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Pittsburgh indigenous leader's album honors the Taíno music tradition

Miguel Sagué Jr.
Renee Rosensteel
Courtesy of the artist
At 70, Miguel Sagué Jr. is releasing his debut album

Miguel Sagué Jr. was born in Cuba, and grew up knowing his ancestors on his father’s side included the Taíno, the indigenous people of the Caribbean. He even had relatives in El Caney, an indigenous settlement near his family’s home, in Santiago.

Miguel Sagué Jr.
Renee Rosensteel
Courtesy of the artist
Sagué poses with an earthenware vessel

Sagué’s interest in his roots accompanied him to Erie, Pa., where his family moved in the early 1960s, when he was 10. And they’ve only become a bigger part of his life.

This month, Sagué, now 70 and a longtime leader in the local indigenous community, releases his debut album. “Songs From the Stone Hoop” features 11 tracks inspired by indigenous culture. All but one are originals composed by Sagué for the Caney Indigenous Spiritual Circle, an organization he cofounded some four decades ago to help those seeking to reclaim the indigenous spiritual tradition.

“We’re producing a CD that really shows the quality and the beauty of our music,” said Sagué, a retired art teacher who lives in Penn Hills.

Art accompanying Miguel Sagué's song "Atabey"
Art by Miguel Sagué Jr.
Sagué's artwork for the single "Atabey (Taino Ti)"

The record-release party is Sun., Nov. 28, at Mr. Smalls Funhouse, in Millvale.

The album was co-produced by Sagué with singer Phat Man Dee. It features Sagué on vocals with Carlos Pena on guitar, Tony DePaolis on bass, and Sagué’s son, Miguel Sagué III, on conga and backing vocals. The choir is directed by Kris Rust and includes members of the Taíno community and others, including Sagué’s wife, Lenia Rodriguez Sagué. The songs were recorded at Mr. Smalls Recording Studio, on the North Side.

Traditional Taíno music is all voice, flute and percussion, said Sagué, but the tracks on “Stone Hoop” incorporate additional instrumentation. The opening song, “Atabe (Taíno Ti),” sets the tone. Sung in a Taíno dialect, it’s a near-chant, with acoustic guitar, percussion and harmonica, and Sagué’s vocals joined by those of the choir.

“The song is about the cosmic matriarch,” said Sagué. “She’s kind of like Mother Earth. And we honor her as the mother of all things.”

The lone cover song on the album is “Vasija De Barro,” an Ecuadoran tune about the cycle of life that compares the earth to a mother’s womb, symbolized by a clay vessel. The lyrics read, in part, “From you I rose like a daydream, and back to you I’ll return. Your beloved soil shall embrace me in a simple potter’s urn.”

Sagué inherited a love of music from his parents. His college-professor father adored movie musicals (especially those from Spain, but not excluding “My Fair Lady”), while his mother shared her knowledge of Cuban folk songs. Sagué studied at Ohio’s Columbus College of Art and Design and Gannon University. In the mid-’70s, he was so drawn to the work of Pittsburgh’s Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center that he moved here.

He worked for the Center and also taught art and Spanish in private schools, eventually signing on with the Pittsburgh Public Schools; his last assignment was at Roosevelt Elementary School, in Carrick. He retired in 2010. In the ’80s, he co-founded the Latin dance band Guaracha, which still performs. He also still serves on the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center board. (Sagué frequently consults with organizations on initiatives including land acknowledgements – a service he recently performed for WESA’s parent corporation, Pittsburgh Community Broadcast Corporation).

Sagué also remains active with the Caney Indigenous Spiritual Circle, which he co-founded, in 1982, to honor “the path of shamanic enlightenment.”

The group uses its own dialect of Taíno and songs and dances inspired by that tradition – including the music on “Stone Hoop.” The album’s title refers to ancient, oval-shaped stone carvings that the Circle incorporates into its ceremonies.

But Sagué said the modern instrumentation on the album doesn’t constitute a break from tradition. “The ancient Taíno people, my ancestors, were very innovative, and they would not hesitate to add new instrumentation, like most indigenous people,” he said.

The CD was supported by the City of Pittsburgh's Office of Public Art through its Artists Bridging Social Distance in the Public Realm initiative.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm
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