Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Rockin' La Tinaja, 10/23/05

There's me at the bottom, and General Larguito at the top (accompanied by Pedrito Reynoso).

strikes, poets, little hats, and drag queens

I found I had to take it easy last week after all the Andy Ranch excitement. So I went about my usual business, and nothing eventful happened until Wednesday. As I left the house that morning to go catch a concho to my tambora lesson as usual, my landlady stopped me to tell me two things of interest. Firstly, that we now have water! Running water! All the time!! This whole time I’d been wrestling with the question of which is worse: frequent electricity outages, like last year, or frequent water outages, which was the main problem I’d had since arriving this year. The water would frequently stop and start several times during a five-minute shower, making it difficult to get the soap out of my hair. And washing dishes was sometimes completely out of the question, unless by using the bucket-and-cup method, since rinsing with the pathetic trickle I usually got would have taken about a year. Everyone had told me this was because the city’s water treatment plant was having difficulties and under repair, necessitating something like rolling blackouts but for water. (Is there a word for that?) However, it turns our that the main problem was not there, but right in front of our own house! A broken pipe no one knew was there until the landlady brought up the water situation with a neighbor, who said hers was "fine." Well, they fixed it, meaning all you who are still planning on coming to visit can enjoy the miracle of continually running water.

The second thing of interest was a strike. I couldn’t understand what this had to do with me, who, as a foreign ethnomusicologist/accordionist am clearly not unionized. I asked, "who’s on strike?" The answer was, "Everyone!" Apparently it is a not uncommon thing for the whole country to go on strike in order to tell the government that they ought to be paying more attention to the poor. The idea is to cause complete paralysis for a day. The strike is enforced by guys in the street who throw rocks if you try to go out in a car, burn tires, etc. Unfortunately, as in most countries, what goes for the poor doesn’t necessarily go for the rich and things went on more or less as normal in my fancypants neighborhood. There were fewer cars on the street, and one had to wait quite some time to get a working concho, but there were no rockthrowers either. Schools were closed and some restaurants, but mall stores were still open. So much for solidarity. So I went to class and to work anyway, but I did stay in at night.

By the next day the strike was supposed to be over, but there still weren’t many conchos. Maybe the drivers just wanted to sleep in. Anyway, it was business as usual until, on my way home from the Centro Leon, I got a call from a folklorist friend that I should come to an event at the Casa de la Cultura in celebration of the national Day of the Poets. Dominicans either really love poetry or they just all say they do to seem cool. They particularly dig poetic declamation, which must be done in a loud voice with a lot of gesticulation. Well, I went, but soon I was asking myself, Why? Why?!? Because the thing is, I really don’t like poetry, and now that I have reached the age of 30 I really don’t care who knows it. So I was kind of happy about the political rally going on next door in the Centro de Recreo, the city’s former upper-class hangout, bought out by the quasi-dictatorial Balaguer in the 1970s. From the plaza in which we were sitting we could look up into the second-floor windows and see a bunch of PRSD flag-wavers. Every so often they would break out with some Carnivalesque drum beating and güira scraping. This seemed to annoy the poets but I rather enjoyed the counterpoint.

After the poetry reading/political jam session, I was sitting around talking with the Dajabon contingent when the regional cultural minister came over and started making trouble. He jumped into our conversation by stating, "There are no folklorists who don’t wear a little hat!" He was clearly referring to my friends Chio Villalona (of Dajabon) and Rafael Almanzar (a folklorist who directs of Santiago’s Casa del Arte), who have a retro-sixties-black-pride look that often involves dashikis and those little round, woven caps favored by pro-Africa hippie types. Intending to just joke around, I told him, "That’s not true; I’m a folklorist but I don’t have a cap." For some reason this really upset him and he said, very confrontationally, "You’re not a folklorist!" I pointed out that I had a master’s degree in that area and had worked in that field, to which he replied, "well, maybe you’ve read some books about folklore, but you’re not a REAL folklorist. You don’t have the real folklore feeling." Then I got all mad. Who the hell was this guy to tell me what I am or am not? What the hell does HE know?! "You don’t even know me," I said; "how do you know if I am or not?"Oh, didn’t I see your little ‘talk?’ Didn’t I see you play your accordion?" And then he went back to the hat thing. Well, this guy was clearly an idiot who actually believes that you are what you wear, so before long I just walked away fuming. Later I found out from Almanzar that this guy rubs everyone the wrong way and is just plain annoying. But he agreed to loan me a hat and dashiki next time, for experimental purposes.

On Saturday I got bored of sitting around reading and writing and went downtown for a shopping trip instead. It’s always fun in an insane sort of way to see what’s being sold on the sidewalks, and I also checked out some clothing, CD, and instrument stores. In the end all I bought was a clock, some barrettes, and apples and bananas, but the latter were really tasty. I know I overpaid on the clock and barrettes, but really, when you’re talking about a difference of 30-60 cents, I’d rather pay than haggle. I also stopped in and got a manicure at a Chinese manicure shop (just like New York, but on a generator). While I was there a guy came in to get acrylic nail tips. So if you thought there weren’t any drag queens in the DR, you were wrong.

Another exciting moment for me was finally catching the plataneros one morning. All this time I kept missing the guys who go around in pick-ups full of fruits and veggies so fresh the root vegetables still have dirt on them. They usually come by really early, when I’m still asleep, and their loud (REALLY loud) speakered announcements work their way into my dreams in odd ways. The few who do come later for some reason generally miss my street. And if I miss them I have to buy my produce at the grocery store, spend more, and carry it home. So I was really happy to finally find my very own plataneros, who come after 11, which is perfect on the weekend. I loaded up on batata, auyama, tomatos, limes, and cucumbers, and they agreed that those guys who wake everyone up at 8 on Sundays are lame.

Sunday marked my 3rd performance of the year . I went to a rancho típico called La Tinaja to see my teacher Rafaelito play, accompanied by his wife Carmen, daughter Jenny, and a niece, Martha. Besides Rafaelito’s band there was a second group featured – La Union Tipica, fronted by vocalist Narcisco (whom they call "El Pavarotti del merengue típico") and accordionist Pedrito Reynoso. I had met them in Brooklyn once and was happy to see them again. I’m also a big fan of their tamborero, Boca Chula. At least of his music. He could use some new jokes. Here’s one he told Sunday: "Why does the river never dry up? Because it doesn’t have a towel." One amusing moment was when General Larguito showed up. He's a singer/accordionist from back in the old days and is rather a rustic personality. Apparently he can't play anymore due to arthritis but he got up on stage anyway and sang and danced around. Anyway, after four hours of just sitting there all of a sudden everyone wanted to dance with me. (I guess until that point, they all though I’d dance like a white girl so didn’t bother asking. Clearly, they did not know who they were dealing with.) It was just in time to et my energy back up before taking to the stage. I played the same two merengues as last time, but I played them much better now that I could actually hear myself! Everyone dug it and then we all went home. But not before stopping for a sandwich. You can really work up an appetite with all that accordion playing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

More Andy Ranch, 10/16/05

Here you see Geovanny Polanco on stage, Manaury the official accordiongirl photographer with girlfriend, and a conga played by one of Geovanny's percussionists. We all thought it was cool because it has the names of a bunch of famous tipico musicians all over it.

Andy Ranch pictures, 10/16/05

Here you see some highschoolers performing reggaeton, one of them in the tiniest skirt I've ever seen in my whole life. Manaury took that picture.
The group of girls in the middle photo were very popular with the crowd. I liked their custom-made airbrushed jeans featuring Dominican flags and the group's name: Dominican Code. But what does it mean??
The delay in blog-writing has been due to boring circumstance beyond my control – namely, the need to finish a book, an article, and a conference paper. The first two have been completed, the last is underway, so now we can get back to the good stuff!

This weekend I finally managed to get myself out of the house, where I’ve gotten entirely too comfortable, and into some merengue típico gigs. You’ve already seen the pictures of my performance at Patron Burger. While there, I also saw two sets by Rafaelito and his group, and danced a couple of tunes with this old güira player known as El Viejo Rodriguez. I told him he should come because he had told me about watching dance competitions in Santiago during the forties and fifties, and that there were several different steps back then that you don’t see now. He was very pleased with my dancing abilities. So I guess I have a future if 1940s merengue típico dance competitions ever make a comeback.

On Saturday, I got some more unplanned accordion playing in. I had gone to the gym, only to find it closed (I forgot they close early on the weekends), so I went to check out an Argentine restaurant I'd noticed only the day before. I had an excellent empanada there and left to walk back home, intending to work for a couple of hours on my conference paper before bed. However, on the way I encountered a tipico trio playing on the sidewalk in front of a neighborhood bar/sandwich shop, and I found it impossible to resist the merengue magnetism. I sat down and listened for a while, but when they found out I could also play there was no getting away. I was obligated to play 7 or 8 tunes before I could leave. It was too bad that I didn't have my camera or recorder with me to capture the streetcorner atmosphere. It was fun, though, and I got paid in beer.

In truth though, I’m having an ever more difficult time getting to the late night tipico shows. Especially since I’ve been trying to get up earlier and go to the gym. The next type of music I study will definitely have to be music for old people. In at 2 PM, out by dinnertime. This is my new ideal research schedule. Any suggestions? Or should I just check into the old folks’ home now??

At any rate, I did get to see a show yesterday (Sunday) that was a bit closer to my ideal schedule. It was a "pasadia" or daytime event for students, to which I’d gotten a ticket from my teenage pals Manaury and Jonathan. (They’ve also promised to take me to some baseball games when those start up next month.) It was at "Andy Ranch," which is an updated version of the old "ranchos tipicos" where one goes to hear merengue típico and bachata, which themselves seem to have been created to cater to urbanites’ rural nostalgias since they are constructed along the lines of a typical enramada, a thatch-roofed shelter where people gathered to dance in the old days. "Andy Ranch," however, also has bar, restaurant, and swimming pools. Unfortunately, what it didn’t seem to have was food.

We got there about 1:00, expecting not to have to wait too long until the musical entertainment began since the ticket stated that the event began at 10:00 AM. However, when we arrived we were told Geovanny Polanco, the merenguero we’d come to see, wasn’t going to play til 5! Oh well, we shrugged our shoulders, we’ll just wait. Such is life in the DR. So we got ourselves a table and attempted to order food. At about 1:30 we put in our sandwich orders. About 2 PM the waiter shows up again, only to tell us that they were out of everything except fries. We could have French fries, or French fries with cheese. Oh well, we said, shrugging our shoulders, just bring us four orders of fries with cheese. The waiter comes back around 2:30 with the news that in fact there are some sandwiches, namely the grilled cheese I ordered and the ham and cheese the other girl had ordered, and should he put in that order, he wonders? Yes, yes, we tell him, just bring us some food!! 3:00 rolls around, and so do our mediocre sandwiches, but he hasn’t brought anything for the rest of our table, and the guys were at least expecting some fries. Which they finally get around 3:30, only one order, with no cheese and only one packet of ketchup that is soon gone. Oh well, we shrug our shoulders, at least we have some sort of food, and we did manage to get some drinks. Mission somewhat accomplished. Although pretty soon the drinks dry up as well.

By the time we finish our sumptuous spread enough time has actually been wasted that the first act is on. This consists of a series of high school wannabe reggaeton singers. I’m not crazy about reggaeton to begin with, and most of them aren’t exactly the greatest singers/rappers/whatever, although some of their backup dancers were pretty impressive. And all wearing very tiny clothes. This caused Manaury, the photographer, to take rather a lot of pictures, of which you can enjoy a few here. These were followed by two professional reggaeton groups, Ingco Crew and Big Family. I can’t tell you much about them because I could not see them. Although we were seated right next to the stage, people were so into this music that they climbed in front of us, onto the stage, sitting on speaker towers and standing on the backs of our chairs. I was kind of relieved when it ended and I found I hadn’t been crushed by falling speakers, falling teenagers, falling whatever.

Finally, what we came to see – Geovanny Polanco. I was really impressed with the group. I’d only seen them once last year, but from what I heard yesterday they have changed a bunch of things since then – new arrangements, etc. He also had a new tambora player (Sandy Pascual, brother of my old friend Fidelina) who was kind of out of control. But in a good way. He’d added a pair of timbales, a snare drum, and a cymbal to his setup. I guess you could say he’s added a drum set to his tambora, while my tambora teacher, Pablo Pena, has added a tambora to his drumset. They also played some new songs I hadn’t heard before. So I guess it was worth the wait. Mostly.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

My first performance of 2005 in the DR

I went out to see my teacher, Rafaelito Roman, play last night at "Patron Burger." I guess a burger joint is a step up from a car wash. Since I was there, I went ahead and played a couple of merengues. I don't know how I played but I suspect it was badly, since the sound in there was really weird and I couldn't hear myself at all! That is why you see me staring intently at my fingers in one of these shots - I was trying to figure out what the hell I was playing. In the other, I have my eyes closed, which makes it a classic Syd shot. These photos are by Manaury, one of Rafaelito's teenage assistants who I'm trying to train to be my official photographer, which will free me up to do things like dance and play accordion. He thinks it's fun.

Don't despair, faithful readers, soon I'll be done with conference papers and that boring stuff and back to travelling around having wacky adventures.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

No news = good news?

Sorry to disappoint loyal readers, but I really have no news to report this week. I shut myself in for the weekend in order to finish the last chapter of my book and get busy on my conference paper for next month. And plans were foiled for a trip to the countryside yesterday. No matter, this weekend looks to be more promising, at least as far as merengue tipico is concerned.

Anyway, considering the dearth of Dominican excitement, you can imagine how thrilled I was to read that I had been a contestant for Miss Frog Wallow, ages 13-18, last month! Gosh, I hope I won...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

More from Dajabon´s fiestas patronales

Here are some different forms of transportation in evidence at Dajabon´s fiestas patronales. At bottom, the winners of the races take a victory lap through town. At top, a guy selling casabe, honey, and sweets at the Haitian market.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Dominico-Haitian Border

Scenes at the border crossing, and a very squinty Sydney.

Dajabon's Casa de la Cultura

Carnival items, newspaper clippings, folk religious objects, and works by local artists decorate the Casa de la Cultura. In the backyard, some culture workers hang out, including director Chio Villalona at right.


Scenes from Dajabon: A Haitian shoeshine boy looks for clients, La Tormenta Tipica plays at "the Club," a small denizen of the churchyard, and the view from my hotel (2 blocks from the border crossing).

Expo Cibao

Last Thursday (9/29) I went to the Expo Cibao, which is kind of like a county fair. Below, four great accordionists play together before taking the stage (from left to right: Lupe Valerio, El Prodigio, La India Canela, and Mariano Liranzo). El Prodigio is a big star here and it was funny to see all the teenage girls on school fieldtrips going nuts over him. Above, another participant in the Expo.

Border Trip


This weekend I went to Dajabon, the largest town on the Haitian border. It was a great opportunity to experience the fiestas patronales (patron saint festival) of a small town, and to start getting to know the border culture. There are a lot of similarities between this border and the US-Mexico border, and Dominicans are discussing many of the same issues that we constantly hear about in Arizona: immigration, border control, cultural conflicts. Apparently, there’s even been talk about building a wall – argh!! Up to this point, though, they haven’t really enacted anything and Haitians can cross with some amount of freedom (at least, more freedom than is afforded to Mexicans at our border).

Anyway, the fiestas patronales are a big deal in a town like Dajabon principally because that’s when all the ausentes (townspeople living abroad or in larger Dominican cities) come home. My bus happened to arrive just as the caravan of ausentes was coming into town and passing by the main gate, so by default we became part of the parade. I am told that the tradition of caravanning dates back to the 1970s – when massive emigration first became a part of life for towns like this.

I only had time just to drop a few things off in my hotel (semi-crappy, since pretty much everything was full for the week) before my friend Chio, the director of the local Casa de la Cultura, whisked me off to the parties. There was a good merengue típico group playing at “the Club” (sort of a community center) which I would have enjoyed a lot more if it hadn’t been so hot. I mean really hot. This is the desert rat talking here. Everyone was pouring sweat but it didn’t impede them from dancing. I managed to get one dance in with this rather outlandishly dressed guy, carrying a horn (something like an old powder horn) full of god only knows what. Later I found out he was known as “Boca Chula” because he is always smiling like a madman. At this party I also met the Queen, Vice-Queen, Princess, and Ambassador of the fiestas.

Afterwards, we paid a visit to a family living in a really beautiful if somewhat ramshackle old house on the main square. The central members of the family were a Dominican woman and an Argentine man who own and run a colmado (bodega, in New York speak) out of their home. The Argentine had come to Haiti on a UN peacekeeping force in 1995, but when he crossed the border and met Preciosa (her real name!) he decided to stay. Also visiting them was a Dominican historian, from whom I learned more about Haitian-Dominican relations at the border. From there, on to one of the nicer hotels for a typical Dominican meal – rice, beans, plantains, avocado, and meat (not for me, though, obviously), and back to the hotel for a quick nap and shower.

Nighttime was much more tolerable – it really cools down a lot and becomes quite pleasant. The town square was full of food carts, vendors, a stage, and thousands of spectators. Although Dajabon only has a population of perhaps 15,000, I wouldn’t be surprised if it grew by about 50% during the patronales. The food carts were basically all serving piles of meat: strips of bacon hanging from strings around the top; heaps of roast chickens, fried chicken feet, and other mystery foods down below. These are all served with yuca, which I like – but not plain, so I went for the pizza. Dominican pizza is not that much like ours except in the fact that it involves crust and cheese, but it really wasn’t a bad meal, especially when combined with fresh passionfruit juice, and couldn’t be beat for 50 cents a slice. After dinner, we enjoyed the music – a performance by bachata star El Chaval – from Preciosa’s porch.

It was a rough night in terms of sleep. My hotel was on what might count for a major street in Dajabon, only 2 blocks from the border, and all night people were yelling and talking in the street and unmuffled motorbikes were passing beneath my window, whose wooden slats offered little soundproofing. At about 7:45 AM I knew my time for sleep was officially over when one of the ubiquitous pickup trucks carrying a gazillion watts of speaker power came by blasting an ad for whatever. Agustin, a palos (Afro-Dominican religious music) drummer came by looking for Chio and then accompanied me to a breakfast of plantains and fried eggs (everyone else was having meat stews- they sure do like their animal products around here). Then we met Chio at the church where a mass baptism ceremony and art fair was going on, and from there headed over to the Casa de la Cultura. It is a typical island house – wooden slats, tin roof, and open space under the eaves to create air flow – painted in cheery colors, where they offer music and kreyol language classes, along with occasional performances in the backyard. The house also serves as the Centro de Documentacion Fronteriza (Center for Border Documentation) that Chio has begun to create out of a couple of bookcases worth of volumes on the subject and various piles of other documents. Unfortunately, they don’t have any funding to speak of so it’s not going to get much better than this for a while. However, with the money they won from their pavilion at the Feria del Libro last week, they are finally going to be able to buy a few instruments for the music classes.

The Cultura workers tell us of some kind of event going on out at the Zona Franca, the free trade zone where Haitians can come over to work legally (though, one imagines, not for much money). So on a rickety and – thank god – not very fast motorbike we head out. It’s not far but seems like a different world out amongst trees and flowers, with blue mountains rising up in the Haitian distance under a perfect sky. When we get there, though, what’s going on is motorcycle races, and no one wants to pay the 50 pesos to get in (about $1.60). We stand around for a few minutes outside the fence, to see what we can see, but I’m more interested in the attractively painted homemade roulette table a guy on a bike has brought by, and around which a group of men stand, placing their bets in the hopes of winning a bottle of rum.

Next up is Dajabon’s #1 tourist spot – the border itself. Here the border is actually a river in which many Haitian kids are swimming and playing. Up above, a couple of Dominican soldiers guard the gate at the exact center of an arched bridge, letting through select Haitians to sell their wares. While snapping a couple of pictures, we run into two American peace corps volunteers – one is stationed here in Dajabon, working with some women’s organizations, and the other is just up visiting from La Romana (a city in the south I still haven’t seen – she says it’s nice).
The rest of the day passes fairly uneventfully, except that I have to switch hotels due to (a) the noise problem and (b) another guy showing up who has apparently reserved the room I’m in. Oh well, the new one’s better anyway – it has screens on the windows. (They’re apparently not as worried about mosquito exits here.) After my now traditional pizza dinner, I catch some of the show by the popular singer Rubby Perez and run into a friend from Santiago before I can’t stand it anymore and head off to bed and a much more restful night.
Got up early in order to catch some of the Dominico-Haitian market before I have to get the bus back to Santiago, in order to make it in time for my accordion lesson. This is what Dajabon is really known for. Two days a week – Monday and Friday – all the Haitians the city can handle are let in so they can sell clothes, shoes, purses, household goods, food, and agricultural products at rock bottom prices along with their Dominican neighbors. I mean, this stuff is REALLY cheap - .e.g. shoes were going for about 100 pesos a pair ($3.30). As for me, I bought a jar of a homemade peanut butter called banba ($1); a slice of an orange-flavored sweet wrapped in some kind of leaf (30 cents); a rum bottle full of freshly collected honey (85 cents); a piece of casabe de mani (traditional flatbread made of yuca with peanuts on top, which I ate for breakfast; 30 cents); a straw hat ($1.60 – Chio thought this was outrageous); and some mystery art/artifacts (more later).

It was a quick trip, but it just whetted my appetite to come back and spend more time in the region. In fact, I might do so as soon as this Thursday – Agustin and Chio are trying to organize a fiesta de palos, and as I’ve been wanting to get to know that kind of music and dance (often considered the DR’s second national dance) I’ll probably go back for it.