Friday, December 01, 2006

Talking tiguere

Recently, I’ve been traveling again. I was at a conference in Phoenix, I had Thanksgiving with family in Riverside, California, and most excitingly, I was in Hawaii. It was also for a conference but I was, sadly, forced to ditch some of the proceedings to hang out on the beach instead. I’ve put a couple of pictures from that trip below for you to enjoy.

At the moment, I’m temporarily residing in a writers’ colony right here in called Casa Libre en la Solana ( It’s a great place and I’m getting a lot done. I’m going to be very sad when I have to leave my cute little apartment here next week! Anyway, lately I’ve been writing about gender roles in the DR, particularly that of the tíguere. So here, for you, readers, is a moment of diversion with the tíguere.

Literally, tíguere is simply the peculiarly Dominican pronunciation of the word for “tiger.” But it also refers to a type of man in the DR – a hustler, a master of the street, a sharp dresser, and a tough guy. The tíguere arose along with the urbanization of the country, having first emerged in Santo Domingo around the 1920s. Porfirio Rubirosa, the famous 1950s playboy, and even Trujillo himself are classic tígueres. Today, tigueraje (the behavior or the domain of the tíguere) is a homegrown Dominican youth culture with its own style of dress, music (these days, usually reggaetón and/or “merengues de la calle”), and language.

I came across a recent article in Hoy newspaper that spoke about how the vocabulary of tigueraje is showing up everywhere now, even in the upper classes, among educated people, and high-ranking politicians. The article also gives a list of current expressions. Here are some of them, translated into both idiomatic and literal English. (I changed some of the definitions from the article that were incorrect.)

Tumba eso = forget it (lit. knock it over)
Ponte cloro = be clear (lit. “light”); tell the truth (lit. put bleach on yourself)
¿Quién te cotiza? = Who puts up with your craziness? (Who pays you?)
Te guayaste = You messed up (you grated yourself)
Te subí “lo vidrio” = I’m not listening to you (I rolled up the windows on you)
Te la comiste = You messed up – or were awesome, depending on tone (You ate it)
Ta’ to’ = OK (it’s all there)
Hazme coro = pay attention to me; do what I’m doing (Sing back-up to me)
Muela = a made-up store intended to convince someone (molar)
¿Me copiaste? = Did you understand me? (Did you copy me?)
En olla = broke (in the pot)
A millón = with a lot of energy (to the million)
¿Quién lo patrocina? = who’s paying you to act so dumb? (Who’s sponsoring that?)
Bulto = story (bag)
Emperrao = in love (dogged)
Pecao = ugly person (sin)
Ecole cuá = Exactly, agreed. (I have NO IDEA where this one came from! Any ideas?)
Ella tiene todo el dinero ma’ 20 peso = She’s rich (She has all the money plus 20 pesos)
Grillo = unattractive but easy woman (cricket)
Juquiao = crazy or drunk (hooked, from English)
Suave, que es bolero = calm down (easy, it’s a bolero [slow song])
Ta’ jevi = Great! (It’s heavy, from English)
Tú ta’ happy = you’re kind of drunk (you’re happy, from English)
Te paniqueate = you freaked out (from English panicked)
Vacanyol = Someone who tries to seem cool by using expressions, clothing, etc borrowed from New York (combination of vacán, cool, with yol, from Dominican pronunciation of New York)

Incidentally, I recently found that vacán or vacana comes from the Portuguese bacana, meaning fantastic. I wonder how long it’s been in use and how it got into Dominican Spanish?

Anyway, when in office ex-president Hipólito Mejía was particularly famous for using the vocabulary of tigueraje. The article mentioned quotes him as having told (current, but ex at the time of the incident) president Leonel Fernández, “te sub[i los vidrios” – or “I rolled the window up on you” – in order to say “I’m not listening to what you’re saying.” It’s roughly the equivalent of George Bush telling Bill Clinton, “Talk to the hand.”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Update & Interview with El Flaco

You haven’t heard from me for a while, so perhaps you’re wondering where I’ve been since my last posting. Since returning to Tucson from New York, I’ve mostly just been writing and transcribing. I also took a little jaunt to California to visit my elderly grandparents and to Tempe to attend a conference on dance. None of this has much to do with the Dominican Republic, merengue típico, or accordions, so I didn’t post any of it. However, I have seen a few scenic sights.

As for all things tipico, I've decided, in the absence of new accordion experiences, to post excerpts from interviews and other fieldwork-related materials. So here's the first installment: Flaco's story! This is excerpted from an interview I did with the great tamborero back in 2002, where he talks about playing with Tatico and how tipico has changed since then. The interview was conducted in a barbershop in Queens.


Born in the town of Maimón de Bonao, Flaco started playing with his accordionist father at age 9, mostly on tambora, but also güira and conga. Although merengue típico was his first choice, he also played for a while in a Bonao-based orquesta led by Jesus García, called Combo Bonao.

“I learned how to play on my own. Or rather, no one told me, play like this. Because the percussion instruments, tambora, güira – that’s born in you. People say, ‘Teach me to play tambora.’ No. It’s born in you. Whoever isn’t born with the feeling of playing won’t learn it.”

Around 1964 or 1965, Flaco moved to the capital where he met many of the era’s top musicians, including Tatico. This was the time of the April Revolution, however, and he soon left for three months in Nagua at the behest of Juan Prieto, an accordionist and accordion tuner, and then joined Combo Candela. But Tatico didn’t forget El Flaco’s playing and eventually he brought the tamborero to Santiago. In 1972, they began to perform together:

“I met him in the capital because I played a gig with him. He was very young still, new. After that we didn’t see each other because I came here [to New York] and he went to the capital because they put him on Dominican TV. I was in the campo. Later he was taken off TV, the war and all that broke out, and that’s when he came to look for me.

“Tatico was the maximum. The maximum as an accordionist, as a person, however. He was very good to us, the musicians. Everyone liked him, even children. Tatico was so loved that he’d sit down to play dominoes and the people would accumulate thinking he was going to play music…. He was famous from the beginning.”

When Flaco played with Tatico, they played a variety of rhythms, some of which are no longer in use. The paseo, for example, “used to be obligatory” in a merengue derecho. They also played mangulinas, which are now generally heard only in folkloric groups. “If they request it, it’ll be played. But people used to request it a lot, and now they almost never request it. It has to be a person who remembers it.” He even recorded a bolero with Tatico, making them perhaps the first and the last típico group to do so.

Tambora playing has changed, he says, in that it is faster today and there is little opportunity for playing mangulina or paseo. The instrument itself is also different, since many people now use the ones made by LP which have metal rims and screw tighteners rather than wood rims and ropes. The dance style is also different. “Before, dancing a merengue was almost like dancing a danza. The merengue wasn’t so fast as it is now. It was a smooth merengue, danzeado. Now whoever dances merengue goes home all worn out!”

Mostly, he remembers that dance parties in the Cibao were far different in those days. They were held in outdoor shelters with cement floors that were normally used for drying tobacco or rice but were cleaned out for the occasion. Sometimes there were theme parties, like one time when everyone had to make their dresses out of paper. “And that whole party, everything sounded like, ‘sh, sh, sh.’”

In the capital, however, things were more like they are today. There were bars a trio could go to and play a couple of merengues and earn from 10 to 25 pesos. For a full party they might earn 50 or 60. In the camp they were lucky to get 7 pesos each. “Y tocando hasta las siete de la mañana. Las fiestas amanecían de verdad.”

Flaco has really lived tipico history. He was even present for some of the events that inspired some of the most popular merengues. For example, the lyrics to “El Puente Seco” refers to Isaias “Saco” Henriquez, Tatico’s brother, who had killed himself on a particular overpass on the highway between Santiago and Navarrete. One verse states:

En el puente seco
se me acercó un guapo
Y tuvo al matarme
donde cayó Saco

(On the dry bridge
A tough guy approached me
And he tried to kill me
Where Saco fell.)

Flaco recalls that Diogenes Jimenez composed that song when, “we were walking along there alter a gig and he was flirting with a pretty girl who was there. Then another guy who was practically her husband snuck up on him with a knife.” While lyrics like those are true representations of Cibao life, he believes that in merengue today, “none of [the lyrics] are worth the trouble. Honestly. They don’t make sense.”

When one thinks of "Culiquitaca," it's kind of hard to argue with the guy.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Tipico art guide: get out and get cultured!


My New York trip is now at an end, and tomorrow I head back to Tucson. The event at El Museo del Barrio went well: three interesting talks on merengue history, one on new directions in popular merengue, and my own on merengue típico (hey, I gotta represent). It was fun to reconnect with my merengue colleagues over a couple Presidentes, and I even scored a DVD on palos at the first New York Dominican book fair taking place up the road in the Heights.

You might recall that this symposium was held in honor of an art show on the theme of merengue. When I finished talking with audience members after my talk, though, the Museo’s galleries were closed. I had to go back the next day to actually see the exhibit. It was worth the second trip, though. Here I offer you a típico guide to and critique of “Visual rhythms / ritmos visuales.” I’m not an art critic, so I’ll just talk about what I know: music.

Most of the representative works actually have accordions or even whole típico trios somewhere in them. Some to look for:

1. “La fiesta del centenario” by Alfredo Senior La Paz. Shows couples dancing to merengue tipico at a centennial celebration in 1944, the guys looking dapper in hats, suits, and two-toned shoes. In the back next to a typical wooden Dominican house, four musicians are at work. Interestingly, the tambora is built like a barrel, with iron rings holding it together but no rope ties. The guirero is playing a gourd rather than metal instrument, and the fourth musician plays maracas. Wonder what that sounded like? Most of the other works depicting guireros also show gourd guiros rather than metal guiras, even those painted quite recently. Since no one really plays those in the típico world anymore, I assume the artists are including it as a symbol of “folklore,” “tradition,” or even “indigenousness” (since many believe the Tainos used gourd instruments) rather than trying to depict contemporary musical culture literally.

2. Untitled work by Jose Vela Zanetti, painted in 1960, is one of the few that shows a metal guira (here, it’s one of the old kind with cones over the ends). It’s also a beautiful, large-scale work showing a trio playng at night next to a sugarcane field, as a peasant man tries to woo an indifferent woman to one side. The dark, muted colors and heavy shadows really give the feel of the tropics at night. In the more recent “Musicos” by Jacinto Dominguez (1990-95) you can also see a cone guira next to the strangely tiny accordion played by the singing musician in the foreground. Although the instrument is unrealistic, the accordionists’ face actually looked the most “real” to me out of any of the works.

3. “Fiesta campesina” by Yoryi Morel was painted in 1959 and shows a trio of musicians playing and singing next to an empty bottle and a few shot glasses full of rum. In the background, people in colorful outfits dance and roast a pig on a spit in front of an enramada. “Merengue” by Jaime Colson is a vibrantly colored work from 1938 showing a lively gathering of dancers and musicians under an enramada, while a woman at right in a long white gown is fanning herself, resembling a Greek goddess only with nalgas. These two works don’t share much – except for one interesting feature for works that are supposed to depict merengue, which is that the tambora in both is played in an upright position. So it doesn’t seem that it is merengue típico that’s being performed here. Morel painted in the Cibao, where it could have been a zapateo instead – a different rhythm that was played with the tambora in this position. Colson lived and worked in the capital, so perhaps he observed other kinds of accordion trios in the south – like pri-pri.

4. “El merengue” by Jose Vela Zanetti, 1955, is a bluish, Cubist-influenced work where three musicians play guiro, maracas, and a small drum played upright, perhaps a balsie (this would make sense, since he worked in the south of the DR). The instrumentation doesn’t suggest merengue at all, though the Museo’s blurb on the work suggests Zanetti picked the instruments for purely symbolic reasons, in order to represent “Dominicanness” rather than the “Europeanness” of the accordion.

5. “Jolgorio” (1988), a gigantic painting by Plutarco Andujar done entirely in black and white, is a beautiful representation of a rural party in full swing. From the trio of típico musicians in front, to the dancing couples in their best party outfits – one with her arm flung over her head mid-turn, to the artist himself with his shirt open, drinking straight from the bottle, it draws you in to the action. You could almost write a whole novel about the characters here.

6. The photographic works in the exhibit are both beautiful and provide documentary evidence of musical practices. A series of photographs by Wilfredo Garcia, taken in the 1970s, show a perico ripiao combo in Sabana Grande de Boya – a town in the southeast and far from the Cibao. By that point, the formerly regional style had already been spread throughout the country. Here, the accordionist plays an old one-row instrument, but the guira is the more modern uncovered kind. I like the one that shows the dancers, too: a dapper young tíguere in sunglasses dances with an older woman, perhaps his mother. But the piece that most fascinated me was the video montage, which shows Tin Pichardo and partner dancing old merengue styles and Nico Lora’s son, Antonio, playing accordion. The old instrument has no shoulder straps so he plays it by resting it on his knee and using the thumb strap. It is a two-row instrument like those we still use today, but it has been heavily customized with additional buttons on both sides. He sings a song in praise of farmers – perhaps an effort to stave off the effects of the processes of urbanization and migration that already were in full swing.

Some more modern interpretations of the típico theme:

7. Many new works by New York-based artists have been added to this exhibition since I last saw it in Santiago. One must-see is “merengue típico” by David Medina, the popular deejay. He created a blue tambora, pink guira, and white accordion out of glass, echoing the colors of the Dominican and American flags. Perhaps these instruments show how fragile and how beautiful are the traditions immigrants take with them in diaspora. I’d like to hear what they sound like!

8. There are a couple of works that use típico musicians to comment on contemporary Dominican culture. One of these is the monumental “Santa Fefa divirtiendo unos chivos sin ley.” It shows Fefita in one of her infamous calendar outfits – skimpy orange lingerie with matching fishnets – with a golden halo, surrounded by three frolicking goats, one in particular apparently feeling a little bit “happy,” all reproduced on an old canvas truck cover. The “chivos sin ley” could be interpreted as outlaws, or simply misbehaving young men, and Fefita entertains them. Is it simply an irreverent, funny look at popular culture? Is it a comment on delinquency and “lawlessness” in contemporary society? Or does it depict popular perceptions of merengue típico as the music of the lower classes and of tigueraje, a “lawless” domain? I’m not sure myself, but Fefita reportedly liked it when she saw it at the Centro Leon in Santiago because it was the biggest work in the whole exhibition.

9. “La muerte del merengue: Homenaje a Tatico Henriquez” was painted by Raul Recio in 1988. It is a big and striking work, painted all in yellow and black with tiny accents in red, in a cartoonish, almost naïve style. From the left, ten floating trumpets blare, surrounded by flying vinyl records, and a nude female figure plays a radio while under a shower, her head itself an LP. On the right, a half dozen figures collapse under the onslaught of noise, as the bell of another trumpet rains LPs down on them. Their red hearts are breaking as an accordion, tambora, and guira, drop from their hands. Are they really just “mourning Tatico’s death,” as the gallery description tells us? Or is the artist expressing dissatisfaction with the post-Tatico music scene – the “noise” of orquesta merengue, represented by the trumpet (an instrument never used in Tatico’s or any other típico group), and commodified musical culture, represented by the LP?

Besides the merengue exhibit, the Museo is also displaying 10 works of contemporary Dominican art on other subjects that’s worth checking out. These depict Dominican culture through its sports (Freddy Rodriguez’s “Homenaje a Tony Pena” and “Homenaje a Sammy Sosa”), children (“Juguetes” by Jaime Jimenez), and more abstract means. Nicolas Dumit Estevez’s “The flag (la bandera)” documents his creation of a “Dominican York flag” a la Betsy Ross: he ends up with an image that combines elements of the Dominican and American flags, with an airplane mid-flight in the middle to show the constant journey. He also contributed a similarly-themed piece of performance art to the Merengue exhibit: in the caped outfit of “SuperMerengue” complete with flip-flops, he brandishes cell phones and plantains while directing the audience towards the exits of an imaginary plane.

To sum up: go see it! Experience Dominican culture, and support Dominican art in New York!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Merengue panel discussion at El Museo

I promised to keep you all abreast of merengue-related events, so here you go.In conjunction with an excellent exhibit of merengue-related art at El Museo, a panel discussion on merengue is being offered. Even if you can't make the talks, try to see the exhibit, which includes great art by Dominicans and Dominican-Americans!

HEY! Is that me scheduled to talk at 2:55? Guess I better get ready...

Schedule for October 7:

2:00 Welcoming by El Museo Staff.

2:05 Introduction by Moderator:
Peter Manuel, (PhD) Professor John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY and Graduate Center, CUNY.

2:10 1st Panelist: "Merengue, Danza, and Meringue: three musical versions of the Caribbean contradanza"
Edgardo Díaz Díaz, (PhD) Professor John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

2:25 2nd Panelist: "An Impious Passion Called Merengue, The Satanizacion of Merengue in the Caribbean in century XIX"
Darío Tejeda, (PhD) Director of the Institute for Caribbean Studies (INEC).

2:40 3rd Panelist: "New Views on Merengue History"
Paul Austerlitz, (PhD) Assistant Professor, Sunderman Conservatory of Music, Gettysburg College.

2:55 4th Panelist: "Merengue Típico in New York and Santiago"
Sydney Hutchinson, PhD Candidate, NYU.

3:10 5th Panelist: "Current Trends, the influence of Hip-Hop and Reggaeton on Merengue"
Angelina Tallaj, PhD Candidate Graduate Center, CUNY.

3:25 Open dialogue moderated by Peter Manuel + Q&A .

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Leopoldo Santos at Macoris

Watch the video
An evening at Macoris Restaurant in East New York, Brooklyn - the best place for merengue tipico in New York.

El Prodigio and Rafaelito Mirabal

Watch the video
At the closing ceremony for the Feria Regional del Libro in Santiago, Dominican Republic in September 2005, accordionist El Prodigio gave this surprise performance. He joined jazz pianist Rafaelito Mirabal to play Periblues (a tune Miarbal composed and El Prodigio recorded on his 2005 album, Pambiche Meets Jazz) - the first time anyone's tried to combine jazz with merengue tipico. I've excerpted some exciting moments here: President Leonel Fernandez and his wife arriving, El Prodigio's solo, Frandy Sax's solo, and the final run through the tune.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

September 11, belatedly

So I wanted to post this last week at the appropriate moment, but I had strep throat so I slept the week away instead.

Anyway, for the 5th anniversary of September 11, I thought you all might want to hear a tipico take on the events of that day. As it happens, that day is all entwined with tipico in my own experience. At the time I was living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. If I hadn't been up late the night before I probably would have been on my way to work at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, which was on Church St. not far from "ground zero." Luckily, I slept in a bit and woke up to find my roommates watching the towers and the Pentagon burning on CNN. We were all in disbelief.

My first thought was of my dad. He was in Washington, DC, and I wasn't sure where his office was in relation to the Pentagon. I called up and found he was away somewhere else for a meeting - good timing.

Then the first tower fell and I realized my sister was right there, getting buried in the cloud of debris. She was a teacher at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, the closest school to the twin towers. I called her cell phone in a panic. Miraculously, I got through - the only call she actually received all day, since soon the cell phone tower would be gone. She was running with her students through the debris cloud, trying to follow a police officer she couldn't see, who wasn't sure where to take them anyway. They ended up in Battery Park. Eventually, after the second tower fell and they huddled on the lee side of a restaurant, a boat came and picked them up and took them to New Jersey. But we didn't know any of that until much later.

At least I knew she was OK. David David, who was teaching me my first few merengues on accordion at the time, went with me to Sunset Park, where we walked up the hill for a perfect view of lower Manhattan and the black cloud that hid the fact the towers were no longer there.

For the following months, no one could think of much else. David got fed up with New York and left for the DR - the day after the plane full of Dominicans that had crashed into Rockaway Beach. (A fine fall for disasters.) Other musicians stuck it out, finding different ways to commemorate their loss. For Dominicans, especially, the twin towers had been the symbol of the US and the promising future they'd thought the country offered.

I documented one of these expressions in my article on Pinto Guira. On a commission from a local guira player, he was working on an instrument featuring the twin towers and the Statue of Liberty when I photographed him at work in early 2002. Take a look:

Also, Santo Gil, the bass player in the Corona, Queens - based group of Berto Reyes, wrote a song about the attacks. I just listened to it again, and it reminds me of how patriotic we all felt in those months (too bad that's all been stamped out of us with all the lies we've heard since). It's an interesting song both for the topic and for the rap that comes in at the end. Here are the lyrics (I couldn't manage to transcribe the rap, though; too fast! If any of you can figure it out, please email me...)

La Plaga Maldita
By Santo Gil, Performed by Berto Reyes y su conjunto

Si el mundo sigue el ejemplo
De las Naciones Unidas
Estuvieramos en paz
Disfrutando de la vida.

La nacion americana
Yo le juro que la quiero
Porque ellos prestan ayuda
A todito el mundo entero.

Luchemos todos unidos
A encontrar el terrorista
Para poder acabar
Con esa plaga maldita.

Cuando mi palo gemelo
Todo se vio un ahumazo
Toda la culpa la tiene
Esa cara de chivo flaco.

Yo no me puedo olvidar
Ese once de septiembre
Que murieron tantos ninos
Tambien hombres y mujeres.

Vamos a dar la mano
Sin temor, y muchas ganas
Pa’ que salga triunfadora
La nacion americana.

Que Dios bendiga mil veces
La nacion americana
Que le protega la vida
Y tambien le protege el alma.

Que Dios bendiga nuestro [seres]
Por nosotros estan luchando
Y que regresen de alla
Con ese triunfo en la mano.

Vamos todos a luchar
A encontrar el terrorista
Para poder acabar
Con esta plaga maldita.

And the English translation:

If the world followed the example
Of the United Nations
We’d be at peace
Enjoying life.

The American nation,
I swear that I love it
Because they give help
To all the world.

Let’s all fight together
To find the terrorist
To be able to end
This damn plague.

When my twin tower
Was all in smoke
The blame belonged entirely
To that skinny goat face.

I can’t forget
That September 11
So many children died
As well as men and women.

We’ll give a hand
Without fear, with all our heart
So that the American nation
Will be triumphant.

May God bless a thousand times
The American nation
Let him protect its life
And also its soul.

May God bless our [soldiers]
They are fighting for us
And may they come back
With triumph in hand.

We all will fight
To find the terrorist
In order to be done
With this damn plague.

I've put up an mp3 of the end of this song, where you can hear the last chorus and the rap. Get it on this page:

Friday, September 08, 2006

Long time no hear

Hi folks,

I know it's been a while since I've posted and I'm sorry about that. So here's a little update.

I've now been back home in Tucson for a couple of weeks. It's great to be home, especially since we're having an amazing monsoon season - they say it's the most rain we've had since the floods of '84, which I remember fondly. This makes for beautiful sunsets and delicious desert smells, but bad allergies. You win some, you lose some.

I've been noticing how funny it is that it's almost easier to get to know people in a foreign country than it is in your own culture. When you're a foreigner, you have a good excuse for wandering around and asking people all sorts of odd questions. Harder to get away with in your own town.

Anyway, I came home in order to write. It's been a relief to put the fieldwork to rest for a while. No more chasing around after impossible musicians! (for a while, at least - I'll be back in Santiago in January.) But writing a dissertation doesn't make for very exciting blogging. Hence the delay.

But don't give up on accordiongirl! Exciting, accordionish things will be coming soon. As I go through my field recordings I'll be putting up images, videos, and sound files for you to check out. Eventually, I'll assemble sound clips into an educational and entertaining tipico podcast. I'm also going to put up information about tipico and accordion-related events as they come up. So please keep checking back!

If you are the type of person who forgets to do things like check web pages with any regularity, don't forget that you can SUBSCRIBE to this blog by clicking on the RSS feed icon to the right or - even simpler - entering your email address in the friendly box provided and clicking "subscribe" (also in the right-hand column of this page).

TIPICO TIDBIT: The first ever Dominican-themed exhibit at the Museo del Barrio in New York opens in October. They will be showing a version of the exhibit of art related to merengue that was developed by the Centro Leon and shown there last year under the title "Que no me quiten lo pintao." The Museo del Barrio version will include a lot of new pieces by New York-area artists. And in connection with the exhibit, they will be offering merengue concerts (including at least one tipico group, TBA) and workshops for kids. There will also be a panel of academics talking about merengue, including me, accordiongirl. The exhibit opens October 5 and the panel takes place on October 7. If you are in New York please come by and check it out!

Thanks for being patient. Keep in touch and I will too.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bushwick Block Party

Bushwick Block Party
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Genito and his group, "Geniswing," play at a block party in Bushwick, Brooklyn, 8/20/06. The group ranges in age from approx. 16-20 and all are New York-born Dominicans.

New York to Tucson

After all the excitement, I needed a couple of days to recover, reorganize, and re-move myself to Hanna’s apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. But on Wednesday night I was ready once again for fieldwork. It would be the last chance I’d get to go to Macoris for a while, and I needed to say goodbye to all my friends over there. And so I found myself once again on the J train to East New York at 11:00 at night. I arrived to find Leopoldo Santos already playing, the other tables occupied by people unknown to me, who turned out to be a group of Hondurans and a group of Dominicans visiting from North Carolina. Things were tame enough for the first set. In the second, more of my friends arrived, including Chinito (who took a turn on guira) and the US-born contingent, consisting of Geno and some of his bandmates.

When the second set finished it was already 2 AM and I was about ready for bed, but Leopoldo, Tano, Junior, Cesar, and Jesus wouldn’t hear of it: there was no way I could leave without playing, even if I hadn’t practiced in a month and was bound to play badly. So I passed the time with the musicians, standing around outside on the sidewalk as some smoked and the others gossipped. I had some gossip for them tonight, as my sources had told me that Aguakate was going to break up. The news came at a surprising time, as their new CD was coming out this very week, but apparently the lead singer Chino had decided that he wanted to go his own route. The musicians all agreed it had been a bad move to promote the band solely with Chino’s face and personality - even the t-shirt given out at Sunday’s Dominican Day parade had featured only a cartoon of him over the word “Aguakate” - leaving the rest of the band out of the picture entirely. This was especially silly, they thought, because the band members were all accomplished musicians while Chino didn’t even know how to sing, only knew how to be a “personality” and a stage presence. At this point I noticed how funny it was that I was standing on one side of the streetcorner with the Dominican-born musicians, while the American-born kids were standing in their own group on the other, and Chinito (American-born as well, but of the previous generation) went between the two. “Well, those kids are aceitosos,” explained one - they were “slippery” characters. “What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you think they are here for? They’re here to steal the tricks of the guys who are playing!” “But that’s what kids learning how to play do!” I protested. “You can’t tell me that in Tatico’s time, kids weren’t going to his shows and doing the exact same thing.” He conceded this point, but it didn’t change his opinion of their characters.

About 3:00 the third and last set finally got started. I of course had to play a couple of tunes. Then Geno played a couple and his singer joined him, replacing Junior on lead vocals. This didn’t last long, though. One rather drunk seguidor (tipico fan) piped up to complain that the singer was out of tune. He kept up his loud complaints after the next song as well, saying that it “wasn’t out of disrespect” but he “knew a thing or two about music and tuning” and that “someone had to point out the truth.” This was annoying enough that the young man was forced to step down and surrender the mic to Junior again. However, several of us discussing the situation over by the bar agreed that, although the singer was indeed young and had a couple things to work on, we’d heard far worse, and in that very restaurant, no less. I wondered if the complainer was more annoyed by the singing or the fact that the singer was American-born and not yet a part of the transnational tipico crowd, the tightly knit family of musicians and seguidores I’d gotten to know over the years. I pondered the question, but not too much, as it was now past 4 AM and high time to hit the hay.

I passed another entertaining and beer-filled evening on Thursday with my friend Cathy, who showed me around her Astoria, Queens neighborhood, home to an old and huge Greek community and a somewhat newer Arab one. We started out at the Bohemian Beer Garden, a place I’d always meant to visit but never got around to. It is quite the popular place for a beer, with Czech and other interesting East European brews on draft, and its outdoor tables were the perfect spot on this clear, breezy summer evening. But Cathy told me that even just three years ago it hadn’t attracted the crowd of young partiers and hipsters (many of which appeared to hail from Brooklyn, especially Williamsburg) that were there with us. Somehow the word got out. We could have had pierogies and the like right there in the garden, but instead we went across the street to another classic Astoria haunt: Elias’s Corner for Fish, a Greek restaurant where one can get market-fresh fish grilled whole, Greek salads, and retsina. We ate well there, disturbed only by one Greek’s annoying wife, who knocked loudly and long on the window right next to us to attract his attention, gesticulating and making angry faces as he finished dinner with three friends at a neighboring table. Why she did this rather than simply enter and talk to him, perhaps enjoying a glass of retsina that she needed even more than the rest of us, is one of the mysteries of life. Clearly it was time to move on to the dessert portion of the evening, which we had at a corner café and pastry shop whose sidewalk tables were filled with chain-smoking men who tossed their butts not in ashtrays but in glasses of water the waitress brought to every table for just that purpose. The sight was not that appetizing, but the raspberry cake we had was attractive enough to distract us.

With less than a week left, I tried to squeeze in a couple more interviews, events, and visits. Tano promised to meet with me before I left. Would you believe him? No, me neither. My attempts to interview Geno, one of the young American-born accordionists around, also did not work. But then I paid a farewell visit to Arsenio de la Rosa and family in the Bronx, and though King had already left for the DR, we passed a pleasant couple of hours debating merengue history and discussing the interesting recordings I’d found in the Library of Congress. Joe, one of Arsenio’s six children and a hip hop producer, agreed to meet with me to talk about his work with Fulanito and his place in the de la Rosa tipico dynasty, and that did pan out when in an interview at the recording studio he uses.

Aside from these bits of work I also amused myself with friends, like paying a visit to Senti, seeing Tianna at a Stars Like Fleas soundcheck at Tonic, chatting with Danielle about applied ethnomusicology, and going to Red Hook with Hanna. By Saturday I’d already been staying at Hanna’s new Carroll Gardens apartment for several days, but because of our busy social schedules we’d barely seen each other. Thus, on Saturday we decided to do our grocery shopping at the new Fairway supermarket on the Red Hook waterfront, which Hanna promised would offer both gastronomic and surprisingly scenic experiences. Sure enough, it was probably the most picturesque grocery store I’d seen.

On Saturday evening, I decided to check out a ghetto block party Geno’s merengue tipico group would be playing at in the nether reaches of Bushwick, almost to the cemetery whose tombstones could be seen out the L train’s windows as we pulled into the station.. Naturally, when I arrived twenty minutes past the scheduled arrival time, I was almost the first there. I checked out the scene, which consisted of 1970s orquesta merengues blasting from the opposite end of the street, balloon and cotton candy vendors, people selling flan out of their house, and pony rides. This made a cheerful change from the usual, somewhat depressing landscape of flat-fronted brick apartment buildings, narrow houses in faded aluminum siding, and endless dirty asphalt and cement, with no greenery to break up the dismal color palette. Returning to my starting point I found the snubbed singer from Wednesday night at Macoris and another teenage guy I’d seen before both hanging out in front of Geno’s uncle’s bodega, and I joined them. At six, the time the band was supposed to start playing, neither musicians nor equipment was there so we retired to a nearby stoop to sit and discuss the merits of various tipico singers. Eventually Geno showed up with the equipment and other band members, and they went about setting up the instruments and speakers on one side of the store. The oldest of them was only twenty, and the tamborero much younger, perhaps fifteen. The weather, unseasonably chilly, began to look decidedly threatening: bad for me, as I’d left my umbrella at home, and certainly not good for all the electrical wiring now running around the sidewalk. While they finished their preparations, I amused myself by chatting with a couple of Lower East Side-born Dominicans, a plumber and a museum tour guide, who had flatly stated they didn’t believe I could actually play tipico. When the band finally started, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in spite of their age, they all played very well. The youthful tamborero and the guirero even took some solos that were quite impressive. I filmed a bit, since it isn’t often I get to see bands play when it’s still light out. But it did at last start drizzling - not bad enough to drive the assembled crowd away but enough to cause a couple of bodega emplyees to rig up a blue plastic tarp to protect the band and their instruments, tying it to the awning and some street signs and thus obstructing my view. Oh well, that freed me up to enjoy myself a bit, dancing with some local oldsters and buying myself a Corona in a paper bag from the bodega. At their break, the plumber and the guide accompanied me to consume a slice of dollar pizza across the way. Thus sated, I returned to chat with the musicians and they informed me that I HAD to play a couple of tunes as no one there believed I could actually play. Or speak Spanish. I knew I would play badly, not having practiced in a month, but in this situation a mediocre merengue would be better than no merengue. I took the stage, the accordion, and the mic, to make an announcement in Spanish just because I could. The crowd was pleased.

After this, many errands, an excellent dinner out with friend Hanna, a long trip and much hefting of overweight luggage, I now find myself back in Tucson. After seven years of drought the monsoons have finally kicked in and everything is happy and leafy, the mountains greener than I've seen them in 20 years. It's good to be home.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Aguakate in Washington Heights

Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Aguakate plays at Dominican Day festival on Amsterdam Ave., Washington Heights.

Aguakate in Dominican Day Parade

Aguakate band members on their float for the 2006 Dominican Day Parade.

Fidel Gonzalez in Dominican Day Parade

The Mazorca corn oil float also featured merengue tipico.

Chino on the news

Chino on the news
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Chino, Aguakate's frontman, gets interviewed for Spanish-language news in front of Aguakate's float for the Dominican Day parade.

Dominican Day Parade

It was the weekend of the Dominican Day parade in New York. I’d never been before, just because I don’t feel much attraction to the idea of being crushed in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people under the sun for hours on end. But I figured I ought to check it out before I leave. The parade itself wasn’t until Sunday, but the festivities started on Saturday in Washington Heights, where a couple of blocks of Amsterdam Avenue (from about 191 to 194) had been closed off to make way for food and vendor stalls and two stages, one at either end. The street’s topography worked pretty well for security purposes: a steep cliff rises up on the west side and another one drops straight down to the East River on the other side, so one could only enter at one of the ends where police had set up barriers and were checking bags. Mine passed muster so I went in.

The music hadn’t started yet, so I examined the booths (Interboro college, Chevrolet, Citibank, and Lemisol feminine wash were all represented) and the food offerings (there seemed, oddly, to be more Puerto Rican and Colombian restaurants represented than Dominican ones). I got myself a crabmeat empanada and a cheese-filled Colombian arepa, then a mango juice to round off the meal. There was a DJ at work but he didnt play any merengue tipico the whole time, mostly only merengue de orquesta and reggaeton. But eventually things started happening on stage. First, three girls barely in their teens wearing red tops and extremely short white skirts, dancing reggaeton rather well. After a few minutes they were joined by three slightly older girls in much more modest overalls. They were actually pretty good with the reggaeton-style rapping, though it’s not my favorite type of music. The second act was also girls singing reggaeton (is this a new New York Dominican thing?), but this time just a pair of them in camouflage outfits. As they performed some actual instruments were being set up behind them, and soon enough I saw that the guitar belonged to Edilio Paredes, a musician I’ve known for some time, known mostly for his bachata guitar work but also started playing accordion a few years back and is now very good on that too. He plays with a bunch of bands like Super Uba, but today was backing up some singer called “Nelson Maicky,” whoever that is. So even though I was kind of tired of the sun in my eyes, my perch on the edge of a metal traffic barrier, and the stupid wasp that seemed enamored of me and my sun block, I stuck around for a bit to see. But only for a little bit. There would be plenty more of this tomorrow, I was sure.

My old friend Alejandro, bass player for Aguakate, had informed me that his group would be performing on a float in the parade. He suggested I join up with them so as to avoid the madding crowds. This sounded like a good idea but there was some confusion about where and when they’d be meeting. After several rounds of phone calls, we got it all figured out and I went up to find them on 38th street, where the block between 5th and 6th avenues had been closed off to allow the floats, marchers, and all space in which to prepare themselves. On the way up, I bought a Dominican flag bandana to tie to a belt loop and show my spirit, and then found myself unexpectedly accompanied by several dozen teenagers in patriotic Dominican bandanas, t-shirts, and even the occasional umbrella hat. Several of them had guiras and one had a tambora, and they went along playing merengue rhythms and improvising rousing choruses. As they passed by one footwear store on 34th Street, one of the salesmen (apparently Dominican) came out and led them in a chant: “We got shoes! We got shoes!”

Up on 38th, I strolled around examining the offerings, which included floats for products like La Mazorca corn oil and Vitarroz rice, music companies like one for “Hip hop Dominican style,” and organizations like the Centro Civico (Dominican Civic Center) in Washington Heights. The Tamboril community organization for Dominican immigrants from that town near Santiago also had its own truck. Besides all the Dominican businesses and groups there was also a Mexican marching band and a big decorated Colombian bus with all kinds of sacks strapped on top as if it were about to make a long journey through some mountain towns, though with a bunch of Dominican flags stuck on the side for the occasion. Not on floats but getting into their costumes to work the parade route on foot were carnival groups representing Las Guloyas (a cocolo tradition), the city of La Vega and the town of Cabral, where I’d been for carnival just a few months before. I was surprised to recognize their cachua costumes and went over for a closer look. Imagine my surprise to find one of them was actually Temistocle, whose house I’d visited in order to purchase one of his homemade, multicolored whips. He’d come to New York for two weeks just for this occasion, teaching New York Dominican kids about the cachua tradition in the process. I also found another accordionist I knew, Fidel, was performing with his band on the Mazorca float. Good to see tipico would be well represented in the parade.

We had been told to be there at 12 noon, and to make this schedule the musicians of Aguakate had gone without any sleep at all. They’d been playing a gig in some other state - Connecticut? - and only arrived back in the city around 7 AM, then had to meet at Peligro’s store again at 10 AM. That was just about enough time to change clothes and eat. Fat lot of good it did - we spent three hours standing around, fueled only by the beer and rum some members had brought or purchased nearby. Members entertained themselves by improvising verses over their microphones to accompany the carnival percussion group composed of kids in custom airbrushed t-shirts featuring the likenesses of Dominican baseball players or else green plantains and the label “platano,” another word for Dominicans abroad. Some people strolling by stopped to get the autograph of or take pictures with Chino, Aguakate’s frontman. I took advantage of the moment to snap my own shot. But we were all glad when at last the floats began to move (though of course the driver had disappeared at that point and had to be located by making announcements over the float’s sound system).

No one was allowed on the float other than band members and the people representing the phone card company that sponsored it (girls in short tops and guys handing out free Aguakate t-shirts to the crowd). So I was relegated to walking alongside it with Peligro, his cousin, and assorted teenage rabblerousers sporting the official t-shirts and getting the crowd pumped up with their enthusiasm and antics. I hadn’t really expected to be IN the parade, but in fact I found it quite enjoyable for four blocks to walk along Sixth Avenue, right past Bryant Park, and smile at the thousands of flag-waving Dominicans. But at 42nd street the float made an unexpected right turn, allowing the Mexican marching band to move ahead of us up the avenue. I soon found out that we’d been pulled from the parade as one of those boys on the ground had resisted a police officer trying to pull him out, apparently not knowing he was a participant. He’d been handcuffed for this and the entire group pulled as a result. There was some talk about circling back around and rejoining the parade where we’d started, but this never happened, and when we came back around to Sixth Ave the whole thing had already passed, leaving only streets full of trash and streetsweeping machines. Peligro, his cousin, some of the troublemakers, and I then passed an inordinate amount of time wandering around midtown Manhattan trying to reunite with the band, which eventually we did, over on Eighth Ave where they had just gone ahead and started dismantling the float covered in green, white, and yellow streamers. Alejandro said, “this is why I hired someone else to play in my place in last year’s parade.” But I was still glad I’d gone.

Aguakate still had three more gigs to play that day before they could sleep. I decided to accompany them to the next, which was up on Amsterdam and 191st, where I’d been the day before. I hung out with them and the other bands backstage before they went on, avoiding the crowds, much larger and crazier than the day before, then went around front to film while they were on. Chino got a little political, commenting unfavorably on the new law enacted by DR President Leonel Fernandez a couple of weeks ago, which prohibits nightclubs from having live music after midnight and weekdays and after 2 AM on weekends. I, on the other hand, was more than a little in favor of this measure, which will make my fieldwork much easier next year!

I expected to be able to return to my Upper West Side digs quickly, as it was really only ten stops away on the 1 train. But I hadn’t seen the crowds wandering the streets of Washington Heights in celebration of Dominican pride. The police had blocked off Amsterdam so effectively that there was a huge pedestrian traffic jam at the 190th street exit from the festival, since only a trickle of people could get through the single-file opening they’d left. Once I made it through that, I had to walk over to Broadway through masses of people, many of them enjoying the antics of passers by from the comfort of lawn chairs they’d lined up along the sidewalks in front of their apartment buildings. Getting into the elevator down to the train platform and them moving along that platform was no picnic, either. Eventually I managed to get on a train, and feeling much relieved, settled down to read my book. But the train stopped at 168th Street and we were waiting for a long, long time, held up in the station for unknown reasons. A couple of guys on my car were making a lot of rambunctious noise. I didn’t know if they were troublemakers or simply in high spirits, so I kept my eyes on them, and when I saw that one was had a large knife stuck into the front of his waistband I decided switching cars might be a good idea. I did this, and just as I’d sat down the conductor announced the doors were malfunctioning and we’d all have to get off. I exited the train and heard someone call my name. Another surprise: it was Luis, a guy I’d known from the Centro Leon in Santiago. I didn’t recognize him at first in his baseball cap, jeans, and jersey, having only seen him in his work attire of khaki pants and long-sleeve, button-down shirts before. Small world!

I was doubly glad to be with someone I knew another minute later. As the crowd waited on the platform, two different gangs had met two cars down for us and they started fighting. Not knowing what kind of weaponry they might have on them, we all started to run, and as I did so, I thought of stories of people getting crushed in stampeding crowds.. Luis guided me and his other friends by the elbow to a less crowded staircase, and we sprinted up to find the elevator open but full and just about to leave. We pressed ourselves in anyway and went up. At the top we stopped to catch our breath and decide what to do next. I thought of going up and taking the bus instead, but Luis cautioned that it could be as bad or worse on the topside. Instead we waited until we saw police go down and figured things had calmed enough to descend once again. I got home safe and sound, and just in time for Hanna to come by for happy hour.

Dominican Day parade - carnival band

Dominican Day parade - getting ready

a group in guloyas costumes sits around waiting.

Dominican Day parade- cachua

This guy in a cachua costume is actually Temistocle, whose house I visited in Cabral back in April! He made my whip, which is much like the one over his shoulder in this picture.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


...about the recent dearth of images on this site. I've never been good about remembering to take pictures, generally preferring to live the experience, but I made the effort to document a bit better in the DR. Since I got back I've gotten lazy - but I promise to make the effort again soon!

The levels of musical hell

Regarding 7/20-7/22

...cont. from the last post... I was slated to meet a man who had emailed me several times over the years with questions about Dominican music, only to then act like he already knew all the answers. Needless to say, I had an odd impression of him and was curious to meet him in person, as well as to see the project he was working on with the Musical Instruments Collection. He’d indicated we should meet in the reception area just to the left of the information desk in the Met’s main entrance hall, so I figured I would stand around there looking lost, until he would recognize me from my lostness and rescue me. But after a half an hour of that, my feet were tired and he was late. I went to the desk to see what they could do, and they got me on the phone with musical instruments, and a nice man said he’d come down and get me. He did, recognizing me by my yellow umbrella, and just a few minutes later the man himself showed up, replete in a white seersucker suit, white shirt with cufflinks, and white shoes. Whoa. (Later he told us all that all of his clothes and shoes are custom made by an Ecuadorian tailor.)

The following hours were decidedly odd. First, I stood in one place for about an hour and a half without sitting or moving, feeling my knee stiffen up as I was told over and over, “I’m the only one qualified to do this job. No one else knows anything about salsa. Some of the salsa musicians disagree with me. But I say, screw you! I’m the one who got this job and I get paid a lot of money to do it. Nobody hired those guys. I’m the one who decides. No one else can do my job. Nobody.” I’d never encountered an ego quite this size before, even in all my travels among self-centered musicians or star-complexed academics. A couple times I tried to inject an opinion or a carefully-worded disagreement. But I could never get more than about 4 or 5 words out before he was off again. Not once was I asked about my research, what I’d been doing or what I thought about all this. After a few edgewise attempts, I realized there was no use to speaking anyway: smiling absently and nodding was all that was called for here. Although it became increasingly difficult to comply with this behavior as he traveled into the realm of Dominican music, about which he knew little but thought he knew a lot. My heart sank as he told me about his plans for a Dominican program at the museum, as I realized it would likely take a similar one to a program about Afro-Cuban music he told me he’d put on recently. “Cuban music is great, but you know you can’t work with Cubans. They’re impossible! Anyway, the Puerto Ricans can play everything the Cubans can, and salsa, and merengue, and everything else. Why should I hire 16 guys when 8 Puerto Ricans can do the job? Puerto Ricans can play batá too.” So much for tradition, representation, and insiders’ cultural knowledge.

That said, the instruments he acquired for the museum were undeniably beautiful.

After a while, I was rescued through the intercession of the head curator of musical instruments. He was an ethnomusicologist too, surprisingly enough, and a lovely person. I got the insiders’ tour of the collection, which was closed that day for new carpeting to get put in. The insiders’ tour includes not only the priceless antique instruments but also a pointing-out of the flaws in walls and ceilings and poor display case design. One, I believe, was described as “the bane of my existence” and slated for dismantling as soon as possible. My favorite part, naturally enough, was the new free reed exhibit. I hadn’t even known that this recently went up, and it included a plethora of weird and wacky accordions, along with a tiny metal box on legs that was a sort of Chinese sheng, thought it looked more like a TV cartoon alien.

At that point, another curator came in with a couple of enormous, carved wooden African drums on a cart and asked for assistance in opening doors and steadying instruments as he brought them down to the storage rooms. We decided to all go along for the ride, the more the merrier, descending into the hidden bowels of the Met inhabited only by workers in white coveralls. I didn’t know this was included in the admission price!

The musical insturments storage room was full of wonders. I first noticed a pile of balafons, African marimbas with gourd resonators, on top of a shelving unit. Next to this was a keyboard instrument wrapped in a blanket: Franz Liszt’s piano, I was told. On another set of metal shelves, the curator pulled off a small harp mounted on a humanoid skull sporting antelope horns. This was the infamous, controversial skull lyre. It used to hang in a display case right at the entrance, adding a sensational touch to the otherwise respectable gallery, until this curator came in a few years ago and removed it. (They don’t believe it was ever a “real” instrument, more likely some ridiculous thing made for European tourists in Africa in the 19th century.)

Ascending again through the various levels of musical hell, from skull instruments on upwards, we returned to the galleries and said our goodbyes. As the curator opened the cordoned-off entrance for us to leave, we found two people standing there as if to come in. “Sydney?!” they said. “What are you doing here??” “Lauren and Dan?!” I replied. “What are YOU doing here??” My friend Lauren, a fellow ethnomusicologist, was hoping to check out the collection with the idea of creating a related assignment for her students; unfortunately, it was still closed until tomorrow. Instead, the two of them joined me for a look at the Mayan exhibit (fabulous) and a trip to the roof sculpture garden. While there I realized I’d been on my feet for four hours straight and was feeling rather swollen; I also hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day except for that cup of coffee and half a cheese danish. Water and the other half were clearly in order, and I consumed these in the shadow of two giant crocodile punctured all over by knives, files, scissors and knitting needles confiscated at airport security checkpoints, and an enormous glass panel decorated with dead birds at its base (I THINK this was part of the artwork, though it was hard to be sure.) Meanwhile, Lauren and Dan gave me the exciting news that they got engaged a week ago, and the equally exciting news that they’re probably going to Ireland for two years. If this means I get to visit, I say, Score!!

It was a long day already, but it wasn’t over yet. More excitement was to come. I barely had time to go home, change, and consume some leftover Indian food (my only actual meal of the day) before I was slated to meet up with Arlene, a professor of anthropology and American Studies who is on my dissertation committee. We needed to talk business, but we also wanted to have fun, so we decided to combine the two and have our meeting at a salsa club, after a quick bowl of gelato at her place. We found we were both in little black dresses, how very stylish of us. Anyway, it was a good strategy: business out of the way we could enjoy ourselves and just dance. She slated me to teach her a dance lesson or two before heading back to Tucson, and I ran into two of my former Razz M’Tazz students! They didn’t even recognize me at first with glasses, and were surprised to hear about my new activities. It’s funny to think that four years ago they could know me only as a dancer, and that my life has changed so much in the meantime. But it was also heartening to hear after dancing with each of them once that I “still had it.”

I didn’t actually get any work per se done during the next few days. Preparing to leave for two weeks in Washington, DC on Sunday, I needed to meet with people, pack, do laundry and all that. So on Friday I had a lovely lunch with Vera, my adopted grandmother, at a Colombian/Cuban restaurant near her place on Chambers Street, then coffee during a downpour at Café Reggio with Angelina, who is doing a dissertation on Dominican palos music at CUNY and soon to leave for Santiago again. I hadn’t realized that we had another thing in common besides Dominican music, which was that she too is a classical pianist. So we had plenty to discuss and I urged her to publish something soon, at least on the web, so that there will be _something_ available for those curious about palos as opposed to the next to nothing of the current moment.

That evening I’d planned on a tipico night with a friend, Ben, of Iaso Records. But in the end he couldn’t swing it and I didn’t feel like making the journey on my own, so I prepared for a quiet evening at home. But then Tianna came in looking for her cello: she was about to play a little, informal gig only a few blocks from home. It was too convenient to pass up, so I went along to her friend’s apartment, where down in the basement in a pleasantly empty but rather stuffy room, an array of electronic equipment and musical instruments were laid out on a rug. Tianna played cello, accompanied by a friend on guitar and voice and a guy on the rug pushing buttons and pulling levers. Everyone had different foot pedals and touch pads to play with, as well, manipulating the sounds into eerie echoes and mournful loops that combined into something that sounded to me like the cosmos. Back to the music of the spheres again.

I was slated to go to Fire Island with Lauren, Dan, and friend the next day. But when I woke up, it definitely looked like rain. It was disappointng - in all the time I worked in Long Island, I’d actually never been there, or even to any Long Island beach other than Quogue - but, it also provided me with a much-needed opportunity for laundry. Walking from the laundromat to our local record & coffee shop, I noticed a sign for a dance studio offering ballroom dance as well as “disco lessons.” It must be for the Poles, but I was kind of tempted to sign up and find out what kind of moves they were teaching.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Weird: the new normal

composed 7/22 - 7/26/06

Most of my weeks are odd, but this one does seem odder than most. Perhaps it’s just that I’m feeling a bit sleep-deprived, but the combination of an International Tambora Day, freelance talent scouting, riding around in a town car singing to Tatico songs at 4 AM, descending into the bowels of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see skull lyres and Franz Liszt’s piano, and avant-garde noise/music in a Greenpoint basement still seems strange to me. But hey: weird is the new normal. I declare it so, and so it must be.

It started off on Monday with a last-minute invitation from my friend Chinito, the percussionist. He’d been invited, also at the last minute, to play some tambora up at the Alianza Dominicana in Washington Heights in order to help dedicate a new mural honoring Catarey, a great tamborero of the past who’d died on that day sixteen years ago. Thus I found myself, on what was, if possible, even a hotter day than the one on which we’d made the backyard bonfire a couple of days earlier, standing around on a sidewalk under the beating sun. I was sweating from every part of my body and it was running down the backs of my legs. I shaded myself with a magazine and examined a giant tambora, maybe three feet in diameter and painted in Dominican red, white and blue, that had been made specially for the occasion.

A group of Alianza students gathered around as well, along with a few random musicians that had showed up to honor Catarey. Chinito was still nowhere in sight, but a couple of other tamboreros had brought their instruments and started playing in duet, cycling between the various rhythms of maco, merengue, and pambiche, giving each time to solo. Then Catarey’s sister was asked to say a few words, but no one could hear her, so a couple of students just yanked the black cloth from the mural and we all applauded. It showed winged tamboras, big and small, flying up to join the stars in the night sky.

Chino showed up shortly thereafter, just in time to watch a video of the late great tambora player in some of his numerous TV appearances, some of them with his brothers - fabulous guitarists who played bachata and son. Jaded as I am, the guy was impressive and inventive. It turned out he’d even played at the Blue Note with some Latin jazz artists back in the 80s. I couldn’t watch the whole thing, though, as I also needed to chat with folklorist Ivan Dominguez, who I’d met long ago, and the Alianza director, who I never had. They told me about a new collection of field recordings they’d recently acquired. They were looking for a student to help them out with the cataloguing and identification, and I wanted to help, but I won’t be around long enough to make much headway.

The film was followed by more tambora playing on the sweltering sidewalk, this time in trio, now that Chino was there. And then it was over and everyone went back to their business, which in Ivan’s case involves trying to convince President Leonel Fernandez that every July 17 should be the official Day of the Tambora. Even if it never comes to be, this was a nice, unofficial start.

I was glad to have learned about a great percussionist, even though he hadn’t been a tipico guy. But I was about to learn something truly surprising Chino and a new friend, a former Dominican folk musician, walked me to the train. On the way, this friend said something about a certain 17 million dollars he was about to get. Naturally, we wondered how he was going to swing this. “Oh, you know, I was contacted by email by someone in Europe who needed help getting money transfered between banks. The paperwork and all. He needed a partner in the US and I agreed to do it. So he’s going to pay me a cut. It’s for real ” This sounded suspicious, but Chino didn’t want to sound too disapproving. “Really? I get emails that sound like that all the time. I never thought any of them would be for real.” “Oh, I know, but some of them are,” he assured us. “We’ve already done most of the paperwork. We’re only waiting for one more document to come through now.” I didn’t have Chino’s compunctions. “Have you seen the money yet?” I asked. “No, but I will soon.” “If you haven’t seen any money, it’s just a scam like all the others.” “Don’t pass judgment when you don’t know all the details,” he warned me. “OK - I’m just saying, I wouldn’t waste my time or money on it.” “Well, sometimes you have to take risks to get something. I’m taking one and it’s going to pay off.”

So if you ever wondered who fell for those emails, now you know. I just hope he doesn’t have to invest too much before he finds out the real story. I guess one might at least take consolation from the help he’ll be giving to the Nigerian economy.

I spent Tano writing, reading, doing errands, and trying to track down both a hard-to-reach empresario and a certain missing bass player. Guess how successful I was?

Not to worry, I was much more successful the next day. Alejandro came through for me again and set up an interview for me with Peligro, the empresario in charge of his band, Aguakate. He put a time to it and everything- I just had to get there. Little did I know that that would be the hard part.

I left home an hour before the scheduled time, figuring that would give me plenty of leeway. Ha My first thought was to take the G train to the E and then the A up to Washington Heights. When I got to the turnstile, though, I found my Metrocard had expired. Just as I finished purchasing the new one, I heard the train arriving. I ran to meet it and had just reached the first car when the driver, looking me in the face, closed the doors. My supplicating look had no effect on this evil man, who I imagined laughing horribly as he sped away, leaving me swaying on the platform in the subway wind.

The G train tends to come only every 20 minutes or so. I didn’t have that long to wait, so I decided to go for plan B - the bus to the L to the A, a longer route, but my only other option. As I called Alejandro to tell him my woes and perhaps relay a message to Peligro, I saw a B61 arriving across the street, and ran again to meet it, just as the door closed. This time my pathetic expression paid off, though, and the driver opened it again. “What?” he asked me. “I just got nervous for a second.” “NERVOUS? WHY??” he asked me in the fake screechy voice of a madman. “I thought you were going to leave me.” “LEAVE YOU? Does THIS look like the face of a guy who LEAVES people? ?” I looked at his crazed expression and decided, “No; you look like a nice one.” I went to sit down.

Across the aisle from me a girl with a thick Queens accent and long, bright pink nails was talking on her cell phone. “So I said to her, no, forget it I’m just gonna take the bus over to her house.” At this the bus driver picked up his microphone and his voice, now deep and booming, came over the loudspeaker: “You take the bus over there. Yeah.” From then until I got off, he responded to every comment she made with a Barry White-style “Yeah.”

That was entertaining enough, but it didn’t quite make up for the mental anguish I suffered at the hands of the G train driver. I got to Peligro’s late and a bit flustered. Not to worry; he’d been busy anyway so it was just as well to start later. I found him behind the counter of his sports store, but he took me into the basement for the interview, where noone would interrupt us. Down there, we sat on plastic buckets between the tightly packed aisles full of shoeboxes. In a tiny room off this cluttered hallway a man worked alone embroidering jerseys, imprinting my interview recording with the sounds of an industrial sewing machine. We did get interrupted a bit, by workers coming down to ask Peligro’s opinion on various things and a guy bearing pink-tinted silkscreens saying “Brooklyn Girl.” But we also got the interview done. Good thing, too: I decided to award him the Second Most Difficult Interview prize, after Aureliano, since I’d been trying daily to schedule the appointment for the last month, and had even tried briefly some years before. Through Peligro, I learned more about the business of tipico and how it plays out in the US context. I also learned which is the biggest-selling tipico recording in history. No, I’m not going to tell you! Read the dissertation!!

Now it was about 7 PM, but my day was far from over. I picked up a smoothie from a cart on the street before hopping in the train to fortify me. I had to get a couple of things done at NYU, and I had to get to Macoris Restaurant tonight. First because I hadn’t been in a couple of weeks, second because I needed to track down some people, and when you can’t reach a tipico musician or fan or get their phone number, Macoris is the best bet for finding them. Lidia, my new blog friend from the University of Texas, decided to join me for the expedition.

We met in the Grand Street subway station, taking the L to Broadway Junction and changing there for the J. Although we could only get one stop closer to our destination, it was worth it. I knew that if we got off at Broadway Junction we’d have to walk under blocks and blocks of elevated traintracks along dark, unpopulated streets in East New York, which is still reported to be New York’s most crime-ridden neighborhood. (Of course, perceptions of this vary widely among residents, as it’s a large area filled with all differnt kinds of people. When I expressed concern a few weeks ago about walking to Alejandro’s house from the subway station a few blocks away, he told me, “but nothing ever happens around here!”) At any rate, we decided to skip the scene from the slasher movie and get off at the much better-lit Fulton Avenue station, from there walking on busy boulevards to Macoris. This worked out fine.

At Macoris, nothing was happening yet. It was only about 10:45. Far too early for tipico, these days. But guess who was there? Tano! The mysteriously missing bass player. His excuse? He doesn’t get a cell phone signal in the basement where he lives. “Don’t you ever come out of that basement?” I wondered, as I’d tried to reach him at all hours and on every day of the week. “Not that much. I have my computer there, so, you know.” Everyone’s wired these days! Certainly a change from when I started my research 5 years ago. He gave me the number of the land line, so we’ll see if what he says is true. (One of the other musicians suggested an alternative, low-tech explanation: too many women.)

Tano also helped me in the evening’s other mission: locate Geno, a young Dominican-American kid I’d never met but who was reputed to be an excellent accordionist, with Prodigio-like technique. I was intrigued and wondered if he could be the right man for the aforementioned folk rock fusion recording/touring job. Tano had his number so we gave him a call to see if he could come by and regale us with some tunes. He did, but much later, like 1 AM, when we were about ready to leave. In the meantime, we’d already heard two sets from Lioni Parra, whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years but who was sounding very good. Another friend from my now long-ago tipico-club-going days, Freddy Ginebra, showed up as well. At the end of the second, I played two tunes myself, and found I’d made some new fans since the last time I’d played Macoris. “Play El Tiguerito! El Tiguerito!!” they demanded. I hadn’t played that tune since the last time and I didn’t remember it very well, either, but squeezed it out anyway, endearing me to those two merengueros forever - Lidia and I even shared a ride home with them later.

At any rate, Geno eventually did show up and I saw right away it was true, he was the perfect guy for the project, even though he was only 20 years old. He wanted to know more about it. “They said they want someone young and hip,” I told him. “Do you consider yourself young and hip?” “Well, young, but I don’t know about hip. Maybe you can teach me.” He thought I was hip! Isn’t that adorable? I set him straight though. “Me? Nah, I’m just an accordion-player loser.” “Me too,” he concurred. But when he played, he certainly didn’t seem like a loser. His technique was all it was cracked up to me, he was adorable, and could even sing. I gave him a glowing recommendation the next day, and the day after that I called him to make sure he was going to call the band back. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Practicing accordion?” “Yeah, like a loser.”

When I’d played I took advantage of my microphone priveleges to berate the men in the place for not dancing when I was sitting around waiting. So while Geno played they had to re-prove their manhood by dancing with me finally, which helped me stay awake. After all that was over and I made my round of farewells, it was after 3! So we hopped in a town car with my fans and sped away, under the command of the most tipico driver ever. “See if you know these songs!” he shouted, pushing in a cassette of old Tatico tunes. Soon everyone was singing along in drunken tipico bliss. “Do you play this one? You should play this one!”

There could hardly have been greater contrast between my Wednesday night, East New York ambience and the setting of my Thursday activities. After far too little sleep, I had to get up and hit the road in preparation for a meeting I’d set up a few days previously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I barely had time to wolf down half a cheese danish and a cup of coffee at a Polish café playing bad pop music before I had to get on the G train, the E train, and finally the 4 train to the Upper East Side.
– to be continued --

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The magical, self-referential blog

7/17 - 7/18/06
I figured I’d better get out and hear some more music on Sunday, a good night for tipico in Queens, so I made plans to go out to El Rinconcito de Nagua in Woodhaven. But first, both excercise and brunch were in order. Tianna’s Tucson friend, Danielle, was in town. It felt a bit like a slumber party, and we all woke up groggy and giggling. Tianna suggested we try a Kick & Punch class at the neighborhood Y to get us moving. We did, but didn’t last long. It was pretty intense, and exactly what I’m not supposed to be doing for my knee. Instead, we did about fifteen minutes of bedroom yoga, gossiped about Tucson people, and then, starving for both food and caffeine, headed towards Saint Helens, where we had the slooooooowest brunch I’d yet encountered. It was tasty, but I don’t think anything was tasty enough for that kind of wait.

Later that evening, I had to meet a new friends whose acquaintance I owe to this very blog: Lidia, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Texas who is studying Dominican foodways in Tamboril and New York. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about, and since we both found ourselves temporarily in Brooklyn we made plans to meet up down on Grand Avenue, near my old East Williamsburg haunts. We touched base via cell phone. “Keep walking east on Grand, and I’ll be walking towards you. If we stay on the same sidewalk, we’ll run into each other eventually.” “But how will I know you’re you, and how will you know I’m me?” I wondered. “I think I can recognize you from your blog,” Lidia said. “And I have big hair.”

I did recognize her from her masses of long, curly hair, more than enough to make the hair-deprived (such as myself) jealous. We headed to an old favorite of mine, the Salvadoran restaurant “Bahia.” While living in New York, I found Salvadoran food often provided the best substitute for the Sonoran food I missed from home. They have corn tamales with no meat inside, not quite the green corn tamales with chile and cheese I longed for, but close enough. They also have delicious refried black beans. We ordered a “plato tipico” consisting of fried sweet plantains, homemade cheese, beans, and cream, as well as cheese-filled pupusas topped with tangy cabbage salad. This kept us pleasantly occupied as we discussed research plans and I gave her some contact information for all my favorite people in Santaigo. We even gave Hector, the palero, a call - I wanted to check on my car, anyhow. The connection wasn’t very good, but we managed to touch base, at least.

Unfortunately, Lidia couldn’t go with me to El Rinconcito - her crazy New York existence meant that 10 PM on a Sunday night was the only time she’d been able to find to meet up with an old friend. So we parted ways at the Grand Avenue subway station, but made plans to have a tipico night some other day. Taking the L to the J train out to the 75th Street stop, I made surprisingly good time to my destination. Once there, I claimed a table near the door, feeling a little odd because I didn’t recognize anyone in the small but highly appreciative audience, making me a curiosity in more ways than one. Still, I did know Leopoldo, the accordionist, and Junior, the guirero, and once they finished the set they came over to say hi and buy me a second beer. Before long everyone in the place wanted to dance with me, it seemed. Good thing, as I needed the exercise both for the usual reasons and in order to stay awake

In the second set, I was asked to play so I cranked out some of the usual suspects, “La Cartera Vacia” and “El Puente Seco.”: Junior thought I’d played better than the day before, and this immediately made me a lot of new friends who wanted to know all about me. One who asked me to dance told me he was both a bodega-owner and one of the biggest merengueros or tipico fans around, so I asked his name. He turned out to be Fermin Checo, a name I’d heard often both from the musicians I know and in homenajes, recorded songs of homage. This was a fortuitous meeting and, naturally, I made plans to interview him.

For neighborly reasons, this gig has to end at 1 AM sharp - all the better for me - so at that time we repaired to the sidewalk, where I stood around talking to the New York-born bass player until Papo, one of those ultra-persistent fans who never misses any of the shows, offered me a ride to the Myrtle Avenue L station, much more convenient for me, and we sped away in his delivery van.

On Monday I tried again to reach Tano. Guess how well that went?

On Tuesday I was more successful: not with Tano but with Heidy, one of the only professinal female guira players around, and an old friend from the days when she was playing with Rafaelito Polanco and I was working in the public sector. Turns out she now has three kids and thus is not playing much anymore, especially since Rafaelito went back to the island. We made plans to meet up at her new apartment near Myrtle and Broadway.

When I got off the bus under the elevated M train, I tried to call Heidy for the address but couldn’t get through. Eventually I decided I might as well have some lunch, so wandered into the nearest Dominican restaurant for a lunch plate of rice, beans, and fish. It was enough for three people, but I was glad to have leftovers. When I finished I tried again and found her. Then I found the building, one of those tall apartment blocks built by city services, without trouble. Heidy opened the door to her extremely tidy first-floor, two-bedroom place accompanied by her one-year-old daughter who was rolling about in a pink walker.

A Bushwick native, Heidy had never thought much of tipico until highschool, when she was able to hear some of the local bands playing at restaurants in the neighborhood. One of her sisters had recently come up to New York from the DR and played accordion, sparking Heidy’s interest further. She started out as a dancer with a band, but when one of the percussionists suggested she take up an instrument instead she realized the guira was for her. After practicing a few months along to tapes of Fefita, she was surprising everyone in the tipico world with her self-taught skills. She ended up playing for about seven years straight with Rafaelito Polanco, one of the most demanding accordionists, and greatly enjoyed proving that women can indeed be awesome percussionists.

After an hour or so of interview, Heidy had to go pick up her twin son and daughter at school. I went along for the walk. Her son, Eli, quickly decided I was OK. As soon as we got home, he was showing me all his toys. (His twin sister was more interested in potato chips.) Heidy showed me her new guira and a framed newspaper article on her wall - the one I’d set up with El Diario several years ago, which featured a picture of her with Rafaelito and Pablo, the bass player. I couldn’t stay too long as I had to go into school to pick up some stuff, but we discussed plans to meet up later to go out for more tipico.

Back at the ranch that evening, Tianna arrived home with another houseguest from Tucson, this one a traveling physicist. Apparently, he roams around the country in a vegetable oil bus giving physics demonstrations at schools, while he’s not teaching at community college. I asked if he was like a snake oil salesman, only for science, and he said yes, but without the sales. Tianna tells me that the their biggest challenge came in the South. There, people thought they were psychics. Apparently, they couldn’t read the “Physics Factory” sign. The physicists hadn’t counted on illiteracy.

He didn’t have that problem to contend with at our place, but he did have to contend with our sleeping situation: Tianna has a futon, I have what she terms “the crib” but is actually an armchair and ottoman that fold into a very narrow bed. The rest of the space is taken up by piles of laundry, a drum set, computer equipment, desks, books, a Casio keyboard, a typewriter with a sheet of paper in it that reads “first word best word. She lived in an attic, like the artists of la boheme,” two entirely unnecessary space heaters, a football, some potted plants, cowboy boots and hats, but no other sleeping equipment. The physicist solved the problem by deciding to sleep on the roof after we’d climbed out the window to enjoy the view of Manhattan and a blood-red moon, indicating the city’s current smog level.

The next day, Tianna had to work early so I entertained our new, temporary roommate with brunch at a diner, a visit to the Strand, and lunch at Dojo, my usual place. After he left I had a pretty average afternoon of library visits and all. Guess which musician I was still unable to reach?

Back at home that evening, the evening of one of the hottest days of the year so far, Tianna looked out our kitchen window only to find our downstairs neighbors inexplicably sitting around a campfire. “Come on down! We’ve got beer!” they called to us. Seemed like a good invitation, so we went down and wandered around the basement until we found the exit to the backyard - the rather lovely backyard, with a thick carpet of grass, a pear tree full of young fruit but no partridge, tomatoes, peppers, basil, and marigolds. In the midst of all that bounty, two guys drinking beer and eating Sunchips around a metal firepit shaped like a 1950s UFO. Soon I too had a beer in my hand and they were telling us how they’d been inspired to collect the wood after last Wednesday’s rain and windstorm, the same one that had resulted in the freak tornado in Westchester, and saw all that unclaimed bounty lying about the streets of Brooklyn. They felt like manly men as they ran around collecting firewood and hacking it into manageable pieces with their hatchet. It made quite a change from their day jobs at financial firms on Wall Street.

The fire and beer party was actually being held in honor of our downstairs neighbor’s birthday the next day, which, when we joined the festivities, was only an hour away. We decided to wait for it in order to make a toast. In the meantime, we threw peanuts to the firegod. Then two friends of the birthday boy, punk rock girls with crazy hairdos and a punk rock band. We discussed horror movies and how these days they’ll just make one about any old thing. I imagined the writers at work: “What are people not sufficiently scared of yet?” “I don’t know - rubber duckies?” And thus is a horror movie born. The rubber ducky horror could really go places, too, as his water-dwelling habits open up all sorts of possibilities for new deaths involving drowning, electrocution, etc. One of the financial advisors also suggested the squirting of acid out of the ducky squeaky place. In the movie, whenever one heard SQUEAK-Y! SQUEAK-Y! One would know horror would follow. But tonight, all that followed was a toast, bourbon, and bedtime.

I’ve been getting the most interesting mail from my blog readers. Thanks, readers! Keep it coming! Anyway, last week I got one from the assistant to the frontman of a popular folk rock band which shall remain nameless, but which is beloved to my nephews. They’re apparently looking for recommendations for a latino accordionist to work with them on a recording project and go on tours and all. It could be a great opportunity for someone but I wasn’t sure who, so I started calling around to see what my tipico-playing friends thought. It’s always good to start with the ones who want to marry you, because you know they’re likelyto help. Sure enough, Alejandro came up with a good possibility. But first he asked, “are you SURE they don’t need a bass player?” Then I called another friend for advise. He said he’d ask around, but first he wanted to know, “are you SURE they don’t need a percussionist?” Jeez, maybe I should just get a whole band together and take it on tour myself...

It was an interesting end to the week, and after that, there was only vacation to worry about. Along with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews, I’d been invited out to visit our cousins at their summer homes in Quogue (near the Hamptons in Long Island). It was an offer too good to refuse, especially with the heat rising in the city. (Why do we need so much *&^%$ cement and asphalt?!?) So we rendezvoused in Flushing and headed east. There we spent a lovely though too short two days and one night playing in the pool and on the beach, enjoying the surprisingly cool breeze in the forest (I even needed a sweater at night!), eating and drinking, bicycling and being amused by the antics of small people. If only I’d had batteries for my camera I would have captured the cutest moment ever. One of our cousin Amy’s children, Owen, wanted to go down to the water and jump waves with his grandfather Lou, and took his hand. Once my smaller nephew Aiden saw this he wanted to go too, and took Lou’s other hand. And then Owen’s twin brother Oliver saw this and decided he’d better not miss the action, taking his brother’s hand. My larger nephew, Aaron, not to be left out, grabbed Aiden’s hand and they all paraded out to the ocean, five men all in a row.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Ernestidio plays the Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Another photo from last week's festival. (Scroll down the page to see me performing at the same event)

Whipped into an accordion-induced frenzy

So, on a very steamy Saturday afternoon, I jumped on the L train to the DeKalb station, where I got off and found Bushwick residents trying to beat the heat by opening up the fire hydrants and letting them run everywhere, and by bringing their TVs and armchairs out onto the sidewalk, running the cords in through a window. (Electrical appliances and gushing water doesn’t seem the safest combination, but they did look comfortable.)

I found Chinito hard at work mixing tracks on his computer - as usual. But he had made time to go out and get a couple of Presidentes so as to make our interview more enjoyable. They helped with the heat, too In the course of this very interesting interview, I found out that Chinito had been a member of a roller-skating crew when he was growing up on the Lower East Side in the late 70s-early 80s. They wore matching suits with their names stiched onto one leg and their zodiac signs on the other and went around skating and working on skate-dancing moves. He was also getting involved with the early New York deejaying scene, spinning records and scratching and all that. And at the same time, he was beginning his típico performance career, playing guira with King de la Rosa. When he had to go to a gig that was a little ways away, he would skate over, so sometimes he just left his skates on as he played. This developed into a whole shtick where during his guira solos he would break out with some roller stylings, rolling down into the splits and then seeming to pull himself back up by the neck of his shirt. Needless to say, the new guira style caused quite a stir when he took it on tour with him to the DR in 1981.

These days Chino keeps busy by producing recordings for merengue, reggaetón, and rock artists. He no longer has the matching jumpsuit seen on the cover of the LP he recorded with King when he was 16 and pulled out to show me, a black-and-tan polyester number that combined well with King’s afro and Pablo the bassist’s cubano-style cap. I asked Chino if he could still skate and he told me he took his skates out the other day just to see. But now, he found, he was mostly just afraid of falling down. I could totally sympathize what with my knee surgeries and subsequent lack of a dancing career. Man, I guess we’re all getting older

I continued reflecting on that theme over the remainder of the Fourth of July weekend. I spent three post-Presidente days at my sister’s house playing with my nephews, or
writing while they were otherwise occupied. At ages 6 and 2 ½, they never seem to tire. Even after a whole morning at the beach on the Croton River (which has the inexplicable name of Silver Lake), Aaron was unable to nap long enough for Heather and I to watch Transamerica. So we were unable to complete our Alternative Lifestyles Independence Weekend, which had begun so promisingly with a showing of Brokeback Mountain. Still, we had a successful Fourth of July BBQ at the neighbors. I brought moro de guandules and Heather tried to poison me with chicken disguised as fish. Then Aaron threw a tantrum when we had to leave, proving that the party had been a success.

I got back into the swing of things pretty quickly upon return to the Greenpoint attic where I hide out these days. It’s fun living with Tianna again - the last time we were roommates was in the year 2000 - although she has a crazy work schedule and social life that has cut into my sleep habits. (That may explain the quality of this blog entry more than anything.) Her room, which I now share, is the whole top floor of a three-story house, from which one can admire the shiny hardwood floors and beamed ceiling on the inside as well as a view of Manhattan, Empire State Building and all, out of the west-facing dormer window. There is also a stairway going up to a skylight that presumably opens onto the roof - though it appears to be stuck down with tar. More on that later. The only drawback is the downstairs area of the apartment, where the kitchen, living room, and bathroom are to be found and which we share with way too many aspiring indie rockers who drink too much. The trash-and-bottle situation gets completely out of control about every two days, while just about every morning the kitchen is a disaster area of crusty dishes and half-used cooking ingredients. So this area plays the cloud to the attic’s silver lining.

Greenpoint is a heavily Polish section of Brooklyn, now being invaded by hipsters. There seem to be few culture clashes between the two groups, although of course the hipsters haven’t yet invaded the Europa nightclub. I don’t think the syrupy Polish pop and Polish electronica suit their tastes. I shop at a Polish grocery sometimes but I can’t buy any of the Polish canned food products because I don’t know what they are. I do buy the Polish juice though, as it very conveniently has a picture on the box of the type of fruit you’ll find inside. All told, life is pretty good for me in Greenpoint.

Anyway, Tianna and I got out to enjoy some music provided by her friend Hannah one night during the week. She is a singer-songwriter who performs on her guitar and sometimes harmonium. Her voice is lovely and works well for her mellow tunes and picturesque lyrics, one of which says “I’d like to rip out your throat and plant a tree in it.” And it was sung in a place called Capone’s Bar, an interesting setting with an upper level where people sitting up above on a patio can look down upon cleavage, and a sunken lower seating area where those sitting below can look up people’s skirts. An interesting arrangement, to be sure. We did get free pizza.

Then it was back to business - I’d set up an interview with Arsenio de la Rosa, King’s brother whom I’d met the week before. This time around I had a much easier time finding the apartment and gaining admittance. One of Arsenio’s American-born, hip-hop-playing sons came down to let me in. Up in the apartment, we found King hanging out playing guitar, accompanied by the chirping of the dozen tiny, colorful birds kept in cages in the hallway. The History Channel was on the big-screen TV, sound off, and so grainy footage of battleships accompanied us throughout the interview. As Aresnio started playing during the Trujillo era, and actually met Petan (the dictator’s brother who ran the state radio and TV stations), I was able to learn a lot more about life and music during that time. I also learned a lot about how tipico got going in New York, since he’d moved here in 1963 - just after Trujillo died and some time before other tipico musicians got up here.

On Friday, I did not get the interview with Tano. Good thing something else happened on Saturday to distract me for a while: the first annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival. A week ago, I’d called up my old friend Ernestidio, an accordionist and accordion tuner in Cypress Hills. He was happy to have heard from me. “Hey, you know, I’m playing at some kind of festival up in Manhattan, in Riverside Park, next Saturday. You should come down! Play a couple of tunes with us!” That same day but a few hours later, I checked my emails and found I’d received a couple inviting me to the same event - to introduce Ernestidio and his group. It turned out that while I was away, Bob Godfried, a fellow New York accordion nut, had been helping the organizers to get some Latino groups onto the program, and had remembered my old friend Ernestidio from a library program I’d organized several years back. He’d called him up and contracted him for the event, and then when I got back he and organizer Robin had invited me to come on over as well. So that worked out nicely.

The festival took place all afternoon and into the evening on the pier at 70th Street. At that point, Riverside Park is just a little strip of green located on a very steep hill in between and sort of underneath the West Side Highway. But the pier, which has been made over rather nicely with paving stones, railings, and streetlamps, was a very pleasant and breezy location for a music event. As I came out from under the highway and crossed the bike path, I encountered Ernestidio just walking back up the path to get the bass amp, and Cesar the tambora player drinking a beer with Junior the singer (usually a guira player, but promoted to lead singer for the occasion) at a table near the food booth. On the stage at the moment was a rock band fronted by a woman playing accordion while wearing flourescent pink fingerless gloves and copious amounts of eye makeup. I was sorry we’d missed some of the earlier act, which included an all-female accordion orchestra, an Irish group, and a norteño group with, oddly enough, a Chilean frontman. But we did get to hear a Balkan duo as we waited. Bob gave me some background: the accordionist was raised on Staten Island by Albanian parents, while the percussionist was part of the Bronx Macedonian gypsy community. The two got tired of being threatened with guns in classic Balkan fashion whenever they missed someone’s favorite tune, and thus stopped playing Macedonian weddings and started on the folk festivals instead.

They kept us entertained until it was time for Ernestidio and the boys (which included New York-born “El Escorpion” on guira and Monchy on bass) to take the stage, and me to translate for their sound check. But this task was finished before I knew it - literally. I was still waiting for an affirmative from the sound man when they just started in with Los Algodones. Ah well. I made my introductions later, and then took the opportunity to dance a few numbers - including a mangulina - with the two Dominicans present (both friends of the musicians). Many others were motivated to join in with their own moves, some of which resembled merengue and some of which did not. The latter were mostly performed by a guy in a Mark Twain mustache and puff of grey hair dressed in bright red trousers, yellow shirt, and herringbone jacket. Apparently, he goes to all the accordion events.

The festival crowd was really easy to please, they were already whipped up into an accordion-induced frenzy. Their reacion when I introduced the band was “WOO-HOO!!!” And then when Junior asked me to come up and ask the crowd if they were enjoying the music, they said “WOO-HOO!!!” I translated this for Junior: “They said they were! They said they were!!” And when Ernestidio asked me to come up to play, I told the audience they could be the judge as to whether I’d learned anything in all the time I spent in the Dominican Republic. When I finished my first tune, I asked their verdict. It was: “WOO-HOO!!!” All in all, a successful afternoon. We stayed long enough to hear a few tunes from the Cajun band that followed us and closed the show. Bob was on guitar and the accordionist was playing a beautiful instrument handmade in the bayou. He had the appropriate accent, as well. We liked the music, and the accent, but Ernestidio was pleased that more people had danced to his tunes.

Ernestidio’s driver kindly gave me a ride home, all the way to Greenpoint. I’d planned on going out again to hear Ernestidio play in Bushwick later that evening, but got distracted with other things and then it really seemed too late to have to catch a bus, then a train, then call the musicians to come look for me and walk me to the club from the creepy subway station, so I called it a night. Tomorrow would be another tipico day, after all.