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---