Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blog transfer

Hi folks,

So I decided that this blog should be entirely devoted to merengue tipico and the Dominican Republic. Therefore, I'm moving all entries about my other travels and activities to another location: http://sydtravels.blogspot.com. New writing will likely appear there in December, when I'll be in Germany.

I'm sorry for the long delay in posting, but I hope to return to my old blogging ways after the semester ends, and I'm finished teaching this incredibly labor-intensive lecture course in Mexican music.

Thanks for sticking with me!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Thanks for the 404s

I've fixed the links the best I could for your continued enjoyment, faithful readers. But now you may have to wait a bit for the next installment. I leave tomorrow for a month in Europe where I will be having more adventures, many of them involving various types of accordions. I'll still post pictures and stories when I have the chance, though.

In the meantime, those of you who are in New York may wish to visit this year's installment of the Main Squeeze Accordion Festival, July 7 2-9 PM Riverside Park, Pier 1 at 70th St. I'm told that our friend Ernestidio Rodriguez has been invited back to play again this year (unfortunately I won't be able to join him this time) - though I don't know if this is going forward as he doesn't appear on the current program! If any of you go, let me know.

Have fun and stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Birthday links

Hey guys, it’s my birthday today!
My gift to you are some links for listening to típico.

La Super Regional

Radio Típico

Fulanito web site – first group to combine perico ripiao & hip hop

Many groups have MySpace pages where you can hear some of their music. Here are a few.
Rafaelito Roman http://profile.myspace.com/104690413
Raul Roman http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=105889957
El Ciego de Nagua http://www.myspace.com/elciegodenagua
Cristian Guira http://www.myspace.com/cristianlaguira
Geniswing http://www.myspace.com/geniswing
El Prodigio http://www.myspace.com/elprodigioylasuperbanda
Nicol Peña http://www.myspace.com/nicolpea
Geovanny Polanco http://www.myspace.com/geovannypolanco

There are many more, but it’s pretty easy to find them under the “friends” section of these guys.

Merengue & Bachata – República Dominicana(site with sound clips of major musicians in these genres) http://home-3.tiscali.nl/~pjetax/

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Batey Libertad church

Hi folks-

so if you know me you know I'm not much of a churchgoer, but today I'm posting on behalf of a church. My friend Yanlico has asked for help for some badly needed repairs and upgrades to the church at Batey Libertad near Santiago. If you've been reading my blog for a while you know that the bateyes are settlements for agricultural workers in the Dominican Republic, mostly of Haitian descent, and they are the poorest parts of the country. Batey Libertad has no water supply and very few services of any kind, so the church serves to provide comfort, a community center and suchlike to many on the batey.

If any of you are involved in a church or charity group and would like to help out the Iglesia Cristiana Reformada of Batey Libertad, either through donations or a sort of adopt-a-church set up, please contact me. You would find yourselves some lifelong friends in the DR!

Their immediate needs are:
2 ceiling fans and 4 wall-mounted fans (it's realllllly hot there!)
50 plastic chairs
1 desk/table
2 microphones
contruction of a cement patio in front of church

Here are some pictures Yanlico sent of the church, churchgoers, services and classes.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

fixed it!

Who are you, Cerveza in Tucson? Thanks for spotting the broken link. It is now fixed and you can enjoy the genius that is El Prodigio.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tipico Videos

I realize I need to have more sound and video available to people, especially since many of you have probably not had the opportunity to hear live merengue tipico. I put some examples up last summer but it was very time consuming, so instead, I thought of posting some annotated links this time around. When I first went up with my tipico website, merengue-ripiao.com, in 2001, there was virtually nothing else available on the web about the music. Well, things have changed a lot since then. Now many tipico groups have websites, and with the advent of MySpace and YouTube the tipico world has gotten ever more wired. So here's the first part in a series of links that will help you get to know tipico virtually. I'm starting with video and then I'll move on to sound and other websites.

A great performance by Arsenio de la Rosa, circa 1980 I’d guess from the hairstyles.
It’s his own composition about Columbus coming to the Americas, complete with paseo.

And his brother King de la Rosa, same period, playing “La Agarradera.” He’s playing a three-row accordion just to be different. There’s Chinito on güira and Jose el Calvo on sax with a really nice solo. And boy, people were really enthused about video effects back then.

Here’s King today, playing sans sax so you can really hear the accordion:

Another classic: El Ciego de Nagua playing “El Cuento Comparon” – a song I myself played on my TV debut – accompanied by singer Vinicio Lopez and Jose el Calvo on sax.

Rafaelito Roman (my teacher) playing with his two sons, Raul and Nixon

Raul Roman y La Nueva Selección Tipica. This is Raul’s own group. Obviously the accordion is awesome. The saxophonist, Quiquito, is also really good. (He joined us on the recording we just did for Smithsonian Folkways with La India Canela, as did the group's conguero, Veneno.)

Maria Diaz back in the day. Watch out for those crazy video effects.

Fefita la Grande – the Celia Cruz of the Dominican Republic! She has a very unique style to say the least.

Too bad this clip’s so short – here you can really see why El Prodigio is one of the best and most respected accordionists today. Also he’s with his old group from a few years back, all of whom are with Kerubanda today, including Cristian güira and Tormenta Tambora.

Here’s el Prodigio with his new group playing the Tatico classic, “Cualquiera llora” (aka Tatico llorando)

Geovanny Polanco’s “Historia de un gran amor” is a pretty song and a good example of modern style típico.

Geniswing is a new group composed entirely of New York-born Dominican kids. The accordionist, Geno, is 21 and the oldest in the group – their tamborero is like 15?! Amazing. Just a couple of months ago they recorded and released their first single in the DR. In April it was playing a lot on the radio. Here they play Las 7 Pasadas in a party in someone’s house. This is one of the only instrumental merengues.
And here one with singing: http://youtube.com/watch?v=o0Qt6WLiQB8

And here’s merengue típico in its original form – a trio, played in the campo. The little boy dancing is the funniest.http://youtube.com/watch?v=Ahc9QBSxB08

Another one, in Cotui, this time with marimba – although you can’t really hear it. http://youtube.com/watch?v=UE2d5-Bum7Y

And now some percussion!
Ray “Chinito” Diaz was one of the early innovators on percusión in New York. He played with King de la Rosa back in the late 70s-early 80s and developed very syncopated güira rhythms based on his experience scratching records in early hip-hop. Later he played with great NY orquestas like Milly, Jocelyn, y los Vecinos and became a producer, producing Lidia de la Rosa’s records among others. Here he takes a tambora solo.

La Kerubanda is one of the hottest groups in the DR now. The accordionist isn’t anything to write home about, but the band is great, particularly the brothers on güira and tambora (Cristian and La Tormenta). Here they play “Un ser que me persigue” (aka “El hombre mas guapo), whose lyrics are in the form of a décima and were originally a son.

La Tormenta percusión solo (sound not very good, but amazing to watch)

Conga solo from Juanchu – same band.

This is kina of nice, a conguero demonstrates basic rhythms used to play merengue tipico.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

New to the blog?

So I was thinking, some of you may be new readers, and if you are, you may have no idea about what the deal is with my blog. This should bring you up to speed.

I'm an ethnomusicologist working in Latin American music and dance. I have been researching Dominican merengue tipico for six years and am now in the midst of the horrific process of writing up that research in the form of a dissertation. That, and procrastinating a lot by taking on other projects and drinking lots of beer.

Merengue tipico is the traditional kind of merengue from the northern Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. It is very different from the kind of big band/pop merengue you may have heard on the radio in instrumentation, rhythm, and repertoire. It's based around the accordion and uses several different rhythms, some highly syncopated, unlike the monorhythmic pop merengue, and is an oral tradition that incorporates improvisation, unlike orquesta merengue, which relies on written arrangements. If you want to know more about merengue tipico, you should be able to find most of what you'd need on my web site: http://merengue-ripiao.com
If you want the quick version of tipico and orquesta history, read what I wrote for this small record label: http://www.iasorecords.com/merengue.cfm

I started the blog when I moved to the Dominican Republic in 2005 as a way to document my research and other activities and get out of writing icky field notes. If you look back over the course of the blog you will see pictures and stories about merengue tipico in different contexts: in ranchos and car washes in the city of Santiago, in parties in people's houses, etc. You'll also hear about how I learned to play it on accordion and the various places I've performed.

While in the DR I got involved in several other projects as well. Being the only person yet granted access to the complete papers of Fradique Lizardo, the late Dominican folklorist, I got interested in his research on Dominican folk dance and how he started the Ballet Folklorico Dominicano, so I observed current ballet folklorico groups in different parts of the country and talked to dancers.

I also got interested in carnival - how could you not? - and joined a carnival group called Los Confraternos in Pueblo Nuevo, a Santiago barrio. I dressed up as a lechon, Santiago's traditional carnival character, with them and went through the grueling parades every Sunday through carnival season in both 2006 and 2007. If you are interested in seeing pictures of carnival, visit my posts from February of both years, as well as late January and early March (carnival lasts a long time in the DR). This year I also tried to visit other carnivals for comparative purposes, so you can also see pictures from La Vega and Cotui in February-March 2007.

My other research site is New York City, where there is a very active tipico scene, particularly in Brooklyn. Since the bulk of my NY research was done between 2001 and 2004, you won't see much of it here, but I have paid some return visits. You'll find chunks about NY tipico from June-July and October 2007, and at other random points.

When I'm not in the DR, I'm usually in Tucson, AZ, or traveling about randomly. Since tipico doesn't make much of an appearance outside of the DR and New York, when I'm away I usually post stuff random stuff from my tipico files or other observations about Dominican culture. I try to post at least once a week. Please subscribe to the feed if you want to be sure not to miss anything!

That's the blog in a nutshell. If you have any suggestions for accordion, tipico, or Dominican-themed topics you'd like me to write about, please post them here!

I've been tagged, damn it!

My sister (http://mamaoknits.blogspot.com/) tagged me, so now I gotta do this.

Mi hermana me lo pegó, así que ahora tengo que hacerlo yo.

The rules: Each person tagged gives 7 random facts about themselves. Those who are tagged need to write on their own blog those 7 facts as well as the rules of the game. You need to tag seven other people and list their names on your blog. Then you leave those you plan on tagging a note in their comments so they know that they have been tagged and to read your blog.

Las reglas: Es como un juego de pilla-pilla. Cada persona a quien tú se lo pegues (a quien tú pilles) tiene que dar 7 datos al azar sobre si mismo. Los a quienes se le pegaron tienen que poner los 7 datos en sus blogs junto con las reglas del juego. Tienes que pegárselo a 7 personas más y poner sus nombres en su blog. Después, dejarás un comentario en los blogs de ellos para que sepan que se lo han pegado y que tienen que leer el blog tuyo.

Those I'm Tagging: (Los a quienes se lo estoy pegando:)

Tes, living on the crispy edges of grad school: http://thebookimnotreading.blogspot.com/

Linda, a friend to turtles: http://truffles-turtles-tunes.blogspot.com/

Alex, the friendly Francophone: http://enkerli.blogspot.com/

Rossy aka PayolaMusic, una amiga en Santo Domingo: http://www.payolamusic.blogspot.com/

Accordion Guy, who oddly enough, I've never met and know nothing about, although we almost share a name: http://www.joeydevilla.com/

Let's Polka! Another accordion-happy blog made by strangers (but they look friendly): http://www.letspolka.com/

Dial "M" for Musicology. They are musicologists, I am ethnomusicologist, but they say they "want to be friends with everyone." Is it true??? http://musicology.typepad.com/

7 random facts:

I hate revealing all my secrets, but here they are.

1) At age 15 I was the host of a televised variety show on cable access titled "Syd's Show" because some friends of mine told me, "you should be on TV," and proceeded to create the show. It had a different band on every week, a bizarre set of guests, and a theme song whose lyrics went, "Syd's Show, Syd's Show. If it weren't for Syd, I don't know what I'd do - how about you?" I briefly had a co-host who laughed heartily at my jokes and clapped for everything else. Damn! I sure could use a co-host now.

2) I was a semi-professional bellydancer for five years. I can balance a sword on my head, or a tray with candles - take your pick.

3) I was a salsa dance performer and teacher in New York, a member of Razz M'Tazz mambo company. I performed once at the Congreso Mundial de la Salsa in Puerto Rico but soon thereafter I quit because I went back to school.

4) Two knee surgeries have effectively ended my dancing career - hence all the accordion playing, writing, and blogging.

5) I'm very competitive when it comes to Boggle or Blokus, but not much else.

6) My favorite vegetable from an aesthetic standpoint is the eggplant.

7) My first publication was a drawing of a neuron in the Journal of Comparative Neurology. I always thought I would go into science. And now look at me! Go figure!

a prophet in my own land? not quite, but...

Hey blog pals,
just so's you know, yours truly appeared in the local weekly this week in Tucson, talking about merengue tipico, carnival, and other random things.
The reporter wanted me to have a name for my accordion, but I don't (took me a month to think of one for my CAT, for pete's sake), so I offered to buy a beer for the person with the best suggestion. Only problem is, you will have to come to Tucson to get that beer from me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Congos de Villa Mella

Well, we’re coming right up on Pentecost. I confess that I don’t actually know what Pentecost is, not having a religious bone in my body, but in the DR it is celebrated as the Fiesta del Espíritu Santo (Feast of the Holy Spirit). That is the main time of year in which the Cofradía de los Congos del Espíritu Santo gets together to play a very unique type of music in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, just north of the capital. So I figure this is a good time to put up some info on the Congos de Villa Mella. It is I think the only major type of Dominican traditional music that I haven’t yet been able to experience in person since I’m usually not in the country in the months of May and June, but I hope to rectify the situation before long.

The Congos are a type of drum ensemble music only played in this one part of the country. Both instruments and repertoire are different from those of the more widely-distributed palos. In fact, the congos are so unique that in 2001 UNESCO declared the Cofradía de Congos del Espíritu Santo de Villa Mella one of its 19 “master works of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” worldwide. UNESCO is currently engaged in a research and preservation project with the Congos.

In Carlos Hernández Soto’s book titled Kalungah Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella, he tells us that cofradías are voluntary associations that arose in Spain as to provide mutual help among the poor. Because blacks were excluded from white associations, they began to form their own cofradías in Seville during the 14th century. From there, the organizations came to Latin America and in the DR they still exist in San Juan de la Maguana, Cotuí, and Villa Mella. “Congos,” he goes on to tell us, was a term applied to blacks in general in the colonial Dominican Republic, since many African slaves in the DR came from the Congo River area. Today, the word refers to the music played by people associated with the Cofradía or Hermandad (brotherhood), who are still very connected to their African roots. It seems to have similarities to ritual music associated with groups of Congo origin in Cuba and Brazil.

The music of the congos is principally played for the days of Espíritu Santo, la Virgen del Rosario, and the funerals of cofradía members, but the congos are so important that now even non-member residents ask for the music to be played upon their deaths. They also play for cultural activities and fiestas patronales, but death rites are the most important use for the music of the congos. Unlike in Cuba’s African brotherhoods and secret socities, both men and women are allowed and can hold offices in the cofradía. Women are not prohibited from playing the ritual drums. The Espíritu Santo is the patron saint of the area and Hernández Soto suggests that the saint is syncretised with Kalunga, god of the dead in the Congo-Angola region.

Congueros, members of the cofradía, say that their instruments were brought directly to Villa Mella by the Espíritu Santo in the form of a man. The ensemble consists of two double-headed drums, the congo or palo mayor of about 3 feet long and the conguito or palo menor of about 12 inches. These are combined with a couple of idiophones: maracas and the canoíta (little canoe), a hollowed-out wood block with a handle that’s beat with a stick.

Congueros say they have 21 toques (pieces), since this is a sacred number, but there are actually more than that. All are sung in call-and-response fashion. The song “Palo Mayor” refers literally to the lead drum and figuratively to the group’s principle ancestor, as ancestors are generally called “tronco mayor” (main trunk) or “cabeza mayor” (main head) and children are known as “ramazones” (branches). Trees seem to be very meaningful in general to congueros, as a recent article reported that the Hermandad and an agronomist were protesting the cutting down of five trees in the park in Villa Mella that stood over the spot in which they have always played. The agronomist argued the trees, too, were part of the “patrimony of humanity.” The “king” of the hermandad, 96-year-old Pio Brazoban, called them the “soul of the fiestas.”

Hernández Soto describes the Fiesta del Espíritu Santo as follows. During the nine days before Pentecost, each part of Villa Mella elects kings and queens who all meet at the parish church on the eve of the feast. Official greetings are exchanged, and congregants enter singing “Ya llegó, ya llegó” accompanied by percussion instruments (panderos, balsie, mongo, and guiro). To the left of the entrance, the Cofradía plays and one couple at a time dances, then people pray and sing novenas. Theater and poetry may also be enacted by the youth. During these activities, the cofradía exits to the park, where they set up opposite the house of the current king of the cofradía. They take turns singing and entering the house to eat. In another part of the park, people sing and dance pri-prí (local accordion music) until morning. On the next day, Sunday, a couple dances a solemn congo piece in front of the alter during the offertory, to the accompaniment of the church choir. After mass, a procession tours the town with the image of the dove while singing pieces like “Ya llegó” and “Quítame lo malo,” and the cofradía again plays, continuing on rotation for the rest of the day.

Different music is used during funerary rites, Hernández Soto explains. For funerals of a cofradía member, the three main Congo pieces (Palo Mayor, Camino Real, and Kalunga) are played during the wake, as the body is carried to the cemetery, and again upon arrival at the grave. Kalunga is always the last piece, as it asks Kalunga to accompany the deceased on his/her journey. Thus, in the community to say “Le cantaron Kalunga” (they sung Kalunga for him/her) means “s/he died.” The cofradía meets to play again on the ninth day in front of an altar on top of which sits a doll representing the dead person and perhaps the god Kalunga as well. No dancing takes place at these rituals until they meet again to play on the Cabo de Ano, the one-year anniversary, at which all dance except the family. At the Banko ceremony, which ideally takes place on the seven-year anniversary, everyone may finally dance because the dead person has become an ancestor and no longer inhabits the home. The dead person often “mounts” a family member and dances too. At the Banko the papers from the altar are burned and the ritual enramada shelter is swept and cleaned. After this, the cofradía enters the room next to where the mourning women are secluded and play the “toques de viuda” (widow’s pieces) to officially take the family out of mourning.

What connection there between the congos and merengue típico, my usual topic? Probably not much, except perhaps in vocabulary. For instance, there is a merengue in call-and-response form called “Cumandé.” I asked several típico musicians, including my teacher, what they thought this word means and they didn’t know. (My teacher said he thought it was a Haitian word.) But according to Hernández Soto the word “kumande” appears in the song “Ya cantan lo gallo” (the roosters are already singing) and means “there is no death” in the Fon language. Since call and response is not the usual form for merengue songs, those songs (like Cumandé) that have that feature could be borrowings from other Dominican folk traditions. I’ll be very interested to see pri-prí, the accordion music from Villa Mella, to see how it is similar or different from the music I know.

Hernández Soto, Carlos. 2004. Kalungah Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella. Santo Domingo: Editorial Letra Grafica.
Hernández Soto, Carlos and Edis Sanchez. 1997. “Los Congos de Villa Mella, Republica Dominicana.” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana, (18)2:297-316

photos: http://www.melassa.org/gallerycomunidad.htm
music download: http://www.emusic.com/album/11007/11007078.html?fref=150051
UNESCO: http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/masterpiece.php?id=6&lg=es
documentary for purchase: http://www.melassa.org/OrderForm.html
palos, salve, & congos tracks: http://www.dominicana.com.do/musica/musicaraiz.htm
article on Palos by Martha Ellen Davis, with comparison to congos: http://svr1.cg971.fr/lameca/dossiers/ethnomusicologie/pages/davis2_eng_2003.htm
article on the trees: http://www.arquiteca.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=47&mode=&order=0&thold=0

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Adventures in Ethnomusicology and Espionage

Some of you readers know that by trade I’m an ethnomusicologist, some of you don’t. Well, now if you didn’t, you do, and the reason I’m bringing it up is that (a) that’s what this blog is about and (b) I just watched this old Hitchcock film in which, I was surprised to discover, the hero is an ethnomusicologist, too. The movie is The Lady Vanishes from 1938. If you’ve seen Flightplan you have the basic idea, except that here the heroine is traveling on a train, not a plane, and the person who disappears is a kindly old woman she’s just met, not her daughter. Everyone denies the old woman was ever there, causing great consternation, but all is made clear at the end, and it has to do with the fact that Europe was about to enter WWII. I highly recommend the movie, especially if you too are an ethnomusicologist.

Anyway, the ethnomusicologist comes on the scene in the beginning as the heroine is trying to get a good night’s sleep in a quaint little inn somewhere in continental Europe (probably Germany, though we’re never told for sure).

A great stomping noise echoes throughout the hotel, rattling the light fixtures in the room below. The young woman staying there calls the front desk, demanding the manager put a stop to it so that she can get some sleep. Because she is one of the wealthier guests, the manager sees to it immediately.

When he opens the door to the room of the guilty party upstairs, he finds a strange scene. A young, mustachioed Englishman lies on a couch playing a very Central European-sounding melody on his clarinet as three picturesquely clothed peasants dance about in what appears to be some poor imitation of the Hungarian csardas. When he stops, they strike a pose, he makes a few notes on a pad, and then they all start up again. The manager insists that they desist.

“Will you kindly stop? They are all complaining in the hotel, you make too much noise!” he explains.

“Too much what?” the guest demands.

“Too much noise,” the manager replies in embarrassment.

“You dare to call it a noise?! The ancient music with which your peasant ancestors celebrated every wedding for countless generations, the dance they danced when your father married your mother, always supposing you were born in wedlock, which I doubt. I take it you are the manager?”

“Sure I am the manager of this-“

“Yes, unfortunately I am accustomed to squalor. Tell me who is complaining.”

“This young English lady underneath.”

“Well, you tell the young English lady underneath that I am putting on record for the benefit of mankind one of the last folk dances of central Europe, and furthermore she does not own this hotel!” he shoos the manager from his room with a flourish of his clarinet. A short while later, however, she succeeds in getting him thrown from his room with a well-placed bribe.

She should have known that he can’t be gotten rid of that easily: this man appears to be everywhere and know everyone. Later, on the train out, the woman encounters him on the coach class car, watching different peasants dance, this time to the music of violins. He reveals that he is writing a book on European folk dances, which he expects to finish in about four years. And when together they go about enquiring about the missing woman who is the subject of the film, and are introduced to some Italians, he exclaims, “Oh yes, I met her husband. He presented prizes at the folk dance festival. Minister of Propaganda,” he explains in an aside to his companion.

Naturally enough, the ethnomusicologist ends up saving the day. You could have seen that coming, no?

Basically, I wanted to bring up this movie because it is so much like my blog. Except that instead of clarinet, it’s accordion; instead of Germany, it’s the Dominican Republic; instead of a stomping pseudo-csardas it’s merengue; instead of a quaint Alpine inn clothed in snow, it’s a Santiago apartment under the boiling sun; instead of Ministers of Propaganda, it’s politicians, secretaries of tourism, and the like (although the difference there may be more of degree); instead of four years, I have one to finish what I’m writing; and instead of a train, it’s the Millenium Falcon. And of course, there is only a heroine in this story and no hero. But otherwise, the story is virtually indistinguishable. I’m hoping I too will be able to save a trainload of innocent passengers from the evil machinations of fascist spies at the end, although I could probably do without the shootout.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Last Game

Last Game
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
The traditional last game of dominoes before I left the DR. Here's El Mambi, Felo, Laura, Chiqui, and Robinson. Laura and I won two out of three!


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Juan Cruz lays down some vocal tracks


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Fonso bajo doing his thing in the recording studio

El Americano

El Americano
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
the tambora player takes a rest. bet you can guess why he's called El Americano


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Veneno, the conga player, looks happy to be in the studio - even in this sweltering isolation booth.

working it out

working it out
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
La India Canela and Quiquito saxophone work out a mambo.

Raul & La India

Raul & La India
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
A moment of levity in the midst of a very long day in the recording studio with Raul Roman and La India Canela


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Boca chula tambora gives his opinion of the recording session

Guira on fire!

Guira on fire!
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
This photo of Ramoncito Guira in the recording studio didn't come out too well but I like how his guira looks like it's on fire.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Last Week

There was no time to recover from the road trip, though. On Monday I had to hit the ground running in order to be ready for the week’s activities, which would start that afternoon with the #$&*% press conference. Let’s not talk too much about it. At least it was over fairly quickly, and at the end there was beer. The nice part was I got to see some friends I hadn’t seen in a while: Gaspar Rodriguez, the host of TV show Arriba el Merengue, and El Papillon, a típico radio deejay. Afterwards, La India invited us all out for a typical Dominican dinner at Rancho Chito, one of the only places in town to get Dominican food for dinner (Dominicans don’t usually eat out, or really eat anything much for dinner), where owner Luis had prepared a whole buffet for us. He also shared with us his technique for finding out a woman’s true age: guess an age you’re sure is too old for her, and in indignation she will say, “What do you mean?!” and reveal the real number just to show you. He claims it works like a charm.

That was the last time I’d get to relax and enjoy food for a while, though. We hit the ground running in the studio the next morning at 10:00 and pretty much didn’t quit until 11 PM Thursday. It was a marathon recording session, since the Smithsonian folks could only stay three days and we had 13 tracks to get down. We did it, but only just. It was done by recording all the instruments live, then going back and cleaning up any problem parts instrument by instrument, and finally adding the vocal tracks. As we broke only once a day, for lunch, it was quite tiring for all involved.

Juan, the vocalist, got particularly tired of the whole business when, after recording an entire vocal track, La India came back in and told him he wasn’t supposed to be singing that one at all. He started griping loudly and long about all the “tiempo perdido,” lost time. A little later, as Juan sat with head in hands, Ramoncito, the güira player, came out of the booth and picked up an industrial-strength flashlight that was laying around the studio. He turned it on and started shining its powerful beam all around the studio, paying particular attention to all the corners and hidden nooks and crannies. “What in the world are you doing?” the other musicians asked. “Looking for all the lost time! Where is it? Where has it gone?” This got even Juan laughing. Later he was laughing still harder when Ramoncito started imitating the vocal stylings of Julian, an old-school accordionist who apparently has a particularly bad break in his vocal range. Over and over, Ramoncito tunelessly skipped from high to low, and Juan fell on the floor and was actually holding his sides from laughing so hard.

The other moments of mirth came, unfortunately, at our sound engineer’s expense. Trying to learn a new system on the fly (ProTools was not his accustomed home), he was taking longer than the musicians were used to or had hoped. Bocachula, our wacky tamborero, started calling for “Duran! Duran!” over his mic, confusing me thoroughly, as there had been an engineer called Duran there in the beginning but he had left long ago. As I insisted, “Duran isn’t HERE!!” the musicians were all collapsing in hilarity. As I soon realized, this was Bocachula’s way of saying the guy was taking too long: durando.

One completely non-funny moment was experienced on the first day, however, and one that took the wind out of all of our sails – particularly mine – for some time. After recording four tracks a cuarteto with Bocachula on the first day, we broke for lunch feeling quite satisfied. They sounded great, and the fourth had sounded particularly awesome – we needed only one take and it just clicked into place. Beautiful. Bocachula was anxious to leave so we paid him and he took off, as for the other tracks we’d be using a different tamborero, one better able to play slow and controlled (Bocachula is fantastic, probably my favorite, but is known for always pushing the limits of speed). Shortly thereafter, we discovered that the entire last track had somehow been erased from the computer, leaving no trace. Bocachula had completely disappeared, and we were unable to contact him for the rest of the day, and for the next two days (he appeared to have gone to the beach and left his phone with some unknown woman). We had no choice but to redo the track with different personnel at the last minute on the last day. Bummer.

In the end, though, we did get it done. All tracks recorded, all contracts signed (even by those who were illiterate), all people filmed (they were making a documentary at the same time), all our names included in some song or another (in accordance with típico homenaje tradition), all lost time found – but not all lost sleep. And again, there was no time for me to recover from this tiring time, as the very next day the big, three-day, biannual conference (Musica, Identidad, y Cultura en el Caribe) would begin at the Centro Leon.

It was good to see friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen since the last installment of the Congreso, but my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by sleep deprivation. That and the embarrassment of seeing and listening myself on the big screen right at the start of the event. I’ve never particularly liked to be in front of the camera, but I’d agreed to appear as the Voice of Academia in a documentary on son in Santiago as a favor to the friends who were making it. As thanks, I had to see my giant face sans makeup plastered up there when they showed the film at the opening ceremony, and again at a huge concert a few days later which was televised all over the country. Zoiks!

More fun than that were the panels I attended. I particularly enjoyed one on changui, a music from eastern Cuba that has much in common with merengue típico, and two that dealt with Dominican son dancing complete with demonstrations. But even more fun than those was taking friends to my final dinner of 2007 at the continent’s greatest Italian restaurant. And on a similar level of fun was the second night’s concert (minus my documentary appearance there), where Chucho Valdes, one of my favorite pianists, did an amazingly salsariffic solo.

There was no time to catch up on sleep, what with all that fun, which put me in a bit of a state on the day I was to give my paper. It was scheduled for 9:30, not a good time for me, and I had to get up even earlier anyway in order to FedEx some contracts to the Smithsonian. I was standing in front of the FedEx office at the exact moment it was to open, 8:30, when I discovered that it was closed on Saturdays. Frantically, I ran down the street to the Mailboxes, Etc, which thankfully was open, sent the package off, and ran away as quick as possible – it was now almost 9 and I hadn’t eaten, had coffee, or been able to set up the technical side of my presentation.

And I wasn’t going to be able to now, either. Turned out I’d locked my keys in my car. Imagine the mirth of the FedEx guy! Imagine the consternation of Sydney! Another guy in Mailboxes offered to call a locksmith, and did so, but the locksmith said he would be there in “twenty minutes” (translate: forty-ish minutes in Dominican), not soon enough. I was so flummoxed that a third guy who was just standing around offered to break into my car using some wire, and I agreed to this plan. While he worked on that, I bought some coffee and a cheese sandwich at the sidewalk stand across the street and ran around a bit as bees chased me and my beverage. By the time that was done, so was he, and I was on my way again. Or almost on my way again – I also realized I’d left my phone at home and had to run back and get it, since I would definitely need it (both for communication and timing purposes) in the long day ahead.

It was not my best morning. My paper was OK though, and after that I was able to relax a bit more. Well, after that and after my tenure as panel moderator afterwards.

The highlight of Sunday was definitely the performers’ panel, where Chucho Valdes, tres player Pancho Amat, and salsero Johnny Pacheco were able to tell their own stories and answer questions. Pacheco was the star of the conference, since he was given some long-deserved recognition by the Centro Leon and the Dominican government for his instrumental role in the creation of salsa music in the 1960s. Though nearing the status of ancient, he was still both hilarious and insightful in his comments. For me, the best part was when he said that he was originally an accordionist, playing merengue típico here in Santiago – a revelation I don’t think he’d ever made before –and that perhaps some of his salsa ideas came from there. The lowlight of Sunday was the announcement of the next conference’s theme – bolero. Blah. Having little to no interest in slow, romantic music, I’m unlikely to give a paper at that event.

The conference finished with a patio performance by Son Santiaguero, and after that, I had a quick errand to do. It was my last opportunity to say goodbye to Tonito of my carnival group, and when I went by I discovered it was his son’s birthday, and they were in the middle of a party. That was cute, but I couldn’t stay as I was booked to take some friends for a less official but more típico conference closing event, by going to see Raul Roman at Andy Ranch and then Francisco Ulloa at Rancho Merengue. In between, we also had a típico style dinner from the cafeteria at Parada La Tinaja. And John Taveras, the owner and originator of RM, told me he is putting the business up for sale so he can go back to Pennsylvania. He asked me to put it on the web, so I’m telling you, loyal blog readers, first. If you have any money you’d like to invest, consider investing it in Santiago’s oldest and most prestigious rancho típico, thereby helping to keep the music alive! Write for further details.

So the recording was over at last, and the conference as well. After that I had only two days left, and my last days in the DR were, as usual, a whirl of activity as I tried to tie up loose ends and get everything arranged for my time away. As usual, whenever someone asks how long it will be until my next trip and I tell them eight months, they exclaim, “Why so long?!” They can’t believe I actually have a life, family, and friends somewhere else, and sometimes it’s hard even for me to believe, so involved am I in life here. In fact, I will be happy to get home to Arizona and see everyone there, but the transitions are always hard.

At any rate, there is little worth writing about in this section - who really wants to hear about picking up things, dropping off things, packing things, and paying for things? One noteworthy occurrence was a major ant invasion discovered when cleaning things out. I waged my usual war on them but victory was incomplete. I found out later they had invaded my purse as well – after they’d bit me about ten times on the arms, causing incredibly itchy, swollen lumps all over that made it hard to sleep. After a sleepless week, it was the last thing I needed, but perhaps all the deprivation would help me be able to sleep on the plane, I reasoned. I also received going-away gifts from three friends: earrings from Claudia, a scarf from Zoraya, and a bottle of Brugal from Tonito.

On Monday, I paid my last visit to Rancho Merengue, going to see Rafaelito play for one last time. My last evening was spent in the best way possible, in what is now becoming the traditional final farewell game of dominoes. As we’d done last year, the Taveras-Peralta clan came over with their dominoes, this time accompanied by saxophonist El Mambi, and we played three rounds over beer. Laura and I won two out of three. Mujeres al poder! Mujeres al poder!

Coming back is always bittersweet. I was looking forward to seeing my family, eating Mexican food, and just generally being at home. I was also ready to be done with running around for a while and get back into the mode of sitting around and writing. But I’ll also miss my friends, as well as the music, in Santiago. Actually, it looks like the missing people is going to be a constant theme – when I’m there I miss the people here, when here, I miss those over there – but hey, having people (and music) worth missing makes life worth living, doesn’t it?

FYI: My book is out!

OK, it's not about tipico (that one is still in progress), but still, I wrote it, it's out, and maybe you should buy it! The official release date is May 17 but it's in the warehouse already. Here is its page. Of course, you can also buy it on Amazon, etc...


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
This giant Judas figure gets paraded through the town of Navarrete on Easter Sunday, then burned.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
I caught this small gagá group and dancer on the highway as they went from Batey Libertad to Maizal.

Hotel Haiti

Hotel Haiti
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Too spooky to stay here!

Haitian house

Haitian house
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
I like the cactus fence.

Baron's house?

Baron's house?
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
This interesting construction was in the middle of the Ouanaminthe cemetery. One of my friends said it must be where the Baron del Cementerio dwells.

Ste Philomise

Ste Philomise
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
This bus was probbly the most beautiful sight we saw in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.

Customs office

Customs office
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
on the Haitian side.

No Man's Land

No Man's Land
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Three Haitians walk in the empty border zone between Ouanaminthe and Dajabon.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Travels with beans, part 2


My first task of this Easter Sunday was to head over to the Centro de la Cultura, an unmarked yellow house, for a demonstration of the newly formed children’s típico class. Laura came with me, and we found the children anxiously awaiting our arrival in the backyard. It was a complete group of accordion, tambora, güira, and marimba, all played by children under 12 (the marimbero appeared to be more in the neighborhood of 7). They did quite a respectable job on three merengues, considering the accordionist had been playing for all of four months. This was one of the results of Dajabon’s win in the city pavilion competition at last year’s Feria Regional del Libro, which I had attended on my last trip. With the prize money Chio purchased instruments and got this new program going – the first such class I’ve ever seen or heard of.

Chio also showed us quickly around the other new developments, which included a large room used for sleepovers and movie showings, the recently purchased other side of this duplex house. We couldn’t stay much longer, though, if we wanted to carry out our plan to get to Haiti. Laura’s brother, a military man, thought he could get us across with no problems, but the border crossing would close for lunch at 12:00 sharp and then there’d be no crossing back. When we met him at Laura’s mom’s house it was already nearing 10:00 so we had to get a move on.

Approaching the border by Falcon, we parked it at the customs house and passed through its arched gateway, pausing to greet several soldiers on the way, all of whom assured us we could go on through the big metal gate in the center of the bridge over the Rio Masacre that here marked the border. Well sure, the Dominicans let us through, along with all the Haitian vendors carrying heaps of clothing and carts full of other mysteries to sell. But the Haitian border officer wasn’t such a pushover. He didn’t mind the Dominican members of our party going through, namely Felo, Yary, Robinson, and our military escort, but I was another matter. First our guide tried evasionary tactics: he insisted that I was, in fact, Dominican. The guy didn’t buy it and wanted to see ID. Unable to produce this, he then said that I could go through if I showed a passport and paid 600 pesos. Luckily, I did (unusually) happen to have my passport with me, but the price seemed a little steep. Arguing that we would only be there for a short time anyway, the price was negotiated down to 200 upon our return, and we set off.

It was a weird no-man’s land we had entered. After the customs house, it was a rather muddy dirt road lined with masses of trash, first passing by a line of men selling things like phone cards from TV-tray-sized tables, then a larger table with food and drink, then a tiny city of booths selling lottery tickets. All this was in the middle of a sizable empty space sparsely populated by trees and one lonely white truck marked “UN.” In the heat it was like entering a weird purgatory where no one spoke our language and could only stare quietly at us as we passed by. It was a relief to finally cross a small bridge and enter the town of Ouanaminthe, known to Dominicans as Juana Mendez.

The road conditions did not improve. In fact, I saw not a single paved road in the whole town. I did see a surprising number of fancy mansions in various stages of being built. Then there were the places that held only a nice-looking wall surrounding a plot of land filled with nothing but weeds. I was told the method here was to build the wall first, then the house as money becomes available. Where does the money come from? Probably best not to ask. Borders are borders anywhere.

We walked on through the hot and dusty streets, passing little girls dressed in Sunday best on the way to church and small businesses painted with slogans in Kreyol. A brand new white SUV passed and Laura’s brother hailed the driver. Apparently this guy was a friend of his, with two others in the car, all Dominicans claiming they were there to visit friends. They invited us to pile in alongside and they would take us as far as we wished. We didn’t go far but it was still a relief to have those few minutes of air conditioning.

After dropping us off at the town’s main square, our ride took off. We were left to stroll through the park, such as it was: a ramshackle building in the middle in the middle of a somewhat depressing slice of patchy grass with few other plants to speak of, all surrounded by a low stone wall. A few sheep relaxed in the shade on the side nearest the church from which a crowd of people were emerging. Next door to the church, a few men watched soccer on some benches under a roof, a place where you could pay to enter and watch TV. A poster advertised some upcoming games and movies that would be shown.

There wasn’t much to do here unless we wanted to sit and watch the game, so we continued down a side street toward the fortress. This too was a bit depressing – a large cinder block structure that was only partially standing, as apparently some kids had blown it up or set it on fire about ten years back for no very good reason. A mule tied up under a tree swatted at flies in front of the place, and that was pretty much the only activity on the street until a street vendor came by with her wares in a wheelbarrow. Among the various bottles and cans were several pints of clerén, a bootleg Haitian rum. I’d had it before in its clear form, but this one was flavored with something that made it an almost fluorescent orange color. My companions bought a couple and we pushed on.

Coming to a graveyard surrounded by a high wall, I insisted we go in if at all possible, and finding the gate open, we did so. It was not very different from Dominican cemeteries I’d visited, with its large above-ground tombs plastered in various pastel colors. An unusual structure, like a mini castle complete with turret, stood in the center. It didn’t appear to hold any bodies, at least it wasn’t marked with a name, but it was hard to be sure. One of the group suggested it belonged to “El Baron del Cementario.” This vodou spirit in charge of the dead still survives in Dominican folklore, although in a somewhat different form. My friend told me the Baron del Cementerio was a sort of honorary position occupied by the first person to be buried in the cemetery, and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

Emerging from the graveyard we checked our watches and saw it was getting perilously close to 12:00. We had better make for the border tout de suite to avoid being turned into pumpkins or something. Indeed, when we crossed the no-man’s land and walked up to the customs house they were nearly ready to close the doors, and Laura’s brother’s cell phone was ringing with a soldier friend calling to notify us. They were all worried we’d get stuck in Haiti and never make it back, I guess, but we paid our fee and passed through to the other side safely.

Our little international sojourn over, it was time to pack up the car and hit the road. It would be a heavy load coming back: not only would we total five people in the car, each with a bag, but Laura wanted to bring back a giant sack of rice and another of dried beans. The Falcon would be riding low, which made me a little more nervous than usual about the potholes. I’d have to go slow, but I was in a bit of a hurry to get back, as my friends from the batey had called to inform me that a gagá group would indeed be going out that day and I should stop by to see it.

As we got on the road, Laura informed me that rice and beans were considered contraband in these parts and that if we were stopped by the military, they would confiscate it. What was that about? Haitian rice smugglers? I thought it was more likely the guards wanted to eat the stuff themselves. Our illicit agricultural products were well hidden under clothes and bags, but Laura was still nervous. Not I. I cackled maniacally every time we passed a checkpoint. They waved us through every time. “Ha! I’d be the last person they’d suspect of rice smuggling!” I bragged. “I could smuggle a ton through and they’d never notice!” Laura wished she’d brought more.

We actually made pretty good time on the way back, even considering our heavy load. As we approached the batey, we encountered the gaga on the highway – they had already set out for Maizal, hoping to collect some tips. I pulled over and jumped out with my recording equipment, as well as an umbrella for the blazing sun, and paid them to play a couple of tunes for me before moving on to Santiago. This accomplished, I finally felt that my Easter was complete.
We weren’t home yet though: just as we were about to come into Navarrete, we hit a major traffic jam. Turned out that in Navarrete this is the last day of carnival, and perhaps the most important one. From a distance, we could see a giant doll of some sort propped in a pickup truck somewhere in the mass of cars ahead of us. Then I remembered how I’d heard that the Navarreteneses make a big Judas doll, kind of like in Cabral, parade it through the town on Easter Sunday, and then burn it in a kind of cleansing ceremony. Following the Judas were more pickups, these filled with various carnival groups in their matching t-shirts, carrying their masks more for show than anything else (they weren’t going to actually dress up today, it appeared) and blasting music. I would have liked to get a picture of Judas and maybe see the burning, but I couldn’t deal with getting through all the traffic again in order to follow it.

Outisde of Navarrete, things didn’t get any better. We wondered if there had been an accident, since traffic was backed up on that side too and we could see a couple of police cars a ways down the line. As it turned out, though, this was simply a part of the plan to reduce traffic fatalities this year, since these are always high during Holy Week here. The police cars were there to escort us at a safe speed down to Santiago. It was a fine idea, but too slow for my tastes. And it got even slower a minute later, as it started pouring rain. Luckily, the cloudburst ended before Santiago and I was able to drop everyone off and get home with no further incident – other than for complete and total exhaustion.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kendall oil goat

Kendall oil goat
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Yahaira and Laura sample the wares at their cousin's roadside colmado


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
The family and the cherries they just picked: Yary, Felo, Laura, Robinson, Yahaira, her grandma, and Laura's mom

The magic mango tree

The magic mango tree
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
two varieties of mangoes growing on the same branch of the same tree. weird.

The Baker

The Baker
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Chiqui's father gets chicken out of what usually serves as the bread oven in his bakery.

The Model

The Model
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
I was amazed he had U of A shorts and had to take this picture

Dajabon Dominoes

Dajabon Dominoes
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
playing by candlelight with Kenia, Laura, and Robinson.

Monte Cristi

Monte Cristi
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
"El Morro," the famous mountain at Montecristi

Travels with beans, part 1

After Mom left, it was back to work for me, making the final arrangements for the Folkways recording and press conference. I also had to finish my conference paper and a couple of applications. Nothing too exciting for the blog, expect perhaps for a rehearsal in preparation for the recording. Since one of La India’s tunes combines palos rhythms with merengue, we figured this should be worked out beforehand in order not to waste a lot of studio time. We considered it successful, although we never did manage to coordinate the palos drummers into the percussion breaks, instead opting to let them keep doing their thing. Also, I convinced them to try my favorite arrangement technique- dropping out all the melody instruments for one chorus, letting just the drums accompany the voices. Cubans do this a lot in timba, and it always gets the dancers (i.e. me) all pumped up. Strangely, Dominicans don’t ever use this technique, but I’m advocating for that to change.

Then it was holy week already, and so it seemed like I should leave town once again. Everyone else does, and if I stayed behind, I’d probably just feel lonely. I accepted a long-standing invitation from friend Laura (accordionist Chiqui’s wife) to accompany her and her kids to the family home in Dajabon. Unfortunately, Chiqui couldn’t join us: all their neighbors would be out of town, and someone had to stick around to keep their eye on things in the neighborhood. Also, I couldn’t get away until Thursday, when everyone else had already left, but Chiqui’s sister Yahaira waited around in order to accompany me on the drive. This turned out to be long but uneventful.

The main sights to see along the way were the numerous paradores that start soon after Esperanza selling spicy goat, also known as chivo liniero (goat from the northwest border region), as well as herds of the living versions that every so often attempted to cut off our progress. In the same area, the landscape became more arid and eerily Arizona-like: full of cactus and trees with tiny leaves that looked much like mesquite. The soil too was different. Instead of the bright red-orange of the fertile lands around Cotui or the slightly mellower red-brown near Santiago, it was now the burnt-looking light tan of my Arizona childhood.

The land continued thusly all the way until we hit the coast at Montecristi. This city was a bustling port town at the turn of the last century, but since being abandoned as a commercial port has fallen into disrepair. Numerous old and stately homes dot its streets, and one can see they must have been grand when freshly painted, but most of them are nearing the point of uninhabitability. One rotten-looking two-story wooden mansion bore a sign stating that it was being restored by a local historical society, but the rest are likely to be gone before long. So it seemed a little incongruous when, next to the park with the famous clock (just a big timepiece on a tall scaffolding), we passed a nice, new museum building of bright white marine limestone. I would have loved to see what was inside, but it was of course closed.

I’d never seen anything of Montecristi, so we decided it was worth a quick stop to take a look at the coastline and El Morro, the big sugarloaf mountain next to the city. It was indeed scenic: the dry-looking mountain towered over the sea, wide and very blue under the intense sun, and so shallow that we saw two men walking in it while presumably fishing a hundred yards out. Lining the road were numerous saleras, the square ponds used for extracting salt from ocean water. A dozen small wooden boats were tied up where the road met the sea, and a few men had cold Presidentes at a tiny cafeteria nearby. We bought juice instead in order to refresh ourselves for the road ahead.

Good thing, too. It wasn’t far in distance, but the road was absolutely abominable for much of the way. Great big potholes, long stretches of missing pavement, bumpiness and rockiness: it really had it all. A little over halfway to Dajabon, however, we suddenly and unexpectedly hit fresh pavement, still black with newness. This was a happy surprise. Later I was told that a local guy had gone all the way to the capital on foot with a cross on his back in order to protest the condition of the roads in these parts, and the new pavement was the result. He was also given a motorbike and some other stuff in recognition of his efforts. I suggested that he needed to take his cross out for another run at it so we could get the damn thing finished. He and the cross could both get to the capital much more comfortably on the new bike, though perhaps it wouldn’t have the same symbolic weight.

We arrived in Dajabon around 3:00, all hot and sweaty, and went straight to the Taveras family home, which was also hot and sweaty. There was no power or gas at the moment, so we found Laura working on the habichuelas con dulce, the sweet beans that are the traditional Dominican fare for Holy Week, over a coal stove on the porch. Or rather, she was going back and forth between stirring these and giving her mom’s hair a new dye job in the outdoor shower. Various and sundry other family members were milling about, the menfolk all engrossed in different fix-it jobs in the space between this house and the next, either cars or CD players or other electronics. Broken-down microwaves and speakers took up much of the space, a new chest of drawers had apparently just been built and sanded nearby, and chickens, roosters, and stray dogs wandered in and out of the whole mess. Chiqui’s blind mother was seated inside, and she seemed to be making a lot of progress in recovery from her recent stroke. The last time I saw her she had been prostrate in a hospital room, unable to care for herself or speak intelligibly, but now she responded to our greetings in a slurred but intelligent fashion.

My friend Chio, the director of the local culture house, had made me a reservation at a hotel, but it seemed that Laura had been expecting me to stay there. I have a hard time sleeping under the best of conditions, though, and these were definitely not the best of conditions. I didn’t want to become a raving b****, but I would do just that if things were half this active here in the morning. I talked this over with Laura, and she suggested maybe I would do better at her mom’s house, which was quieter and in a sort of cul-de-sac at the edge of town with no traffic noise. After a lunch of rice and veggies and an enormous glassful of blessedly iced, freshly made guava juice, we went to the other house to check it out.

The other house was indeed more quiet. Actually, it was two houses at the end of a road on the edge of a field. One of Laura’s sisters, brother-in-law, and several nieces and nephews lived in one; her mother and another sister with family lived in the other. They were made of a few rows of cinder blocks topped with roughly-hewn wooden boards through which light easily shone, as it did through numerous little holes in the tin roofs. It was obvious that electricity was an infrequent visitor here from the kerosene lamps sitting on high shelves in both homes. There was also no plumbing, but I was getting desperate for a shower. I did the best I could with a bucket of water in an outdoor shower stall bricked up to about chin height. Luckily, I didn’t need a toilet at the moment.

I was feeling exhausted, so Laura showed me to a bed in her mother’s house to lay down for a while. Two double beds took up all available space in the room, which offered little privacy, what with the four-inch gaps above and underneath the door, and the window whose screenless shutter stood open. This wasn’t the kind of house that had closets; instead, someone’s (perhaps several someones’) entire wardrobe was hanging from nails on the walls in here. There were a lot of flies and gnats milling about, and, I suspected, mosquitoes as well, so I lathered up with my trusty bug spray before lying down. Naturally there was no power at the moment, which meant there was no relief from the heavy, hot air, but I found it tolerable once I’d been lying there a while.

I very nearly slept, or perhaps I did for a few minutes, but before long the rooster had figured out what was going on and couldn’t let such a thing happen. “Hey!! Hey, YOU!!” he seemed to be shouting right underneath the open window. I could only imagine six AM at this house. Sleep would probably not be happening here, either. Instead, I invited Laura to come stay at the hotel with me, making more space for everyone involved. After I got up, we went to check in, and luckily the place was both much nicer than the ramshackle spot I’d stayed last time I was in town and much cheaper! It was such a good deal that Robinson, Yary’s boyfriend who’d come along for the weekend, decided to stay too. It was also managed by an Argentine, something I’d quickly figured out from the guy’s accent even though he’d already replaced his “vos” with “tu.” I wondered aloud at this, since last time I was in Dajabon I’d met another resident Argentine. Turns out both had ended up here through their stints with the UN Peacekeeping Force on the border.

The night was still comparatively young, so we didn’t stay to chat with my new friend Ruben any further. Instead, we returned to the Taveras house to eat the famous habichuelas con dulce. That served as dinner, since after the heavy sweet soup I couldn’t stomach anything else. So while Yary was anxious to go off and eat homemade pizza prepared by the husband of Chiqui’s sister Rossy, a strange and rather crude French Canadian character, Laura and I instead begged off and returned to the hotel for hot showers and early sleep. There we encountered Chio driving by in an official Centro de la Cultura van. He invited me to join a group he was taking across the border to Haiti in the morning for a two-hour excursion and I happily accepted, being that I had been anxious to try crossing the border anyway.

It was not to be. We waited and waited, but Chio was a no-show. I called him about a thousand times, but half the time the calls wouldn’t go through – all the circuits appeared to be blocked by all the Dominicans calling each other on Good Friday – or it rang and rang with no answer. Exhausted from the day before and being awaked at some ungodly hour by a screaming child, I went back to bed. Of course, shortly after I’d done so the screaming child returned. Oh well. I rested and read my book for a while, fumed about being excluded from the Haiti trip, and then went back to Laura’s mom’s. There, I found Felo, Robinson, and a cousin, Kendry, playing cards. I joined the circle and they tried to teach me their game, but I found it completely unintelligible and gave up. Then I taught them blackjack, five-card stud, and hearts. Then I suggested dominoes, and some other cousins ran to a neighbors, returning a bit later with the necessary equipment.

We appeared to go a bit dominoes-crazy after this, and ended up playing for four hours straight. Players came and went, but Felo, Robinson, and I were constant in our devotion to the game. I started off playing well but grew increasingly tired and inattentive and then started making stupid mistakes. Still I couldn’t tear myself away from the game, even when Robinson started trying to fool us all with his inaccurate point tallying and throwing of “chivos,” the misplaced dominoes for which Chiqui is famous. It started raining, so we moved inside. The power went out, so we lit a candle. The candle burnt down, so we bought another. We consumed more habichuelas. The game went on. And on. It was almost impossible to quit, but eventually my sagging eyelids forced me to do so.

Back at the hotel, we encountered a small child that sounded suspiciously like the one who had awakened us so mercilessly. He was yelling and running around the parking lot as his mother stood around talking on her cell phone. Since he was staring at me anyway, I decided to have a little talk with him. “Hey buddy,” I said, all friendly-like. “You know, you can yell all you like out here in the parking lot. Just not inside, OK? Have fun now!” At which he promptly took off screaming into the hotel and down the hall where my room was located.

His mother told us, “No, that kid making all the noise in the night wasn’t mine. It was a nephew of mine.” Fat chance. We could hear him going on for another half an hour as we showered and got into bed.

In the morning, I stopped by Laura’s family’s house again. I was surprised to find her brother-in-law, Sandy, sporting a pair of University of Arizona shorts. That would be probably one of the last items of attire I would expect here on the Haitian-Dominican border, so I asked him how he’d gotten them. He gave some roundabout explanation about people sending clothes from the US, and Haitians getting ahold of them and then selling them in the market here, etc. In other words, who knows? Let’s just enjoy the bizarre coincidence. I took a picture to remember it by.

The next stop was of course to see how the other side of the family was getting along, and we found Chiqui’s father, brother, and assorted neighborhood children busy in the bakery. The giant brick oven was fired up, but at the moment they were baking chicken rather than bread. Outside, a couple of goats had been brought in to the patio, presumably to escape the on again-off again drizzle that was occurring, and were dozing amidst oil barrels and assorted machinery. We decided the time had come to get out of town and see some different scenery, so Yary, Felo, Laura, Yahaira, and Robinson all piled in and we headed south on the lovely paved highway.

It turned out to be less of a driving trip and more of a stopping trip. My passengers had relatives and friends all along this road all the way to Loma de Cabrera. First stop was at an Isla gas station where a sister ran a small bar/cafeteria/pool hall. The pool table wasn’t in that great shape, but we all shared a beer before moving on. Next stop was a roadside colmado run by a cousin, just next door to Chiqui’s grandmother’s house. This was our main sightseeing stop of the day, since I had been hearing for years about a bizarre mango tree at this location that produces two different varieties of the fruit on the same branch. The stories were true: the tree was huge, and on one of its long limbs you could clearly see a clump of the usual kind of elongated mangos hanging next to another of tiny round ones. But this wasn’t all grandma had to offer: there was also a pig sty, a big bush full of ripe Dominican cherries, a fuzzy little puppy, and a house built entirely of yagua (a kind of palm frond) – even its walls. My companions busied themselves with a bucket and the cherry bush while I photographed and looked for the puppy.

The colmado also had a domino table parked in front, so you know what that means.

The first domino game of the afternoon out of the way (but far from the last), we stopped at a little round sort of enramada/roadside hangout spot in front of an uncle’s house. The main thing to see here were two adorable fluffy gray and white bunnies in a cage in back. We fed them bits of grasses to amuse ourselves until the drizzle began to get harder and we weree forced to take cover and admire the planters full of bromeliads for a bit, as well as the herd of cows being driven into an enclosure just up the street, before moving on.

Further still, and in heavier rain, we came to a roughly built roadside shelter, inconveniently located in front of a large pothole now filled with muddy water, where a stout, dark woman was selling sweets. Across the street, a narrow dirt road led down a hill back into the campo. I was informed that this is where Yary and Felo’s birth father lives with his Haitian wife, and I might as well accompany the kids down there with my umbrella and get a look at him. I did. Clearly, we prefer Chiqui.

From here, it was only about 10 kilometers to Loma de Cabrera and the swimming holes near that town – we saw many pickups full of bathers coming back to Dajabon from that direction – but the road looked like it got worse, and also it was still raining and dusk was approaching. I voted to save that tour for a later date and get back to town while I could still see the potholes. That made us just in time to catch the end of the bakery’s working day. All the trays of sugar cookies were out of the oven. Soon they were being stacked by the dozen into Styrofoam trays by Yahaira and wrapped in plastic by three boys of about 9 or 10 years old. I decided to join in on Yahaira’s side, which meant things quickly got silly, and two trays knocked over, but all was right in the end.

After a couple of those cookies and some habichuelas con dulce, I found I didn’t really need much dinner. Instead, back at Laura’s family home, I sat around in rocking chairs with her, her sister, and their mom, looking at family pictures in the dim light of one energy-saving bulb and discussing them with the sister’s two little girls, age 4 and 18 months. Those two girls had more energy than I could even imagine having, and they kept jumping up and down nonstop on the cement floor, getting right back up again each time they fell. The older girl was counting, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis” as she jumped, but the little one couldn’t get beyond “Dos! Dos! Dos! Dos!”

That’s when I heard the story of the Third House. While now only the two wooden structures (and one half shower stall) stood on this property, Laura and her sister told me that there had been another one up until a few months ago. It belonged to their brother and his wife. She had been a problem all the way along and couldn’t get along with anyone in the family. Eternally jealous, she was always accusing her husband of various things with no basis in reality. Then one night, she burned the house down. Torched it and everything in it: television, refrigerator, everything one has to work so hard to have now. She then went back to the capital, and he has to start over from scratch.

By now I was yawning a bit, but I was told that we had been invited over to the Canadian’s house to eat his famous pizza, so I could hardly turn that down. While waiting for everyone to get ready, I sat around talking to the teenagers. We were talking about different hand signals and what they mean (this was sparked by usage of the middle finger). They showed me how an “L” made with thumb and forefinger of the right hand here stands for the political party PLD, the current president’s party. I remarked that that was funny since in the US it means “Loser,” especially when held up to the forehead. Felo and Robinson found this both hilarious and useful, especially during dominoes games. When we did eventually get to the Canadian’s and get out the dominoes (as well as the beer and pizza), “Loser” became the evening’s theme, along with the “W” Robinson started flashing, gang-style, in order to represent his supposed “Winner” status. “Whatever!”

It was hard to stop playing but at 11 we really had to call it a night. I had a 9 AM appointment with Chio, who had reappeared as mysteriously as he had disappeared the other day, and then we were planning to attempt a border crossing. In Haiti, we probably wouldn’t have to eat any more beans, at least.


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
the beach is famous for kite surfing, and with good reason.

Se me fue la lisa

Se me fue la lisa
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
Eel fishermen in the mangrove swamp at Rio San Juan reminded me of a merengue, "La Lisa"


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
mangrove swamp at Rio San Juan


Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
this is the kind of overwhelming development Playa Grande currently faces.

Playa Grande

Playa Grande
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
on the north coast of the DR

The Jump

The Jump
Originally uploaded by salsasydney2000.
a crazy man jumping from the Salto El Limon, Samana.