Thursday, August 24, 2006

New York to Tucson

After all the excitement, I needed a couple of days to recover, reorganize, and re-move myself to Hanna’s apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. But on Wednesday night I was ready once again for fieldwork. It would be the last chance I’d get to go to Macoris for a while, and I needed to say goodbye to all my friends over there. And so I found myself once again on the J train to East New York at 11:00 at night. I arrived to find Leopoldo Santos already playing, the other tables occupied by people unknown to me, who turned out to be a group of Hondurans and a group of Dominicans visiting from North Carolina. Things were tame enough for the first set. In the second, more of my friends arrived, including Chinito (who took a turn on guira) and the US-born contingent, consisting of Geno and some of his bandmates.

When the second set finished it was already 2 AM and I was about ready for bed, but Leopoldo, Tano, Junior, Cesar, and Jesus wouldn’t hear of it: there was no way I could leave without playing, even if I hadn’t practiced in a month and was bound to play badly. So I passed the time with the musicians, standing around outside on the sidewalk as some smoked and the others gossipped. I had some gossip for them tonight, as my sources had told me that Aguakate was going to break up. The news came at a surprising time, as their new CD was coming out this very week, but apparently the lead singer Chino had decided that he wanted to go his own route. The musicians all agreed it had been a bad move to promote the band solely with Chino’s face and personality - even the t-shirt given out at Sunday’s Dominican Day parade had featured only a cartoon of him over the word “Aguakate” - leaving the rest of the band out of the picture entirely. This was especially silly, they thought, because the band members were all accomplished musicians while Chino didn’t even know how to sing, only knew how to be a “personality” and a stage presence. At this point I noticed how funny it was that I was standing on one side of the streetcorner with the Dominican-born musicians, while the American-born kids were standing in their own group on the other, and Chinito (American-born as well, but of the previous generation) went between the two. “Well, those kids are aceitosos,” explained one - they were “slippery” characters. “What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you think they are here for? They’re here to steal the tricks of the guys who are playing!” “But that’s what kids learning how to play do!” I protested. “You can’t tell me that in Tatico’s time, kids weren’t going to his shows and doing the exact same thing.” He conceded this point, but it didn’t change his opinion of their characters.

About 3:00 the third and last set finally got started. I of course had to play a couple of tunes. Then Geno played a couple and his singer joined him, replacing Junior on lead vocals. This didn’t last long, though. One rather drunk seguidor (tipico fan) piped up to complain that the singer was out of tune. He kept up his loud complaints after the next song as well, saying that it “wasn’t out of disrespect” but he “knew a thing or two about music and tuning” and that “someone had to point out the truth.” This was annoying enough that the young man was forced to step down and surrender the mic to Junior again. However, several of us discussing the situation over by the bar agreed that, although the singer was indeed young and had a couple things to work on, we’d heard far worse, and in that very restaurant, no less. I wondered if the complainer was more annoyed by the singing or the fact that the singer was American-born and not yet a part of the transnational tipico crowd, the tightly knit family of musicians and seguidores I’d gotten to know over the years. I pondered the question, but not too much, as it was now past 4 AM and high time to hit the hay.

I passed another entertaining and beer-filled evening on Thursday with my friend Cathy, who showed me around her Astoria, Queens neighborhood, home to an old and huge Greek community and a somewhat newer Arab one. We started out at the Bohemian Beer Garden, a place I’d always meant to visit but never got around to. It is quite the popular place for a beer, with Czech and other interesting East European brews on draft, and its outdoor tables were the perfect spot on this clear, breezy summer evening. But Cathy told me that even just three years ago it hadn’t attracted the crowd of young partiers and hipsters (many of which appeared to hail from Brooklyn, especially Williamsburg) that were there with us. Somehow the word got out. We could have had pierogies and the like right there in the garden, but instead we went across the street to another classic Astoria haunt: Elias’s Corner for Fish, a Greek restaurant where one can get market-fresh fish grilled whole, Greek salads, and retsina. We ate well there, disturbed only by one Greek’s annoying wife, who knocked loudly and long on the window right next to us to attract his attention, gesticulating and making angry faces as he finished dinner with three friends at a neighboring table. Why she did this rather than simply enter and talk to him, perhaps enjoying a glass of retsina that she needed even more than the rest of us, is one of the mysteries of life. Clearly it was time to move on to the dessert portion of the evening, which we had at a corner café and pastry shop whose sidewalk tables were filled with chain-smoking men who tossed their butts not in ashtrays but in glasses of water the waitress brought to every table for just that purpose. The sight was not that appetizing, but the raspberry cake we had was attractive enough to distract us.

With less than a week left, I tried to squeeze in a couple more interviews, events, and visits. Tano promised to meet with me before I left. Would you believe him? No, me neither. My attempts to interview Geno, one of the young American-born accordionists around, also did not work. But then I paid a farewell visit to Arsenio de la Rosa and family in the Bronx, and though King had already left for the DR, we passed a pleasant couple of hours debating merengue history and discussing the interesting recordings I’d found in the Library of Congress. Joe, one of Arsenio’s six children and a hip hop producer, agreed to meet with me to talk about his work with Fulanito and his place in the de la Rosa tipico dynasty, and that did pan out when in an interview at the recording studio he uses.

Aside from these bits of work I also amused myself with friends, like paying a visit to Senti, seeing Tianna at a Stars Like Fleas soundcheck at Tonic, chatting with Danielle about applied ethnomusicology, and going to Red Hook with Hanna. By Saturday I’d already been staying at Hanna’s new Carroll Gardens apartment for several days, but because of our busy social schedules we’d barely seen each other. Thus, on Saturday we decided to do our grocery shopping at the new Fairway supermarket on the Red Hook waterfront, which Hanna promised would offer both gastronomic and surprisingly scenic experiences. Sure enough, it was probably the most picturesque grocery store I’d seen.

On Saturday evening, I decided to check out a ghetto block party Geno’s merengue tipico group would be playing at in the nether reaches of Bushwick, almost to the cemetery whose tombstones could be seen out the L train’s windows as we pulled into the station.. Naturally, when I arrived twenty minutes past the scheduled arrival time, I was almost the first there. I checked out the scene, which consisted of 1970s orquesta merengues blasting from the opposite end of the street, balloon and cotton candy vendors, people selling flan out of their house, and pony rides. This made a cheerful change from the usual, somewhat depressing landscape of flat-fronted brick apartment buildings, narrow houses in faded aluminum siding, and endless dirty asphalt and cement, with no greenery to break up the dismal color palette. Returning to my starting point I found the snubbed singer from Wednesday night at Macoris and another teenage guy I’d seen before both hanging out in front of Geno’s uncle’s bodega, and I joined them. At six, the time the band was supposed to start playing, neither musicians nor equipment was there so we retired to a nearby stoop to sit and discuss the merits of various tipico singers. Eventually Geno showed up with the equipment and other band members, and they went about setting up the instruments and speakers on one side of the store. The oldest of them was only twenty, and the tamborero much younger, perhaps fifteen. The weather, unseasonably chilly, began to look decidedly threatening: bad for me, as I’d left my umbrella at home, and certainly not good for all the electrical wiring now running around the sidewalk. While they finished their preparations, I amused myself by chatting with a couple of Lower East Side-born Dominicans, a plumber and a museum tour guide, who had flatly stated they didn’t believe I could actually play tipico. When the band finally started, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in spite of their age, they all played very well. The youthful tamborero and the guirero even took some solos that were quite impressive. I filmed a bit, since it isn’t often I get to see bands play when it’s still light out. But it did at last start drizzling - not bad enough to drive the assembled crowd away but enough to cause a couple of bodega emplyees to rig up a blue plastic tarp to protect the band and their instruments, tying it to the awning and some street signs and thus obstructing my view. Oh well, that freed me up to enjoy myself a bit, dancing with some local oldsters and buying myself a Corona in a paper bag from the bodega. At their break, the plumber and the guide accompanied me to consume a slice of dollar pizza across the way. Thus sated, I returned to chat with the musicians and they informed me that I HAD to play a couple of tunes as no one there believed I could actually play. Or speak Spanish. I knew I would play badly, not having practiced in a month, but in this situation a mediocre merengue would be better than no merengue. I took the stage, the accordion, and the mic, to make an announcement in Spanish just because I could. The crowd was pleased.

After this, many errands, an excellent dinner out with friend Hanna, a long trip and much hefting of overweight luggage, I now find myself back in Tucson. After seven years of drought the monsoons have finally kicked in and everything is happy and leafy, the mountains greener than I've seen them in 20 years. It's good to be home.

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