I had my first actual accordion lesson of the year at Rafaelito’s, and while I was at it, I had Manaury start pimping my MySpace profile. He’d been itching to do this for sometime. We started with an electric blue background, but rest assured that that is just a start.
Much of the rest of the week was spent fighting various species of itches. Itchiness and warfare with various insects seems to be integral to my way of life here. So far the new strategy I’ve employed against the evil ant army seems to be working. I have been studying the behavior of the little tiny light brown ants that have been plaguing me ever since I first came here in 2004. They move incredibly fast compared to their sluggish U.S. counterparts and in chaotic patterns, rather than along the neat pathways. They also send out lone little scout ants all over the place in search of food, but there is a significant time lag between when the scouts make a discovery and when they are able to return home, communicate the information to their neighbors, and amass sufficient forces for invasion of my kitchen. Therefore, I can keep my cereal on top of the refrigerator until the scouts show. Then I move it to the counter, and vice versa. Ha! You ants will never get your filthy, microscopic hands on my Kashi!
I did have a brief intermission to conduct another carnival-related interview, however, and to attend the opening of a carnival-related exhibit at the Centro Leon. I enjoyed the photographs of the bladders much more than I’d enjoyed their smell last week.
I had recovered from a particularly nasty form of itch by Friday, which was lucky, as it enabled me to take a quick trip to the nearby town of Moca where my friend Chiqui Taveras was scheduled to play some tunes for a friend’s birthday party. Equally luckily, I’d just got new CV boots put on the Falcon so we were ready to rock. We picked up Chiqui, Laura, and the tambora and güira player that were to accompany him at the mini-gig and headed east out of town, on the “good” road through Licey al Medio to Moca. One thing I really hate in this country is driving on “highways” at night: when the power is out (which is usually) you can’t see where the potholes are hiding (which is everywhere), and the other drivers who refuse to turn down their brights (all of them) blind you from seeing those motorbikes that have no lights or reflectors (most of them). It is a harrowing experience, and when we eventually made it to Moca my eyes were burning. I realized I hadn’t blinked the entire time from the strain of watching for potholes in the darkness.
Nothing much was happening yet when we arrived. It was a large two-story house with a carport and tile floors, indicating the licenciado’s position in life as a successful businessman in this medium-sized town. He and his friends were seated around a table on the patio in back, separated by a barbed-wire fence from a plantain grove behind. The light from the energy-saving bulb everyone here uses was kind of eerie in the midst of all that darkness. Someone was getting a barbecue fired up on the other end of the porch, and most of the women were busy in the kitchen. We took our seats at one end of the table and were soon brought beer. Before long, hors d’oeuvres were served too: olives and cheese, peanuts and raisins, and guacamole and chips.
The licenciado told me about how he’d met Chiqui. Many years ago, he’d been traveling in Dajabon, where he got into a discussion with some friends about who was the best musician in the area. A difference of opinion arose, and one of the others suggested that they weren’t in possession of all the facts. “There’s an accordionist here who you really must see. This guy knows how to play.” He took the others to Chiqui’s house where they requested a few merengues. The licenciado ended up agreeing that Chiqui was the best in Dajabon, and they have been friends ever since.
Though not an old man, this guy seemed to be a real traditional rural leader type, the kind of “big man” in the country that has always supported merengue típico. So to him, a party just wasn’t a party without a perico ripiao. He said that he liked to hear “merengues de mangas largas,” an expression I’d never heard. Just what would a “long-sleeved merengue” be? They said they were the classics, the kind people here usually called “merengues de fiesta,” but that didn’t explain why they were long-sleeved. Laura suggested it was because long sleeves keep out the cold. It’s an interesting metaphor.
While the music was traditional Cibaeño fare, the audience for it was quite international. Besides myself, there were two Cubans there: one an old man who had been in the country for 20 years, and one a young man who had just come five months ago, disillusioned from his life working in Cuban tourism. Now, he ran his own cafeteria and had purchased a piece of land. He liked merengue típico, though when the dancing began I found he had a much more aggressive style of dancing it than do the smooth-moving Dominicans. Well, most of them move smoothly. One guy at this party, though, made his appearance at the top of the steps doing some kind of crazy kicking step, jumping from one foot to another in something that looked much more like quebradita than merengue.
The musicians played for some time, joking about getting through “two sets” as if they were in a night club. As at any gathering of true aficionados, they played the older, more difficult Tatico-era repertoire, sometimes joined by “guest vocalists” from among the guests. After a while, they made me play a couple of tunes – something I’d been afraid could happen, since I was completely unprepared. I haven’t really played in months, and so while I remember how to start about 40 merengues, I only remember how to finish about two of them, and my technique sucks. It was pretty embarrassing, but the licenciado cheered me up. “Hey, I’m impressed you can play any merengues at all. I have an accordion in there,” he said, pointing into the house. “It’s been there for ten years and I still can’t play a note.”
Eventually, it was time for food: enormous legs of turkey from the grill (for them, not me, clearly) and slabs of casabe flat bread. This was followed by a round of the birthday song, in both Spanish and English, accompanied by the trio. Dominicans end it with neither the “shave and a haircut” bit nor “and many more…” as Americans might, but with a different tag ending that signifies “se está poniendo viejo" (he’s getting old), to which the celebrant replies that it isn’t viejo but “bueno” (he’d getting good). Finally the cake came out, slathered in Dominican-style dulce de leche. It was definitely a sugar O.D.
Around midnight, it was decided to put an end to the party and the music. But there was still one more thing we had to do. There was an old musician, Manolo, who used to play with Tatico and was now ailing here in town. He was scheduled to go in for heart surgery this very week and everyone was concerned about his health. So in order to cheer him up, we would bring him a serenata and play three merengues for him in front of his house. When we arrived the street was dark, no one was in sight, and it was starting to rain. But as soon as the musicians started playing, a few neighbors came out to hear, including one drunkard that kept pulling at my elbow.
I had my work to do, too, though: holding my umbrella up to keep the tambora dry. It’s kind of hard for a modern-day tamborero to play a serenata, since tamboras no longer have straps attached for playing while standing. Instead, this guy had to balance the drum first on the trunk of the car and then against a tree. It all made for a very picturesque sight. I also found it touching, how bonds are reinforced between musicians by way of a couple of midnight melodies. There is definitely a sense of brotherhood here, and a sense of indebtedness to those musicians who came before.
Soon, Manolo himself appeared, umbrella in hand, a stout, elderly, dark-skinned man in a baseball cap and colorful shirt. He was pleased with the display of affection and shook all our hands. We wished him well and disappeared into the night as quickly as we had appeared.