AS a young woman of colour, the exceptionally gifted musician and composer Jeanine “J9” Ruiz is a rare sight in the male dominated field of music composition. Yet she broke the glass ceiling when she became the first female musical composer in T&T to create the entire sound track for a feature film. This rising star plays several instruments and has collaborated with many of this country’s talented musicians, she’s also the band manager and musical director for one of the most in-demand soca artistes today.
But one of Ruiz’ s greatest accomplishments to date is creating her own style of music that is just as eclectic and varied as the people and cultures that co-exist in T&T. The public first got a chance to sample her fusion music at “Jazz Artists on the Greens” in 2018 when she performed music from her debut album This is Me.
“I grew up in a musical family; my father was into parang and there were always musical instruments at my grandparents’ home,” says Ruiz.
Looking back on her upbringing, Ruiz says there was never a time in her life when she wasn’t involved with music at some level. While her classmates at Bishop Anstey High School East spent their lunch hour gushing to one another about their latest crush, Ruiz would make a beeline for the music room. Around that time, the piano had become her latest obsession.
“I was so engrossed in music, it was the only subject that I was really looking forward to,” she says.
By the time she hit her teens Ruiz was not only a budding musician, she also had an interest in the way different notes and melodies converged to make music. She enjoyed the theory and research aspects of her music class more than the practical and she began isolating sounds and melodies that struck a chord within her. Then in 2002, an outing to see Spider-Man brought Ruiz closer to figuring out what she was going to do with her life. While sitting in the dark, crowded cinema, Ruiz was blown away not so much by the movie’s story line but by the music which raised her pores.
“I was like ‘whoa!’. It had such a strong effect on me that I needed to know who had composed the music. I started doing research and came to realise that there is a whole industry out there that creates music for movies. I knew then and there that this is what I wanted to do,” she recalls.
Ruiz followed her intuition and studied Musical Arts at The University of the West Indies and graduated with first class honours. She also honed in her musical skills as a member of the African Drumming Ensemble at The UWI and the St Augustine Chamber Orchestra. She then decided to continue her studies at the University of Trinidad and Tobago where she pursued Music Technology and learned the technical aspects of composing. For her final project, Ruiz had to compose her own music using industry standard equipment that was available to her. Her final composition was called “Wonder” and it caught the attention of Darisha Beresford who at the time was directing the film The Cutlass. Ruiz’s musical style was exactly what Beresford was looking for and she asked Ruiz to do the entire musical score for the movie. That was only the beginning. Since then Ruiz has worked on several other compositions and finished her debut album This Is Me which she hopes to release again this year. She has also collaborated with other musicians in the re-imagination of soca hits like Far From Finished and Savannah Grass.
As a composer, ideas come to her head at random moments throughout any given day. As the music comes to Ruiz, she records the melody on her phone then composes the music in the studio. Ruiz likens each idea to a seed which becomes a full grown tree once the composition is complete.
When a new sound or style of music is introduced on the musical landscape, the reaction is often mixed. Ruiz has found that once Trinbagonians have become used to the way a song is sung and performed, it’s difficult for them to imagine it being sung any other way. But the current reality is not stopping Ruiz from doing what she loves.
“I’ll continue doing what I want to do, even if my videos only get 12 views on YouTube; I’m fine with that. If those 12 views were from people who really appreciate my music then that’s what really matters,” she says.
Besides working as a freelance musician, Ruiz has her own production company ‘J9’ which scores, produces and composes tracks. She’s also a member of Ijo along with six talented musicians who compose their own music. Ruiz is the musical arranger for Los Alumnos de San Juan and is also the band manager, musical director and keyboardist for Nailah Blackman and Sokah. She manages all the administrative details and does the musical arrangements for Blackman’s live performances. She has also worked as a producer on Blackman’s album The Reel. Ruiz also creates and narrates a series of short animated videos called Life of a Caribbean Creative on YouTube. Each video discusses the challenges that people in the creative arts encounter.
Composing music remains Ruiz’ s number one passion because it gives her a sense of purpose. Music tells a story; it can either enhance a movie or take away from it. One can often anticipate a change in a movie’s plot just by listening to the subtle or abrupt change in the musical arrangement. Music influences us even when we’re not aware of it. That’s why we can easily identify blockbuster movies like Star Wars, Jaws and Titanic just by listening to a few seconds of the theme music.
Ruiz wants to take her listeners on an auditory roller coaster ride through her own musical compositions.
“As a music composer, it’s my job to find a balance and work in parallel with it. I just love the way music can manipulate one’s mood,” says Ruiz.
Currently the field of music composition is dominated by white males; female composers including women of colour make up a small percentage of the industry - a mere three per cent. But there have been encouraging signs that suggest a change is in the air. For instance at this year’s Academy Awards the composer behind Joker, Hildur Gudnadottir became the first woman to win an Oscar in the Best Original Score category.
At the age of 27, Ruiz is already dismantling stereotypes at home and has shown what is possible. Even though music composition and music on the whole is not looked at as a viable career option in T&T, it’s Ruiz’ goal to pave a way for others like her who share similar ambitions.
“I will continue to put my work out there. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Ruiz. “I want to represent women of colour from the Caribbean in the field of music composition where women who look like me is a rare thing. If one person can do it then it will show others that it’s possible and they can do it too.”