Monday, May 08, 2006

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.

1 comment:

anthony said...

Hey Sydney:
It was great to meet you...long time no see..hope everything is alright.......I move to Greensboro North Carolina from DR.......I am very interested to find out if you have new information about my grandfatherto share with my brothers and cousins......will hava a small family reunion in New York in August 1 2008.....
My email is
Ciao....Life is good....