Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Back to business (sort of)

Wow, it seems like forever since I last wrote. I was away for 2 weeks in Atlanta and New York. It was a nice break, but far too cold, so it was a bit of a relief to get back here to Santiago. All the Dominicans think it’s freezing here – about 65 degrees at night.

I returned on Tuesday with my mom, who’s going to spend some time down here working and traveling with me. We had the perfect flight in (other than the half-hour delay in taking off from Kennedy), since it was possibly the world’s most típico flight: on the plane with us were la Kerubanda, Geovanny Polanco, and all their associated musicians. Even better, they were all seated right across the aisle from us. Get a bunch of típico musicians together and things get a little wacky, so they kept me entertained for much of the flight and I had fun talking to Paulino, Geovanny’s conguero and a neighbor of Rafaelito’s. When we got in, the TV cameras were there, waiting to interview our illustrious fellow passengers. (Little did they know that La Gringa del Acordeon was also there.)

That night, we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at an excellent fish restaurant near my place. While there, we met an architect and civil engineer who were friends of some people I work with at the Centro Leon and the brother of the photographer who recently had an exhibition there. Small country! Then I went off to this month’s Fiesta de Palos at the Casa de Arte. The music was great but I was really too tired to dance, and so, other than that, there was little news to report over the next couple of days - we both needed to rest up following our exposure to New York cold and colds. However, we did make it to the Centro Leon to see the museum, my friends, and our email, and we did have one other amazing dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street. All this time I’d been meaning to try it out but didn’t because it looked expensive. Anyway, it was worth it – the owners are from Milan and made some kick-ass pasta, bruschetta, and bootleg limoncello.

On Saturday, after at long last getting my car back from the mechanic, we finally motivated ourselves to get out and see some sights. We went downtown, where we found a craft fair going on at the Casa de Arte, all of women’s cooperatives. Our favorite table was one that featured glass bottles in different shapes, sizes, and colors nicely painted with flowers, fruits, and such. We purchased several, and made arrangements to come back the next day for two more – these filled with homemade guava wine and cherry wine. Next stop was the Hospedaje, the Saturday market where blocks and blocks-worth of fruits, vegetables, and fowl are for sale (we bought grapefruit, mandarins, and pineapple, and exchanged a few words with the geese wandering about). We then attempted to visit the Museo Folklorico Tomas Morel – a bizarre collection of masks, instruments, dolls, and everything else under the sun, and also one of my faves – but it was closed so we just took some pictures with the wooden bull on the porch and decided to come back later. The big cathedral was closed, too. So instead, after leaving our purchases in the car, we checked out the street vendors on the extremely crowded sidewalks of la Calle del Sol; ate Dominican-style pizza; read our email, where we ran into my friend Ivan; and finally ended up at the Fortaleza de San Luis, the old fort on the banks of the Rio Yaque.

I hadn’t been in the fort before, and had no idea about what all was in there. In the back, there are still military and government offices including the drug task force (newspapers have been reporting that Santiago is a center for the drug trade in this country, but this isn’t surprising since it’s the center of transportation and commerce for the whole northern region). In the center is the old prison building, in use (mainly for drug offenders) up until March of this year, we were told. Next to it are some enormous metal statues of Guloyas, people of the Cocolo culture (English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans from the vicinity of San Pedro de Macoris) who dress up in impressive costumes and peacock-feathered headdresses around Carnival time. In the front is a playground, where I was happy to see a merry-go-round, a species now endangered in the US, and the administrative office. To one side is a museum that features a variety of modern art paintings and sculptures, along with some old weaponry presumably once used by the armed forces stationed here. Just outside the museum was a courtyard with an excellent view out across the river.

Pierre, the French Canadian curator of the museum, told us a bit about the place and sold us some folk art we found in a small display case inside. He didn’t think much of its naïve style, but it was interesting and different than the stuff sold in the tourist markets around here, and it was even made by a local policeman. We bought a couple of paintings of lechones – typical Carnival figures of Santiago - wearing miniature, papier-mache examples of the 2 main kinds of masks (Joyera and Pepinera), as well as several little painted wooden cutouts of guitars and Dominican houses that looked like they would make good magnets. Afterwards, we roamed the courtyard for a bit, where we discovered attractively painted trash cans and a caged crow named Chuchi, who talked. He said “Hola” to us a number of times. Apparently, he also says “La Vega,” but he didn’t feel like talking about that town at the moment. Then we peered in the windows of the old jail, through which we could see a bunch of busts looking the other way in an interior courtyard. Pierre came back and opened up the doors for us, leaving us to wander around inside the building, which turned out to be my favorite sight of the day. We found a mentally-ill man painting canvases in one room; another full of detritus that included everything from old computers to a wooden statue of a man in a hat holding fish; a niche with a picture of the Virgin in it; and loads of prison graffiti, some fairly entertaining. (One advised us: you find out who your true friends are in prison and in bed.) Pierre told us there are plans to turn the building into a museum, but I like it just the way it is.

That evening I was kind of worn out from all the walking, but my obligations were not done, since I’d accepted an invitation to play accordion in El Tiriguillo, our neighborhood watering hole. They were holding a party to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season. Since I hadn’t played for a while I set myself to running through my repertoire, though partway through, my friend Juan Miguel stopped by. He kept us entertained with tales of his year in Arizona, where he lived in Mesa with a Mormon family. Anyway, there wasn’t any hurry because when we eventually got to El Tiriguillo they were still setting up the sound equipment. The band was pretty good, doing covers of popular merengues and some international hits, like “La Vida es un Carnaval.” Unfortunately, they weren’t too familiar with the típico repertoire, so when my time came up we had a hard time finding tunes we both knew. The main problem is I don’t know enough of the words to the songs to be able to sing them myself, and they didn’t know them either. Eventually we came up with four: El Diente de Oro, the old standby; La Chiflera, which I’d never performed before but was able to muddle through well enough; La Cartera Vacia, to which they knew only one verse, but sung it four times; and La Muerte de Martin, a rather difficult one which seemed to pleasantly surprise the audience. We got rained out for a time but the show went on anyhow, and a good time was had by all.

Sunday morning, I woke up too late to do much but went by the Ballet Folklorico rehearsal anyhow, just in time to see a couple dances and say hi to everyone before they took off. Then we picked up my homemade wine and went home since the cathedral was still closed. After an uneventful afternoon spent editing the proofs of my article for Ethnomusicology, I attended my very first Carnaval group meeting! My friend Jose Reyes, a local Carnaval expert, picked me up around 5 and took me to meet the group he’d pre-selected for me (it’s one of the few that has another female member – the leader’s wife). He was pleased I wanted to be a lechona (or pig; the kind of long-snouted devil typical of Santiago’s carnival) since he’s been on something of a mission in recent years to revitalize Carnaval by getting more people to be lechones. Being a lechon is kind of a big deal, since Carnaval is not only a major celebration but also a major source of identity for people in Santiago and other towns with centuries-old Carnaval traditions. It entails investing a fair to significant amount of money in a costume and mask and running around doing a typical kind of dance step while whacking people with inflated, hardened pig bladders and whips. As Jose told us, “when you’re a lechon, you’re in charge. You decide who you hit and when.” But, he also reminded us, a vejigazo (bladder hit) can really hurt, so you have to know how to dole it out. He recommends whacking women in the butt and men in the back.

Anyway, the group is called “Los Confraternos” and is based in the barrio of Pueblo Nuevo. Jose came to the meeting as a sort of advisor, since this year the group (which only started a year or two ago) has decided to change over from the Traditional category to Fantasy. This is a complicated endeavor, since Fantasy costumes are much more expensive and difficult to make. Both are subject to the regulations of the Carnival committee and judges, composed mostly of businessmen and politicians as well as some locally-acknowledged experts. Traditional masks must be painted in particular ways, using the typical styles of the barrios Los Pepines (which have smooth horns) or La Joya (which have gazillions of little horns sticking out of the main horns). Fantasy masks can use glitter, metallic, and other modern paints, and while they too must have the lechon shape they can also incorporate other designs into the horns. In recent years, Pueblo Nuevo has become known for a style in which flowers instead of spikes sprout from the horns. But ours rather have rings of silver spikes separating sections painted with different colors of glitter (I was shown an example and will get my own soon from the local mask-maker). My fellow lechones showed me their costumes of past years – one was a two-piece ensemble in orange and purple with various colors of sequined stripes, appliquéd cartoon characters on the back. Another was a one-piece in red satin with multicolored bows and bells – the leader’s featured a portrait of Che Guevara made entirely of sequins on the back. They also showed me their custom-made lechon shoes. They were a sort of high-top tennis shoe made of a patchwork of differently-colored leather on a white sole. I thought I might just end up wearing mine everyday.

Jose’s advice was that we all make our own, different designs for our costumes this year, even if we choose just one fabric to be the base for all. He tells us the fact that in Santiago most lechones show off individual styles, even when part of a group, is one thing that differentiates Santiago Carnaval from that of La Vega, where each group of devils dresses alike. But with that method, he explains, it’s not as exciting to watch because “when you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all, and so you go on to look at the next group.” The object is for the costumes to be as eye-catching as possible, so they should be different, creative, and use as many clashing colors as possible. Ribbons, bells, buttons, and mirrors all can and should be used for adornment. Group members shared designs they’d drawn and colored during the week and Jose evaluated them as for cost, difficulty of construction, and effectiveness, and all members shared their opinions. They made plans for Jose to meet with us again to show us the lechon dance moves and proper whip usage, and he advised us not to forget about Carnaval during the excitement of the Christmas season and unwisely spend all our costume money on other things. Not to worry – I can’t wait to be a lechona and perfect my bladder-thwhacking technique.

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