My New York trip is now at an end, and tomorrow I head back to Tucson. The event at El Museo del Barrio went well: three interesting talks on merengue history, one on new directions in popular merengue, and my own on merengue típico (hey, I gotta represent). It was fun to reconnect with my merengue colleagues over a couple Presidentes, and I even scored a DVD on palos at the first New York Dominican book fair taking place up the road in the Heights.
You might recall that this symposium was held in honor of an art show on the theme of merengue. When I finished talking with audience members after my talk, though, the Museo’s galleries were closed. I had to go back the next day to actually see the exhibit. It was worth the second trip, though. Here I offer you a típico guide to and critique of “Visual rhythms / ritmos visuales.” I’m not an art critic, so I’ll just talk about what I know: music.
Most of the representative works actually have accordions or even whole típico trios somewhere in them. Some to look for:
1. “La fiesta del centenario” by Alfredo Senior La Paz. Shows couples dancing to merengue tipico at a centennial celebration in 1944, the guys looking dapper in hats, suits, and two-toned shoes. In the back next to a typical wooden Dominican house, four musicians are at work. Interestingly, the tambora is built like a barrel, with iron rings holding it together but no rope ties. The guirero is playing a gourd rather than metal instrument, and the fourth musician plays maracas. Wonder what that sounded like? Most of the other works depicting guireros also show gourd guiros rather than metal guiras, even those painted quite recently. Since no one really plays those in the típico world anymore, I assume the artists are including it as a symbol of “folklore,” “tradition,” or even “indigenousness” (since many believe the Tainos used gourd instruments) rather than trying to depict contemporary musical culture literally.
2. Untitled work by Jose Vela Zanetti, painted in 1960, is one of the few that shows a metal guira (here, it’s one of the old kind with cones over the ends). It’s also a beautiful, large-scale work showing a trio playng at night next to a sugarcane field, as a peasant man tries to woo an indifferent woman to one side. The dark, muted colors and heavy shadows really give the feel of the tropics at night. In the more recent “Musicos” by Jacinto Dominguez (1990-95) you can also see a cone guira next to the strangely tiny accordion played by the singing musician in the foreground. Although the instrument is unrealistic, the accordionists’ face actually looked the most “real” to me out of any of the works.
3. “Fiesta campesina” by Yoryi Morel was painted in 1959 and shows a trio of musicians playing and singing next to an empty bottle and a few shot glasses full of rum. In the background, people in colorful outfits dance and roast a pig on a spit in front of an enramada. “Merengue” by Jaime Colson is a vibrantly colored work from 1938 showing a lively gathering of dancers and musicians under an enramada, while a woman at right in a long white gown is fanning herself, resembling a Greek goddess only with nalgas. These two works don’t share much – except for one interesting feature for works that are supposed to depict merengue, which is that the tambora in both is played in an upright position. So it doesn’t seem that it is merengue típico that’s being performed here. Morel painted in the Cibao, where it could have been a zapateo instead – a different rhythm that was played with the tambora in this position. Colson lived and worked in the capital, so perhaps he observed other kinds of accordion trios in the south – like pri-pri.
4. “El merengue” by Jose Vela Zanetti, 1955, is a bluish, Cubist-influenced work where three musicians play guiro, maracas, and a small drum played upright, perhaps a balsie (this would make sense, since he worked in the south of the DR). The instrumentation doesn’t suggest merengue at all, though the Museo’s blurb on the work suggests Zanetti picked the instruments for purely symbolic reasons, in order to represent “Dominicanness” rather than the “Europeanness” of the accordion.
5. “Jolgorio” (1988), a gigantic painting by Plutarco Andujar done entirely in black and white, is a beautiful representation of a rural party in full swing. From the trio of típico musicians in front, to the dancing couples in their best party outfits – one with her arm flung over her head mid-turn, to the artist himself with his shirt open, drinking straight from the bottle, it draws you in to the action. You could almost write a whole novel about the characters here.
6. The photographic works in the exhibit are both beautiful and provide documentary evidence of musical practices. A series of photographs by Wilfredo Garcia, taken in the 1970s, show a perico ripiao combo in Sabana Grande de Boya – a town in the southeast and far from the Cibao. By that point, the formerly regional style had already been spread throughout the country. Here, the accordionist plays an old one-row instrument, but the guira is the more modern uncovered kind. I like the one that shows the dancers, too: a dapper young tíguere in sunglasses dances with an older woman, perhaps his mother. But the piece that most fascinated me was the video montage, which shows Tin Pichardo and partner dancing old merengue styles and Nico Lora’s son, Antonio, playing accordion. The old instrument has no shoulder straps so he plays it by resting it on his knee and using the thumb strap. It is a two-row instrument like those we still use today, but it has been heavily customized with additional buttons on both sides. He sings a song in praise of farmers – perhaps an effort to stave off the effects of the processes of urbanization and migration that already were in full swing.
Some more modern interpretations of the típico theme:
7. Many new works by New York-based artists have been added to this exhibition since I last saw it in Santiago. One must-see is “merengue típico” by David Medina, the popular deejay. He created a blue tambora, pink guira, and white accordion out of glass, echoing the colors of the Dominican and American flags. Perhaps these instruments show how fragile and how beautiful are the traditions immigrants take with them in diaspora. I’d like to hear what they sound like!
8. There are a couple of works that use típico musicians to comment on contemporary Dominican culture. One of these is the monumental “Santa Fefa divirtiendo unos chivos sin ley.” It shows Fefita in one of her infamous calendar outfits – skimpy orange lingerie with matching fishnets – with a golden halo, surrounded by three frolicking goats, one in particular apparently feeling a little bit “happy,” all reproduced on an old canvas truck cover. The “chivos sin ley” could be interpreted as outlaws, or simply misbehaving young men, and Fefita entertains them. Is it simply an irreverent, funny look at popular culture? Is it a comment on delinquency and “lawlessness” in contemporary society? Or does it depict popular perceptions of merengue típico as the music of the lower classes and of tigueraje, a “lawless” domain? I’m not sure myself, but Fefita reportedly liked it when she saw it at the Centro Leon in Santiago because it was the biggest work in the whole exhibition.
9. “La muerte del merengue: Homenaje a Tatico Henriquez” was painted by Raul Recio in 1988. It is a big and striking work, painted all in yellow and black with tiny accents in red, in a cartoonish, almost naïve style. From the left, ten floating trumpets blare, surrounded by flying vinyl records, and a nude female figure plays a radio while under a shower, her head itself an LP. On the right, a half dozen figures collapse under the onslaught of noise, as the bell of another trumpet rains LPs down on them. Their red hearts are breaking as an accordion, tambora, and guira, drop from their hands. Are they really just “mourning Tatico’s death,” as the gallery description tells us? Or is the artist expressing dissatisfaction with the post-Tatico music scene – the “noise” of orquesta merengue, represented by the trumpet (an instrument never used in Tatico’s or any other típico group), and commodified musical culture, represented by the LP?
Besides the merengue exhibit, the Museo is also displaying 10 works of contemporary Dominican art on other subjects that’s worth checking out. These depict Dominican culture through its sports (Freddy Rodriguez’s “Homenaje a Tony Pena” and “Homenaje a Sammy Sosa”), children (“Juguetes” by Jaime Jimenez), and more abstract means. Nicolas Dumit Estevez’s “The flag (la bandera)” documents his creation of a “Dominican York flag” a la Betsy Ross: he ends up with an image that combines elements of the Dominican and American flags, with an airplane mid-flight in the middle to show the constant journey. He also contributed a similarly-themed piece of performance art to the Merengue exhibit: in the caped outfit of “SuperMerengue” complete with flip-flops, he brandishes cell phones and plantains while directing the audience towards the exits of an imaginary plane.
To sum up: go see it! Experience Dominican culture, and support Dominican art in New York!