Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Something completely different: Salsa & Son in Santo Domingo

Still questing after photos, I tried to go the car wash route on Sunday. My friend Denio, of the palos group, decided to accompany me to Rancho Tipico Las Colinas – if we could get there early, I thought I had a chance of getting something interesting on film, but Denio’s childcare situation didn’t pan out until it was already dark. It didn’t matter too much in the end, because there was no good spot from which to shoot, and the music/dance/bar part was totally separate from the car part, anyway. It was a fun place to spend an evening, though. I danced some merengue, some salsa, some típico, and some bachata, and watched other people doing obscene things on the dance floor to reggaeton. I ran into an old friend from the Centro Leon, Freddy, and then played some pool. After that, we tried to hit a couple of other car washes to see if things would work out camera-wise, but no such luck. Anyway, we were both tired so headed to our respective homes early.

It was just as well, since Monday would be another long day, filled with an inordinate amount of driving, as it turned out. I had to get up early to drive to the capital to check out the salsa and son dancing scenes down there. With my newly rebuilt engine, the mechanic had assured me I could go anywhere I damn well pleased, and I hoped he was right. But this time, just to be sure, I would do my best not to think at all about how the Falcon was running.

As it turned out, the drive down was pretty uneventful, if hot. I enjoyed having a radio to play with this time, and I even stopped for some roadside shopping. The freeway here boasts some great crafts, believe it or not, and stuff that’s not sold in the tourist markets in cities. On the way down I stopped at the wood stalls near (naturally enough) El Pino, where natural and painted wooden dishes and utensils can be found. On the way back up, I’d stop to check out the rag rugs at the less appropriately named Piedra Blanca – the town at the turnoff to Cotui, to which it seems to have lent its weave & tie technique for the creation of the fundú costumes.

Anyway, as I was driving I received a call from “Playero la Salsa,” as my guide to Santo Domingo’s salsa world was known. I’d been planning on going straight to my hotel to check in, shower, and change before meeting anyone, but he suggested I stop and see him on the way in since he lived a little ways out of town. I agreed, and we rendezvoused at a Shell gas station at the barrio of “El 9,” ever-so-picturesquely named after the number of its milepost on the freeway. I thought it would be easy to recognize me, being as always the lone white girl, and also I had described my car to him. But he ended up taking several turns around the parking lot before eventually finding me half expiring from massive amounts of sweating. I always forget how much hotter the capital is!

At the gas station’s small restaurant I ordered some lunch and, most importantly, water, over which to discuss Dominican salsa style. We compared notes on New York vs Dominican steps and men’s and women’s roles, entertaining the restaurant workers with an impromptu and covert demonstration. Then we made plans to meet again that night to visit a salsa club in the Zona Oriental, were hopefully I’d be able to see some dancers in action. I really should have come on a Thursday or Friday when there are regular dance contests and performances by Playero’s group, but unfortunately, I didn’t have any more free weekends left! My stay in the DR this time is beginning to seem way too short.

I dropped Playero off a ways down the road in the barrio of Herrera and then followed his directions to go around a frightening roundabout (approximately ten times the chaos of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn) to the 27 de Febrero – where I promptly got caught inside the worst traffic jam ever. Let’s not talk about it. It will be enough to say that I sat inside my un-air-conditioned car in searing afternoon heat, in the middle of a sea of asphalt, for nearly an hour, with no water. If a water-seller had inserted himself into that mess, he would surely have walked out a millionaire.

By the time I finally extracted myself, swearing to hold a grudge against the 27 de Febrero for the rest of eternity, and got to my hotel, I barely had time to shower, change, and rest a few minutes before I had to head back out west to Herrera and meet with Playero and two of his friends and students for a night of dancing. But when I arrived, I found out that the club we were going to was actually across the river to the east, sending me right back to where I’d come from and further. Having spent 4 hours already in my car that day, I was a little annoyed with this nonsensical plan that seemed to have been devised only to force me into spending more money on $4-a-gallon gas and raising my blood pressure.

I did like the place once we finally arrived, though. It was packed with shiny metal tables, all filled, and there was no dance floor to speak of, just a narrow aisle in the middle. The ceiling was filled with colorful paper flags like Mexican papel picado. But the real attraction was the music. The deejay was spinning nonstop old-school salsa, what one of my companions called “salsas raras - stuff they only dig out here, that you would never hear anyplace else.” It was true, but it sure sounded good, and the crowd was really into it. A table of guys behind me had even brought their own instruments and were playing along with maracas and cencerro.

This wasn’t Playero’s usual crowd- he usually only came on Fridays, when a competition is held here weekly. But one friend was here: El Guinguiriano, reported to be the best salsa dancer in the country and the winner of the most competitions. Tonight, he showed off a bit by dancing with two women at once, turning them in perfect spins and executing flawless footwork. He had his moves down, and he was quite the ball of energy to see on the dance floor. Oh – and he’s blind.

It was definitely impressive. I danced with him a bit myself, and knowing I danced New York style, he put in some New York style spins. It was a bit nerve-wracking, though – the tables were so close together and the place so crowded that I kept being afraid of spinning into a table, knocking over beers, and stepping on others’ toes. I don’t know that my partner was aware of just how precarious the situation was! That, combined with the fact that I hadn’t danced much since my last knee surgery a year and a half ago, meant that I didn’t feel my performance was quite up to par. But it was fun, and he wanted to dance some more, offering to meet me at the next night’s destination.

There wasn’t much time to sleep. I had an ever-so-exciting errand to do the next morning: pay a visit to the police headquarters for the recovery of stolen vehicles. See, a year and a half after I bought my car, I still don’t have its papers. At first, the problem was getting a copy of the ID of the woman who had owned the car previously. El Negro, my trusty auto body shop guy, was supposed to get this for me since he had actually sold me the car. But although I had the original registration, this pesky woman seemed always to be out of the country (or, more likely, El Negro just didn’t feel like dealing with it). So last time I left the country, I deposited the matter in the capable hands of my lawyer, Eddy. He managed to get the ID, miraculously enough, but by the time I returned here (seven months after I’d left) the papers still hadn’t gone through. We had to take the Falcon for a second inspection for reasons unknown (as you may recall from last month’s blogging). The problem, as it turned out, was a number missing on the form because of a fold in the photocopy.

The forms were submitted again, together with those of my friend Jon’s car. Jon got his papers back quickly, but mine still didn’t show. Eddy sent a messenger to the Palacio de la Justicia to find out why. Turned out the Falcon appeared on a list of cars that were “stoled, recovered, but not returned.” I’m not so clear on what that was supposed to mean, other than a trip to the capital. Apparently, the police computer system is based in the capital, and for some reason that means that no one in other cities can make changes to the system. So my mission was to show up, talk to a particular Lieutenant, show her my papers, and have her remove the warning from my car’s record. Of course, I knew it would not be so simple. After a year and a half of submitting and resubmitting, how could it be?

I saw the lieutenant and got in line, waited maybe an hour for her to finish with the guy before me, then got passed on to a Lieutenant Captain in an office with ten other people waiting for various things and a desk covered with piles of vehicle-related forms. Both of them were very nice and as helpful as they could be, but how helpful can you be with so much bureaucracy? As I waited for the computer guys to check my car’s record, I talked with another unfortunate waiting room resident. “You’ve been waiting a year and a half? That’s nothing! I’ve been waiting three years! And there are four warnings on MY car!” So when they told me the warning was there and couldn’t be removed without several more steps of work, I was nonetheless getting off pretty easy.

The next step is a bit of detective work that is entirely my responsibility. They gave me the name of a mysterious Freddy who filed the robbery report, although according to my papers he was never the owner of the car. They also gave me a three-year-old phone number likely not to work and a cédula (ID number). With this information, I am supposed to be able to track down this guy and convince him to write a letter to remove the warning from the record. Riiiiiiiiight. (Imagine if I had four of them to take care of!) So it looks like I’m keeping the Falcon rather than selling it this year. It’s just as well I’m getting all the repairs done – we are going to be together for a WHILE.

Cementing our bond further, the Falcon and I then headed back out to Km 9 to meet Playero at the ol’ gas station AGAIN. Well, I couldn’t complain too much; he’d agreed to show me some moves to help me get the hang of Dominican salsa style. By the time I arrived, though, he had decided we might as well kill two birds with one stone and pay a visit to some salsa schools where I could also meet some teachers and observe other dancers. That meant a drive even further out of town, to a peripheral barrio called Los Alcarrizos.

On the way out, el Playero explained that several salsa schools were located in this area, and all had plenty of students. I wondered why Los Alcarrizos was so salsa-happy, but he said that’s just the way it was there. Where Santiago has típico, the capital has salsa! Our destination was a place called “ADPI” after its owner, whose salsa name was “El As de Pi,” which in Dominican means “Ace of Hearts.”

It was a sort of rough-and-ready place, which turned out to be because it was the second ADPI and had only recently opened. This explained the rough cement floors and lack of any accoutrements other than a stereo and a single full-length closet style mirror tacked to the wall. It had, however, been nicely painted in royal blue and with the figures of a ballroom-type couple in black and white. The house across the way was pretty snappy too – also a bright blue with white gratings and an assortment of odd, folksy wood carvings mounted under the eves. I commented on it, and Playero told me, “that’s a witch’s house!” When I expressed incredulity, he added, “well, that’s what people in the neighborhood say. Because it’s so unusual.”

When we arrived the master was on a folding chair on the sidewalk in front of the studio, relaxing with some neighbors before class. But we soon changed that! Before long, all of us were sweating in the capital’s humid air and vying for space in front of the one oscillating fan mounted in a corner. It was an educational time and now I feel confident that I can follow a Dominican lead without trouble. My two hosts made plans to meet me in Santiago for an evening’s dancing at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Time was running short, however, and the sun was about to set. Since I was to meet Rossy, my colleague from INEC (Institute for Caribbean Studies), at 8, I needed to hurry back if I was to have a badly-needed shower. As it turned out, I didn’t even have time to eat before I had to go find her at the corner of Duarte and Paris. Because this wasn’t a very good area, Rossy had told me to me sure to get there on time. I got there 15 minutes early, and found that it was about the worst meeting place ever.

Although it was after dark, the streetcorner was completely packed with vegetable vendors, shoppers, and people looking for the public cars that parked there as they took on passengers. It was ill-lit, wedged under an elevated highway, and in constant motion. There was no good place to park, and though I tried my best to pull well over, people kept getting mad at me anyway, slapping my car and yelling to move on. Eventually I moved over to the side of the public cars, thinking that at least it was a sort of parking place. An attendant came over with a big stick and whacked my car, telling me I couldn’t sit there. But then he took pity on me and allowed me to stay, even fending off the occasional passersby that thought I was a taxi and tried to get a ride. Still, though I waited and waited and waited, there was no sign of Rossy. I thought of moving, taking a drive around the block, but all the streets were one way and I was afraid of getting completely off track. Also, as soon as I left I knew she would show up in the next moment. Surely she would check all four corners of the intersection and notice my car there – but she didn’t. Nearly an hour later, I was ready to give up. As I started to go around the block, my phone rang – it was Dario. Rossy had called him from a public phone, since she didn’t have my number memorized, and he called me. She had been on the opposite corner the whole time.

Annoyed, hungry, and tense from the whole situation, I wasn’t in the world’s best mood, but the prospect of now being able to search out food picked up my spirits. We decided to go straight to our destination in Villa Consuelo and then see what edible matter could be found. I didn’t realize it was so close, but it only took us a few minutes to get there and park, and happily, there was a sidewalk cafeteria on the same block with a good selection. We engorged ourselves on grilled cheese and zapote shakes, and then, feeling a little too full to dance, made our way back down the block.

Our destination was El Secreto Musical, a place well-known (at least among ethnomusicology/folklore types) for its son dancing. Since my last trip, I’d been wanting to check out Santo Domingo’s son scene, and had finally found my opportunity. Rossy had already been here several times as a part of the preparations for this year’s conference on son and salsa at the Centro Leon, and she was warmly greeted by many of the regulars. These consisted mainly of the older Afro-Dominican gentlemen who had formed the Club de los Soneros twenty years ago. They were all well dressed, many in white pants with button-down shirts, some in solid colors and some in bright patterns. One, incongruously, sported a Led Zeppelin shirt. Many wore hats. Their wives and girlfriends wore dresses or slacks, while the younger women on the scene wore revealing outfits that in other contexts could only have been described as “hoochie mama.” There were a few foreigners – including my colleague Martha Ellen Davis. We run into each other in the strangest places. Last year it was in Cabral during carnival. This year, Secreto Musical in Villa Consuelo. What would be next??

The Club de los Soneros was sort of a brotherhood for these men who had grown up dancing to son in the city’s older barrios. Here, the lower and working classes maintain many aspects of Afro-Caribbean religion – what would openly be termed Santeria were it in Cuba, but which here is seldom discussed. At Secreto Musical and other sites the Soneros frequent they have created a syncretic practice, blending popular music and social dance with rituals that to them are highly meaningful. I had come mainly to see how Domnicans dance to son – many Dominicans even claim that son originated here, not in Cuba – but I was also curious to see what else might transpire during the evening.

I had heard aficionados discussing Dominican son music and how it can be distinguished from its Cuban counterpart. The easiest feature to recognize was in its instrumentation – where Cubans used bongó, Dominicans used mongó, a single drum that looks like an upturned tambora. I wanted to know if the dance was also different. It was. While dancing with Led Zeppelin Man at some point in the evening, I told him of my question and explained how I had only danced son in Cuba previously. “Ah! Well, this is Cuban style,” he said, and changed his step. It was the side to side 3-step movement with lots of hip action with which I was already familiar. I followed it easily and comfortably. “And now, this is Dominican style,” and he changed again. Smooth, with subtler hip motion more integrated into the rest of the body, this step moved in a quick circle. Then he stepped in place as he led me back and forth in front of him. Sometimes, the man would execute a quick bit of fancy footwork, or stop to allow the woman to do the same. This was Dominican son: subtle, graceful, elegant, leaving space for both partners to show off and look good.

I was surprised to find out that my friend from the night before, El Guinguiriano, had actually shown up. I hadn’t seen him because he had been seated right next to the dance floor and kind of behind a pillar, while Rossy and I were squished all the way in a back corner because the place had been so crowded already when we’d arrived. He wanted to sit with us but there was no way. So he said, “Come and find me when you want to dance. You must, because I am here with no partner. Or rather, perhaps I have many partners here, only I can’t see them!” So I did, and we did, and everyone had fun.

Around 11 PM, an hour before closing time, the music was shut off for the president of the Club to make some announcements. Tribute must be paid to the soneros who had passed on. A list had been distributed to club members naming all those who were to be remembered tonight. The music came back on, playing a tune that stated, “El son nunca muere” (Son never dies), and the soneros came together, dancing a simple step while following one another in a counterclockwise circle, a dance to remember the dead. After this, a palos tune came on, “Miguelito, Miguelito.” A man appeared seemingly out of nowhere, his head wrapped in a scarf and smoking the cigar that indicated he was in the service of the santos. A fire was started on the dance floor in the middle of the circle, which he and some other men fed by pouring rum on it. Perfume filled the air as he sprinkled scented holy water on the other dancers. A woman passed colorful scarves out to the other women, who unfolded them and twirled joyfully about. One of them was also smoking a cigar. Ten minutes later, it was over. The santero came around with his bottle and bathed us all in perfume – I rubbed it in, hoping it would help with the mosquito situation. We finished our beers and went home feeling satisfied.

That was all the time I had to spend in the capital. In the morning I was up early, bought a quick coffee and banana from a shack on the corner, and was back on the road to Santiago. I had just one more errand to do – purchase some more of the colorful rag rugs I love in Piedra Blanca. The selection wasn’t as good as last year, though, and the prices had gone up. The vendor explained that they got their fabric as remnants from a factory in La Vega, and it had been bought out last year by an American. “That American won’t let anything go!” he complained – presumably, the Dominicans had let the rugmakers take the scraps for free or very cheaply. Now they bought the fabric by the kilo at a higher price. It looked to be the kinds of things used for sport jerseys and tank tops, and it wasn’t as soft as last year’s models, but the colors were still nice. I bought two and hurried home for my meeting with Rafaelito.

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