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.

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