You haven’t heard from me for a while, so perhaps you’re wondering where I’ve been since my last posting. Since returning to Tucson from New York, I’ve mostly just been writing and transcribing. I also took a little jaunt to California to visit my elderly grandparents and to Tempe to attend a conference on dance. None of this has much to do with the Dominican Republic, merengue típico, or accordions, so I didn’t post any of it. However, I have seen a few scenic sights.
As for all things tipico, I've decided, in the absence of new accordion experiences, to post excerpts from interviews and other fieldwork-related materials. So here's the first installment: Flaco's story! This is excerpted from an interview I did with the great tamborero back in 2002, where he talks about playing with Tatico and how tipico has changed since then. The interview was conducted in a barbershop in Queens.
DOMINGO "FLACO" PEÑA
Born in the town of Maimón de Bonao, Flaco started playing with his accordionist father at age 9, mostly on tambora, but also güira and conga. Although merengue típico was his first choice, he also played for a while in a Bonao-based orquesta led by Jesus García, called Combo Bonao.
“I learned how to play on my own. Or rather, no one told me, play like this. Because the percussion instruments, tambora, güira – that’s born in you. People say, ‘Teach me to play tambora.’ No. It’s born in you. Whoever isn’t born with the feeling of playing won’t learn it.”
Around 1964 or 1965, Flaco moved to the capital where he met many of the era’s top musicians, including Tatico. This was the time of the April Revolution, however, and he soon left for three months in Nagua at the behest of Juan Prieto, an accordionist and accordion tuner, and then joined Combo Candela. But Tatico didn’t forget El Flaco’s playing and eventually he brought the tamborero to Santiago. In 1972, they began to perform together:
“I met him in the capital because I played a gig with him. He was very young still, new. After that we didn’t see each other because I came here [to New York] and he went to the capital because they put him on Dominican TV. I was in the campo. Later he was taken off TV, the war and all that broke out, and that’s when he came to look for me.
“Tatico was the maximum. The maximum as an accordionist, as a person, however. He was very good to us, the musicians. Everyone liked him, even children. Tatico was so loved that he’d sit down to play dominoes and the people would accumulate thinking he was going to play music…. He was famous from the beginning.”
When Flaco played with Tatico, they played a variety of rhythms, some of which are no longer in use. The paseo, for example, “used to be obligatory” in a merengue derecho. They also played mangulinas, which are now generally heard only in folkloric groups. “If they request it, it’ll be played. But people used to request it a lot, and now they almost never request it. It has to be a person who remembers it.” He even recorded a bolero with Tatico, making them perhaps the first and the last típico group to do so.
Tambora playing has changed, he says, in that it is faster today and there is little opportunity for playing mangulina or paseo. The instrument itself is also different, since many people now use the ones made by LP which have metal rims and screw tighteners rather than wood rims and ropes. The dance style is also different. “Before, dancing a merengue was almost like dancing a danza. The merengue wasn’t so fast as it is now. It was a smooth merengue, danzeado. Now whoever dances merengue goes home all worn out!”
Mostly, he remembers that dance parties in the Cibao were far different in those days. They were held in outdoor shelters with cement floors that were normally used for drying tobacco or rice but were cleaned out for the occasion. Sometimes there were theme parties, like one time when everyone had to make their dresses out of paper. “And that whole party, everything sounded like, ‘sh, sh, sh.’”
In the capital, however, things were more like they are today. There were bars a trio could go to and play a couple of merengues and earn from 10 to 25 pesos. For a full party they might earn 50 or 60. In the camp they were lucky to get 7 pesos each. “Y tocando hasta las siete de la mañana. Las fiestas amanecían de verdad.”
Flaco has really lived tipico history. He was even present for some of the events that inspired some of the most popular merengues. For example, the lyrics to “El Puente Seco” refers to Isaias “Saco” Henriquez, Tatico’s brother, who had killed himself on a particular overpass on the highway between Santiago and Navarrete. One verse states:
En el puente seco
se me acercó un guapo
Y tuvo al matarme
donde cayó Saco
(On the dry bridge
A tough guy approached me
And he tried to kill me
Where Saco fell.)
Flaco recalls that Diogenes Jimenez composed that song when, “we were walking along there alter a gig and he was flirting with a pretty girl who was there. Then another guy who was practically her husband snuck up on him with a knife.” While lyrics like those are true representations of Cibao life, he believes that in merengue today, “none of [the lyrics] are worth the trouble. Honestly. They don’t make sense.”
When one thinks of "Culiquitaca," it's kind of hard to argue with the guy.