Thursday, February 16, 2006



Seemingly cured at last of the evil cold, I made it out to hear some music on Friday. With friends from the Centro Leon, I went to see Kerubanda at Las Vegas, a giant rancho típico on the highway to Navarrete best remembered as the site of “El Retorno,” El Prodigio’s triumphant return to the stage in 2004 (I was there for that, too). Querube isn’t the greatest accordionist out there, but his band is sure good – they are in fact all the musicians that were with El Prodigio, pre-retorno. Anyway, how much more could you really expect from a convicted murderer? No joke – he really was in prison a few years ago, but apparently his sentence was suddenly cut short when he married a woman with influential politicians in the family. Go figure. Anyway, murderer or not it was fun to dance to, and fun to watch others dancing, especially this very small man with a tall woman who had his very own bouncy style. (Did he think that by jumping we might think he was taller?)

Carnival update: our costumes still not done, we switched to a different, hopefully speedier, tailor. I did finally get my custom-made carnival shoes, though, which went well with my official Confraternos shirt I wore to the parade on Sunday. The carnival group association had decided finally to go down to the official parade route along Las Carreras, in the hopes that this would spur the Federation into paying out the promised funds on Monday. However, if they don’t comply, the plan is for everyone to dress in black for next Sunday’s parade and walk the whole route in silence up to the Monument, following behind the Los Muertos group and their Impala of Death, in protest of this ill treatment.

Carnival update #2: I finally got a lesson in whip usage on Sunday from the two teenage Confraternos, who got a kick out of my lousy technique. I did get progressively better, though, after perhaps 20-30 minutes of practice on Tonito’s severly potholed street. The old men across the street enjoyed watching and commenting on my progress, as did the children on the block, whose whip expertise was far superior to my own. They kept trying to trick me and make me think my whip was sounding pretty good by cracking theirs at the same time I tried to do mine. Sorry, but I will not fall into that trap! When I suck, I know it!! At any rate, by the end my whip was making a noticeable sound, though nothing close to the deafening sonic boom of my friends.

Every Sunday that takes us closer to the grand finale at the end of the month gets progressively crazier. Coming down through Pueblo Nuevo things looked pretty much like last week, except that more groups were wearing costumes instead of t-shirts. There were neon-colored Pueblo Nuevo style masks covered in fluorescent flowers, there was a group whose horns were instead arms reaching up with claws on the end, a few stray vegano and animal-faced devils, and many more in more traditional lechon attire. I also saw a Nicolas Den Den – a traditional dancing bear character – appear for the first time.

When we got to Las Carreras, though, tons of people were lined up to see, dancing and throwing confetti around to amuse themselves. A few groups had set up stands, kind of like mini carnival centers for dancers and lechon wannabes to gather at. The military band participated for the first time this season, marching a circular route up and down Las Carreras. The first official bladder-whacks or vejigazos were going on, as well. I myself received my first vejigazo from a small child. Also, one stray lechon had joined up with Los Confraternos for the day, and perhaps suffering from a short guy’s complex, he felt the need to hit everyone who crossed his path – and some innocent bystanders – absolutely as hard as possible. Those bladders are HARD and people were not happy! He was kind of scary, but I did like his outfit. Like many of the “traditional” outfits, it was all ribbons, mirrors, and bells on the front, but featured cartoon characters rendered in sequins on the back. On each leg he had a Bart Simpson in devil form.

The funniest moment of the day came at the end of our Carreras route. It had been predetermined that we would not continue to the monument today but turn around at Sabana Larga, a sort of compromise to show the Federation that while we were attempting to hold our end of the bargain, we still weren’t happy with their fiscal policy. Anyway, when we reached Sabana Larga a vigorous debate was going on. Repreesnting the Centro de la Cultura on one side was Enegildo – remember him? He’s the guy who thinks the hat makes the man – and representing the barrio carnival participants on the other was Polanquito, the tiny yet frighteningly lively 75-year-old lechon. Enegildo was getting red in the face as he frantically told all the lechon groups coming down the street to “keep going! KEEP GOING!!!” (Presumably, it would look bad for him if carnival didn’t make it to the monument this year, especially since the banners lining Las Carreras all the way up to the monument show that Presidente beer is a Santiago carnival sponsor.) Meanwhile, Polanquito, mask off, was practically bouncing off the walls of parade observers in telling us to “Turn! TURN!!!” Apparently, Polanquito hefts more influence in carnival circles, as we all turned around.

Aside from that, and a minor delay as we waited for our pathetic disco lite pickup truck to recover its strength, this Sunday’s parade went mostly as expected. However, I suffered mightily for my whipping practice in the night and for the next several days. Man, that uses muscles I don’t think I’d ever located before. I am both excited and worried about finally wearing my very heavy costume and mask next week. How will my shoulder muscles hold up? Check in next week for your next carnival update!

On Monday, I learned me another merengue: El Cuento Comparon. I’d been reminded of how much I liked it after having heard Querube play it on Friday. And then, having so enjoyed the film at the Casa de Arte last week, I returned on Tuesday for another. This time my friend Almanzar was playing a documentary on violence under the Balaguer regime. Everyone always talks about how bad Trujillo was, but one seldom hears talk these days about Balaguer. Although only in power for 12 years, as compared to Trujillo’s 31, Balaguer managed to have over 3000 Dominicans killed or “disappeared” for political reasons during his first eight years in office (1966-1974). In early 1971, papers reported one killing every 48 hours. It was really frightful, yet one still sees Balaguer supporters around today. Just when I was wondering about this, the film’s narrator said, “You may be wondering why so many Dominicans still vocally defend Balaguer.” Hey! He was reading my mind! The answer he gave was, “look at how someone has made his money, and you will find why he supports Balaguer.” Another parallel with the Trujillo years. The evening ended on a high note, however, when Almanzar thanked all the international folks in the audience for coming to see the film: 2 French, 2 Argentines, and me representing the US of A. Before there could be any misunderstanding of my position, he quickly explained, “She’s American, but a progressive! She doesn’t want to even know about Bush!” For this, I got a round of applause! (For those who are wondering, W is absolutely the most hated US president in history, at least around here, and I think in most of Latin America. The second most hated by Dominicans would be Johnson, since he ordered the invasion of the DR in 1965. The most popular are Kennedy and Clinton.)

Wednesday I had another excellent lunch at the Roman house: rice with stewed pigeon peas, salad, batter fried fish filet, and bacalao (dried, salted codfish stewed with peppers and onions). I then showed some of the transcriptions I’ve done of típico accordion parts to Rafaelito by having my computer play them back. He was very pleased with them and wants me to make more. But our chat was cut short when he got a call from an old friend in Puerto Plata with the news that the friend’s daughter had died suddenly of a heart attack. I left to allow Rafaelito to get ready to drive to the coast for the funeral. Then I myself had to go and get ready for tonight’s Fiesta de Palos, again at the Casa de Arte. I don’t have photos for you of this one, because tonight I decided to videotape instead, but you can look at the pics from the last time. I think I got some good dancing & playing on tape. I also got some dancing and playing in myself – they gave me a wood block to bang out clave rhythms on, and I even learned a couple of choruses to sing. Here is one cryptic lyric: “La india eh, La india ah. La india vive debajo del agua.” The Indian woman lives under the water? What?? Is this some sort of ciguapa story? I don’t know, but perhaps I can fill you in sooner rather than later. I exchanged numbers with the palos group who agreed to call me to come to a rehearsal and learn to play some palos rhythms with them. They also want to create an accordion-palos fusion number. Should be interesting.

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