Thursday, June 15, 2006

Santiago to New York

6/11 - 6/15/06
Last Friday, the tables were turned on me. My friend Juan Miguel wanted to write a newspaper article about me and my research, so instead of me doing the interview I had to be interviewed myself. He’d give it a bit more glamour by including not only my teacher Rafaelito but also the big star El Prodigio in the story and photos. So at 10 AM, I was all ready for the photo session at the Centro Leon with a new outfit and manicure. A bit later, El Prodigio and his manager Yordy showed up, but unfortunately Rafaelito was sick and unable to come. Nonetheless, we all had a good time catching up as I hadn’t spoken with El Prodigio in a number of months. He invited me to play at his show on Sunday and we also agreed to meet up during his tour of New York in August to discuss some ideas for projects we had. He’s very interested in jazz and jazz-merengue fusions, so I thought I could introduce him to some people that might give him some new ideas.

Afterwards, I’d arranged with soundman Ricoche to go with him to meet businessman/típico patron Arnulfo Gutierrez, but when I arrived at La Super Regional, he’d already left. So that was off, but I was able to finally schedule an interview with Che, my favorite bass player, for 11 PM that night. He currently plays with Geovanny Polanco and I had to go to his show at the Tipico Monte Bar anyway, having promised Geovanny the day before. I did my best to get in a nap before the show, since at the TMB they always start so late, but it wasn’t good enough – I still felt exhausted and a bit grumpy when I finally met with Che that night. Still, it was an interesting interview, though we had to conduct it somewhat uncomfortably in the parking lot in one of the singer’s cars. Afterwards, I went in and took a table stage right with Che’s wife. The place was completely packed with young people. I thoroughly enjoyed the first set, as I hadn’t seen Geovanny play since his new CD had come out and thus was able to hear some tunes that were new to me. In the middle, he sent a saludo or greeting to me, “la musicologa.” The rest of the audience looked around curiously, doubtlessly thinking he was referring to some new típico star. The first set ended at 1:30 AM. When Geovanny came off the stage, he told me to prepare myself to play with them during the next set. But there was little chance I would still be awake and mobile enough to play at 3 AM so I gave it a miss. I had loads to do the next day, and a 5 AM bedtime wouldn’t help things any!

I’d mostly planned the next day to be a day of farewells and visiting people I hadn’t seen in sometime. First I got together with my carnival friends, stopping by Tonito’s house, then moving on to Betania’s where Jose Reyes came to meet us. We discussed our costume plans for next year, and Jose made some suggestions. We could save money by reusing the same mask, just repainting it and decorating differently. He liked the design and though we should keep using it so it would become a recognizable mark of Los Confraternos. Our mask combines the two main traditional types, joyero and pepinero, by having both smooth and spiky sections on the horns, and combining the wide beak of one with the upturned snout of the other. And I was assigned the task of investigating fabric selections. They hoped I would be able to find fabrics in the US that no other group would have, and that might turn out to be cheaper as well due to a monopoly in fabric sales in Santiago.

After that I realized it was already 5:30 and I’d been due to make an appearance at Denio’s house for a farewell-to-palos dinner “after five,” so I’d better hurry on over there. As I parked on the curb under the tree at the head of the walkway leading to his house, Denio and a few others were there to meet me, anxiously awaiting my arrival (as an American, I’d been expected to arrive closer to “on time”). Rum and beer were also awaiting me, and soon the party was going strong with palos and son in rotation on the stereo as the rest of the group arrived, including even Monchy and Papo, who hadn’t been to rehearsals since I’d started. Denio and the woman who helps with his kids were preparing yuca and stewed meat, along with some cooked vegetables and cheese for me, the lone vegetarian. They had just gotten food on the table when the power went out. Boy, was it dark! Soon candles appeared for us to eat by, and I chatted with Papo about music, universities, and New York: he’d spent most of his life there, but was now teaching languages at UTESA, a technical university in Santiago. He explained that to teach at one of the bigger, better-known schools like UASD, one had to have political connections, which he didn’t. As we talked it started raining, which sort of ruined our plans for a backyard palos rehearsal, so the guys brought the drums in instead. We played and drank, drank and played until after 11 – my last chance to practice until 2007! - when we figured we should both let the neighbors sleep and get some sleep ourselves. I had a record three performances scheduled for the next day, so I needed the rest.

I started the day by practicing. I needed at least six good songs for the gigs I was to play, and I had to choose them carefully, as I didn’t know who was likely to know the arrangements I would play. I also wanted to try out some merengues I’d never performed before, but wasn’t sure I trusted anyone but Rafaelito’s musicians to accompany me in those uncertain moments. I had planned to go over and rehearse the new tunes with Chiqui, but when I called he was already leaving for his own gig. Then I tried Rafaelito, but he was also unavailable. This was because El Ciego’s father had died just that morning and he had to attend the burial, unusually scheduled for that same day. For me, this meant not only that I would be unable to rehearse my new tunes but that I was now down to only two gigs, as one of the three had been an invitation by El Ciego to play with him at Rancho Merengue.

I prepared as best I could for performing with El Prodigio and then headed out to Champion’s Palace, a place out past Rancho Merengue and La Tinaja on the highway to Navarrete, which was where El Prodigio had told me he’d be playing at 5. But as I neared the Palace, I realized that was wrong, as the sign stated Nicol Pena was playing there today. Luckily, another sign appeared to point the way – El Prodigio was actually at Andy Ranch.

As I arrived there it began to rain: not a good sign for a gig at this outdoor, swimming- pool-oriented Rancho. I thought the place would empty out, but luckily it was only a drizzle and was over fairly quickly. The flip side was that the sweltering, humid heat returned just as quickly, making me regret my elbow-length sleeves. I sat with some people I didn’t know back behind the stage, the tamborero’s wife and friends, and ordered a Coke that it took 40 minutes for me to receive. Then I had to wait another half hour to get my change. At least El Prodigio was happy to see me, even though I scolded him for telling me the wrong place. Between sets, he introduced me to some friends who bought us a beer, but we didn’t have time to drink it before it was time for the second set. Halfway through this one, I took the stage to the surprise of all (or at least those who hadn’t seen me play before). I played La Cartera Vacia while El Prodigio sang, and then he asked me to call a second song. I selected El Puente Seco, but he said his saxophonist didn’t know it, being really a jazz musician rather than típico, so I went with El Cuento Comparon instead. Although the saxophonist didn’t know the mambos I played, he picked them up quickly. One man in the audience was so incredulous that I was playing, he came up on stage and put his ear right against the accordion. After listening for a minute, he stood up and nodded, indicating to the audience that it was no trick.

After we finished the place cleared out pretty quick, and I headed down the street to La Tinaja. I thought I would be late, arriving at 8, but they’d only just started. I greeted the emcee who has sung with me on several occasions but whose name I can never remember and entered the club, where I found Raul, Rafaelito’s son, seated in front of the stage. I took a seat beside him and listened to the first set, during which my hunger grew, so afterwards I went out to the roadhouse in front to see what they had to offer. The emcee accompanied me as I ordered rice, white beans, green salad, and a piece of fried cheese. After a while Rafaelito and the other musicians came in too, and we all ate enormous purple grapes together, dicussing (for some reason) asteroids and mass extinctions until it was time to begin the second set. When we came back, I found that two girls –friends of the Roman family- who had been at Andy Ranch had showed up here, too, following me from show to show. When my turn came I decided to risk it and try out one of my new numbers, El Tiguerito, even though I hadn’t ever played it with anyone else. With my friend the emcee singing, it came out quite well, and I followed it up with El Puente Seco, since I hadn’t been able to do that one at the previous gig. These went off so well that the sound man Cigua, so called because he is tiny like the Cigua bird, told me someone had said to him, “she plays like a man!” High praise indeed in tipico world.

I was pretty tired after all that excitement, but I still had one more stop to make. Otherwise, I didn’t know if I’d have time to say my goodbyes to John Taveras and my other friends among the staff at Rancho Merengue. So I hurried across the street, where I said goodbye to William, the emcee, Chimon güira, and several others. I made plans with Vilo to pick up the tambora I’d ordered, now nearly completed, on Tuesday. And finally John showed up as I waited in the drizzle outside, sad to hear I was leaving so soon. Like everyone else I’ve told I’m leaving he said, “but you’re coming right back, right?” “Well – next year,” I explained. “What?!? How can you leave for so long??” “Well, I am from there, not here,” I reminded him.” “No, you belong to us now,” he said, echoing the same sentiment I’d now heard dozens of times.

Monday was a day mostly for running errands. But I did work in one last dominoes game at Chiqui’s, and then Chiqui accompanied me to say my farewells to El Buty, the güira maker. But neither of them was satisfied with this goodbye, so they both agreed to come to my place to help me with my final packing on Thursday. I played with Buty’s cotorra, a smallish green parrot, friendly but not yet able to talk at only 6 months of age, until I realized I was about to be late for my last accordion lesson. There, I learned Las Indias de Bani at Manuary’s request. I’ll play it for him when I come back next year.

On Tuesday I’d scheduled a meeting with a different Chiqui, this one a cultural specialist at the Centro Leon, who had agreed to help me with my socioeconomic map of Santiago. While there, I planned to say my goodbyes to my friends there. After Chiqui gave me the data I needed, and Camilo presented me with a book of his poetry, I had a meeting with director Rafael Emilio where I gave him a give of a piece of Indian pottery from Arizona and filled him in on my accomplishments in the DR, and he in exchange presented me with a nice coffee-table book of photography by a Dominican artist of whom I’m a fan. Oddly enough, he also photographs Arizona scenery. Then I went back to see the friendly faces in the tabacalera (tobacco-rolling house) and purchase a doll of a tobacco worker in the middle of rolling a cigar. I picked mine mostly for his outfit: orange shirt, floral tie, and blue plaid pants. Stylish. But after lunch, where I had a final chat with my friends in the cafeteria, I had to make a quick split in order to get the rest of my scheduled activites done.

First, the tambora. Vilo had given me vague directions to his house in an unmapped development just behind La Tinaja: “Turn right at the road before the bridge. Then ask someone where I live.” This actually worked just fine, although I missed the turn the first time around and had to double back. On the predictable horrible road, I stopped at a group of dominoes-players to ask directions, and it turned out I new one of the women there, a friend of the Roman’s. They pointed me further down the road, and indicated I should turn right before the school. When I saw the school I asked again and easily found the house. Vilo was on the phone, so I waited on the porch, where a light breeze helped me shed some of the pounds of sweat I was wearing as a consequence of the long drive in the hot sun. When he got off, he showed me my lovely tambora, a Syd-sized black one at a special Syd price, as well as some other models he was working on. We discussed how to get a goat skin (from a goat butcher down the street), how much to pay (300 pesos), how many tamboras one can get from a single goat (not even one, since each side requires two coverings), and how to tell the right-hand side from the left-hand side (the right hand side should play the male goat, and you can tell because the male goat has a black stripe down its back, which will then be down the middle of the tambora head).

I couldn’t dally too long, though, as at 5 I had arranged to interview Francisco Ulloa at long last. I’d been told he wasn’t playing much anymore because he had gone evangelical. I found that he is still playing, not only at his Sunday gig at Rancho Merengue but in other towns as well, but that he is also an evangelical Christian. Nonetheless, I enjoyed talking with him about his status as “the ambassador of merengue típico,” and his collaborations with Juan Luis Guerra and Felle Vega. But again, I couldn’t stay long as I had yet another appointment afterwards: this time with Arriba el Merengue host Gaspar Rodriguez and friend Bismar, who had offered to help me make copies of some historic típico footage Gaspar had on video. But as it turned out Bismar was called upon to work that evening, thereby foiling our plans. I decided to stop by Gaspar’s anyway, just to say goodbye.

He wasn’t there when I arrived, so I waited on the balcony with their maid/nanny drinking a glass of pear juice. When Gaspar and his wife finally showed up I was nearly falling asleep, but roused myself enough to snap some photos of the portrait of Tatico that hangs on Gaspar’s wall. Then they invited me to stay for dinner. To pass the time, the maid brought me beer and Gaspar brought me piles of photos and videos to watch. He had some amazing 1960s pictures of El Ciego and of Tatico. When I turned them over I found they were shot by Lalan, the merenguero and newspaperman that figures in the famous merengue “La Balacera” that Tatico composed about a memorable night the two of them spent in jail together. On video, we watched Nico Lora, Guandulito, El Negrito Figueroa (accompanied by a drunken dancer I found hysterically funny, and whom they told me was named Joel, a fanatical follower of the late accordionist), and Siano Arias (during this one, shot in a New York [?] apartment, the other late accordionist Diogenes Jimenez could be observed asleep on a chair). It was amazing to be able to watch these ghosts from the past I’d heard about but never seen, and I’m hoping to obtain copies soon. Anyway, it was all so entertaining I ended up staying past 11 PM without realizing it!

Wednesday morning being mostly free, I decided to take care of a few things with my car and thereby say goodbye to my mechanic, El Negro, who had taken such good care of me and El Cacharrito. At 2 I was scheduled to interview businessman Juan De Leon (Papote’s brother): Ricoche had set this up as an apology for botching our meeting time the other day. But when we arrived, Juan hadn’t yet returned from a business trip to Puerto Plata, so that was put off yet again. I did comply with my obligation to be reinterviewed on La Super Regional that afternoon, which was entertaining, although when asked to name my favorite performers, I missed a couple I probably should have acknowledged due to the stress of being on the spot. At least I got Fefita in there, and she called in after I was done to express her gratitude. After that, I went back to Tonito’s to pick up some bootleg DVDs he wanted to give me. He’d heard the interview and was tickled I’d mentioned my carnival activities with Los Confraternos.

I woke up on Thursday not quite believing it would be my last day in the DR after 9 months. But I didn’t have much time to reflect on it with such a full day scheduled. First I had to go to the police headquarters at the old airport with my lawyer, Eddy, to get my car inspected. Once they determined it hadn’t been stolen, I could finally get the registration transferred to my name. Afterwards, I had fifteen minutes before my rescheduled interview with Juan de Leon and Ricoche, so I stopped to put gas in the car. My temper already short, I went into a bit of a fury when none of their card readers would accept any of my perfectly good credit cards. This is one thing that has driven me a bit nuts here – every so often the bank won’t let a credit card pass simply because it is in the Dominican Republic. I’m not quite sure why this continues to look suspicious after I’ve lived 9 months in the country, but whatever. Half an hour, a trip to the ATM, and some swear words later, I finally made it out of there and, somewhat frazzled, to the interview at Juan’s office above a car repair shop: definitively my last interview in the DR in 2006. Next it was home to pack, get my deposit back from Dona Ana, and receive my visitors.

In the end, most of the Taveras clan made the trek down to my neighborhood: Chiqui, Laura, Yary, Felo, and even Chiqui’s sister Yahaira. They brought me a present of mangos from Dajabon. They looked delicious, but I knew there was no way I could bring them back with me or even eat them before leaving. Fun times packing bags, taking down mosquito nets, and washing dishes, all in sweltering heat, followed. Eventually El Buty showed up as well with the jars of sweets he’d been wanting to give me before I left, prepared specially by his wife. When we finished hauling all the luggage downstairs, where it would wait for me in Dona Ana’s apartment until my early departure the next morning, we celebrated with a game of dominoes, Coke, and Presidente I ordered from the colmado. (I’m going to miss having a corner store that delivers.) In order to protect my glass dining table from El Buty, who tends to slam dominoes down hard in classic Dominican style, we covered it with a flattened cardboard box.

But I still had more to do. First, I’d promised to visit Rafaelito and Domingo before leaving. Then, I was scheduled to have drinks with the Centro Leon crowd at a nearby bar, Palermo, at 8. This left little time for either dominoes or visiting, so we hurried to the car, El Buty to follow us in his blue pickup with a güira decal… only to find that his car wouldn’t start. He quickly determined the problem was lack of petroleum products, so now we had to return to the scene of my earlier gasoline-fueled fury with a gas can. Bringing this back to the waiting Buty, we found his car still wouldn’t start. And wouldn’t start. Really, this was becoming quite comical. And then it did start.

Out in El Ingenio, I made my farewells – though not tearful ones, as we knew that I’d be back next year. Rafaelito tried but couldn’t find the CD of his father I’d been wanting to get a copy of. Well, now he has seven months to search. I presented him with a can of chipotle chiles in recognition of the fact that he’s the only Dominican who eats spicy food with me. And I presented Domingo with a bag of mangos. After this, I only just had time for a quick but very necessary shower before my next appointment, picking up Noelia on the way. At Palermo we found Jose Enrique, the photographer, smoking outside with Carlos Andujar, the anthropologist. Carlos told me I had to leave to get my accordion, bring it back and play them a song. Too late, I told him: if I had to move one more inch, or if one more person gave me one more task to do, I was going to scream. So I perched myself on a barstool in the air-conditioned comfort of Palermo, ordered a house special (something involving rum, soda, and peach liquor) and a sandwich, and was soon feeling much better. Also in attendance at various times were Angela, Claudia (my movie-watching buddy from the gift shop) and a friend, Pedro Jose aka Pilito (who confessed I’d inspired him to start eating spicy food, and was making great progress on this front). Although Carlos had a bit too much whisky, it was all in all a good sendoff, and I went to bed satisfied if a bit sad, and strangely uncomfortable in the absence of my mosquito net.

The morning of my departure went surprisingly smoothly. Don Rafael helped me load the car, and my four enormous suitcases, two carry-ons, and carnival mask fit with room to spare. I found Hector awaiting me right where he said, at a gas station on Las Hermanas Mirabal. I presented him with two gifts: the Dajabon mangos (or all but one I’d decided to try to smuggle back) and a cell phone I was no longer going to use, since he didn’t have one. And at the airport, I encountered less than the expected resistance to my mounds of baggage, although I did end up having to pay $230 to get them back to the US. The tambora was worth it, though.

Now I’m back in New York, going through culture shock again. First of all, it was FREEZING when I got back. And then there was an odd lack of potholes and excess of traffic lights in the streets. I could drink the water, flush the toilet paper, and speak English to people in stores. But no plantains, no accordions, and for these and other reasons I found myself a little down when I woke up on my birthday Tuesday. Until my new cell phone rang, now playing Beethoven instead of “Lowrider.” I answered but no one replied for a few seconds. Then I heard an accordion striking up the tune of “Cumpleanos Feliz,” and then, was it Laura singing to me? With this phone call, from Santiago to New York, the Taveras family to me, the two sides of my life came together again and I felt content, even if I was 31.


Anonymous said...


I just stumbled onto this blog, and let me tell you that so far I have been very impressed with your interest for merengue tipico. I also love tipico ! Me encanta..

just wanted to say that it's great to read the blog and I noticed that you mentioned El Prodigio (so far I have seen him play 2 times this year in Santiago) is coming to NY ? When in August ? I live in NY and I'm going to be in Santiago between 8/24-8/28, so I'm hoping that he's not going to be in NY :(

Great work !

Anonymous said...

Sidney in this article you just mentioned all my favorite places.. I was born in Villa Gonzales and know I'm in the us navy stationed in South Carolina, but when I'm home I stay in Gurabo with my family.. Thanks for representing my culture, El Merengue tipico.