Friday, February 16, 2007

rice dreams

So I went back to the batey to see what was up and follow up my leads on the gaga group. Everywhere, men and women, the young and the old, were sitting on the ground with a big bowl in front of them and a lot of green detritus in a heap around them. They were all shucking guandules, pigeon peas that had just been harvested. Everything else was pretty much as it had been last time, except that the curandero, Casco Pelao, was around this time and ready to talk to me.

Casco was happy to be able to show me his “oficina” and talk to me about his work as a healer in the vodou religion. The small building, whose painting of San Miguel I’d noted earlier above the door, was filled with statues and beautiful murals. The first room featured Linglesou, a bad guy who wears a skull around his neck and likes blood. He was wearing a nice, button-down red shirt, but one of his hands was a claw, he had three horns growing out of his head, and his eyes looked in two different directions. Through a door to the right was found the recovery room, where patients in need of divine help could stay. It was all white, with one wall featuring five medallions depicting the five saints Casco says aid him in his ministrations. Casco himself sleeps here on days when he needs the kind of guidance that comes in dreams. The back room, the third and final in this tiny house, was painted blue and full of bottles, paintings, and statues. The one who stood directly in front of the door was of unpainted wood and held a full-size machete. On a table, bottles of soda and rum and fake flowers had been left as offerings, apparently to the Madonna of Lourdes who was painted on the wall above.

After we had finished looking through this building, Casco brought me to a separate building next door where parties and ceremonies are held. The ceiling was all hung with colorful tissue paper flags that reminded me of the Mexican papel picado we often see in Tucson, even though they were smaller and simply cut in zigzags. The back door, on which a diamond pattern was painted in blue, pink, and yellow, was open, and an old man disappeared around the corner behind it. He reappeared shortly bearing drums for me to see: a set of 2 large ones called maman tambou, 2 medium called doudou, and 1 small drum called guan, used to provide music at vodou ceremonies. They were painted with various statements, although since I don’t speak kreyol the only one I could make out commemorated “Haiti’s independence.” Casco invited me to come back in March in order to attend a ceremony and hear the drums in action, and I gladly accepted.

We discussed music and healing for a few more minutes, and I learned that Casco came into his line of business through his grandfather, who was also a curandero. One day, “los misterios (the spirits/saints) fell on me,” he reported, and he felt he was being called to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. He loves it, and he particularly loves the vodou drum music. Casco also helps to run the batey’s gaga group (although he pronounces it lala, and still prefers vodou music over it) whenever they can afford to amass the necessary instruments and items of clothing. Last year, when I went to Barahona for Holy Week (see it in my blog archives under April 2006), I noticed that the gaga groups on the bateyes there had sponsorship from various political parties. This enabled them to purchase drums, the PVC pipe necessary for the vaksin, and varying levels of sartorial splendor, although it also required them to plaster those instruments with political bumper stickers. Well, here in the north, no one, not even politicians, seems to be willing to support the local gaga so they don’t know if they will be able to play this year. I told Jon and we decided to see if we can do something to help.

Casco had some errands still to do that day, so we left and he locked up the building behind us. On the way out, he stopped to pick up a tiny girl toddling about and held her up to have me take his picture with her. He explained that the mother had been very sick while pregnant with the girl and came to Casco for help. Praying for guidance on the matter and sleeping on it, he discovered that she needed to make a devotion to San Antonio. The mother took the necessary steps, recovered, and produced a beautiful little girl. To show her thanks, she named the girl Antonia, and Casco is particularly fond of her for having helped her to come safely into the world.

I returned to Papito’s porch alone, since Jon had gone off to Esperanza to take a woman in for a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t have to wait for long, though, until a teenage boy approached me and introduced himself as Franklin. I must have looked bored sitting there, because he offered his services as ersatz tour guide. “Have you been out to the rice field yet?” he wondered. Actually, I hadn’t, so he took me out to see. It was a luscious tropical green, but it was also squelchy and looked a bit too mosquito-friendly. He explained that the rice plants had to be spaced appropriately, and the work going on now entailed searching out clumpy plants and separating them so they would grow better.

We went back into the batey, and he stopped to show me a bunch of guinea pigs a friend of his kept in a homemade cage. I told him how I’d had some as a pet when I was a kid. My parents had given me one female as a gift, and we’d had no idea she was pregnant until one morning when I went to check on her and found two additional tiny fur balls in the cage. They are called codornizes in Spanish, and Franklin wanted to know the word in English. I told him and explained how it was kind of a funny term, since they don’t look like pigs at all. He agreed it was funny, particularly since the kreyol term also includes the word “pig.” Go figure!

The entertainment potential of the guinea pig having been exhausted, Franklin now asked, “want to go look at the rice mill?” I assented, and we crossed the highway and a shallow stream where women were busy washing clothes and children playing, to reach the big factory building. The people of the batey come here not only to work but only to get water, as the place has the only functional spigot in the area. On the way over, he began teaching me some kreyol phrases – he grew up fluent in both languages, having been born in the DR to Haitian parents. We had to pass one obstacle to enter, a surly security officer with an automatic rifle. If he’d been American he would have been a redneck, and I’m not sure what the equivalent Dominican term is. At any rate, he was obviously a condescending racist type who thought it decidedly odd that I’d want to spend any time poking around industrial buildings with those of Haitian decent, but he let us pass through anyway.

Inside, the building was your average industrial food processing site, I guess – not that I have much experience of such things. It was full of tall machines painted green, and everywhere rice dust swirled throughout the air. We gave a packet of drinking water to one of the thirsty workers, then followed some pipes running ten feet above us to an outbuilding, where all the chaff was dropped into an enormous mountain. The ground around it was all spongy with years of accumulated and compressed byproduct. Behind that was a strange blackened pit dug out of the grass, its walls apparently made of burnt chaff. It seemed like the kind of thing that might be highly flammable. Behind the main building a semi was parked, its sides advertising reliable voting equipment in English. (Maybe it was sent down here after the 2000 elections in order to ensure a similarly democratic process was accomplished here – ha ha.) And in front of it was a field where ten bulls grazed, and then a field full of flourishing tobacco plants for your smoking pleasure.

That concluded the touristic portion of the day. We returned to the batey, and Franklin disappeared into the tiny shack he shared with his grandfather, emerging again with a papaya as a gift for me. Then he brought me to another friend’s house in order to sample Haitian cooking, since I told him I’d never tried any before. There was a moro de guandules that to me tasted much like the Dominican variety, served with some flavorful stewed tayota (an inoffensive green vegetable) that I enjoyed. I was wondering what he expected in return, as I always feel uncomfortable accepting presents from people in such obvious need, but didn’t have to wait long to find out. He wanted to use my cell phone to call his father in Haiti, who he hadn’t spoken to in months. I gladly agreed, feeling happy I had something with decent exchange value to offer him.

While the rest of the week certainly seemed busy, there isn’t too much to report. I met with La India again, this time joined by Raul Roman, Rafaelito’s son. We partially finalized the list of tunes we plan to record for Folkways, which will include one that combines merengue with palos drumming – a great opportunity to put my friends, the Turbi brothers of Grupo Mello, to work. I had about 15 minutes’ worth of an accordion lesson with Rafaelito, crunched in between two other students, and I visited my friends Chiqui and Laura, as well as Domingo and the rest of the Arias family, whom I hadn’t seen since last year.

I saw a great documentary on carnival and volunteered to do English subtitles for it because I liked it so much. It showed a number of interesting costume traditions from around the country, some (like Death or Robalagallina) shared by many towns, others unique, like the recently-invented Taimascaras of Puerto Plata, which use motifs from Taino petroglyps, or the spooky round faces with slit eyes of San Jose de Ocoa. I found the part about the cachuas of Cabral particularly moving. I had seen these frightening characters with their violent whips and horned masks in person last year, but I hadn’t been around for the final day of Cabral’s Holy Week carnival. On that day, the mannequin representing

I went to meet with a mask-maker who had invited me over for coffee, only to find him sewing a costume with a house full of lechones discussing all the latest carnival gossip, meaning that there wasn’t time for me. Then, as I was picking up a few items to embellish my own costume I ran into my old friend Jose Reyes doing the same. He then invited me to go see his mask-maker in Arroyo Hondo, and get a preview of his brand new, top secret, fancy mask. I’d never been to Arroyo Hondo, south of the old part of town on the banks of the river, but it was a pretty standard Santiago barrio like any other. On the way we passed through Nibaje, and Jose explained that its odd name derives from its location along the river in a former flood plain. In centuries past, before the construction of the bridges, travelers from La Vega would typically cross the Rio Yaque here, but in flood season it could be quite difficult. As they neared Santiago they would ask inhabitants about the condition of the crossing and the level of the water, and they would respond, “ni baje” (the water won’t go down). It sounds apocryphal to me, but the story is entertaining nonetheless.

It was easy to find the mask-maker’s house, as the sidewalk in front of it was full of blue and orange joyeras drying in the sun. In back, amidst walls encrusted in years of paint spatters and dozens of cages filled with squawking poultry, Jose’s glittery new creation was nearly finished. The mask-maker’s son, learning the trade himself, dried his hands next to a rose bush that itself had been attractively spattered with blue and red dots. The two of them lived in two dark cinder-block rooms with nothing attractive about them except for the dozens of masks found in every corner. They shared a bathroom, really more like a semi-plumbed outhouse, with a couple who lived in the tiny house that faced on the street. However, just a week before, the mask-maker had arisen early to use the facilities, when he saw a foot sticking out of the door. He saw it belonged to the wife, but surmising that she was only partially dressed, he went to tell the husband to check on her himself, that she had fallen or fainted or something. When they pulled her out, she was already dead, at 27, of a head wound, having slipped and fallen in her own bathroom. Yikes.

The carnival theme continued the rest of the week. On Wednesday, an exhibit opened at the Casa de Arte featuring masks and costumes of Navarrete, a town just to the northwest of Santiago that has been working on developing its own style of masks just for the last ten years, with interesting results. The town’s carnival commission decided its official symbol would be Judas, because they already had a tradition of parading a Judas figure through the city as sort of a ritual carnival week sacrifice. Artisans in turn developed a screaming Judas head mask encased in the flames of hell and surrounded by a halo of pesos, a symbol of greed. Other masks depicted animals, devils, and the two in combination.

Then on Thursday, the 43rd annual mask competition results were announced in front of the Centro de la Cultura with a large and rambunctious crowd in attendance. Performances by lechones, a jazz dance group, and the ballet folklorico rounded out the night, but the most entertaining part was the crowd itself, segments of which went wild anytime someone from their particular barrio or carnival group won a prize. After all the awards had been given out in all seven categories (traditional Pepinera, artistic Pepinera, traditional Joyera, artistic Joyera, Pueblo Nuevo, metallic, and fantasy/free theme, as well as one for beginner’s and the overall Grand Prize), I tried to go inside and look at the 132 masks entered into the competition, but couldn’t get a good look because of the throngs of folks trying to do the same. It all made me feel a little claustrophobic, so I decided to leave and come back at a less pressing time.

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