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 --

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