Sunday, July 30, 2006


...about the recent dearth of images on this site. I've never been good about remembering to take pictures, generally preferring to live the experience, but I made the effort to document a bit better in the DR. Since I got back I've gotten lazy - but I promise to make the effort again soon!

The levels of musical hell

Regarding 7/20-7/22

...cont. from the last post... I was slated to meet a man who had emailed me several times over the years with questions about Dominican music, only to then act like he already knew all the answers. Needless to say, I had an odd impression of him and was curious to meet him in person, as well as to see the project he was working on with the Musical Instruments Collection. He’d indicated we should meet in the reception area just to the left of the information desk in the Met’s main entrance hall, so I figured I would stand around there looking lost, until he would recognize me from my lostness and rescue me. But after a half an hour of that, my feet were tired and he was late. I went to the desk to see what they could do, and they got me on the phone with musical instruments, and a nice man said he’d come down and get me. He did, recognizing me by my yellow umbrella, and just a few minutes later the man himself showed up, replete in a white seersucker suit, white shirt with cufflinks, and white shoes. Whoa. (Later he told us all that all of his clothes and shoes are custom made by an Ecuadorian tailor.)

The following hours were decidedly odd. First, I stood in one place for about an hour and a half without sitting or moving, feeling my knee stiffen up as I was told over and over, “I’m the only one qualified to do this job. No one else knows anything about salsa. Some of the salsa musicians disagree with me. But I say, screw you! I’m the one who got this job and I get paid a lot of money to do it. Nobody hired those guys. I’m the one who decides. No one else can do my job. Nobody.” I’d never encountered an ego quite this size before, even in all my travels among self-centered musicians or star-complexed academics. A couple times I tried to inject an opinion or a carefully-worded disagreement. But I could never get more than about 4 or 5 words out before he was off again. Not once was I asked about my research, what I’d been doing or what I thought about all this. After a few edgewise attempts, I realized there was no use to speaking anyway: smiling absently and nodding was all that was called for here. Although it became increasingly difficult to comply with this behavior as he traveled into the realm of Dominican music, about which he knew little but thought he knew a lot. My heart sank as he told me about his plans for a Dominican program at the museum, as I realized it would likely take a similar one to a program about Afro-Cuban music he told me he’d put on recently. “Cuban music is great, but you know you can’t work with Cubans. They’re impossible! Anyway, the Puerto Ricans can play everything the Cubans can, and salsa, and merengue, and everything else. Why should I hire 16 guys when 8 Puerto Ricans can do the job? Puerto Ricans can play batá too.” So much for tradition, representation, and insiders’ cultural knowledge.

That said, the instruments he acquired for the museum were undeniably beautiful.

After a while, I was rescued through the intercession of the head curator of musical instruments. He was an ethnomusicologist too, surprisingly enough, and a lovely person. I got the insiders’ tour of the collection, which was closed that day for new carpeting to get put in. The insiders’ tour includes not only the priceless antique instruments but also a pointing-out of the flaws in walls and ceilings and poor display case design. One, I believe, was described as “the bane of my existence” and slated for dismantling as soon as possible. My favorite part, naturally enough, was the new free reed exhibit. I hadn’t even known that this recently went up, and it included a plethora of weird and wacky accordions, along with a tiny metal box on legs that was a sort of Chinese sheng, thought it looked more like a TV cartoon alien.

At that point, another curator came in with a couple of enormous, carved wooden African drums on a cart and asked for assistance in opening doors and steadying instruments as he brought them down to the storage rooms. We decided to all go along for the ride, the more the merrier, descending into the hidden bowels of the Met inhabited only by workers in white coveralls. I didn’t know this was included in the admission price!

The musical insturments storage room was full of wonders. I first noticed a pile of balafons, African marimbas with gourd resonators, on top of a shelving unit. Next to this was a keyboard instrument wrapped in a blanket: Franz Liszt’s piano, I was told. On another set of metal shelves, the curator pulled off a small harp mounted on a humanoid skull sporting antelope horns. This was the infamous, controversial skull lyre. It used to hang in a display case right at the entrance, adding a sensational touch to the otherwise respectable gallery, until this curator came in a few years ago and removed it. (They don’t believe it was ever a “real” instrument, more likely some ridiculous thing made for European tourists in Africa in the 19th century.)

Ascending again through the various levels of musical hell, from skull instruments on upwards, we returned to the galleries and said our goodbyes. As the curator opened the cordoned-off entrance for us to leave, we found two people standing there as if to come in. “Sydney?!” they said. “What are you doing here??” “Lauren and Dan?!” I replied. “What are YOU doing here??” My friend Lauren, a fellow ethnomusicologist, was hoping to check out the collection with the idea of creating a related assignment for her students; unfortunately, it was still closed until tomorrow. Instead, the two of them joined me for a look at the Mayan exhibit (fabulous) and a trip to the roof sculpture garden. While there I realized I’d been on my feet for four hours straight and was feeling rather swollen; I also hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day except for that cup of coffee and half a cheese danish. Water and the other half were clearly in order, and I consumed these in the shadow of two giant crocodile punctured all over by knives, files, scissors and knitting needles confiscated at airport security checkpoints, and an enormous glass panel decorated with dead birds at its base (I THINK this was part of the artwork, though it was hard to be sure.) Meanwhile, Lauren and Dan gave me the exciting news that they got engaged a week ago, and the equally exciting news that they’re probably going to Ireland for two years. If this means I get to visit, I say, Score!!

It was a long day already, but it wasn’t over yet. More excitement was to come. I barely had time to go home, change, and consume some leftover Indian food (my only actual meal of the day) before I was slated to meet up with Arlene, a professor of anthropology and American Studies who is on my dissertation committee. We needed to talk business, but we also wanted to have fun, so we decided to combine the two and have our meeting at a salsa club, after a quick bowl of gelato at her place. We found we were both in little black dresses, how very stylish of us. Anyway, it was a good strategy: business out of the way we could enjoy ourselves and just dance. She slated me to teach her a dance lesson or two before heading back to Tucson, and I ran into two of my former Razz M’Tazz students! They didn’t even recognize me at first with glasses, and were surprised to hear about my new activities. It’s funny to think that four years ago they could know me only as a dancer, and that my life has changed so much in the meantime. But it was also heartening to hear after dancing with each of them once that I “still had it.”

I didn’t actually get any work per se done during the next few days. Preparing to leave for two weeks in Washington, DC on Sunday, I needed to meet with people, pack, do laundry and all that. So on Friday I had a lovely lunch with Vera, my adopted grandmother, at a Colombian/Cuban restaurant near her place on Chambers Street, then coffee during a downpour at Café Reggio with Angelina, who is doing a dissertation on Dominican palos music at CUNY and soon to leave for Santiago again. I hadn’t realized that we had another thing in common besides Dominican music, which was that she too is a classical pianist. So we had plenty to discuss and I urged her to publish something soon, at least on the web, so that there will be _something_ available for those curious about palos as opposed to the next to nothing of the current moment.

That evening I’d planned on a tipico night with a friend, Ben, of Iaso Records. But in the end he couldn’t swing it and I didn’t feel like making the journey on my own, so I prepared for a quiet evening at home. But then Tianna came in looking for her cello: she was about to play a little, informal gig only a few blocks from home. It was too convenient to pass up, so I went along to her friend’s apartment, where down in the basement in a pleasantly empty but rather stuffy room, an array of electronic equipment and musical instruments were laid out on a rug. Tianna played cello, accompanied by a friend on guitar and voice and a guy on the rug pushing buttons and pulling levers. Everyone had different foot pedals and touch pads to play with, as well, manipulating the sounds into eerie echoes and mournful loops that combined into something that sounded to me like the cosmos. Back to the music of the spheres again.

I was slated to go to Fire Island with Lauren, Dan, and friend the next day. But when I woke up, it definitely looked like rain. It was disappointng - in all the time I worked in Long Island, I’d actually never been there, or even to any Long Island beach other than Quogue - but, it also provided me with a much-needed opportunity for laundry. Walking from the laundromat to our local record & coffee shop, I noticed a sign for a dance studio offering ballroom dance as well as “disco lessons.” It must be for the Poles, but I was kind of tempted to sign up and find out what kind of moves they were teaching.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Weird: the new normal

composed 7/22 - 7/26/06

Most of my weeks are odd, but this one does seem odder than most. Perhaps it’s just that I’m feeling a bit sleep-deprived, but the combination of an International Tambora Day, freelance talent scouting, riding around in a town car singing to Tatico songs at 4 AM, descending into the bowels of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see skull lyres and Franz Liszt’s piano, and avant-garde noise/music in a Greenpoint basement still seems strange to me. But hey: weird is the new normal. I declare it so, and so it must be.

It started off on Monday with a last-minute invitation from my friend Chinito, the percussionist. He’d been invited, also at the last minute, to play some tambora up at the Alianza Dominicana in Washington Heights in order to help dedicate a new mural honoring Catarey, a great tamborero of the past who’d died on that day sixteen years ago. Thus I found myself, on what was, if possible, even a hotter day than the one on which we’d made the backyard bonfire a couple of days earlier, standing around on a sidewalk under the beating sun. I was sweating from every part of my body and it was running down the backs of my legs. I shaded myself with a magazine and examined a giant tambora, maybe three feet in diameter and painted in Dominican red, white and blue, that had been made specially for the occasion.

A group of Alianza students gathered around as well, along with a few random musicians that had showed up to honor Catarey. Chinito was still nowhere in sight, but a couple of other tamboreros had brought their instruments and started playing in duet, cycling between the various rhythms of maco, merengue, and pambiche, giving each time to solo. Then Catarey’s sister was asked to say a few words, but no one could hear her, so a couple of students just yanked the black cloth from the mural and we all applauded. It showed winged tamboras, big and small, flying up to join the stars in the night sky.

Chino showed up shortly thereafter, just in time to watch a video of the late great tambora player in some of his numerous TV appearances, some of them with his brothers - fabulous guitarists who played bachata and son. Jaded as I am, the guy was impressive and inventive. It turned out he’d even played at the Blue Note with some Latin jazz artists back in the 80s. I couldn’t watch the whole thing, though, as I also needed to chat with folklorist Ivan Dominguez, who I’d met long ago, and the Alianza director, who I never had. They told me about a new collection of field recordings they’d recently acquired. They were looking for a student to help them out with the cataloguing and identification, and I wanted to help, but I won’t be around long enough to make much headway.

The film was followed by more tambora playing on the sweltering sidewalk, this time in trio, now that Chino was there. And then it was over and everyone went back to their business, which in Ivan’s case involves trying to convince President Leonel Fernandez that every July 17 should be the official Day of the Tambora. Even if it never comes to be, this was a nice, unofficial start.

I was glad to have learned about a great percussionist, even though he hadn’t been a tipico guy. But I was about to learn something truly surprising Chino and a new friend, a former Dominican folk musician, walked me to the train. On the way, this friend said something about a certain 17 million dollars he was about to get. Naturally, we wondered how he was going to swing this. “Oh, you know, I was contacted by email by someone in Europe who needed help getting money transfered between banks. The paperwork and all. He needed a partner in the US and I agreed to do it. So he’s going to pay me a cut. It’s for real ” This sounded suspicious, but Chino didn’t want to sound too disapproving. “Really? I get emails that sound like that all the time. I never thought any of them would be for real.” “Oh, I know, but some of them are,” he assured us. “We’ve already done most of the paperwork. We’re only waiting for one more document to come through now.” I didn’t have Chino’s compunctions. “Have you seen the money yet?” I asked. “No, but I will soon.” “If you haven’t seen any money, it’s just a scam like all the others.” “Don’t pass judgment when you don’t know all the details,” he warned me. “OK - I’m just saying, I wouldn’t waste my time or money on it.” “Well, sometimes you have to take risks to get something. I’m taking one and it’s going to pay off.”

So if you ever wondered who fell for those emails, now you know. I just hope he doesn’t have to invest too much before he finds out the real story. I guess one might at least take consolation from the help he’ll be giving to the Nigerian economy.

I spent Tano writing, reading, doing errands, and trying to track down both a hard-to-reach empresario and a certain missing bass player. Guess how successful I was?

Not to worry, I was much more successful the next day. Alejandro came through for me again and set up an interview for me with Peligro, the empresario in charge of his band, Aguakate. He put a time to it and everything- I just had to get there. Little did I know that that would be the hard part.

I left home an hour before the scheduled time, figuring that would give me plenty of leeway. Ha My first thought was to take the G train to the E and then the A up to Washington Heights. When I got to the turnstile, though, I found my Metrocard had expired. Just as I finished purchasing the new one, I heard the train arriving. I ran to meet it and had just reached the first car when the driver, looking me in the face, closed the doors. My supplicating look had no effect on this evil man, who I imagined laughing horribly as he sped away, leaving me swaying on the platform in the subway wind.

The G train tends to come only every 20 minutes or so. I didn’t have that long to wait, so I decided to go for plan B - the bus to the L to the A, a longer route, but my only other option. As I called Alejandro to tell him my woes and perhaps relay a message to Peligro, I saw a B61 arriving across the street, and ran again to meet it, just as the door closed. This time my pathetic expression paid off, though, and the driver opened it again. “What?” he asked me. “I just got nervous for a second.” “NERVOUS? WHY??” he asked me in the fake screechy voice of a madman. “I thought you were going to leave me.” “LEAVE YOU? Does THIS look like the face of a guy who LEAVES people? ?” I looked at his crazed expression and decided, “No; you look like a nice one.” I went to sit down.

Across the aisle from me a girl with a thick Queens accent and long, bright pink nails was talking on her cell phone. “So I said to her, no, forget it I’m just gonna take the bus over to her house.” At this the bus driver picked up his microphone and his voice, now deep and booming, came over the loudspeaker: “You take the bus over there. Yeah.” From then until I got off, he responded to every comment she made with a Barry White-style “Yeah.”

That was entertaining enough, but it didn’t quite make up for the mental anguish I suffered at the hands of the G train driver. I got to Peligro’s late and a bit flustered. Not to worry; he’d been busy anyway so it was just as well to start later. I found him behind the counter of his sports store, but he took me into the basement for the interview, where noone would interrupt us. Down there, we sat on plastic buckets between the tightly packed aisles full of shoeboxes. In a tiny room off this cluttered hallway a man worked alone embroidering jerseys, imprinting my interview recording with the sounds of an industrial sewing machine. We did get interrupted a bit, by workers coming down to ask Peligro’s opinion on various things and a guy bearing pink-tinted silkscreens saying “Brooklyn Girl.” But we also got the interview done. Good thing, too: I decided to award him the Second Most Difficult Interview prize, after Aureliano, since I’d been trying daily to schedule the appointment for the last month, and had even tried briefly some years before. Through Peligro, I learned more about the business of tipico and how it plays out in the US context. I also learned which is the biggest-selling tipico recording in history. No, I’m not going to tell you! Read the dissertation!!

Now it was about 7 PM, but my day was far from over. I picked up a smoothie from a cart on the street before hopping in the train to fortify me. I had to get a couple of things done at NYU, and I had to get to Macoris Restaurant tonight. First because I hadn’t been in a couple of weeks, second because I needed to track down some people, and when you can’t reach a tipico musician or fan or get their phone number, Macoris is the best bet for finding them. Lidia, my new blog friend from the University of Texas, decided to join me for the expedition.

We met in the Grand Street subway station, taking the L to Broadway Junction and changing there for the J. Although we could only get one stop closer to our destination, it was worth it. I knew that if we got off at Broadway Junction we’d have to walk under blocks and blocks of elevated traintracks along dark, unpopulated streets in East New York, which is still reported to be New York’s most crime-ridden neighborhood. (Of course, perceptions of this vary widely among residents, as it’s a large area filled with all differnt kinds of people. When I expressed concern a few weeks ago about walking to Alejandro’s house from the subway station a few blocks away, he told me, “but nothing ever happens around here!”) At any rate, we decided to skip the scene from the slasher movie and get off at the much better-lit Fulton Avenue station, from there walking on busy boulevards to Macoris. This worked out fine.

At Macoris, nothing was happening yet. It was only about 10:45. Far too early for tipico, these days. But guess who was there? Tano! The mysteriously missing bass player. His excuse? He doesn’t get a cell phone signal in the basement where he lives. “Don’t you ever come out of that basement?” I wondered, as I’d tried to reach him at all hours and on every day of the week. “Not that much. I have my computer there, so, you know.” Everyone’s wired these days! Certainly a change from when I started my research 5 years ago. He gave me the number of the land line, so we’ll see if what he says is true. (One of the other musicians suggested an alternative, low-tech explanation: too many women.)

Tano also helped me in the evening’s other mission: locate Geno, a young Dominican-American kid I’d never met but who was reputed to be an excellent accordionist, with Prodigio-like technique. I was intrigued and wondered if he could be the right man for the aforementioned folk rock fusion recording/touring job. Tano had his number so we gave him a call to see if he could come by and regale us with some tunes. He did, but much later, like 1 AM, when we were about ready to leave. In the meantime, we’d already heard two sets from Lioni Parra, whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years but who was sounding very good. Another friend from my now long-ago tipico-club-going days, Freddy Ginebra, showed up as well. At the end of the second, I played two tunes myself, and found I’d made some new fans since the last time I’d played Macoris. “Play El Tiguerito! El Tiguerito!!” they demanded. I hadn’t played that tune since the last time and I didn’t remember it very well, either, but squeezed it out anyway, endearing me to those two merengueros forever - Lidia and I even shared a ride home with them later.

At any rate, Geno eventually did show up and I saw right away it was true, he was the perfect guy for the project, even though he was only 20 years old. He wanted to know more about it. “They said they want someone young and hip,” I told him. “Do you consider yourself young and hip?” “Well, young, but I don’t know about hip. Maybe you can teach me.” He thought I was hip! Isn’t that adorable? I set him straight though. “Me? Nah, I’m just an accordion-player loser.” “Me too,” he concurred. But when he played, he certainly didn’t seem like a loser. His technique was all it was cracked up to me, he was adorable, and could even sing. I gave him a glowing recommendation the next day, and the day after that I called him to make sure he was going to call the band back. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Practicing accordion?” “Yeah, like a loser.”

When I’d played I took advantage of my microphone priveleges to berate the men in the place for not dancing when I was sitting around waiting. So while Geno played they had to re-prove their manhood by dancing with me finally, which helped me stay awake. After all that was over and I made my round of farewells, it was after 3! So we hopped in a town car with my fans and sped away, under the command of the most tipico driver ever. “See if you know these songs!” he shouted, pushing in a cassette of old Tatico tunes. Soon everyone was singing along in drunken tipico bliss. “Do you play this one? You should play this one!”

There could hardly have been greater contrast between my Wednesday night, East New York ambience and the setting of my Thursday activities. After far too little sleep, I had to get up and hit the road in preparation for a meeting I’d set up a few days previously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I barely had time to wolf down half a cheese danish and a cup of coffee at a Polish café playing bad pop music before I had to get on the G train, the E train, and finally the 4 train to the Upper East Side.
– to be continued --

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The magical, self-referential blog

7/17 - 7/18/06
I figured I’d better get out and hear some more music on Sunday, a good night for tipico in Queens, so I made plans to go out to El Rinconcito de Nagua in Woodhaven. But first, both excercise and brunch were in order. Tianna’s Tucson friend, Danielle, was in town. It felt a bit like a slumber party, and we all woke up groggy and giggling. Tianna suggested we try a Kick & Punch class at the neighborhood Y to get us moving. We did, but didn’t last long. It was pretty intense, and exactly what I’m not supposed to be doing for my knee. Instead, we did about fifteen minutes of bedroom yoga, gossiped about Tucson people, and then, starving for both food and caffeine, headed towards Saint Helens, where we had the slooooooowest brunch I’d yet encountered. It was tasty, but I don’t think anything was tasty enough for that kind of wait.

Later that evening, I had to meet a new friends whose acquaintance I owe to this very blog: Lidia, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Texas who is studying Dominican foodways in Tamboril and New York. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about, and since we both found ourselves temporarily in Brooklyn we made plans to meet up down on Grand Avenue, near my old East Williamsburg haunts. We touched base via cell phone. “Keep walking east on Grand, and I’ll be walking towards you. If we stay on the same sidewalk, we’ll run into each other eventually.” “But how will I know you’re you, and how will you know I’m me?” I wondered. “I think I can recognize you from your blog,” Lidia said. “And I have big hair.”

I did recognize her from her masses of long, curly hair, more than enough to make the hair-deprived (such as myself) jealous. We headed to an old favorite of mine, the Salvadoran restaurant “Bahia.” While living in New York, I found Salvadoran food often provided the best substitute for the Sonoran food I missed from home. They have corn tamales with no meat inside, not quite the green corn tamales with chile and cheese I longed for, but close enough. They also have delicious refried black beans. We ordered a “plato tipico” consisting of fried sweet plantains, homemade cheese, beans, and cream, as well as cheese-filled pupusas topped with tangy cabbage salad. This kept us pleasantly occupied as we discussed research plans and I gave her some contact information for all my favorite people in Santaigo. We even gave Hector, the palero, a call - I wanted to check on my car, anyhow. The connection wasn’t very good, but we managed to touch base, at least.

Unfortunately, Lidia couldn’t go with me to El Rinconcito - her crazy New York existence meant that 10 PM on a Sunday night was the only time she’d been able to find to meet up with an old friend. So we parted ways at the Grand Avenue subway station, but made plans to have a tipico night some other day. Taking the L to the J train out to the 75th Street stop, I made surprisingly good time to my destination. Once there, I claimed a table near the door, feeling a little odd because I didn’t recognize anyone in the small but highly appreciative audience, making me a curiosity in more ways than one. Still, I did know Leopoldo, the accordionist, and Junior, the guirero, and once they finished the set they came over to say hi and buy me a second beer. Before long everyone in the place wanted to dance with me, it seemed. Good thing, as I needed the exercise both for the usual reasons and in order to stay awake

In the second set, I was asked to play so I cranked out some of the usual suspects, “La Cartera Vacia” and “El Puente Seco.”: Junior thought I’d played better than the day before, and this immediately made me a lot of new friends who wanted to know all about me. One who asked me to dance told me he was both a bodega-owner and one of the biggest merengueros or tipico fans around, so I asked his name. He turned out to be Fermin Checo, a name I’d heard often both from the musicians I know and in homenajes, recorded songs of homage. This was a fortuitous meeting and, naturally, I made plans to interview him.

For neighborly reasons, this gig has to end at 1 AM sharp - all the better for me - so at that time we repaired to the sidewalk, where I stood around talking to the New York-born bass player until Papo, one of those ultra-persistent fans who never misses any of the shows, offered me a ride to the Myrtle Avenue L station, much more convenient for me, and we sped away in his delivery van.

On Monday I tried again to reach Tano. Guess how well that went?

On Tuesday I was more successful: not with Tano but with Heidy, one of the only professinal female guira players around, and an old friend from the days when she was playing with Rafaelito Polanco and I was working in the public sector. Turns out she now has three kids and thus is not playing much anymore, especially since Rafaelito went back to the island. We made plans to meet up at her new apartment near Myrtle and Broadway.

When I got off the bus under the elevated M train, I tried to call Heidy for the address but couldn’t get through. Eventually I decided I might as well have some lunch, so wandered into the nearest Dominican restaurant for a lunch plate of rice, beans, and fish. It was enough for three people, but I was glad to have leftovers. When I finished I tried again and found her. Then I found the building, one of those tall apartment blocks built by city services, without trouble. Heidy opened the door to her extremely tidy first-floor, two-bedroom place accompanied by her one-year-old daughter who was rolling about in a pink walker.

A Bushwick native, Heidy had never thought much of tipico until highschool, when she was able to hear some of the local bands playing at restaurants in the neighborhood. One of her sisters had recently come up to New York from the DR and played accordion, sparking Heidy’s interest further. She started out as a dancer with a band, but when one of the percussionists suggested she take up an instrument instead she realized the guira was for her. After practicing a few months along to tapes of Fefita, she was surprising everyone in the tipico world with her self-taught skills. She ended up playing for about seven years straight with Rafaelito Polanco, one of the most demanding accordionists, and greatly enjoyed proving that women can indeed be awesome percussionists.

After an hour or so of interview, Heidy had to go pick up her twin son and daughter at school. I went along for the walk. Her son, Eli, quickly decided I was OK. As soon as we got home, he was showing me all his toys. (His twin sister was more interested in potato chips.) Heidy showed me her new guira and a framed newspaper article on her wall - the one I’d set up with El Diario several years ago, which featured a picture of her with Rafaelito and Pablo, the bass player. I couldn’t stay too long as I had to go into school to pick up some stuff, but we discussed plans to meet up later to go out for more tipico.

Back at the ranch that evening, Tianna arrived home with another houseguest from Tucson, this one a traveling physicist. Apparently, he roams around the country in a vegetable oil bus giving physics demonstrations at schools, while he’s not teaching at community college. I asked if he was like a snake oil salesman, only for science, and he said yes, but without the sales. Tianna tells me that the their biggest challenge came in the South. There, people thought they were psychics. Apparently, they couldn’t read the “Physics Factory” sign. The physicists hadn’t counted on illiteracy.

He didn’t have that problem to contend with at our place, but he did have to contend with our sleeping situation: Tianna has a futon, I have what she terms “the crib” but is actually an armchair and ottoman that fold into a very narrow bed. The rest of the space is taken up by piles of laundry, a drum set, computer equipment, desks, books, a Casio keyboard, a typewriter with a sheet of paper in it that reads “first word best word. She lived in an attic, like the artists of la boheme,” two entirely unnecessary space heaters, a football, some potted plants, cowboy boots and hats, but no other sleeping equipment. The physicist solved the problem by deciding to sleep on the roof after we’d climbed out the window to enjoy the view of Manhattan and a blood-red moon, indicating the city’s current smog level.

The next day, Tianna had to work early so I entertained our new, temporary roommate with brunch at a diner, a visit to the Strand, and lunch at Dojo, my usual place. After he left I had a pretty average afternoon of library visits and all. Guess which musician I was still unable to reach?

Back at home that evening, the evening of one of the hottest days of the year so far, Tianna looked out our kitchen window only to find our downstairs neighbors inexplicably sitting around a campfire. “Come on down! We’ve got beer!” they called to us. Seemed like a good invitation, so we went down and wandered around the basement until we found the exit to the backyard - the rather lovely backyard, with a thick carpet of grass, a pear tree full of young fruit but no partridge, tomatoes, peppers, basil, and marigolds. In the midst of all that bounty, two guys drinking beer and eating Sunchips around a metal firepit shaped like a 1950s UFO. Soon I too had a beer in my hand and they were telling us how they’d been inspired to collect the wood after last Wednesday’s rain and windstorm, the same one that had resulted in the freak tornado in Westchester, and saw all that unclaimed bounty lying about the streets of Brooklyn. They felt like manly men as they ran around collecting firewood and hacking it into manageable pieces with their hatchet. It made quite a change from their day jobs at financial firms on Wall Street.

The fire and beer party was actually being held in honor of our downstairs neighbor’s birthday the next day, which, when we joined the festivities, was only an hour away. We decided to wait for it in order to make a toast. In the meantime, we threw peanuts to the firegod. Then two friends of the birthday boy, punk rock girls with crazy hairdos and a punk rock band. We discussed horror movies and how these days they’ll just make one about any old thing. I imagined the writers at work: “What are people not sufficiently scared of yet?” “I don’t know - rubber duckies?” And thus is a horror movie born. The rubber ducky horror could really go places, too, as his water-dwelling habits open up all sorts of possibilities for new deaths involving drowning, electrocution, etc. One of the financial advisors also suggested the squirting of acid out of the ducky squeaky place. In the movie, whenever one heard SQUEAK-Y! SQUEAK-Y! One would know horror would follow. But tonight, all that followed was a toast, bourbon, and bedtime.

I’ve been getting the most interesting mail from my blog readers. Thanks, readers! Keep it coming! Anyway, last week I got one from the assistant to the frontman of a popular folk rock band which shall remain nameless, but which is beloved to my nephews. They’re apparently looking for recommendations for a latino accordionist to work with them on a recording project and go on tours and all. It could be a great opportunity for someone but I wasn’t sure who, so I started calling around to see what my tipico-playing friends thought. It’s always good to start with the ones who want to marry you, because you know they’re likelyto help. Sure enough, Alejandro came up with a good possibility. But first he asked, “are you SURE they don’t need a bass player?” Then I called another friend for advise. He said he’d ask around, but first he wanted to know, “are you SURE they don’t need a percussionist?” Jeez, maybe I should just get a whole band together and take it on tour myself...

It was an interesting end to the week, and after that, there was only vacation to worry about. Along with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews, I’d been invited out to visit our cousins at their summer homes in Quogue (near the Hamptons in Long Island). It was an offer too good to refuse, especially with the heat rising in the city. (Why do we need so much *&^%$ cement and asphalt?!?) So we rendezvoused in Flushing and headed east. There we spent a lovely though too short two days and one night playing in the pool and on the beach, enjoying the surprisingly cool breeze in the forest (I even needed a sweater at night!), eating and drinking, bicycling and being amused by the antics of small people. If only I’d had batteries for my camera I would have captured the cutest moment ever. One of our cousin Amy’s children, Owen, wanted to go down to the water and jump waves with his grandfather Lou, and took his hand. Once my smaller nephew Aiden saw this he wanted to go too, and took Lou’s other hand. And then Owen’s twin brother Oliver saw this and decided he’d better not miss the action, taking his brother’s hand. My larger nephew, Aaron, not to be left out, grabbed Aiden’s hand and they all paraded out to the ocean, five men all in a row.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Ernestidio plays the Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Another photo from last week's festival. (Scroll down the page to see me performing at the same event)

Whipped into an accordion-induced frenzy

So, on a very steamy Saturday afternoon, I jumped on the L train to the DeKalb station, where I got off and found Bushwick residents trying to beat the heat by opening up the fire hydrants and letting them run everywhere, and by bringing their TVs and armchairs out onto the sidewalk, running the cords in through a window. (Electrical appliances and gushing water doesn’t seem the safest combination, but they did look comfortable.)

I found Chinito hard at work mixing tracks on his computer - as usual. But he had made time to go out and get a couple of Presidentes so as to make our interview more enjoyable. They helped with the heat, too In the course of this very interesting interview, I found out that Chinito had been a member of a roller-skating crew when he was growing up on the Lower East Side in the late 70s-early 80s. They wore matching suits with their names stiched onto one leg and their zodiac signs on the other and went around skating and working on skate-dancing moves. He was also getting involved with the early New York deejaying scene, spinning records and scratching and all that. And at the same time, he was beginning his típico performance career, playing guira with King de la Rosa. When he had to go to a gig that was a little ways away, he would skate over, so sometimes he just left his skates on as he played. This developed into a whole shtick where during his guira solos he would break out with some roller stylings, rolling down into the splits and then seeming to pull himself back up by the neck of his shirt. Needless to say, the new guira style caused quite a stir when he took it on tour with him to the DR in 1981.

These days Chino keeps busy by producing recordings for merengue, reggaetón, and rock artists. He no longer has the matching jumpsuit seen on the cover of the LP he recorded with King when he was 16 and pulled out to show me, a black-and-tan polyester number that combined well with King’s afro and Pablo the bassist’s cubano-style cap. I asked Chino if he could still skate and he told me he took his skates out the other day just to see. But now, he found, he was mostly just afraid of falling down. I could totally sympathize what with my knee surgeries and subsequent lack of a dancing career. Man, I guess we’re all getting older

I continued reflecting on that theme over the remainder of the Fourth of July weekend. I spent three post-Presidente days at my sister’s house playing with my nephews, or
writing while they were otherwise occupied. At ages 6 and 2 ½, they never seem to tire. Even after a whole morning at the beach on the Croton River (which has the inexplicable name of Silver Lake), Aaron was unable to nap long enough for Heather and I to watch Transamerica. So we were unable to complete our Alternative Lifestyles Independence Weekend, which had begun so promisingly with a showing of Brokeback Mountain. Still, we had a successful Fourth of July BBQ at the neighbors. I brought moro de guandules and Heather tried to poison me with chicken disguised as fish. Then Aaron threw a tantrum when we had to leave, proving that the party had been a success.

I got back into the swing of things pretty quickly upon return to the Greenpoint attic where I hide out these days. It’s fun living with Tianna again - the last time we were roommates was in the year 2000 - although she has a crazy work schedule and social life that has cut into my sleep habits. (That may explain the quality of this blog entry more than anything.) Her room, which I now share, is the whole top floor of a three-story house, from which one can admire the shiny hardwood floors and beamed ceiling on the inside as well as a view of Manhattan, Empire State Building and all, out of the west-facing dormer window. There is also a stairway going up to a skylight that presumably opens onto the roof - though it appears to be stuck down with tar. More on that later. The only drawback is the downstairs area of the apartment, where the kitchen, living room, and bathroom are to be found and which we share with way too many aspiring indie rockers who drink too much. The trash-and-bottle situation gets completely out of control about every two days, while just about every morning the kitchen is a disaster area of crusty dishes and half-used cooking ingredients. So this area plays the cloud to the attic’s silver lining.

Greenpoint is a heavily Polish section of Brooklyn, now being invaded by hipsters. There seem to be few culture clashes between the two groups, although of course the hipsters haven’t yet invaded the Europa nightclub. I don’t think the syrupy Polish pop and Polish electronica suit their tastes. I shop at a Polish grocery sometimes but I can’t buy any of the Polish canned food products because I don’t know what they are. I do buy the Polish juice though, as it very conveniently has a picture on the box of the type of fruit you’ll find inside. All told, life is pretty good for me in Greenpoint.

Anyway, Tianna and I got out to enjoy some music provided by her friend Hannah one night during the week. She is a singer-songwriter who performs on her guitar and sometimes harmonium. Her voice is lovely and works well for her mellow tunes and picturesque lyrics, one of which says “I’d like to rip out your throat and plant a tree in it.” And it was sung in a place called Capone’s Bar, an interesting setting with an upper level where people sitting up above on a patio can look down upon cleavage, and a sunken lower seating area where those sitting below can look up people’s skirts. An interesting arrangement, to be sure. We did get free pizza.

Then it was back to business - I’d set up an interview with Arsenio de la Rosa, King’s brother whom I’d met the week before. This time around I had a much easier time finding the apartment and gaining admittance. One of Arsenio’s American-born, hip-hop-playing sons came down to let me in. Up in the apartment, we found King hanging out playing guitar, accompanied by the chirping of the dozen tiny, colorful birds kept in cages in the hallway. The History Channel was on the big-screen TV, sound off, and so grainy footage of battleships accompanied us throughout the interview. As Aresnio started playing during the Trujillo era, and actually met Petan (the dictator’s brother who ran the state radio and TV stations), I was able to learn a lot more about life and music during that time. I also learned a lot about how tipico got going in New York, since he’d moved here in 1963 - just after Trujillo died and some time before other tipico musicians got up here.

On Friday, I did not get the interview with Tano. Good thing something else happened on Saturday to distract me for a while: the first annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival. A week ago, I’d called up my old friend Ernestidio, an accordionist and accordion tuner in Cypress Hills. He was happy to have heard from me. “Hey, you know, I’m playing at some kind of festival up in Manhattan, in Riverside Park, next Saturday. You should come down! Play a couple of tunes with us!” That same day but a few hours later, I checked my emails and found I’d received a couple inviting me to the same event - to introduce Ernestidio and his group. It turned out that while I was away, Bob Godfried, a fellow New York accordion nut, had been helping the organizers to get some Latino groups onto the program, and had remembered my old friend Ernestidio from a library program I’d organized several years back. He’d called him up and contracted him for the event, and then when I got back he and organizer Robin had invited me to come on over as well. So that worked out nicely.

The festival took place all afternoon and into the evening on the pier at 70th Street. At that point, Riverside Park is just a little strip of green located on a very steep hill in between and sort of underneath the West Side Highway. But the pier, which has been made over rather nicely with paving stones, railings, and streetlamps, was a very pleasant and breezy location for a music event. As I came out from under the highway and crossed the bike path, I encountered Ernestidio just walking back up the path to get the bass amp, and Cesar the tambora player drinking a beer with Junior the singer (usually a guira player, but promoted to lead singer for the occasion) at a table near the food booth. On the stage at the moment was a rock band fronted by a woman playing accordion while wearing flourescent pink fingerless gloves and copious amounts of eye makeup. I was sorry we’d missed some of the earlier act, which included an all-female accordion orchestra, an Irish group, and a norteño group with, oddly enough, a Chilean frontman. But we did get to hear a Balkan duo as we waited. Bob gave me some background: the accordionist was raised on Staten Island by Albanian parents, while the percussionist was part of the Bronx Macedonian gypsy community. The two got tired of being threatened with guns in classic Balkan fashion whenever they missed someone’s favorite tune, and thus stopped playing Macedonian weddings and started on the folk festivals instead.

They kept us entertained until it was time for Ernestidio and the boys (which included New York-born “El Escorpion” on guira and Monchy on bass) to take the stage, and me to translate for their sound check. But this task was finished before I knew it - literally. I was still waiting for an affirmative from the sound man when they just started in with Los Algodones. Ah well. I made my introductions later, and then took the opportunity to dance a few numbers - including a mangulina - with the two Dominicans present (both friends of the musicians). Many others were motivated to join in with their own moves, some of which resembled merengue and some of which did not. The latter were mostly performed by a guy in a Mark Twain mustache and puff of grey hair dressed in bright red trousers, yellow shirt, and herringbone jacket. Apparently, he goes to all the accordion events.

The festival crowd was really easy to please, they were already whipped up into an accordion-induced frenzy. Their reacion when I introduced the band was “WOO-HOO!!!” And then when Junior asked me to come up and ask the crowd if they were enjoying the music, they said “WOO-HOO!!!” I translated this for Junior: “They said they were! They said they were!!” And when Ernestidio asked me to come up to play, I told the audience they could be the judge as to whether I’d learned anything in all the time I spent in the Dominican Republic. When I finished my first tune, I asked their verdict. It was: “WOO-HOO!!!” All in all, a successful afternoon. We stayed long enough to hear a few tunes from the Cajun band that followed us and closed the show. Bob was on guitar and the accordionist was playing a beautiful instrument handmade in the bayou. He had the appropriate accent, as well. We liked the music, and the accent, but Ernestidio was pleased that more people had danced to his tunes.

Ernestidio’s driver kindly gave me a ride home, all the way to Greenpoint. I’d planned on going out again to hear Ernestidio play in Bushwick later that evening, but got distracted with other things and then it really seemed too late to have to catch a bus, then a train, then call the musicians to come look for me and walk me to the club from the creepy subway station, so I called it a night. Tomorrow would be another tipico day, after all.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Palos video

Palos music - Grupo Mello

Watch the video
I shot this video one very dark night at the Casa de Arte in Santiago, Dominican Republic. It is of my friends the Turbí brothers, heads of the group Mello de San Juan, performing palos music. They are originally from San Juan de la Maguana, in the Southwest, but now live in Santiago. The second part of the clip focuses on people dancing to the music.

Ah, fieldwork! The ups! The downs! The standing around looking at one's watch...

You know, trying to get interviews done in New York is really no different than trying to get interviews done in the DR. You think you’ve scheduled something, but it falls through, so you reschedule, and reschedule, and reschedule… and you can’t have any semblance of a social life because you’re planning around the interviews you thought you scheduled and rescheduled, and you even base your sleep schedule around these elusive musician-types, and they have no idea what kind of hell they are putting you through. Aaaaaghh!!!

In spite of all that, I actually did manage to get two done last week. First up was King de la Rosa, who I’d run into at Macoris Restaurant the week before. We’d agreed on a time (5 PM Monday) and a place (his apartment in the Bronx) but I figured it would be wise to give him a reminder call in the morning. So I dialed the number – and got a friendly message from Verizon telling me the number wasn’t in service. Great Well, I could always just go there and hope he remembered – I did have his address, and he had said he would be teaching accordion lessons all afternoon. If I came a bit early I should be able to catch him.

I did that, and found his place, in a big block of four apartment buildings near Yankee Stadium, without too much trouble. I even found his bizarre apartment number (E3X? who ever heard of such a thing??) amidst the hundreds of buttons on the intercom next to the gate. But I received no answer. I pondered my next move, and thought of calling some people who’d be likely to have King’s correct phone number. I tried Tano, who plays bass with him. No go, but he gave me the number of the guy who plays guira with him. He didn’t have it either. Then I tried Juan Almonte, the restauranteur. He didn’t have it but suggested Bolivar, the new owner of Macoris, would. But when I called over there, they informed me he wouldn’t be in for another three hours. Not too helpful for me waiting on a sidewalk in the Bronx. I decided to get a milkshake at a diner I’d passed and rethink the situation.

The only flavor of ice cream at the diner, the Argentine waitress told me, was walnut. This seemed odd, but what the heck, I decided to try the walnut milkshake. Not bad. A soccer game was on - my Dominican York neighbor at the counter and I discussed how we knew nothing about this game, and then I opened up my book on Paraguay, a country I then discussed with the waitress (soup=good, economy=bad, was her evaluation). Afterwards, I figured I’d give the apartment building one last try before calling it a day.

Back at the ranch, someone opened the outer gate for me. Go on in, they told me. Well, it wouldn’t do much good if King still weren’t at home, but I went in and wandered around the very, shall we say, “urban” ambience of the courtyard until a kid carrying a drycleaning bag over his shoulder walked past me, opening the door to King’s building. “Do you live here?” I asked him. He did. “Do you know King de la Rosa? E3X?” “Umm... hold on a second... wait right here...” he mumbled as he ran up the stairs, leaving me to admire a lobby that might have once been grand, with its mosaic floor, high ceilings, and big 1930s copper light fixture, but was now just dingy and littered. Soon a chubby girl in an oversize t-shirt came down and confirmed that King lived on the third floor and that I should go up and knock.

I did that - well, actually, I rang the push-button bell below the peephole instead, and an elderly woman came to the door to let me in. There was no living room to speak of, so she showed me to a bedroom where King had just finished giving the last accordion lesson of the day. He was glad to see me. “But why didn’t you call?”

Explanations out of the way, we went on to a very satisfactory interview, complete with demonstrations of various accordion techniques. All the walking around, waiting, calling, milkshake-drinking, and interviewing had made it late - it was already nine, and I’d thought I would have been home by then. Still, I couldn’t very well turn down King’s offer to introduce me to his brother Arsenio, who I’d also been wanting to interview. “Does he live near here?” “Yes, he does,” King said as we exited into the courtyard. He’d barely finished saying so before we entered the building directly across and walked up one flight, arriving at Arsenio’s place - conveniently located, indeed.

Arsenio has gone evangelical and no longer plays gigs, but the sense of showmanship hasn’t left him. He was happy to have an audience, and pulled out a full-size piano accordion, enormous compared with the button accordions I’m now used to from merengue tipico. He proceeded to work through an incredibly varied repertoire for the next forty-five minutes, playing everything from Italian music to paso dobles and tangos, finally a little vallenato and a merengue for good measure.

Clearly, when we finished it was even later, but now I was hungry, so I couldn’t turn down King’s offer of dinner. “There’s a place near hear with good American food. Let’s go there,” he suggested, and brought me to the same diner as before. It was an all-diner day. At least it was a successful one - both in terms of the interview and the tuna melt.

Next up was Tano, a bass player and one of the first tipico musicians to move to Brooklyn. He’s also the bass player on the famous album Juan Luis Guerra recorded with accordionist Francisco Ulloa (Fogaraté). He’d agreed to a Tuesday interview, but when I called him on Tuesday, he was still working on laying down some tracks in the recording studio, so we put it off til Wednesday. He even offered to pick me up at the train station in East New York Wednesday evening, so I wouldn’t have to walk around alone, and then we could head over to Macoris together as he’d be playing there with King at 11. But when Wednesday evening rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. Alejandro picked me up instead.

Back when we were an item he was just scraping by, but now he’s in this big popular band and raking in the dough, relatively speaking. His best friend Diogenes “El Original” is saxophonist for the same group. Alejandro took me by his place to say hi to Diogenes and hear some stuff they were working on recording at home. I found out that with his newfound wealth Diogenes has bought a house in Boston, where he lives with his wife and kids when he’s not performing in New York or abroad. Alejandro, on the other hand, has stayed in the same old apartment in East New York. However, he’s made some changes too: no more roommates (there used to be a whole bunch of them there in order to make the rent) and a whole ton of new recordings and computer equipment taking up the space where sofas and chairs used to be. It’s interesting how when North Americans become upwardly mobile, one of the first things they do is move to a “better neighborhood.” Dominicans, on the other hand, stay in the same place in order to keep the same neighbors and maintain social ties, instead working on fixing up their house in situ. This holds true both for New York Dominicans and those on the island, so that even in the crummiest areas one can see a few houses that have sporuted second floors, columns and balconies, and fresh paint jobs.

Anyways, among Alejandro’s new toys was a nice keyboard, so of course they wanted me to play something, and of course I couldn’t really play anything as I hadn’t even touched a piano in a year (traveling the world and piano-playing don’t go together too well, I’ve found). But they dug my salsa riffs even though they were sloppy. Diogenes then just had to learn the opening to Fruko’s “El Preso”before I could leave for Macoris. Back at Macoris, I caught up with King and scolded Tano, who apologized that the recording session was taking much longer than expected (figures). We postponed once again, this time to Friday. But I wasn’t in the proper humor to stay out jamming all night so I left after one set.

Guess what happened on Friday? That’s right- no Tano. Time to rethink this situation. On Saturday, I set up something new. First, brunch with Tianna. A very delicious one at Bonita in South Williamsburg, which included the rather bizarre combination of a guacamole appetizer, an apple pancake main course, and loads of both coffee and sangría (depressant in your right hand, stimulant in the left -prepared for any occasion!). Next, an interview with Ray “Chino” Diaz, percussionist and producer, at his apartment-studio in Bushwick.

–soon to be continued---

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Syd as accordiongirl at Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

A friend, Bob Godfried, snapped a picture of me playing a couple merengues with friends at the Main Squeeze Accordion Festival yesterday. It took place on the pier at W. 70th St. in Manhattan. Besides merengue tipico, there was also Cajun, Balkan, Irish, Norteno, and rock music!

Friday, July 07, 2006

El Prodigio and Rafaelito Mirabal

Watch the video
At the closing ceremony for the Feria Regional del Libro in Santiago, Dominican Republic in September 2005, accordionist El Prodigio gave this surprise performance. He joined jazz pianist Rafaelito Mirabal to play Periblues (a tune Miarbal composed and El Prodigio recorded on his 2005 album, Pambiche Meets Jazz) - the first time anyone's tried to combine jazz with merengue tipico. I've excerpted some exciting moments here: President Leonel Fernandez and his wife arriving, El Prodigio's solo, Frandy Sax's solo, and the final run through the tune.

Ga-ga video


Watch the video
A ga-g music and dance group dedicated to San Miguel plays in a batey (sugar cane settlement) near Barahona in the Southwestern DR. This clip shows a few moments when the dancers were performing with machetes. Filmed by Sydney Hutchinson in April 2006, d

This video was originally shared on by salsasydney with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.