Rhythms of Cuba inspire Lumen Scholar performance

Elon senior Nicole Payne Mota, whose Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage are reflected in her musical passion and scholarly work, led a Yeager Recital Hall concert on April 24 supported by the university's top prize for undergraduate research and creative achievement.

Elon University senior Nicole Payne Mota and her Lumen Prize mentor, Professor Victoria Fischer Faw
Music runs in the family.

Her great aunt was an opera singer. Her great grandmother performed on piano for the Havana Symphony. Several distant cousins still in Cuba work as musicians. And as the child of a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Nicole Payne Mota listened to salsa growing up, discovering her own vocal and piano talents along the way.

Performing on piano, however, is one thing. Studying music? Learning how the rhythm and melodies originated in the sounds of her youth? The thought never crossed Payne’s mind until she attended a concert as an Elon University freshman.

Now, three years later, Payne will share her knowledge and love of Cuban music in a Yeager Recital Hall concert supported by the Lumen Prize, Elon University’s top award for undergraduate research and creative achievement.

“Que Viva El Ritmo: An Evening of Cuban Music” on April 24, 2015, included musical selections that followed the development of Cuban music from its Spanish and African beginnings. It featured Payne on piano/vocals with special guest artist Felix Sanabria from Miami and Bradley Simmons from Duke University.

“This music is not just a dance form or something you hear at parties,” said Payne, whose work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2015. “It’s the culmination of hundreds of years of suffering and pain, and joy and triumph, and the struggle to find a national identity.”

Spanish and African influences have defined culture and identity of the Caribbean island nation since before its independence in 1902. Contemporary Cuban music fuses flamenco instrumentation, which originated in the lower classes in Spain, with the rhythms brought to the New World by African slaves as a way to preserve their heritage and faith.

Payne’s research expands on Afro-Cuban music and identity, following the development of Cuban music through several time periods. The music itself assumed greater importance after arriving at Elon from her hometown in Chesapeake, Va., in the fall of 2011 and experiencing a “culture shock” when she discovered few Latinos on campus.

“That gave me a deeper desire to hold onto my culture and study it more,” she said. “I held onto the music. It’s not only what I do, it’s what’s important to me and makes me feel at home.”

Later in her first year, after attending a guest musical performance as part of the university’s cultural programming, she realized that she not only had an interest in playing music. She wanted to research music.

The guest performer that evening was Puerto Rican musician Felix Sanabria, whom Payne has since befriended and invited back to campus for her concert. “If it weren’t for him, this project, and my journey in the understanding of Afro-Cuban folkloric music, might not have been nearly as rich and meaningful,” Payne said.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Payne used the Lumen Prize to visit Cuba last summer for classes at the University of Havana. She lived with family and traveled out each night for a month to witness the nation’s music scene, while spending her days in class learning about Cuban-American relations, and the Spanish language and culture.

The Honors Fellow visited libraries, purchased books and networked with musicians and academics, which helped guide her in the development of her Honors thesis and Lumen Prize performance.

“I think she is going to be an important voice and liaison between the music and the scholarly understanding of the music,” said Professor Victoria Fischer Faw, Payne’s Lumen Prize mentor in the Department of Music. “She’s going to be real model, an important voice in her discipline.”

Fischer described in Payne a “vivaciousness” and passion that opened her to new ideas while in Cuba. “She came back with all these insights and all of these nuanced understandings,” Fischer said. “It’s been a really fleshed out project, just a multidimensional experience for her and for me.

In addition to her Lumen Prize and Honors work, Payne has performed at church services both on and off campus, and served as president for two years in the Latin American Student Organization. She also helped to establish Corazones Unidos Siempre/Chi Upsilon Sigma Latin Sorority, Inc., an endeavor that took her years to complete.

She will attend Florida International University starting in the fall to work toward her graduate degree in piano performance.

“I didn’t realize,” Payne said, “that something so fun and such a big part of my life could be part of a scholarly study.”