First, another frustrating week (don’t worry – it gets better later). I realize now how easy I had it when I was only trying to interview musicians. Musicians love to be interviewed and are used to it; there are few things they’d rather do than talk about their music. Patrons and empresarios are another matter entirely. I had no further success in scheduling the Zuni Records interview or any of the others I’d been trying to get for ages, like El Jefe de Maisal or Aureliano Guzman. Instead, I got a bunch of errands and shopping done that I’d been meaning to do, but that was small comfort. On Thursday as I was getting a massage at my local spa, I gained a new resolve to Get Those Interviews, so Friday, after an extraordinarily heavy sleep through a major thunderstorm, I woke up ready and raring to go. After running about five errands in record time, for this country, I was feeling more than ready to tackle Antonio Ochoa. This businessman, whose family owns just about everything in Santiago from banks to hardware and home stores to car dealerships, has been a major patron of merengue típico and is mentioned in many songs of homage. He could fill in some gaps in my knowledge of típico economics and patronage, I was sure, so I headed to his main dealership, where I was told he could often be found.
The receptionist was very friendly when I explained my case to her and told me she was sure Antonio’s assistant could help me out. She was currently with clients, so she invited me to wait on a sofa with a cup of coffee. I drank the cup of coffee, people-watched for a while, started to fall asleep, started reading a paperback of Jonathan Swift I’d tucked into my purse, started to fall asleep again. Then I noticed Fefita la Grande walk in in her daytime wear – skintight camouflage pants and olive shirt with gold high-heel sandals. OK, so the main difference between stage wear and daytime wear is that with the latter she wears glasses and no fake hair. Apparently she’d come in to make a payment on her car or truck. By the time she finished, I’d been waiting about two hours, when finally the assistant came over to talk to me. She then invited Fefita over too. I didn’t think she recognized me, though she said she did. However, I quickly realized she’d confused me with someone else, someone who had interviewed her for a newspaper. It didn’t seem the time or place to correct her, but being confused for someone else just topped off the rest of what I suffered in Ochoa Motors. After 2 hours of waiting, the assistant invited me over to her desk and then made me wait another ten or fifteen minutes as she made some copies. Then she took about a minute and a half to dismiss me. “Trust me. I’ve worked with him for thirty years. He won’t give you an interview.” She refused even to call him to ask and told me she was in a hurry to go to lunch. I assured her that I was too, after over two hours of sitting doing nothing, but suggested that maybe I could interview his father instead. She brightened up immediately. “Oh yes, that might be easier. He’s a real merenguero. He’d probably talk to you.” Naturally, I followed up by asking to be put in touch with him, but my hopes were quickly thwarted. “It’s against policy to give out phone numbers.” How about if she calls and asks him for me then? “Oh no, we don’t have any contact with him or any of the Ochoa family.” Interesting – first they can’t give me his number, and then they don’t have it. We sat there having a stare-off for a couple of minutes. Finally I ended by leaving Antonio a note. It was all I could get her to do, although I have a sneaking suspicion she probably threw it away as soon as I left. I left feeling like all the hope had been crushed out of me – my bright and shiny morning had come to this! Musician friends later assured me everyone has the same problem with this guy, not even Fefita herself could get in to see him. Apparently, the only time he comes to his office is 6 AM, just to make sure no one will bother him. But their descriptions of his vulgar yet exceeding picturesque way of talking only made me want that interview even more.
On Saturday I took it easy in order to recover from the Evil Friday. I told myself if I was a good girl and wrote a speech I have to give on Tuesday, worked a little on my edited book manuscript that had come in the mail the day before, and went to the gym, then I could go to the movies. I complied with my plan, found that Mission Impossible 3 was the most conveniently scheduled film for me, and went to see it accompanied by popcorn and M&M peanuts. I found it surprisingly good.
Sunday was another day, and I used it first to visit my friends in the Ballet Folklorico, who I hadn’t seen in some months. They were rehearsing the students from their advanced folk dance classes for a performance of merengue and palos this Friday in honor of Mother’s Day (yes, here it comes two weeks later than in the US). I stayed around a bit to talk accordion with the accordionist, then went to a internet café, and finally to the grocery store where I had lunch. I bailed on palos practice for the first time since I started, as I wanted to finally get photographs of Rancho Merengue in the daytime. It’s such a vast space inside that at night all I can get on film are musicians’ faces floating in the blackness, and the architecture and murals are so interesting I wanted to be sure to have them recorded for posterity and/or publication. Well, I got that done and more, as when I arrived the owner was sitting just outside the door and we got to talking. He turned on some special lighting for me to photograph the mural and agreed to an interview to be conducted in the next few days. In fact, he was so into the idea that he also offered to help me make contact with some other important merengueros, and insisted that I come back in a few hours for the evening show with El Ciego de Nagua and Francisco Ulloa. The new week was starting off better already.
I was hoping I could get some car wash photos as well since Fidelina Pascual was scheduled to play at one right around the corner, and car wash shows usually begin early. Not this one, though, so I wasted time by paying a visit to another accordionist friend, Domingo. He wasn’t home but I chatted with his wife and mother about the difficulties of getting interviews with certain dodgy empresarios. Finally I headed back to the Rancho, where in the end I had a very productive evening. I spoke with Vilo, Francisco Ulloa’s tamborero as well as a tambora maker, about my percussion needs. “You know, I tried to call you several times a couple of months ago. I even left you a message or two,” I told him. He looked surprised. “Really? I never got them… when did you say that was?” I made a rough estimate. “Oh! I know. That must have been the time when the duck got my phone and it wasn’t working.” “The duck? What??” “You see, at my house I have a duck pond and one day I dropped my phone in it. One of the ducks saw the green light flashing and that made him all excited. He picked it up and started chewing on it. Eventually I got it back from him but it wouldn’t work anymore.” Wow! What a great excuse – the duck ate my phone! Anyway, the problem was resolved. At first he told me he had a couple of small, inexpensive tamboras made up that would probably do the job for me, since all I needed was a practice instrument and didn’t feel I needed to make a serious investment. But then he decided what the heck, he’d make me a deal. Since someone had ordered a rather nice tambora and then never picked it up, he’d give it to me for 3000 pesos, the cost of the materials, instead of the usual 5000. He wanted me to have a nice one. Well, twist my arm! We made plans to meet up in the coming week.
I chatted with the other musicians and the emcee for a while as I sipped a “Rancho Merengue,” a custom cocktail owner John invented himself. It might be said to be the Long Island Ice Tea of the DR – a little of everything, and everything STRONG. One was more than enough drink for the evening, I noticed fairly quickly. Then Vilo came back with some interesting news: my most difficult interview subject ever, was sitting in the back of the club with some friends. As the most powerful and successful empresario in the típico world, for two years I’d been trying to talk to him – let’s call him “Agustin” - with no success. I was pretty sure he’d even hung up on me once. I decided to confront him. “Agustin, you’ve been avoiding me, haven’t you?” “No, not at all. You know I’m a very busy person.” “I do know that, but I’ve called you so many times I got tired of it.” “Well, I can’t take every call that comes in. And I didn’t have your number programmed in my phone so I didn’t know it was you.” I was pretty sure I remembered him programming my number the last time we’d met, but I pushed on. “Well, My time in this country is almost at an end. Can we do that interview before I leave?” He agreed to this, and even put a time to it at my insistence: Wednesday at 6 PM. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, though, as I’d been through this before. After hearing sets from both Francisco and El Ciego, I spoke with El Ciego about setting up an interview with him next week. Then on the way out I discussed my fieldwork headaches with John, who promised me not only an interview but help in contacting other patrons of merengue típico. So my time at Rancho Merengue was certainly well spent.
The euphoria wore off in the middle of the night, however. I ate some Chinese food when I got home, which apparently contained some seriously bad tofu. With my cast-iron stomach, I hadn’t thrown up in years and years, but did this night. Horrible. And I didn’t sleep much at all, which made the next day difficult. I made it to my accordion lesson but not much else, which meant I had to disappoint my fans at Rancho Merengue who were expecting me back for Rafaelito’s show that night. I can never seem to make it over there, since it doesn’t start til midnight, which for me is the ideal hour for sleep but not much else. At least with a good night’s sleep I was able to get up for a full day on Tuesday: gym, archival research, and in the evening, the long-awaited premiere of the new documentary about Tatico Henriquez, made by my friend Rafael Chaljub Mejia and Huchi Lora, his partner on their típico radio show.
I had invited a ton of people personally to this event, and asked friends with shows to promote it on both TV and radio, but I was still nervous that no one would come as I waited with my glass of wine for friends to arrive. Not to worry. It ended up being the Centro Leon’s biggest turnout ever- nearly 1000 people showed up to remember the great accordionist on the 30th anniversary of his death in a car accident at age 33. Among them were most of the current accordion greats, including Fefita, Rafaelito, El Ciego, Geovanny Polanco, La India Canela, David David, and El Prodigio; old merengueros like Julian Ramirez and Juan Balbuena; aspiring young accordionists, like Yohanna and myself (well, I fit the first adjective at least); a number of musicians who played with Tatico, including Manochi and El Flaco; Tatico’s friends and family; and media personalities like El Papillon and Gaspar Rodriguez. As requested, I had prepared some words to say on Tatico and what he has meant to me and my research, but in the end there was no chance to read them – no time for all the testimonies people wanted to offer. Although I already knew, it was astounding to really see the impact Tatico had and continues to have 30 years later.
The documentary itself was not all one might have hoped for, though it was interesting to see old friends telling Tatico stories on the big screen as well as the man played by his nearly identical son I left there on a real high with Chiqui and a couple of his friends. We were all hungry, especially me, so we decided to head to Patron Burger for food and tunes. This restaurant in Las Colinas is a hangout for típico musicians, though they usually stop by in the small hours following gigs. But on Tuesdays like tonight Fidelina Pascual plays here, and I was glad to have the opportunity to see this long-lost friend. Big platters of sandwiches, enormous Presidente beers, and happy reunions made a perfect end to an emotional day.
Wednesday was the day John had agreed to be interviewed in his office at Rancho Merengue. I called him to confirm, and he agreed 2 PM was the time. Then I called “Agustin” to confirm, and he agreed to an interview at the slightly adjusted hour of 5. Feeling productive, I headed to Rancho Merengue just after lunch, where I was surprised to see my firnd Vilo once again. Francisco Ulloa was there to record a few tunes with his group, as it turned out. John was still at lunch so I settled in to watch. Chimon, the güira player, showed me a new model he’d recently created and pictures of many others on his cell phone. He’d come up with some crazy new designs using veneer paper from car detailing which he prints with designs using his computer. He decided that since one normally only plays on one narrow strip on one side of the güira, he could fill the rest of the space with color. Meanwhile Francisco was teaching a saxophonist his part by ear, playing a phrase, listening to his echo, making corrections and building speed. Then a second saxophonist showed up. This one could read music, so once Francisco played him his part he wrote it down in a notebook. All three worked together for a while, and when they started soundy catchy enough and rhythmic enough, the rest took their instruments and joined in.
Eventually John showed up and an assistant of his showed me to his office. The interview was interesting and every so often his receptionist chimed in with opinions on modern típico artists. John shared stories of shameless musicians (off the record) and the building of his business (on the record). I was interested to find out that this icon of the modern merengue típico world, an enormous thatch-roofed “rancho” decorated with miniature tamboras and güiras as well as cast-off marimbas and saxophones (one of which had belonged to Rafaelito ages ago), had been inspired by a roadside restaurant in Pennsylvania. Just as we were finishing up our talk, my phone rang. It was Agustin – canceling our interview. But he consoled me by offering to meet with me at the semi-ungodly hour of 8 AM the next day. As soon as I hung up with him and explained to John, who said “figures,” the office phone rang. It was none other than Agustin – this time calling to cancel a gig for one of the artists under his management, for which the promotion had already been started. I said, “figures.”
I got up at 7 AM even though I didn’t honestly think the interview was going to go through. So imagine my surprise when I showed up at Agustin’s office – also a radio station he runs – and actually found him there! I told him I was awarding him a prize for most difficult interview ever. But in the end he was very gracious. In the end, I felt I really had a reason to celebrate with my sister, who arrived at noon for 4 days of vacation. From the sweaty, steamy airport we headed directly to the airconditioned comfort of the Centro Leon. After a healthy lunch I gave her the usual tour, consisting of the anthropology section, the fine art section, the cigar-rolling workshop, and the Leon family history room. Heather made sure to purchase some fine Dominican cigars for her upcoming anniversary, which she and her husband traditionally celebrate with cigars and port. But I had my eye on a little doll of a cigar worker dressed in seventies plaid and smoking as he worked. I think I’ll go back for it later.
Heather was suitably impressed by the Centro Leon, but it was time to go home for a quick nap and some snacks. I’d made sure to get wine and cheese. Dominicans typically have only two types of cheese – white or yellow – but at the fancy supermarket I found a wider selection to accompany my Chilean and Argentine wines. With this, we were able to pass a pleasant (if sticky) afternoon conversing until we realized it was definitely dinnertime and walked across the street to visit my friend Alvaro at Amici restaurant. As usual, the food was excellent: the famous eggplant and mozzarella appetizer (yes, parents: Heather ate eggplant!), spaghetti carbonara for Heather and fettuccine with porcini for me (yes, parents: I ate mushrooms!), and an amaretto semifredo and homemade limoncello for dessert.
Friday would be busy: I was determined to do the best tour possible in four days. After a necessary visit to an internet center, we started off with a walk around downtown and a look at the Fortaleza San Luis, where the talking crow was saying “Pupi! Pupi!” We didn’t know who Pupi was, so we left for our spa appointments, and after that, a visit to Rafaelito and to Chiqui. Rafaelito invited us over for dinner on Sunday. Chiqui had to leave pretty quick for a gig in Puerto Plata, but we stuck around playing dominoes with two teenage boys (Laura’s son Felo and his friend, who plays güira for Fidelina) for a while – long enough for Heather to learn a few tricks and come out ahead. We didn’t have much time for dinner before we had to be at the palos party at the Casa de Arte, where I was to make my debut, but we decided to try out some new restaurant I’d never been to. Our first choice, a bar and grill, was closed – which seemed odd on a Friday night – so we went to the next, a family-owned pizza and sandwich joint. The salad we got was amazing, with a spicy peppery dressing, and my pizza was also pretty tasty. After a bunch of beer and water, though, I had to visit the bathroom, which was back behind the kitchen and off their storeroom. When I turned on the light back there, I first noticed how pleasantly they had decorated it, but secondly I noticed several enormous cockroaches running behind the toilet, frightened by the light. Well, now I couldn’t possibly approach that thing, especially when I noticed a three-inch one actually sitting on the side of the bowl. Backing out slowly, I went back to the kitchen and tapped our teenage waiter. “What’s wrong? Is there no paper?” he asked. “Umm… nooooo… but there are a coulple of little friends waiting back there.” He followed me back, I pointed them out, and he killed them by the stomping method as I giggled hysterically from the next room. “Are you sure there aren’t any more?” I queried nervously when he was done. “There aren’t any more,” he assured me. “But did you check? Could you check again?” We went back in. He looked up and said, “oops.” I ran out giggling again when I too saw the disgusting creature that was perched above the door, up near the high ceiling. He knocked it down with a broom and took care of that. I warily did what I’d originally come to do and went back to my sister.
SOON TO BE CONTINUED...