Wednesday, October 26, 2005

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.

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