After only a day and a half in Santiago to pack, repack, clean up the house, meet with Rafaelito, and get the Falcon’s AC repaired, I was on the road again. Frankly, I was getting a little tired of it, but I thought I could handle it if (a) I took the bus instead of driving and (b) my destination was beautiful Samana.
A few weeks ago, at the carnival event at the Centro Leon, I had met an official type and folklore aficionado from the city of Samana and expressed my interest in getting to know its local culture better, and possibly smoking out some musicians to play merengue redondo, a unique local merengue variant using accordion and palos. My new friend Virgilio was anxious for me to know his town as well, and after some back and forth on the phone we arranged for me to visit this weekend.
I picked up a 9:30 voladora (van) in downtown Santiago, which followed a direct route to my destination via San Francisco de Macoris, Nagua, and Sanchez, but just not very quickly. The girls in front of me kept harassing the driver to go faster, saying, “at this rate, we’ll get there at 5!” But he was not to be hurried. Still, it was nearly 2 when we pulled into the Samana bus stop – not exactly light speed. (At least the trip had given me time to get to know my fellow passengers, who, coincidentally, included a professional salsa dancer from Santiago called El Soberano and his daughter, who danced as his partner.) Virgilio came to get me another 20 minutes later in his little white van, and I expressed my intense interest in seeing Samana’s scenic bathrooms before going any further. I did this and had a lunch of fried rice, pigeon peas, and bacalao as Virgilio did a couple of errands. As both síndico and radio announcer, he has a lot of fund-raising responsibilities, and today was in the midst of the difficult job of getting people to follow through on their pledges. Then his son helped me get checked into my no-frills, cold-water hotel. Seeing that its standard of cleanliness was reasonable and the price was right, I took it.
Then it was time to make the folklore rounds. Virgilio knows everyone here – that’s his job – and he knows who knows music. First, he deposited me in front of what appeared to be a small cleaning-supplies store, where an elderly black man was reading a magazine article on Samana’s history. He didn’t seem too keen on being interrupted, but soon I got him talking shop. With the last name of “Phipps” he was descended from resettled North American slaves on one side and a father from St Kitts on the other side. He had lived in Samana his whole life but English was his first language. Lincoln (as was his appropriate-sounding first name) played first trumpet and used to direct the choir at San Pedro church, the oldest church in town – originally Methodist and built in 1824 by the American freedmen. Back in the 1950s they sung all their hymns in English, he reported, but later the denomination changed to a Dominican evangelical one and they began to sing in Spanish.
Lincoln was sad about the state of music in Samana today. All but 2 of the guys he used to play with are now dead, and of those two one is very sick and unable to play anymore. No young people are taking up the reins, which he attributes to drugs and delinquency as well as simple lack of interest. He does, however, rehearse once a week with a group of about 12 in order to sing hymns in church on Sunday, occasionally throwing in an old one in English. Even spoken English is disappearing around here – I noticed him greet a few passersby in that language, but all were getting on in years. I asked about the recently-formed Department of Culture, which (it seems to me) should be investing in the preservation and dissemination of unique bodies of traditional music like this, but he said that out here in Samana they did no such thing. Nonetheless, he invited me to the church on Sunday to hear them sing and I gladly accepted. This would mean investing in a mini shopping trip, though, since I’d brought nothing appropriate to wear – church had been about the last thing on my mind as I packed for the beach!
I left Lincoln feeling a little depressed. Virgilio next dropped me at the house of a local historian. Two young men who worked at one of the resort hotels were also just stopping by. As Virgilio left, he shouted out something about how I had to try the Oli-Oli but to “be careful” of it. In response, El Profesor disappeared momentarily and then returned with three glasses of a thick, golden liquid. This was the famous beverage, invented by his father and named by him in honor of a Samana carnival comparsa from the old days. Made from the juices of “at least five” kinds of fruit, including but not limited to grape, orange, and starfruit, it was indeed both strong and sweet.
As I sipped, the professor gave me a copy of a booklet he’d written on the town’s carnival to look over, and all four of us continued the discussion on the state of traditional culture in Samana. The professor was just as pessimistic as Lincoln had been, and he agreed that the state wasn’t investing at all in the culture of small towns or cities far away from the centers of power. The Oli-Oli comparsa hadn’t gone out in years; “no one” was making traditional carnival masks anymore (which here depicted either cows or pigs and had three horns); “no one” played merengue redondo and the bamboulá dance was only pulled out and dusted off for folkloric presentations. The young men told me that Samana youth were liable to be overly influenced by the stronger carnival traditions of La Vega, Bonao, and Santiago and then make masks emulating those rather than keeping up their local traditions.
Still, they conceded, there were a number of accordionists and percussionists around who might be able to help me, and the three of them helped me assemble a list of these. I might still be able to find some musicians playing merengue redondo in “el campo” during patronal festivals and the like. To me, this was sounding more and more like a rescue mission: the English gospel singing, the merengue redondo, and the bamboula and chivo florete – all of them were found nowhere else in the country, and they were all in danger of disappearing. In ten years the last practitioners of the first will likely be gone. Meanwhile, the woman who singly-handedly kept Samana’s bamboula dancing going for years has already died, and while her grandson does perform it for stage shows, it no longer plays any real role in community life here. The chivo, too, has been demoted to staged folklore. I still don’t know what the state of merengue redondo is. I’ll see what I can find out the rest of this weekend.
It was nearly dark when Virgilio collected me again. He had an errand to do out at a beach where a handful of stands and small restaurants sell beer and fried fish to locals. Naturally, everyone wanted to come with, and the van filled with Virgilio’s older son, two of his teenage friends, and Virgililo’s two smallest, a boy about 2 and a girl around 3. A few people were still playing in the gentle waves in front of the palm-lined beach as the sun set. It was a pleasant scene, but we didn’t stay long since Virgilio’s radio show would start before long and he wanted to interview me there. We did have one more stop to make, though: at a roadside fish-fry stand for dinner on our feet. The cotorra couldn’t get any fresher – it had just been caught and brought up from the beach. Accompanied by ripe plantains, it made for a tasty and cheap meal.
One more stop before we made it to the radio station: to drop off the little kids with Virgilio’s aunts. Finding out about my project, they immediately got me talking to an uncle who all said was an excellent dancer. Though he usually resides in the capital now, he was back home in Samana for a visit. He had never taken dance classes, he said, but loved to dance; his expertise lay in the twist, which he could dance “just like any of those dancers over there.” But his #1 all-time favorite was disco. He affirmed that the hustle was the greatest, most graceful, and most difficult dance in history. Hustle is pretty cool but I was having a hard time picturing this small, thin older Dominican man in glasses in a John Travolta white disco suit.
This man also knew Samanese folk dances though – he had even been asked to join Rene Carrasco’s folk dance troupe back in the day (1960s). I asked him to show me some merengue redondo moves and he complied, explaining that it was danced much like other merengues only continually turning and moving in a circle. There was also a smooth, gliding step he demonstrated solo for me, and when I looked puzzled, he then did it with me. It was a sort of waltz thing, dipping on the first step and then rising again while moving forward or back. He thought I was a good dance partner, but we didn’t try any disco moves.
We also spoke of “bolero rítmico.” I wasn’t quite sure what this was, but it turned out to be the kind of danzon-step bolero I knew how to do. But here there was a sort of lift on the “empty” count, making it a sort of pre-bachata. Then, as he recounted my dance ability to an aunt who had just returned, the two got into a discussion about the difference between “bailar bien” (dancing well) and “bailar bueno” (dancing good). According to these two seventyish folks, one who “baila bien” knows all the steps and moves around fine, but “no se deja llevar” (doesn’t let him or herself get into it). On the other hand, one who “baila bueno” really moves with the music and feels it.
After this long day, I was frankly ready to hit the hay, but there was no rest for the weary. It was on to La Kalle radio station – but when we arrived, we found that the power had been out all day and had yet to return. The inverter was giving enough power to fuel the lightbulbs, but not the transmitter. We’d have to wait – us, and the giant spider on the wall of the waiting room. “Oh, it’s just a little thing,” the station director assured me – and then tried to hit it with his pellet gun. (He missed.)
The power did come back, though, enabling us Virgilio to do a dramatically abbreviated version of his show – one that was mostly taken up with the announcing of all his sponsors at breakneck speed – and a short interview of yours truly. I fielded questions about how I got into merengue típico, my opinion of Fefita, my other folkloric activities, and what I had learned in the country. After the day’s depressing assessment of the state of traditional music in this province, I made sure to put a call out for Samaneses to take pride in their folklore.
Still the night was not over. As a lifelong resident Virgilio really has friends all over this town, and some of them turned out to live right across the street from my hotel. One of the residents had recently returned from New York, so of course we were obligated to drop by to pay a visit. I propped my eyelids open as best I could, but didn’t do a good enough job to be able to accept their offer of a drink. I stuck with my water and did my best to smile at the travel anecdotes being exchanged. Mostly, I ended up chatting with a young guy who had grown up in Long Island but moved back here to go to school – an interesting reversal of the expected. Turned out his father was Brazilian and played bass with various kinds of groups including forro. So he got interested in accordion music that way, and that naturally led him down the road to típico – the road from which there is no return! Now his típico fanaticism is on a level similar to my own, although being that he is younger and has more energy he goes to more gigs than I do these days.
Eventually I found a way to excuse myself. I really wanted to hit the hay because, although it was not the main reason for my trip out here, I couldn’t very well be in Samana during whale-watching season and not take a look at the whales. So I got up early as Virgilio had advised… and then waited around for two hours until he picked me up. Figures!
The cruise was very educational, as it was led by actual marine biologists (Canadians). I learned that all Atlantic whales are born here in the bay of Samana, that they all have white swimming fins while those in the Pacific have black ones, and that they don’t eat a bite the whole time they are here! And I did see myself a few humpbacks: two moms with one baby each. They weren’t terribly lively, just swimming a bit, diving for 2-3 minutes, then surfacing a bit to breathe. It was pretty much like what I saw last year. I am told that if I want to see more active humpbacks I should come in February.
I also got seasick. If you know me you will know that that is about the last thing anyone would ever expect to happen, as I have never experienced any kind of motion sickness at any time in my life. But I had woken up with a nasty cold that morning that made me a bit dizzy to begin with, and the sun got pretty intense for a while, so I guess it all added up. Now I am filled with sympathy for regular seasickness sufferers (read: Hanna). I spent half the trip lying down on a bench. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon lying in bed until I got hungry, and then I went out to find some pescado con coco, the classic Samanese dish. It was yum. After that, Virgilio and I tried to locate some musicians, but to no avail. You know how those musicians are.
In the process, though, I did get to see some of the “barrios calientes” (dangerous neighborhoods) of Samana. Virgilio pointed out that now I had seen both the good and the bad, and I was glad to round out my picture of the place. These barrios were pretty much like their counterparts in Santiago, though here they were populated largely by Haitians. The streets were dark as, naturally, the power was out; they were narrow, ungraded dirt, often littered with trash. At one point we passed a low building painted mint green in front of which perhaps two dozen people were hanging out. As we passed, I peered in and saw some people dancing bachata in the dim light of the fluorescent bulb. Virgilio said it was a place of “free women.” But no musicians. Our tour was at an end.
The next day was Sunday, and I had my date at San Pedro church to keep. I certainly hadn’t thought I’d be in a church anytime soon, and I hadn’t exactly brought the appropriate wardrobe, but I did the best I could. After a quick café con leche at Virgilio’s house under the watchful gaze of a framed portrait of the late politician Peña Gómez, he drove me to “La Chorcha,” as it’s known. All the way, we were followed by this stray dog who seemed to want nothing more in life than to be by Virgilio’s side, and when that was not possible, to at least be next to his van. She even came into the church with us, until Virgilio signaled for her to go out.
The church itself was beautiful in its simplicity and strangely moving. I’ve never been to the South myself, but hey, I’ve seen movies, and it looked much like an old country church down there. It was easy to imagine the resettled American ex-slaves building this place back in 1820 with all the hopes of being in a new country and being free. On the inside it felt spacious with its high, peaked roof with slatted gables to let in the breeze. The walls were of two colors of wooden planks, as some of the older wood had been replaced when needed. The altar area was framed by a wooden archway, simply carved with a few square decorations. It was backed by an arched stained-glass window divided into several panes of different colors and a plain wood cross. At the other end, above the door, was a slightly more ornate rose window. The pews were of dark wood and three of them were on a raised platform to the left, for the choir to sit. All the doors and windows, arched like the one at the altar, were thrown open and the temperature on that hill was surprisingly pleasant.
Until recently, this church had been AME (Methodist) and it still seemed pretty Methodist to me (my own family’s denomination). When we arrived the choir was singing something in Spanish accompanied by some chords on a too-loud organ and the sweet-sounding trumpet of my new friend Lincoln. He ornamented the melody tastefully in an early jazz style. He seemed both happy and a little embarrassed to see me. A minute later he got up to direct the choir in the next tune, and though it was in Spanish I knew it as “How Great Thou Art.”
The service went along pretty much as one would expect. The minister was a woman, though, and much of the talk today was about the International Day of the Woman (as designated by the UN) which occurred this week. A youth group got up to sing a few songs, which they accompanied themselves on tambourine. Then the choir returned for a few more, this time with a not-too-expertly-played electric guitar. Then a special guest got up to sing some tunes karaoke-style off his CD – this guy, Wilson Vladimir, had formerly belonged to the popular merengue group Los Diplomaticos de Haiti but had then found the Lord and switched over to Christian music. He was a little too evangelical for my tastes, but at least he was enthusiastic. The service concluded with a rendition of “Old Time Religion” in English, a reminder of the congregation’s English-speaking past.
I had to beat a hasty retreat then, not even getting to say goodbye to Lincoln, in order to make my bus back. I was sorry to leave Samana, especially since in the last 5 minutes before my bus left we finally located one of the aging musicians who still knows how to play merengue redondo. And even more especially since it turned out to be the most uncomfortable bus ever: more than full with too-straight seats and no room for my knees, various parts of my body kept falling asleep the whole way back. I couldn’t sleep even though my head was swimming from my nasty cold and I was desperate for some rest, knowing that I had a long night in front of me.
It was the night of the vodou ceremony on Batey Libertad, to which I’d been invited months previously. I wasn’t really up for it after 4 ½ hours on the bus from hell, much less for the long drive out there, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Plus, I liked the idea of starting the day out in a Methodist-turned-Evangelical Christian church and finishing it up in a vodou peristyle. That would really encapsulate this country, I thought. But fate had other plans. I rested for 45 minutes, ate a quick quesadilla, changed clothes, and went out to my car – which wouldn’t start. I whacked the starter with my club to no avail, and then my two helpful neighbors did the same with no better results. Looks like I wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, I spent the evening on the sidewalk chatting with a neighbor who grew up in New York in the ‘60s, and who had met John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and a whole host of famous countercultural characters. Well, that was another good way to end the day.
I’m already planning a collection trip back to Samana for next year.