After two months of activity, last Saturday marked the official end of carnival season for Los Confraternos. We ended it with a party featuring rum and soda, loud music, live merengue típico, and even karaoke in our HQ in Pueblo Nuevo. The live music was provided by me in trio with two of our security force on tambora and güira; everyone else sang. The karaoke was provided by Tonito’s computer. It kept crashing after every couple of songs, which was just as well, as it was perhaps the most out-of-tune group of singers ever! The rum might not have been helping their voices any, but it did seem to make it all more amusing to the observers.
The next morning, I arose at an early hour (at least for a Sunday after a party), packed, and hopped on a bus to the capital. The occasion: my high school friend Emily was in La Romana for a wedding, so we planned to meet up halfway. I got in early, checked in to my usual hostel in Gazcue, and went out for some lunch. Afterwards, just as I was dozing off back in our room, Emily knocked on the door. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years so we enjoyed catching up, so much so that we almost forgot to do any sightseeing. But eventually we roused ourselves to change clothes and head down to the Zona Colonial. Being Sunday, most all of the shops were closed and few street vendors were out, but we did the circuit down the Calle del Sol to the Plaza Colon, up and around the Plaza de la Hispanidad, and down Calle de las Damas. So Emily got to see the first cathedral in the Americas, the first paved street in the Americas, the first monastery in the Americas, and Diego Colon’s house, if only from the outside. After all that walking, Emily was starving, though I – unusually for me – was less so after my huge lunch, so we stopped at a restaurant back at the Plaza Colon for dinner. My pasta in an arugula cream sauce was the big hit of the evening, though the flan was also good.
It just so happened that my friend Chiqui had been called to come down and play in the capital only the day before. So we caught a cab to go across the river into East Santo Domingo and one of the few típico joints in the city, Candy Car Wash. At first I thought we were in the wrong place when I peered in and saw a very petite woman playing accordion instead of Chiqui, but then I discovered that he was accompanying her on saxophone instead. He’s a man of many instruments. So we entered, and Emily got her first car wash experience, something that puzzled her at first: “why are there cars parked in here?” I explained the car wash concept and, fueled by Presidente, Emily got to work capturing the ambience and the dancing action on film, being that she’s a photographer and all. The silly part is that we never got a picture of us together to commemorate the occasion! Some blogger I am!! Anyway, the accordionist, Maria Rodriguez, was quite good (later I found out she’s the daughter of another talented accordionist, Chichi Santos) and Emily and I got our merengue and bachata on with friends of the band, as well as the band themselves when they were on break. At the end of the night they asked me to play a few tunes. The first two went fine, but then I made a tactical error and attempted to play too technical a merengue for my half-asleep state. It came out messy and ended poorly, as I didn’t adequately cue the rest of the musicians for the end, but no one seemed to mind.
We didn’t sleep well due to air conditioner difficulties, but we did have a good breakfast in the morning with the pastries I’d bought the day before and some guava juice Laura, Chiqui’s wife, had given me. As Emily hit the road, I went off to the UASD (Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, the first university to be founded in the New World) to see José Castillo, the director of the university’s ballet folklórico. I found him in his office and gave him the ten cassette tapes he’d told me were needed to make some copies of interesting recordings for me. Then we discussed where to dance son in Santo Domingo, something I’d been meaning to do as son music has a big foothold here. From there, I crossed the parking lot to the anthropology department, of which my friend Carlos Andújar is the director. Since he was teaching a class, I borrowed his office for a while to check email.
Carlos was too busy to take a lunch break so I decided to investigate the vegetarian food situation on my own. There are two vegetarian restaurants in the area: one run by the Seventh-Day Adventists, the other by the Hare Krishnas. Choosing between the two theological options at my disposal, I went with the Dominican Krishnas, and was pleased with my decision. The food was tasty and filling, and I found that HKs around the world all use the same incense. After that, it was clearly nap time, so it was just as well that my planned interview couldn’t take place until 5:00. Américo, a recent merengue típico convert and composer of típico lyrics, showed up early and we enjoyed chatting about music, government policy, and his recording collection for the next two hours. We finished just on time for me to catch my friend Darío finishing up his work day at the Instituto de Estudios Caribeños up the street; we had a beer and some of the very, very sweet Dominican sweets Américo had brought me and then went out for a discussion of ideas for next year’s Congress on Music, Identity, and Culture in the Caribbean over some pescado al coco (Samana-style fish in coconut sauce).
On Tuesday, I was once again roused early, this time in order to visit Rafael Chaljub Mejía, the author of the only book and the only video documentary to date on merengue típico, at his house in the Zona Colonial. When I arrived, I found him in his sitting room editing a book manuscript. So familiar, somehow… but soon we got on to other things, like accordionists throughout history, and the state of merengue at present. He copied for me an interesting recording of merengue típico in Santiago circa 1950 and then he and his wife kindly invited me to stay for lunch. I did, and so got to see more of their interesting and probably quite old second-floor apartment, built as a long outdoor hallway under an overhang, allowing tropical breezes into all the rooms that opened off it. We started off with a brandy aperitif and then ate our rice, beans, salad, and arepitas de yuca at a big table next to the open-air kitchen. And thus I gained a new recipe, from commenting on the delicious little yuca balls: grate yuca root on the square side of the grater, mix with two eggs, salt, anise seeds, and just a little sugar. Fry in a little oil and enjoy.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the nearby Instituto Dominicano de Folklore (INDEFOLK). It’s in a nice big three-story building looking down on the Río Ozama, right above the pontoon bridge – the last bridge before the river meets the sea. The INDEFOLK offices are on the second floor, and they are in the process of converting the rest of it into a Museum of Dominican Carnival so there are numerous odd carnival objects lying about all over the place. Next to the staircase on the first floor, one finds giant heads of cimarrones from San Juan de la Maguana on the right and an equally ginormous Zemí, a replica of a Taíno idol done in papier mache, on the right. Going up one can enjoy murals of Catholic priests and Vodoun priestesses, carnival figures, and folk musicians. In the different rooms opening off the courtyard you’ll encounter a display of musical instruments from around the DR in one and giant puppets reminiscent of chess figures in another. Some descriptive documentation on wood plaques and paintings were just going up on the walls. It looks to have the potential of a great museum when completed.
Upstairs, I met with folklorist Julio Encarnación, who was working on the arrangements for some carnival groups from the capital area who would be visiting Navarrete the following weekend, as well as fighting out some recurrent billing problems with the phone company, when I arrived. His office is decorated with carnival masks in various sizes, from little yellow ones made from plastic funnels with teeth cut in, to spooky ones done all in feathers from Cabral, and on up to the biggest ones, from Santiago and La Vega. He made time to give me a tour, and while we were perusing the instruments who showed up but José Castillo! Turns out he has a second office over here. In that office, he has stacks of old LPs, 45s, and 78s brought to him by retiring radio DJs, which I perused until he had to leave. José, Julio, and I agreed to make contact later in case either of them could attend Secreto Musical that night with me, where the Club of Soneros convenes every Tuesday.
Continuing with my agenda, I visited my favorite bookstore, where I bought two books on Dominican music for my collection, and the streetcorner LP vendor, where I took home four records for the price of listening to the rants of the guy next to me, who thought he knew something about típico but clearly didn’t, and 100 pesos (3 bucks). I had then been planning on seeing if I could locate the offices of Zuni Records, an important label in típico, but found that my feet had really had it for the day. Instead I headed back to the ranch, otherwise known as Hostal Bella Epoca, and then out again for sustenance at Govinda’s. Turned out no one could get away in time for son... Oh well, I had to save something for my next trip!
Since returning to Santiago things have been mostly quiet, mostly because I haven’t been able to reach some of the people I’ve most been wanting to interview, and think I may just have to give up on one of them. (Sigh) But I did get some archival stuff done, as well as a grant application, and found out I actually got a grant to go to the Library of Congress for a couple of weeks this summer, which I’m looking forward to doing. Finally, excitement struck on Friday in the form of a call from Dario, who was now in Santiago for some meetings and a book reading. A friend of his had had the unusual but brilliant idea to unveil his latest volume of poetry in a gallera, of all places. Dario, his colleague at INEC Rossy, and I got there a bit late because we were enjoying our dinner so much, but no matter. The reading was still going on, with the poet in the traditional lab-like coat of the cockfight technician and a gas mask pedaling an exercise bike adorned with feathers, as a friend sitting on an outlandishly upholstered chair (it rather reminded me of a torture device) read from a printout into an electric megaphone held by an assistant in fluorescent floral overalls. Two roosters looked on, one tied to the electric chair and the other to a stand supporting a sack of rice and a hanging birdhouse. At the conclusion of the reading, one gentleman presented the poet with an “award” consisting of a bottle of lucky bubble bath and other items of witchcraft stuffed into a traditional coffee strainer as if it were a Christmas stocking. Then the bag of rice was raffled off, the cocks fought for a moment (just long enough to send a spray of feathers around the ring) and were weighed on the Balance of Justice, and then everyone exited to enjoy their complementary rum. I did this too, and then, tiring of the jostling crowd, Rossy and I went outside to check out the music going on next door: a guitar group playing bachata and merengue, and quite well too. We didn’t have long to enjoy them, however, because we didn’t want to miss much more of the Fiesta de Palos going on at the Casa de Arte. I definitely needed to get some dancing done, which I did, even with the incense in my hands that some devotee handed to me. Making plans to attend the palos group’s rehearsal on Sunday, but only if it’s not raining, I called it a night.