Friday, July 14, 2006

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.

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