Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Beans, mysteries, and miracle chickens

On Saturday Robert Baron, folklorist visiting from New York, passed back through town so I decided to set up a folklore meeting. I invited Rafael Almanzar from the Casa de Arte to join us for an evening of (what else) merengue típico and talking shop. Because 8:30 was far too early to head to any clubs, we first stopped at a colmado in the downtown area. It was in an ancient old house with the very tall, narrow doors and creaky wooden floorboards, lit by a bulb hanging from a wire. On the outside, though, the whole thing was painted with the logo of Kola Real – actually a very cheery look in lime green, red, and white. Given their sponsorship, it was surprising to find they actually had no sodas. They were also out of water. The choice was between malta, beer, and rum. Rafael and Robert order maltas, feeling it was early to start drinking, but I don’t like malta so I spent my time translating our conversation on folk dance groups rather than drinking.

Once we left, the whole colmado closed – I guess they figured they could only go so far on an all-malt menu. We took a little drive to check out the car wash and rancho situation, which then turned into a longer drive after we missed the turn-around point and had o keep going all the way to Villa Gonzalez. Robert commented on how all the little roadhouses with típico music reminded him of how blues music once was in the South. Eventually we decided on La Tinaja, as El Ciego de Nagua was playing there. Finally, my opportunity to hear this típico legend had at last arrived after a nearly two-year-long game of tag: it seemed that whenever I was in New York, he was in Santiago, and whenever I came here, he left on tour to New York. Anyway, it was definitely worth the wait to see him. Of course, his accordion technique was amazing, but his saxophonist and conguero also took some amazing solos. In addition, the fame of his singer, Chico Torres, turned out to be well-deserved. I especially enjoyed a tune Chico composed himself, which closed the set. I also enjoyed dancing Almanzar’s own, unique brands of salsa, típico, and pop merengue – a combination of his training in folk dance and of his own spontaneous inspiration.

On Sunday I was pretty tired, but still excited to attend my first palos rehearsal. They had told me to meet them “across from the basketball court on the Circunvalacion, near the bridge to La Otra Banda,” and the time was “after 4.” This is a favorite Dominican way of telling time, meaning that they might be there around 4, but they might get there substantially later. I got there around 4:10, knowing I was early, but when I called Hector, the leader, he told me he was loading up the instruments as we spoke and would be there very shortly. I entertained myself with my paperback Jung and some people-watching – a whole family, including little girls in frilly pink dresses, pulled off the road next to the empty field by the bridge and disappeared down the slope to the riverbed. A while later they came back with bunches of reeds, which they loaded into their car before leaving. Was this a preparation for Palm Sunday crafts next week? I didn’t know, but what I did know was that this palos group was late, even for Dominicans. A little after five I was just about ready to leave when one of them shows up on a motor bike and beckons to me. Turns out there is ANOTHER basketball court a little farther down the Circunvalacion. Ah, well.

Following the bike down to the next site, I found the drummers heating their drum heads around a small fire they’d built on the roadside. They told me they’d been “waiting for me for a while.” Ha ha! By this time I was both sleepy and hungry, but when they put a balsie (a small, single-headed drum) in my hands, I perked up. Unlike in other drummed religious music in the African diaspora, there are no gender restriction in this Afro-Dominican tradition. Eventually, I could work my way up even to the largest lead drums. But today, keeping the off-beat rhythm of the balsie and figuring out how best to strike the drum to (a) make a nice sound and (b) not bruise my hand was enough for me to deal with. I wanted to sing the responses, but I couldn’t have done that and not lost my way in the interlocking rhythms at this early stage. That will come in a later lesson. I particularly liked “Mama Tingo,” a song commemorating the death of a woman from Villa Mella who dared to criticize the Trujillo regime. Hector explained there are many protest songs within the palos repertoire, and when I asked why there weren’t many merengues of protest, he responded by drawing his fingers across his neck in the universal sign of “off-with-his-head.” Merengue is a highly visible popular music, but the local folk musicians who played palos were able to fly under the radar and be more critical of the government.

It was back to the routine on Monday with reading, writing, and accordion lesson (this week’s tune: La Malla Prendida); and on Tuesday with library research and a major rainstorm. However, I shook things up a little on Wednesday by adding a tambora lesson to my routine. Back at Rafaelito’s, I learned some variations on the first part merengue rhythm and started on the guinchao, a rhythm Tatico and his musicians came up with that’s kind of a cross between merengue and pambiche and whose name is apparently meaningless (though once I read in a newspaper that it came from “winch”). Rafaelito and Carmen also made sure to feed me with shrimp and rice, avocado, and both salty and sweet plantains. Then a vendor came around with his soup pot full of habichuelas con dulce, the sweet beans that are traditional eats around Holy Week. They were also the theme for La Maldicion del Padre Cardona (The Curse of Father Cardona), a Dominican film that came out late last year. In the movie, a family already held in suspicion by the natives of the mountain town of Costanza for their big city ways, makes the sweet for the whole town and everyone starts suffering from stomach trouble. The priest gets terrible gas while he’s giving mass, goes outside to shake his fist at the heavens and say, “Damn you! Damn you and your beans, Gomez family!” (or whatever their name was). Right at that moment, he is struck down by lightening, and the curse goes into effect. Apparently this batch was curse-free, though, as the habichuelas were both tasty and filling.

The next day, my auto mechanic pal El Negro had suggested I take my car to his cousin, Andres, to have its timing better regulated. So I headed out to Los Reyes, a barrio on the edge of town I’d never been to before. I had a little trouble finding the shop, but it turned out to be right behind a rancho típico that I hadn’t even known existed before. Perfect. In no time at all, I had a whole team of men and teenagers shaking their heads over my car and making fun of one another. “Hey Burro, get over here!” the air conditioning man yelled to one of the apprentices. “Now, why do you want to go around insulting animals like that?” complained the man wrestling with the underside of my car.

During the next five hours, I chatted with the mechanics, went to the rancho for a big lunch, read my book, and met Panchita, the wonder chicken. Panchita was really, really fat. When she ran, she sort of wobbled from leg to leg like a chubby man. She also eats chicken. I found this cannibalism very disturbing, but it didn’t seem to bother Panchita at all. She has become the mechanics’ pet – in fact, they had a dog at one point but then got rid of it because he bothered Panchita too much. But she was more like a dog than a chicken, in some respects. When she had been just a young thing, she was sick and skinny and looked like she was about to die, so Andres, the shop owner, took her out into the forest about 5 km away and left her there. But Panchita came back, and clearly recovered that lost weight. They told me she no longer eats corn like a regular chicken at all – only chicken and jugo de avena (a sweet oatmeal drink). She actually didn’t have a name when I got there, but I told them they really needed to fix that situation. “Give her a name that sounds like a fat lady,” I suggested. And thus was Panchita christened.

On Saturday I motivated myself to get out and hear some music at Rancho Merengue, because Fefita la Grande was playing there and I hadn’t had much opportunity to see her this year. First, I chatted with the musicians out in the parking lot. Kandy the güira player is a friend of mine, and he introduced me to the others: Victor, the singer, probably about 70 years old; Diploma, the tambora player; and some of the others. “Hey! I heard there was an American girl who played accordion, but I’ve never seen you before!” one told me. Word gets around. Eventually we made our way inside, where I took a seat at stage left with Chimonchito, the güira player for Francisco Ulloa, who was visiting. He showed me some pictures on his cell phone of amazing, artistic güiras he has made, some featuring full-color Dominican and Puerto Rican flags. I also found out why one doesn’t hear much about Ulloa these days: like Juan Luis Guerra, with whom he recorded the album Fogorate, he has become an evangelical Christian. But thankfully, this epidemic has not yet spread to Fefita. At 62 her hip-gyrating dance moves were as crazy as ever, and her voice just as good. She was wearing white pants with a silver chain belly-dance-style belt, and an midriff-length electric blue lace top with only a bra underneath. She is something else. The place was packed, and with more women than one usually finds in a típico crowd. A couple of them were videotaping and taking pictures. Wait – isn’t that supposed to be MY job? My friend Americo Mejia, the típico composer from Santo Domingo, was also there with his wife. A good time was had by all.

I stuck with my new Sunday routine of sleeping in, followed by an afternoon of reading and writing up notes until 4:00, when I go to my palos rehearsal. Well OK, I didn’t quite stick to that. Rafaelito had called me up the night before to tell me I had to go by his house and eat more holy week habichuelas con dulce, this time prepared by master chef Carmen. So I headed over to el Ingenio, where I found Carmen in the living room, conversing with her best friend and drinking coffee. My habichuelas had been put aside specially in an attractive blue jar. They were very good, flavored with lots of clove and cinnamon. Here’s how you make them: boil the beans, with cinnamon if you want. Add a can of coconut milk, a can of Carnation evaporated milk, and cinnamon, clove, and sugar to taste. Nutmeg too, if you want. Also add batata (Caribbean sweet potato) cut into pieces, about a pound for every pound of beans. Boil all that up together. Then add raisins, if desired. Serve cold with some small cookies floating on top (here they’re called “galletas de leche,” milk cookies – kind of like vanilla wafers only smaller). After explaining the recipe to me, the best friend talked me into providing accordion music for their planned mother’s day buffet dinner party. I will be paid in buffet and rum-based cocktails. They will find me a tambora player, and Jorly, Carmen and Rafaelito’s son, will provide güira.

Those plans made, I headed back down the Circunvalacion to the bridge at which I waited in vain last week, and across it to La Otra Banda. I’d never been to this area, a real barrio that seems more like a small rural town than part of the city of Santiago. The road condition was about what you’d expect – potholed, alternately paved and dirt, water running across it in several spots. But following two musicians on a motorbike I made it to a parking spot at the entrance to an alley on which Denio and Hector, the two brothers who lead the group, and their families both live. Hector showed me how to find my way back next time: there are two airplane fuselages on the roof of the building at the head of their alley. Pretty good landmark.

The others hadn’t arrived yet so we listened to a palos CD as we waited in Hector’s living room. We had to compete with the non-stop bachata coming from the colmado across the alley, but really, weepy guitar music couldn’t beat the drum power of our recording of a palos group led by a woman from Villa Mella. Hector and Denio went out and came back with gasoline to power us musicians: Brugal rum. Then we were about ready, so we took the instruments out into the tiny backyard to get a little air. We played a bit with accordion and then I switched to balsie. As neighborhood kids gathered around to hear us play and to dance, we worked on singing coro to some original songs of Hector’s. They had lyrics like “Yo vencere, yo vencere con Dios y San Miguel” (I will conquer with God and San Miguel – a popular santo in Afro-Dominican religion) and one that really had me mystified, saying something like “look on the horizon, there is a line of fire.” “Line of fire? Why?” I asked. This cracked them up. “Es un misterio! It’s a mystery, Sydney!” Misterios are important in this religion, so I guess I just have to accept the lines of fire. We finished up just after dark, and went back inside for some rice with guandules, stewed pigeon peas. I passed around the habichuelas con dulce, too.

My Monday accordion lesson was postponed to Tuesday, and the trip I’d planned to a gallera with friend Domingo to search once more for El Jefe de Maisal didn’t pan out either. Such is fieldwork. Anyway, after my rescheduled class I paid Chiqui and Laura a visit in order to make some arrangements for their daughter’s quinceanera, which is coming up quick. I had offered to pay for the cake, both as a gift and because I knew they’d be hard pressed to afford one of these things that resemble multiple-tiered wedding cakes. They’d found a woman in Cienfuegos, the next barrio over, who made them at a discounted filling. We went and looked at the photos of her previous work and decided on a two-tiered version, 6 pounds of cake with pineapple filling and white frosting with green decoration. Then, back at the house, they served me yet more habichuelas con dulce and we then played dominoes in the dark. It started out well for me as I won the first hand through actual skill rather than luck (I even counted the tiles!), but then got progressively worse, as did the weather. It started pouring rain, which blew in against our backs as we played, though the game must go on and it did. The only problem was I’d been planning to go to a film showing at the Casa de Arte that night. Monitoring the street/river situation, we eventually decided the flow had slackened off enough to allow me to drive home, providing I followed a particular low-risk route some visiting neighbors recommended.

I set off and, much like the dominoes game, things looked fine at first but quickly got worse. When I approached the intersection at Cienfuegos, which had been perfectly normal (if roughly paved and strewn with vegetable matter) only an hour or so ago, I found myself deeply regretting my hasty departure. However, standing in a good eight inches of water and surrounded by other similarly mired cars on all sides, there was no way out but forward. Of course, forward was worse still. Where the two streets/rivers converged they made a waterfall at the point where the pavement ended, and what was worse, it was impossible to make a quick run for it and try to keep the car from sitting in the water as the intersection was plugged up with stalled conchos. A number of men were running about, or rather wading, in the pouring rain and all trying to direct traffic and push the dead ones out of the way. I rolled down my window and pleaded for help, starting to panic as I recalled my bumper-boat mishaps in the Ingenio roundabout a few months earlier. One guy took pity on me, and after nearly ten minutes of labor waved me through a hastily created lane through the waterfall, assuring me my car could make it without being swept away. He was right, but I couldn’t breathe too much of a sigh of relief since the street beyond, always in a deplorable condition, was made worse by the lack of street lights and the mounds of trash and rubble caught in the flow. I decided to give up as soon as an opportunity presented itself, which it did in a few blocks in the form of a gas station. I pulled in and told the attendants I was admitting defeat and was going to wait out the storm. One assured me it wouldn’t last too long, but the others looked dubious. At any rate, I passed the next two hours freezing in the cold wind but chatting pleasantly with two young attendants, one Dominican and one Haitian, and various passersby. I was just happy to be out of the flow, so to speak. Eventually, the rainfall having slowed to half-speed, they suggested that I better get while the getting was good, because if it started raining hard again I could be there all night. We reviewed my route using my Santiago map and I set out. And I saw the route was good.

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