Wednesday, May 31, 2006

El Ciego de Nagua

El Ciego de Nagua
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
El Ciego de Nagua, aka Bartolo Alvarado, playing at Rancho Merengue last week.

Rancho Merengue mural

Rancho Merengue mural
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
At the tipico hotspot Rancho Merengue, the recent renovation includes a mural that combines elements from four paintings by the famous Dominican artist Yoryi Morel.

PR-DR car club

PR-DR car club 1
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
A classic car club of aficionados from both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic passed through the Centro Leon last week.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Not as action-packed as one might hope

Here I am on a Friday night, typing up notes and watching TV. I was supposed to be in the capital tonight, having interviewed the head of Zuni Records, getting ready for a visit to the Monumento del Son. But Dona Zunilda was sick – so yet another interview was postponed. Typical. Oh well. This way I got two whole days to work at the Centro Leon, catch up on email, and nearly finish my survey of the Lizardo field recordings.

The week did start off more promisingly. On Sunday after my usual palos practice I talked two of my bandmates into attending a son party with me. I hadn’t had much opportunity yet to examine the Dominican style of son dancing, which is supposed to be quite unique and different from the Cuban one. So we headed to the Oriol Café over in Pueblo Nuevo, which hosts son music every Sunday at sunset in the small triangular park in front of it.

When we arrived it was nearly seven, and the place was already packed and the band set up in the raised central section of the park. The only tables available were the ones on the lower sidewalk in front of the restaurant. I needed to see the dancing, though, so that wouldn’t have done me any good. Instead, we decided to occupy the brick wall next to the staircase and the speaker towers. Our timing was good, as the group, Son Santiaguero, started about five minutes after we arrived. The crowd was mostly middle-aged to elderly, but some of them were very good dancers. You could tell right away which guys were the true soneros – they were the ones in Gatsby caps and white pants. The basic step looked to me like the missing link in the bolero/son to bachata trajectory: on the fourth beat, a pause in salsa or in Cuban son, many of these dancers did a very slight lift leading into the next step. It was very smooth, and gave a waltz-like impression in the slight, wave-like up-and-down motion. It was also easy to see how this movement could have evolved into the tap or kick accompanied by hip lift that occurs on the fourth count of bachata. Anyway, my two companions didn’t know how to dance son – even though one had grown up in Villa Mella and even attended the Monumento del Son, but eventually he got up the courage to give it a try. We enjoyed the band’s set, which alternated son and salsa and ended with a bolero and then a merengue, but the guys had to catch their conchos to head home so that was the end of our evening out.

The most memorable occurrence of Monday was getting into an argument with an informant. That was certainly something new, and uncomfortable! I should have just ignored him, being that he was drunk, but I couldn’t because he was interrupting my rapidly running out accordion lesson time. Because I didn’t want to listen to his long, drawn out story at that exact moment and because I didn’t have the money on me to buy a CD he desperately wanted to sell me he got angry and told me I should at least give him money for the interview we did – two years ago. I was at first shocked, then angry, especially when he told me that a journalist we both know had paid him for an interview. Hey- journalists aren’t supposed to do that, and neither are we! Then I started to feel guilty. Should I have paid him? I knew he was poor, much more so than the rest of the musicians I work with, who are at least scraping by. But I also knew he was poor mostly because of his drinking habits, and didn’t particularly want to support that. The first time I’d come here I was broke myself and couldn’t have afforded to do much – I’d even had to barter myself a ride to the airport. Now that I wasn’t paying New York rent, I could. Here, I was rich even on my student salary. But I still didn’t think that made it right. There are all sorts of ethical and research questions about paying for interviews, including the risk of attracting unreliable informants and dubious information. And I’ve never paid for an interview before. I do, however, tend to feel some responsibility for those who have helped me along the way, and this has led me to “pay” musicians by getting them gigs, helping them produce publicity materials, creating web pages, giving them photos and recordings, or less importantly, buying them drinks. (Though Dominicans, in general, really don’t like me to buy them anything. Barter system is more acceptable.) I again started to feel sure I had taken the right course, but as he stormed off, the whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Afterwards, I headed over to Chiqui’s. I’d gotten their roll of quinceanera film developed for them, and everybody loved looking at the pictures. Felo was particularly happy with how he turned out in the family portrait I took. “Look at that! A Colgate smile if I ever saw one!” And then, “Oh no! You’ve cut off Sydney’s head!” That was Chiqui to Laura, who had taken the first pictures of her entire life at the party, with mixed results. I told Chiqui – my friend, but also an informant – about the whole debacle and he assured me I was right. The only thing I’d done wrong, in his opinion, was to talk with the guy in his drunken state in the first place. That, along with a typically raucous dominoes game, cheered me up entirely.

I woke up feeling ill the next day, but I had to pull myself out of bed anyway and head over to the recording studio. Don Americo had told me he was sponsoring a recording session by Lupe Valerio and had invited me to tag along to hear what they were working on. So I went to this little recording studio hidden behind a bakery in Monte Rico. There I found the musicians hard at work in a room wallpapered in a lovely green sateen fabric. They were recording a number of tunes Americo had written, like “Una India Para Bailar” (a dark-skinned woman to dance with) and “La Mujer Mandaria” (the bossy woman). Everyone liked it when, in response to Lupe’s asking Americo to remind him, “Which is La Mujer Mandaria?” I replied, “That’s me!” Other than that I was of little use with my sore throat and stuffy head. But it was interesting to see them at work on songs that were completely new to the güirero and tamborero, and only recently introduced to Lupe and the singers. The process: Americo had met with Lupe beforehand to go over the songs – their form, rhythm, and lyrics. Together they’d put together a practice tape to give to the singers to study. The singers were thus prepared with lyrics sheets (provided by Americo), the tune, and idea of how the song would progress. The percussion breaks were all worked out on the spot in the studio and were what took the most time, other than some problems with the rhythm of the sung syllables. Still, they were fast. Recording live rather than track by track, they got through six original songs in four hours, plus one traditional one they only had to play straight through twice. Lupe was amazing, coming up with new mambos, fills, and flashy solos in no time at all. They allowed him to shine, recording most of the tunes without sax.

After this, Americo gave me some CDs I’d been looking for and showed me some old sheet music of 1950s US pop tunes he’d recovered from an uncle’s attic or something. Then Lupe gave me a quick interview nextdoor in the bakery. After this I was really feeling awful, so I headed home for a quick nap before the next event: some of the members of my palos group had decided to go with me to check out a palos party held weekly in a rancho in Tamboril to which none of us had been before. So I woke up, dressed, headed over to our meeting point at the bridge, and then we drove out to Tamboril over the extremely crappy road I remembered none too fondly from my trip to Moca months before. When we arrived, no one was there. I’d thought it was an early party, but I was wrong! Oh well, we had plenty of time to explore the place, and it was definitely a place worthy of exploration. Rancho Tipico Amistad had it all: a pool, a playground, a billiard hall, even a bird area with cages holding doves, pheasants, and another brightly colored bird I’d never seen before. There was also a pen full of geese that honked their displeasure when we approached to look at their fuzzy yellow baby. On the inside of the huge, round enramada that was the rancho’s main building, the high thatched ceiling was decorated with flags of many nations to illustrate the theme of “amistad,” friendship. A narrow stage that wrapped around one wall was adorned with a small candle-covered altar next to which some strangely small palos drums awaited their musicians. Hector thought they must be “palos for midgets.” We amused ourselves for a while, but by 11:00 I was damn tired and by all appearances the band hadn’t even arrived yet. I wanted to sleep, Denio had to get up at 6 for work in a clothing factory, and our other companion had to start his night shift at midnight, so we gave it a miss. We did get the useful piece of information that they have a second weekly show on Fridays, which might be easier for us to attend, and I noted the phone number for a group in Navarrete called “Tipipalo,” which, as its name suggests, combines palos with merengue tipico.

After a good night’s sleep I felt somewhat better in the morning. I went to the Centro Leon to catch up on email for a couple of hours, then to a spa appointment to which I’d treated myself. In the afternoon Rafaelito had asked me to stop by, so I raced the rainstorm over to his house and then worried about getting trapped there if the roundabout flooded again. When I got there, neither Rafaelito nor I remembered what we were supposed to be working on, other than finding a couple of CDs, and Carmen wanted him to take her to the gym, so he left and I stayed to hang out with Jonathan, Carmen’s song, and a new kitten Rafaelito had adopted. I’d made friends with the skittish creature on Monday by stealing some codfish out of a pot on the stove to give him, and he remembered me, running up to me crying for more food. This time I found a chicken carcass from which to pull kitten-sized bits, and soon the little guy was curled up on my lap, alternately sleeping, chewing on my arm, and biting his own tail. I wanted to buy him some milk, as there was none in the house and he seemed so chronically hungry, but Jonathan thought this was hilarious. “Maybe cats drink milk over there, but here they eat meat! Like the rest of us!”

Pretty soon it was pouring rain – hard. Jonathan was playing solitaire on his laptop, and since I happened to have mine with me, I pulled it out and did the same. Eventually the rain slowed down, but naturally the roundabout was completely full, with both water and stalled conchos. But it was almost six, Rafaelito hadn’t gotten home (stuck in the rain?), and I had a six-thirty appointment to make, so I decide to go around the back route. Although this would take me by that Cienfuegos stoplight that had given me trouble in the last rainstorm, I thought that since the rain had stopped it might not be too bad. Sure enough, though strewn with rubble it was free of whitewater rapids. I made it to my appointment at the Santiago branch of the UASD without trouble, and found a very pleasant, newly built campus.

This night I’d decided to try out a new research method. Some time ago, I’d written a survey about musical preferences and listening habits and had my friend Carlos Andujar, who teaches anthropology and history both here and in Santo Domingo, give it out to his students. I got 21 responses from Santiago students and 29 from those in the capital. Some left their names in the space I’d provided for those who wished to participate in an interview, and Carlos had agreed to let me pull them out of class for 10-15 minutes each tonight. (There had been a long lag time from survey to interview simply because the university had been on strike for a month. Strikes sure are big here!) This way, I was able to get six focused interviews done in one place during a 2-hour period, and collect some information on cibaeno youths’ listening preferences and thoughts on típico music. I’d thought this might be useful after reading that in the DR the university population occupies a key position in the population: at least in the public universities most students are from poor, often rural backgrounds, but because of their education they form a link between older, traditional musical practices and forward-thinking urban ones. In fact, the interviews were quite informative, and it was fun to meet the students.

As I mentioned, Thursday and Friday were mostly spent in the archives and on the computer, not according to plan, but such has been my interview-related luck lately. Also, the water was out for most of those days, making bathing, flushing, and washing dishes quite the challenge. Except for the water situation, Saturday was better– I arranged to go to Tamboril, the next town over, to meet with Papote de Leon, a big-time típico dancer and merenguero, still going strong in his 70s. My friend Domingo had introduced me to him the week before at the gallera, and he seemed like he’d be an interesting person to talk to. Indeed he was. However, when I arrived in Tamboril he was in Moca – one more town further down the road, so his wife had to come meet me at the town square and lead me to their off-the-beaten-track house. While I waited, I had plenty to entertain me. There was an inordinate amount of traffic on the road for this small town, and I soon realized it was made up of political rallies. Today was the designated day for the Red and the White to take to the streets and close their campaign in preparation for Tuesday’s elections. Leading up to this day the always-ubiquitous candidate posters with enormous color photos have proliferated in every imaginable space, and the elections have of course been the major news item. Especially with some fishy business, like dozens of military and police officers showing up on the rolls of registered voters even when the Dominican constitution forbids them from voting (apparently still in fear of military dictatorships).

Anyway, Kary eventually showed up and we went to their house, where she served me coffee and a slice of cornmeal cake while we waited. Soon Papote arrived, but just after their daughter called from Miami and we had to wait another 20 minutes to get started. Even I had to talk to her, and my, was she a pushy little thing! She wanted me to “hurry up and finish writing,” but to email her ASAP “only the part about my dad. And a picture. I don’t want to read the rest.” That was because academic books are “boring.” I think she’s going to be lucky to get a pyramid scam chain letter from me!

Luckily, her parents were much nicer. I ended up sticking around a couple of hours discussing all things music, and uncovered a plot! Papote and some of the other merengueros are thinking of forming a Club de los Tipicos, seemingly inspired on the Clubes de Soneros of Santo Domingo and La Vega. The club will collect dues to sponsor típico events in small towns. After further discussion of this and típico dance styles, as well as another piece of cake and more coffee, I headed back to Santiago where I finished up with the Lizardo tapes, went to the gym, and made a brief and water-free attempt at cleaning my house, next heading to the car wash in La Herradura. The güira player from my palos group had said Chiqui Rodriguez was going to play there early, at 8 PM. Perfect, I thought- I can go, hear a couple of sets, and be out of there by 10. I surely wasn’t going to last much longer than that, as I was pretty tired from running around all day in the heat. Unfortunately, when I arrived at 8:15 the musicians weren’t there yet. We were told they’d be starting at 9. Fine, I’d just hear one set then. When 9 came around and no instruments or musicians were in sight, they said Chiqui had changed the schedule, and it would now be “after 10.” Hmm… this is becoming a familiar plan So much for my plan. I was half falling asleep already so decided to give it a miss. Tomorrow’s another day.

My plan for Sunday was to visit the Ballet Folklorico’s rehearsal, which I hadn’t been to in ages, go to Denio’s house for cooking and palos lessons, and then visit a couple of ranchos and/or car washes to shoot some daytime pictures. At least I got one of these things done. The Centro de la Cultura was closed, so no dance rehearsal. Why? Elections? Don’t know. I did have my promised cooking lesson with Denio. He’d made some really delicious roasted eggplant and I couldn’t possibly leave the country without the recipe. So together we made that and moro de guandules (rice with pigeon peas), which we ate with some fried yellow plantains. Or at least I did – Denio is prohibited from eating fried food as he has been having heart problems due to high cholesterol, and Hector had had to take him to the doctor in the middle of the night! Eat lots of salad, I recommended. As we ate, Hector picked up my accordion and started playing strange melodies, as he’d never playing the instrument before. This attracted quite an audience, and he kept going for two hours! Then he gave me some health advice, straight from San Juan de la Maguana. In order to boost my lousy immune system, I should take an egg from a Creole chicken (no gringo chickens!), pour out the white but leave the yolk in the shell, squeeze a few drops from an aloe vera plant into it, and slurp it. IT would taste horrible, but I could follow it up with some wild honey. This would supposedly due the trick. If I could manage to swallow the mixture, I wouldn’t get a cold for a year, he promised. Next we’d planned on practicing palos, but only one of the other members showed up. Then they remembered the other guys had probably departed to the campo in order to vote in their hometowns. Instead, we played along to some recordings of Eneroliza, a famed palos singer from Villa Mella. My other plan, to leave early in order to get some well-lit pictures, was also foiled because of dark rainclouds that started rolling in about 4:30, bringing on an early twilight. At any rate, this allowed me to have a relaxing evening at home typing up notes.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Palos rehearsal

Palos rehearsal
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Here are my palos-playing friends. The tall drums are called palos or atabales. The short ones are balsiés. Denio (sitting) and Hector (second from left) are the two brothers who lead this group in La Otra Banda, a Santiago barrio.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
One of El Buty's new models, this one is intended to show the owner is "oily."


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
My friend Domingo's little buddy. He´s a burrowing owl from the Haitian border area, but he lives in my friend´s backyard now. They used to let him out of the cage to wander their house before they got a cat...

Goat raffle

Goat raffle
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
If you had been at the El Palo cockfight ring last Monday, you could have won yourself these goats!

Nico Lora's tomb

Nico Lora's tomb
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
The grave of the oldest accordion player whose name is known to us.

Air guira

Air guira
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Actually, many tipico concertgoers play air guira, but this kid distinguished himself by actually bringing his own guira to play along with the band in this rancho-car wash.

Wagner meets reggaeton

Sunday saw our first palos rehearsal in several weeks. It was nice to see everyone again, especially on this festive occasion - the birthday of one of Denio’s kids. I ended up serving as official photographer, since Denio had lost a roll of film he’d gone out specially to purchase on his ride back in the concho. He’d asked me to come over early anyway for a bite to eat. I lunched on a delicious roasted eggplant dish as well as smoky stewed pigeon peas. Then we got busy on the palos. For the first time, I got to play not only balsie but one of the long drums, as well. One has to be strapped in to play this instrument with a length of rope encircling both waist and drum. They were amused to see me thus fitted, but told me that I’m far from the only woman to play these drums - their sister in San Juan de la Maguana does so as well. Of course, in order to play, one needs fuel (read rum). In recognition of the festive occasion I’d brought a bottle of Brugal and a liter of Coke, as well as a package of Hershey’s kisses for the kids. This definitely helped to grease our wheels, so to speak, but still everyone was too tired to go out afterwards and help me in my mission to explore more clubs before I leave. Agreeing to go next week instead, I headed out, giving a lift to the güira player. He lived out near La Herradura, on the edge of town across the river, near the Agricultural Institute. He told me his barrio was built only ten years ago, a product of Santiago’s rapid urbanization. It was a real barrio, without pavement, without phone (at least in his case), mostly wood and tin houses. It was just across the street from a típico car wash I’d been wanting to check out, and my güira-playing friend agreed to go with me, but when we arrived we found it was only recorded music tonight. Oh well.

At least on Monday I got to go to a party. Rafaelito called to cancel my lesson because he had an early evening gig to prepare for. Just as well - I could thus fit in both a trip to Maisal, in search of El Jefe once more, and a couple of dances at Rafaelito’s show. So I went to my friend Domingo’s house, where I chatted with his burrowing owl as I waited for him to complete an errand, and then he, his wife, and I headed for the gallera that El Jefe is rumored to attend every Monday. A 45-minute drive got us to the town of Esperanza, which the Gallera El Palo is just past. The name of this town ("Hope") allowed me to quip, "The good thing about living in Esperanza is that you can never lose Hope, since you’re already there." We found the gallera, we found a colorfully painted wooden statue of a rooster, we found two goats tied up that were the prizes for a raffle that day, and we found square vegetable empanadas for sale, but we didn’t find El Jefe. He was out of the country, we were told - Colombia perhaps? At any rate, the third try turned out not to be the charm today. As we left, though, we ran into and greeted El Ciego de Nagua. He may be blind, but he certainly has a good memory, as he remembered having briefly met me a year ago at the Centro Leon. In order to make the trip a less total loss, we decided to stop in the Navarrete municipal cemetery on the way back and see if we could find the tomb of Nico Lora, the first típico accordionist on whom we have information and a prolific composer in the early 20th century. After a few false turns we did find the cemetery, which was a total disaster area inside. Everything was overgrown, broken or chipping, or strewn with trash. A shame, because I’ve always found cemeteries interesting and it would have been nice to be able to stroll around and look without tripping over broken gravestones or scratching my ankle on briars. As it was, it was quite spooky, as the day was overcast and dark. We split up to look for the grave more efficiently and soon I could neither hear nor see my friends for the multi-level tombs blocking the view. Every so often I’d see a stranger emerge from between a couple of these edifices. Were they the caretakers, or some evildoers that would take advantage of the solitude to rob me? I got a little weirded out, so when a family passed by, presumably on a visit to a relative’s gravesite, I followed them back towards the entrance. I decided to stay near both numbers and safety, searching to the right of the gate, and there I found it. And then Domingo found me. We were glad to see it was in somewhat better repair than many of the other graves, as it was surrounded by a low metal railing. We paid our respects and snapped a picture.
Back in Santiago, I went straight to "La Feria Familiar," a new car wash/bar that just opened up across from the Zona Franca, or industrial zone. When I arrived, a boy ran out to give me the message that my teacher Rafaelito was expecting me upstairs in the billiard room. Hooray! This was a bonus - truly a multipurpose recreational site, with music, dancing, liquor, car washing - and pool and domino tables. While Rafaelito finished around with Jose, the conguero, I played a couple of games of dominoes with two of the teenage helpers, who were somewhat distracted by their efforts to get a nearby girl in a pink halter top to join our game. Then I played a round with Jose, who barely gave me a chance to get a ball in the pocket, and finally with Rafaelito (aka El Maestro), just before they had to go downstairs to play their second set. I took my habitual spot at stage left, where I found a fellow Roman student, who offered me some aguardiente. I hadn’t been to one of Rafaelito’s shows in a while, so was pleasantly surprised to hear several new arrangements they’d done. Also, while it’s common to see "air güira" players at típico shows, I was amused to see one young man had actually brought his own güira along to practice his skills along with the band.

I’d planned to go down to the capital the next morning, so hurried home to pack after the party finished. For a month, I’d had it on my calendar that the Ballet Folklorico of the university there was slated to perform that day. Since I’m a friend of the directors, and also since they’re rumored to be the best in the country, I didn’t want to miss the show. But it turned out there was no hurry at all - at 11 PM I got a call from Jose Castillo, the director, that the show had been postponed to Wednesday. That gave me Tuesday to get a little work done in the Lizardo archives and prepare to travel.

Wednesday morning I arose bright and early in order to get my car to El Negro before leaving. Due to some logistical confusion, the brilliant plan to get my brake drum changed and electrical system examined while I was out gallivanting around the capital almost didn’t work, but in the end my trusty mechanic showed up five minutes before my Caribe Tours bus was to leave. While I was there waiting, I ran into Gabriel, a friend who worked at the Centro Leon when I first traveled here, but is now at a bank. So on the ride down I kept myself entertained by chatting with him and his traveling companion, a lawyer.

The traffic was so bad coming into the capital that I only just had time to run from my hostel to the colmado next door and consume some rice and beans with fried eggplant before running back to meet with Americo Mejia, the businessman and merengue composer and collector. He came armed with a portable CD player and two 100-CD cases filled with merengues. We listened to selections dating from the 1950s to the present, including historic recordings by Nico Lora and Luis Kalaff’s merengue "La alfabetizacion," written to promote Trujillo’s literacy program. We became quite popular with passers-by in the process, even inspiring a couple of hotel guests to show off their merengue moves. But then came Nader. This crazy-looking old guy with a Wild West-style droopy grey mustache and frizzed-out hair came in carrying his dry-cleaning and I was surprised when Americo called to him. Turned out he was a schoolmate from 47 years ago, and they hadn’t seen each other in 30. They started telling me about their school days during the Trujillo era, when Nader came out with, "You know, Americo, you and I lived the best part of this country’s history!" This I was surprised to hear, and Americo looked over and rolled his eyes at me before continuing to egg his old friend on. "Still a Trujillista?" he asked. Nader said, "of course! Just look at this!" He pulled out his cell phone and showed us that he had loaded a photo of El Jefe as a background for the phone’s screen. Americo told me Nader had even run as president himself before, under his own wacked-out Trujillo nostalgia party. Nader left and I expressed my surprise that there were still those around who could support the bloodthirsty, right-wing dictator. Americo said there were plenty. "I’m no Trujillista, but I’m not blind either," he explained. "During the Trujillo era, there was no freedom. But there was also no trash in the streets. There were good schools and hospitals. Did you know there hasn’t been another children’s hospital built in this country in the 45 years since Trujillo was killed? We’re still using all the things he built. And those who came later robbed the coffers just as much or more than he did." His explanation went a long way to explaining the ambivalence and confusion that often surrounds such questions in Latin America. What’s better - a country free but in chaos, or a safely ordered dictatorship? I know I’d take the chaos any day, but many who have lived both options disagree. And the question is only complicated further by the US - our rhetoric tends to support freedom, while our actions have in reality supported, even financed, the dictatorships.

After this meeting, and a quick nap, I got ready for the evening’s entertainment and the meeting I was supposed to have with my friends and fellow members of the Instituto de Estudios Caribenos (INEC), director Dario and musicological apprentice Rossy. In my more festive attire I headed up the street to INEC, where I discussed some projects in the works with Dario. He then pointed me further up the street to where Rossy was awaiting me, in the Café Bohemio within the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair) taking place in the Plaza de la Cultura. This was the larger, international version of the book fair I attended in Santiago back in September at the beginning of my stay, and it gave me a weird sense of déjà vu to find myself here again near the end of my trip. Even more so because, as I soon discovered, the Teatro Nacional is an exact duplicate of the Gran Teatro del Cibao, where I’d gone to see the show put on for the president during the first book fair. When I walked in the lobby I thought I’d been magically transported back to Santiago, but no, for whatever reasons the architects back in the 1970s had simply decided to use the same blueprints twice. Eerie.

Anyway, I was late but I found Rossy and her rock-guitarist friend waiting for me at a table behind the Café Bohemio, another déjà vu site. This impromptu coffee house was run by my friend Manuel Llibre Otero, just as its Santiago counterpart had been, and when he saw me he presented me with a gift, another handmade ceramic espresso cup to go with the one he’d given me the last time around. But our little group decided we’d better go have some dinner before going any farther, so we headed over to the restaurant inside the Cinemateca Dominicana, which was also showing an Argentine film cycle at the moment. I was thrilled to discover that since my last visit, they’d begun serving falafel. This was a real treat, as it had been at least 8 months since I’d had any, not having seen any Middle Eastern restaurants in this country. (And that’s strange, now that I think of it, since there are many people of Syrian and Lebanese descent here.) We discussed our favorite bands of the 80s over the tasty meal, and then wandered over to the Teatro Nacional to see the show I’d come for.

The show was bigger than I’d expected - it was a whole spectacular entitled "Dominican Identity," put on by all the performing groups of the UASD (the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo). The theater was nearly full and getting fuller all the time, so Rossy and I had to act quick to get two seats together. I saw two on the aisle and asked the man sitting in the third seat if they were taken. Just as he said "no," two women stepped right in front of me and sat in them! "Umm… I guess actually they are," I concluded, as we both raised our eyebrows and laughed at their audacity. Anyway, we got seated just in time and in just the right place for me to videotape. Although I’d come just to see the Ballet Folklorico, I also really enjoyed the performance by the Contemporary Dance group, which did really unexpected things with the traditional pambiche, as well as the university band and choir. The folk dance came near the end, and I was very impressed by their atypical presentation style, which did an amazing job of reproducing the look and feel of a rural religious celebration, as well as their unusual choice of repertoire. It was so very African in nature, and so far from the usual "dancing peasant" fare of folk dance groups, that it actually provoked laugher in some of the more immature members of the audience (teens sitting right behind me). This was unfortunate, and probably due to the lack of education on African-derived arts and customs in Dominican culture, but I did think that the group’s reputation among folklorists as perhaps the country’s best folklórico group was not without foundation. Certainly, it was light years away from the watered-down cabaret styles of the current Ballet Folklorico Nacional.

After the show, I found Dario in the lobby, went backstage to salute Jose Castillo, the ballet folklorico’s director, and then returned to the Café Bohemio for (a) a glass of Chilean wine and (b) a reunion with Dario’s two children. That, followed by a late-night viewing of American Idol once I returned to my hotel room, made a perfect end to the day and preparation for the next one.

I slept pretty well in spite of the sun flooding into my courtyard room from 6 AM on. Upon rising, I headed back to the colmado next door for a breakfast of mangu (mashed plantains), eggs, and fried cheese accompanied by juice made from Dominican cherries (tasty but quite unlike ours) and strong coffee. This fortified me for my next scheduled activity, a meeting with Anthony Petitone, grandson of the composer I’ve been researching off and on. While he had little first-hand knowledge on the subject, since Don Rafael died some time ago, he was very enthusiastic about the project and eager to help in any way. He is the head of a marketing and import firm and we met in his stylishly-appointed office. Over coffee, I showed him what I’d collected so far and he agreed to contact other family members in order to aid in the collecting of materials relating to his grandfather’s work. From there, I went on to do some shopping at a rather chichi mall, the Acropolis, because I’d recently discovered that both of my cardigans - indispensable for breezy nights and freezing movie theater air conditioning - had been lost. And after that, I headed down to the Zona Colonial for more shopping and exploration. I was more successful in my buying at the Acropolis, since after visiting ten stores I concluded there were no black cardigans in all of Santo Domingo, but in other ways my afternoon was most excellent. Strolling along the Calle del Conde, the pedestrian shopping street, I saw a used book store I’d never noticed before and entered. Used book stores here are quite unlike their US counterparts, as they simply consist of stacks and stacks of books shoved into a very small space. No browsing is possible, so one simply tells the bookseller what one is interested in and they bring out armfuls of tomes to examine. In this case, in a half an hour I ended up with a lap stacked full of interesting volumes up to my chin. I decided on two of them: two rare books about Dominican music and culture from 1927. He knew I was unlikely to find them elsewhere and so did I, so I paid what seemed a hefty sum in Dominincan terms ($20 each) although later Dario was amazed and astounded by my good fortune. Next I wandered off the beaten track in search of the elusive Zuni Records office, which I’d looked for before but never found (addresses are pretty imprecise here). Today I did find their storefront, but it was closed and on a block under construction to become Santo Domingo’s new Barrio Chino (Chinatown). An enormous dragon-topped gate is going up at one end and the entire street is dug up, criss-crossed with perilous ditches ten feet deep and full of workmen, which one had to cross on precarious planks. The idea is for it to be a shopping and dining district in the future, like other Chinatowns in the world, and I imagine the pavement is gone so they can turn it into another walking street. I then ended my colonial area afternoon with a visit to Chaljub, my journalist/merenguero friend who wrote the only book so far on merengue típico. I had a picture to give him and a couple of questions to ask, which I did, over a fresh glass of cherry juice.

Chaljub’s wife Dulce offered me a ride as far as the Parque Independencia, from where I could get a car back out to Gazcue. On the way, we stopped at the House of Sweets for her to purchase a small gift for the doctor she was going to see. Then I decided to head straight back to the Feria del Libro. Yesterday I hadn’t had time to explore the book stalls at all, and I wanted to make sure to examine the Cuban offerings as it would be unlikely I’d ever see those books once I got back to the US. I found the Cubans and went a little nuts. My purchases necessitated a trip to the ATM, as I ended up buying two books, a DVD, and four CDs. I could easily have bought a lot more but decided to control myself. Then I went back to visit Manuel at the Café Bohemio and chat with him, musician Felle Vega, and a new friend, the event’s official photographer. We talked art, drank some tasty homemade ginger liquor, and listened to the performers of the evening, a guitarist and a singer who did quite passable versions of Shakira, Alanis Morisette, and Cranberries songs.

On the agenda for the next day was to complete my unfinished cardigan shopping and continue searching for Zuni. Then I planned on picking up one of my 1927 books from Dario, to whom I’d loaned it in order for him to make a photocopy, and heading back to Santiago. I also hoped to get my magic umbrella back from Anthony, since it turned out I’d left it in his office the day before. Oops. Hoping it didn’t rain I hit the streets of the Zona Colonial once again and this time met with success, finally getting to speak with Dona Zunilda, widow of famous record producer Radhames Aracena and head of Zuni Records. She was busy but agreed to an interview the following Friday. I’ll have to make yet another trip to the capital but I don’t mind, it’s a good excuse to hit the Monumento del Son and check out the city’s unusual son-dancing scene. Returning to the Acropolis, I was also successful in my sweater search, finding what might be the city’s last black cardigan, and half-price at that. I lunched on a cachapa, a Venezuelan sweet corn pancake filled (in my case) with veggies and cheese. This was also a success. Less successful was my umbrella search, as I couldn’t get ahold of Anthony and had to leave without it. I’m still hopeful I might yet see it again, though. With that thought I hopped on my bus, where I rather fortuitously found myself seated next to a young - couldn’t have been more than 21 - producer of reggeaton music. NamedWagner, no less. He wanted to talk rather more than I did, since I was in the middle of an exciting spy novel that I was eager to get back to (that, and take a nap), but it was interesting to hear about his musical ideas. He gave me a CD he’d produced as a gift and, though I admitted to not being too crazy about reggaeton, I agreed to give it a listen and report back.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Francisco Torres Petitón at La Vega Vieja

I got a guided tour of the fort by the local historian, Don Francisco.

In the fort, looking out

one of the unusual openings in the early 16th century fort at La Vega Vieja, designed to hold either a crossbow or a firearm.

Vaudeville in Latin America

A poster for a rather risque vaudeville type show, probably from the late 1920s, where composer Rafael Petitón Guzmán was slated to perform. Did you know they had vaudeville in Latin America?

Vega visit

Took a couple of days to recover from the quinceañera. As well as an accordion lesson and a couple of games of dominoes. On Wednesday, after the second one of these, Chiqui accompanied me to Rancho Merengue to do some daytime photography and then to visit a friend who was going to help hook me up with an interview. This guy has a diesel auto shop right next to the gas station on Av. Tamboril where I found myself stranded in the rainstorm a couple of weeks ago. He pulled out a couple of chairs so Chiqui and I could relax with him in the shade surrounded by diesel engines. He’d been at the quinceanera, showed me a video he’d taken of Lupe on his cell phone and played a recording of yours truly. He also had an interesting old tape of Tatico playing La Pobre Adela and a bunch of other merengues. Everyone’s a collector here – but unlike in other record collecting scenes, among merengueros, everything’s free. We got as far as making an appointment for me to call him again on Friday, after he’d had a chance to talk with his friend.

On Thursday I found that I had AMAZING timing. I went out for dinner and sat there reading for a while. I got up to leave, and it wasn’t raining. I drove home and walked up to my door. As I opened it, it started to drizzle. As I closed it, stepped inside, and turned on my computer it started to absolutely pour. We’re talking monsoon proportions. Someone left the faucet turned on full blast. When it hits the metal blinds, it sounds like heavy artillery. It hadn’t even looked at all like rain earlier, and so I hadn’t had my umbrella with me. Hooray for the tropics, and hooray for my psychic abilities that brought me home in the nick of time.

Even before that, my day had been going pretty well. I got up, practiced accordion, went to the Centro Leon, posted last week’s blog and wrote some emails, and ate lunch quickly. At 1:30 sharp I left, filled up my tank with gas, and headed down the Duarte Highway to La Vega. I had an appointment with Francisco Torres Petiton, a local historian and the nephew of the composer, Rafael Petiton Guzman, who I’d been researching off and on, on the request of his youngest daughter. I’d met Don Francisco back in February at the Centro Leon’s program about the Vegan carnival, but what with carnival and Semana Santa it took me this long to get around to phoning him.

Anyway, it was well worth the trip, even if I did get a bit lost on the way down. First, I missed the turnoff to Santo Cerro, a hill that comes up on one’s left just before getting to the city of La Vega. A problem soon solved, when I came to the next retorno. So I headed up the hill, a very pleasant drive, if a little rough on my car for the steepness. There was a charming little town on top of the hill with a cemetery featuring the white, boxy above-ground tombs topped with stark crosses that are typical here. But a few blocks beyond that, the road abruptly dead-ended at a large church. This, I found out, marked the spot where Columbus first climbed up here to place a cross and pray in 1494, and uses some of the bricks from the old fort down the hill. But I hadn’t seen the school I’d been looking for as a landmark for a right turn I was supposed to take. The friendly townspeople pointed me in the right direction, though – I’d apparently neglected to put a left turn at the cemetery in my notes. But after the turn it didn’t get much better, as I wasn’t sure which house was the one. Luckily, a pair of teenage boys on a motorbike, the rear one carrying a spare tire, appeared and offered to lead the way. Everyone knows the Torres Petiton house! So now we switched to low gear and headed down the equally steep backside of the hill, past a series of statues marking the stations of the cross for penitents, down to a small settlement called Carrera de las Palmas. Here was the school – we made the right and pulled in to the house.

I found Francisco and his wife relaxing on plastic chaise longues in a thatch-covered gazebo to the right of the house, reading the paper. They pulled a rocking chair up for me so we could chat. In the course of the afternoon, I got to see a bunch of news clippings on the composer, a few music manuscripts, and two disintegrating posters probably from the 1930s, advertising Petiton’s performances at disreputable locations in various parts of Latin America. Apparently, he joined up with a variety show group in Caracas and traveled to Cuba, Panama, Colombia, and elsewhere in a sort of Latin vaudeville circuit. It’s too bad he died in the 80s – there would have to be some great stories about these joints! I was also served coke, coffee, and the juice of yet another tropical fruit previously unknown to me – called, I think, tomacillo? It did look a bit like an elongated tomato, with a mottled red skin. But on the inside, it was a bright orange with black seeds. A friend brings the Torres family these and strawberries from the mountain town of Constanza every Wednesday.

After we’d exhausted Francisco’s data on his uncle, and had returned to his favorite topic- that of local history, I asked where the ruins of La Vega Vieja were to be found. I knew the remains of La Vega’s original settlement, destroyed in an earthquake and moved to its present location in 1562, were around here somewhere. In fact, they turned out to be just down the road 2 kilometers. “Take her to see them!” urged the wife, a motion I seconded. On the way, we also passed a dirt road that Mr Torres told me led to the ruins of the original cathedral, but this was unfortunately on private property whose absentee owners lived in Puerto Rico, and they didn’t want people tramping around in there. Mr Torres even told me that back in the early 80s they’d opened a billiard parlor right there in the ruins. So, Don Francisco, on the town’s preservation and planning committee at the time, took them to court. He argued that they couldn’t treat national patrimony in this way, private property or not, and succeeded in getting them shut down. They haven’t dared to gamble in the cathedral again.

La Vega Vieja is still a national historic park, but unfortunately all its funding was cut a few years back, and no one is there to look after it anymore. The ticket booth stands empty, and the two-story house at back that used to house the curator and a small museum showcasing artifacts found during the excavations has seen better days. Now anyone can tramp all around the site, just as we did. Don Francisco really knows his stuff, though: he gave me the history about, latest theories regarding, and excavation data for every bit of wall or flooring we went past. Here’s what can still be seen: a good chunk of the original fort, with its unusual openings that could accommodate both crossbows and the latest technology in 15th century firearms; the foundation of another part of the fort used for storage, which seems to have burnt down during the 1562 earthquake; the foundation of a storehouse with an interesting zigzag brick pattern; the base of a stone washtub and bits of the old aqueduct and drinking fountains. All this except for the very top of the original, round fort was buried under vegetation and dirt until it was excavated in the 1970s. There was also an underground room they dug out, ten feet below the floor of the burnt section, but now it’s filled up with squishy orange mud. The site was interesting and quite beautiful, though it’s too bad it can’t be better taken care of. My guide also told me that the empty lot next door, where the tallest rooster I’d ever seen and a bunch of chickens were now pecking under some plantain trees, used to be called “La Temblanza,” from the word temblor, or earthquake. In a strange geological phenomenon, the land there has a more solid layer over a more spongy or perhaps even hollow layer. The underneath part had filled up with water during floods, staying that way for a couple of decades, so much so that the area’s usual vegetation couldn’t grow on it. One person could jump on the spot and hear a sort of hollow sound. If several people jumped together, they produced a mini-earthquake. It was fun for a while, but the site eventually dried out and is more or less back to normal now.

Our visit ended and I drove back to Santiago just about at sunset. I was feeling very hot and sweaty, but also pleased with myself for having accomplished a mission long put off. I was even more pleased with myself that I still had another interview scheduled for that evening and another in the morning. Should have known better. After staying awake and clothed long enough to make my 11 PM appointment to interview a bass player before his gig, I got there and, not seeing him, called his cell. He was only just leaving his house – in Moca. This meant that (a) I’d have to wait around in that parking lot for another half hour and (b) I’d only have half an hour, tops, for an interview I knew would need more time than that. I elected to postpone to a more convenient time for both, and was happy to hit the hay anyhow. But in the morning, I had the same problem with my other interview. The guy, a military general and big típico fan, was in the capital and wouldn’t be back til about 7, my informant (a friend of his) informed me. The friend was supposed to call me back around 7, but didn’t, and no one answered at his shop. Ah, fieldwork! The ups, the downs! My archival afternoon went better, though. I got to take a look at Fradique Lizardo’s old tapes – both reel to reel and cassette. There was a lot of very interesting stuff there, from old palos parties to field recordings from Samana to a recording made on Ramfis Trujillo’s yacht of parodies of merengues written to praise his dictatorial father. Now, if only we could find a machine to play them on…