Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Laws of the Land

I went back to Rafaelito’s to set up, finally, a time for my lesson. We did that, and he told me that week he’d dreamed of me twice. I interpreted his dreams for him. First, he had been given some cake, and he decided to share it with me. The cake, I said, represented típico music, which was also sweet: it had been given to him and he was passing it on to me. In the second dream, he was in his bathroom getting ready for something, when I walked in wearing a housedress and got right into the shower, apparently not caring that it was his bathroom and he was already in it. He made clear that I wasn’t naked or anything, but that in the dream he had found it strange that I would just waltz right in like that. I said this meant that he felt I was putting myself in places I didn’t really belong and were a strange context to find me in, places that perhaps belonged to others - like ranchos and galleras. He found my explanations “logical.”

Everyone’s discussing plans for Semana Santa already and I am going to have a hard time deciding between all my invitations. The Turbi brothers, the guys who taught me to play palos, thought we should all go together to their hometown of Las Matas de Farfan, near San Juan de la Maguana in the Southwest. Then, I finally got to see my friend Domingo Arias, and he and his wife offered to take me along with them to their hometown of Bani. Chiqui and Laura will be going to Dajabon, of course, and we’ve been meaning to take that trip together for quite some time. And Almanzar, who took me to Barahona and Cabral last year, will be returning there again – I wouldn’t mind seeing the final day of the Cabral carnival, where the Judas mannequin is burned and all the cachuas gather in the town graveyard to pay homage to cachuas who have passed on with a frenzy of whipcracks. Any votes or suggestions? This is a tough decision.

On Friday, Luis “Terror” Diaz was scheduled to play at my friendly neighborhood bar with the friendly neighborhood name, Te Matare Batista. Clearly, I had to go. I was familiar with his many musical works of the last thirty years, which run the gamut from bachata to merengue to rock and jazz, often in combination. He’s a great guitarist and a great songwriter, but I hadn’t met him in person until this week. I enjoyed talking to him, even though he expressed some ideas about the history of the accordion that could only be described as uniquely his own. (When one finds oneself in the midst of a conversation that seems to have come from a universe only roughly parallel to one’s own, I generally find the best strategy is to stay quiet.)

The gig was basically an affair among friends, which didn’t allow him to truly shine. His young wife joined him, singing in public for only the second time ever, and that was about as good as one could expect from a student making her second appearance. The bar owner then sang vocals on the Cuban tune “Chan Chan.” The most popular performance of the evening was Luis’s solo rendition of his own song, “El gringo dijo, ‘What’s your name’,” which then led the audience into a lengthy political discussion that kept us up way past our bedtimes.

After the brief interlude with my musician friends, it was back to carnival. Though I really meant for carnival to be a side project, it is a very time consuming one and during Feburary I really spend far more time on that than on things típico. But at any rate, I find myself kind of at loose ends on the dissertation research, as I have so many interviews already I don’t really want to do much more there, and I am feeling a bit overloaded with information that still needs to be analyzed. If I could think of a new tack to take with it, that might help, but such inspiration has not yet come to me.

Therefore, on Saturday, I found myself at the Centro Leon for their “tarde de carnaval.” Carnival groups had been invited from all over the region, and representatives had come from Santiago, Constanza, Puerto Plata, Cotui, Bonao, Samana, Sanchez, and Fantino. Costumes and masks were many and varied: menacing leprechauns from Constanza, papuleses in their giant robes of leaves from Cotui, animal figures from Samana, and the taimascaros of Puerto Plata in their creative Taino-inspired masks, pants covered in oyster shells. All the groups took to the streets and made a circuit of Hoya del Caimito, the barrio to the east and south of the Centro Leon to the delight of residents far from the traditional centers of carnival. Then, back at the Centro Leon, they each had time on stage to strut their stuff and to visit with each other.

I took advantage of the chance to make a circuit and made contact with folks from Bonao and Samana, and plans to visit them later. Then I chatted with my fellow Santiagueros. While lechones don’t have any particular music of their own, some of the other local comparsas do and I thought I’d try to find out more about what they played. The head of the comparsa de los Indios carries a small, tambora-like drum on which he plays a simple rhythm he calls “Areito” after the dances the Taino Indians are reported to have done at the time of the conquest. The güira and tambora that accompany Nicolas Den-Den, the dancing bear, play another rhythm that is unique to that character; they demonstrated it for me and explained that was what was used because it was “good for walking.” Robalagallina also has a guira and tambora that follow him/her around, and they reported that they always play a pambiche rhythm, which is not too fast and goes well with the traditional rhyme always shouted after the character.

Although I’d planned on dressing up and participating myself, I didn’t have the chance because of the borrowed mask situation. Still, I have to say that after seeing all the different groups, each beautiful in its own way, I felt really proud to see the lechones. Now that I understand, from inside the mask as it were, what it takes to be one year after year, and now that I personally know those who make that commitment, I feel the pride and the power that all lechones feel when they put on their costumes each year. Their expertise with the whip and their movements - the lechon “dance” – are unique and wonderful to see – a true embodiment of the carnival spirit. I’m usually on the street with and among them, but seeing the lechones on stage, spreading their special brand of joy, was a revelation.

Afterwards, I chatted with a couple of them over their free meals, provided by the Centro Leon. (I didn’t get a meal, but I did get beer!) Juan Carlos, it turns out, was only in his second year as a lechon – just like me! – but one of our companions, a guy who had gone on the trip to Monte Plata with me last year and who wears a very traditional kind of costume made simply of brightly-colored cotton fabric, has been dressing up for 16 years – since he was 7 years old. No wonder his lechon moves and whip technique are so flawless. Polanquito was there, too, and was proud to say that he’s been a lechon every year since 1965. He relished the bouncy lechon dance and loves to tell everyone, “I don’t get tired!” And it’s true. I wondered if he even slept and he assured me that he does. I also asked how he got so into the thing and he credits his childhood in the barrio of Los Pepines for that. He got involved in the years during which carnival was still very violent, and lechones would fight with knives and stones, with a scar from a well-thrown rock on his chin to prove it.

A brief aside: I’ve been surprised and pleased to find out that since I left last year, a number of my carnival friends here have now seen this blog. As a result, Betania and Juan Carlos asked me to put up this new picture of them in costume (see above). So far, all friends, teachers, and informants report who have stumbled across it report that they like it, especially Jose Reyes who says he is happy to see I give credit where credit is due. I explained that I understood what that was about, being that the majority of web sites devoted to merengue típico today have posted a history of típico that I originally wrote for my típico site back in 2001, without crediting me. Jose agrees that that sucks. So we ask that if you cite anything on my blog anywhere else in virtual, print, or spoken form, please give credit, and do not reprint any significant portion anywhere without permission.

Saturday was a long day, and there was another, even longer one, coming up next. I hit the hay early to prepare, but I had also prepared by arranging to bring my own photographer with me: my friend Laura (Chiqui’s wife), famous for cutting off everyone’s heads when she photographed her daughter’s quinceanera last year. I wanted to give her another chance to prove herself, and also I wanted some pictures of Los Confraternos and couldn’t do them myself while I was in costume. As soon as I was ready on Sunday, then, I went and picked up Laura, and then we picked up her daughter and 2 cousins who had decided to come along for the ride, and then all four of us went to Tonito’s. It was not a pleasant ride. I’d bought two bladders in preparation for the day’s parade but they turned out to be rather fresher than I’d imagined, and they filled the Millenium Falcon with an ungodly stench. It was quite possible the worst smell ever. We wrapped them in plastic and threw them in the trunk, but it didn’t help much.

Anyway, I had work to do: I had shoes to decorate lechon-style. This took a couple of hours, so it was lucky that Laura et al had children with whips and a newborn to entertain themselves with. Eventually we did finish and costumed ourselves, and then I had a few minutes in which to undertake some whip practice. I actually improved a bit! If I can get ahold of a whip – Tonito says they get them from the guy who makes them in Los Ciruelitos – then maybe I’ll actually use one next week, although I confess I had second thoughts the next day when I woke up with an incredibly sore neck and shoulder.

The day before, Polanquito had told me this week’s route was shorter than last week’s, but if it was, than I’m the dancing bear’s uncle. It took over three hours to travel the whole length, and we went through parts of Santiago I’d never seen before. The path was so long and twisty and went through so many unfamiliar streets that I became completely disoriented. At one point we were winding our way down a hill in a rather nice area with large houses overlooking what must have been the Rio Yaque, though I couldn’t see it from there. Across the way was a Hollywood Hills-style sign saying “Bermudez,” which I’d never seen before from any other vantage point. I felt as if I might have been magically transported to another city.

At that point we were in a bit of a traffic jam, so I took advantage of the few moments of rest to examine something on my leg that had been vaguely bothering me for a while. It turned out to be a safety pin that had come loose and bent so that it was scraping my leg, and it must have been doing so for quite some time because there were zillions of tiny bloody scratches covering a patch of skin about three inches square on the back of my left shin. One of our lechon assistants helped me pull the pin out and showed me how its shaft was brown: “look, it’s your blood!” “Well, sometimes you have to suffer for art,” I replied. I just hoped I wouldn’t get some kind of horrible infection from the rusty pin – were my tetanus shots up to date? No way to know.

Once we started moving again, however, I quickly forgot my pain in the rush of carnival-fueled adrenaline. There was plenty going on around to distract me: Angelo, the mask-maker, was right behind us taking part in a comparsa depicting a boxing match with its own movable ring. Behind that was a mini theater piece titled “La Captura de Saddam Hussein,” which consisted of a hideout covered in leaves under which a long-bearded Saddam was hiding (he’d apparently been there a while). When some military guys with scary-looking guns stormed the place, he ran out and they hauled him off in dramatic fashion.

It even rained a few drops on us, providing a little relief from the heat, though I was still pouring sweat inside that costume. I sent my friends off to buy me some water and, later, a refreshing Skim Ice popsicle in guanabana flavor. We passed a renovated two-story house on Abua Rodriguez street in Pueblo Nuevo where, apparently, a painter lived: the family sat on the balcony surrounded by surprisingly good paintings of lechones and other carnival scenes, watching the action passing them by. Thus I was able to keep on dancing until we returned home, pausing only to shake confused babies’ hands, and for parents to take pictures of their kids with me. Then I hastily and painfully applied some rubbing alcohol to my wounds. I couldn’t decide if I was more tired or more hungry, but eventually hunger won out and I took the whole group with me to eat some street pizza.

Back to work. My post-carnival routine has become to take the first couple of days of each week to (a) recover and (b) write up notes and organize photos, recordings, etc. This week I continued with that plan, although I also snuck a quick interview in there with Raudy, the famed Robalagallina who lives across the street. It was enlightening. When I asked what were the most important qualities a Robalagallina must have, he told me they must master the “cara de puta” (whore’s face). He had accomplished this feat by studying fashion magazines. “So it’s basically Dominican voguing?” I asked. “Exactly,” he agreed. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me if I hadn’t had this conversation.

In addition, I went out for a night on the town on Monday. The owner of my friendly neighborhood bar had offered to take me along to a place he sometimes dances to old-school son on Mondays, and it turned out to be the same place the researchers at Centro Leon had mentioned to me. Clearly, it was a sign, so I accepted the invitation. Six of his friends, who were out celebrating a birthday, decided to join us.

It was just a hole-in-the-wall bar on a residential street in Pueblo Nuevo, no sign and no real name. Everyone simply refers to it as “Donde Dorca,” Dorca’s place. My friend explained to me on the way over that Dorca was a retired prostitute, as were many others who frequented the establishment. Perfect! Local color! I did love the place although I was getting a little weirded out about how prostitution seemed to be a theme for the week). It was about the size of my mom’s living room back in Tucson, with the band set up at one end and about ten small plastic tables along the walls in the rest of the space. The tables were populated both by couples and by male soneros sitting alone or in pairs in their dapper hats and shiny shoes. The presumed retired prostitutes sat up by the door, manning the money box.

The band consisted of lead vocalist, tres, congas, güira, bass, keyboards, and another percussionist who played bongos, tambora, or whatever was demanded. A pair of what appeared to be the thigh bones of a large animal lay on a table nearby, and though I was told they were meant to be played as claves, I didn’t see them played while I was there. I’m not a fan of synthesized horns in general, but the band was good to dancing to, and played everything from classic sones to merengue típico to boleros. Their announcer was a guy in his seventies who was pretty funny. He kept referring to the virtues of Dorca’s, as if we needed any reminding: it was “Barato! Y bueeeeeeeeeeno!” (Cheap, and good!)

I videotaped some of the more stylish dancers, one of whom was completely androgenous and somewhat disconcerting in his/her straight-legged jeans, button-down striped shirt, and short haircut. I eventually figured out it was a woman who liked to dance both roles, and for some unknown reason, she presented me with a small green paperback book of Dominican labor laws. “What’s this about?” I asked my friends. “We don’t know; just take it,” they recommended. So I did.

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