valparaiso High School, playing piano, violin and guitar as one-third of the acoustic trio Trillium. She also befriended exchange students from Chile and Uruguay, who taught her the music of Nueva Canción (literally "new song," a progressive movement in Central America that combined traditional music and rock) and the songs of Chilean poet and songwriter Victor Jara before she knew much about South American history. She later studied musical voice and foreign language at Butler University in Indianapolis, and eventually earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Texas. "When I think about all this, it doesn't seem unusual at all to have taken the paths that I have chosen," she says.
Pinkerton's interest in 1960s folk music by such artists as Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez shines through in her singing and guitar picking styles, so much so that her voice has often been compared to an early Baez. However, Pinkerton says that Andean musician Violeta Parra has been her greatest influence.
"I heard her potent voice from a small boom box shortly after I first arrived in Chile in 1996, and the power of that first listen never left me," she says. "It was just her, a charango and a deep drum, nothing else, and I didn't understand a word of her lyrics. By the time I left Chile a year later, I'd internalized every single word and note of that album, Las últimas composiciones de Violeta Parra. Once I came to understand her words, they carried the same impact as her voice. They strike hard with a minimum of embellishment, but leave a wake of subtle, lasting and sometimes conflicting sentiments. A perfect example is her most well known song, 'Gracias a la vida,' [a song often covered by Baez], which is a tremendous ode to the human condition. Beneath the sincere thanks she expresses for her sight, her ears, her voice and her listeners, she tucks away a persistent undertone of irony and sadness, reflecting many of the personal losses she had suffered shortly before writing the song."
Similarly, Pinkerton's songs explore loneliness and employ earthy metaphors that reflect both her spiritual and emotional world.
Since her time living and learning in Latin America, Pinkerton has become a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, instructing students about world music and modern foreign languages. She has also formed an ensemble, Copihue Chile, a group of Pittsburgh-based Chileans and Americans that present traditional Latin American music and dance at schools and cultural festivals.
"I've been given a lot of encouragement from the Latin American community in Pittsburgh and from my friends in Chile," Pinkerton says. "As a 'gringa' whose musical life is so entwined with South America, I'm grateful for this support and for the opportunity to share songs that people relate to their own experience of travel between North and South America."