Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Last Week

There was no time to recover from the road trip, though. On Monday I had to hit the ground running in order to be ready for the week’s activities, which would start that afternoon with the #$&*% press conference. Let’s not talk too much about it. At least it was over fairly quickly, and at the end there was beer. The nice part was I got to see some friends I hadn’t seen in a while: Gaspar Rodriguez, the host of TV show Arriba el Merengue, and El Papillon, a típico radio deejay. Afterwards, La India invited us all out for a typical Dominican dinner at Rancho Chito, one of the only places in town to get Dominican food for dinner (Dominicans don’t usually eat out, or really eat anything much for dinner), where owner Luis had prepared a whole buffet for us. He also shared with us his technique for finding out a woman’s true age: guess an age you’re sure is too old for her, and in indignation she will say, “What do you mean?!” and reveal the real number just to show you. He claims it works like a charm.

That was the last time I’d get to relax and enjoy food for a while, though. We hit the ground running in the studio the next morning at 10:00 and pretty much didn’t quit until 11 PM Thursday. It was a marathon recording session, since the Smithsonian folks could only stay three days and we had 13 tracks to get down. We did it, but only just. It was done by recording all the instruments live, then going back and cleaning up any problem parts instrument by instrument, and finally adding the vocal tracks. As we broke only once a day, for lunch, it was quite tiring for all involved.

Juan, the vocalist, got particularly tired of the whole business when, after recording an entire vocal track, La India came back in and told him he wasn’t supposed to be singing that one at all. He started griping loudly and long about all the “tiempo perdido,” lost time. A little later, as Juan sat with head in hands, Ramoncito, the güira player, came out of the booth and picked up an industrial-strength flashlight that was laying around the studio. He turned it on and started shining its powerful beam all around the studio, paying particular attention to all the corners and hidden nooks and crannies. “What in the world are you doing?” the other musicians asked. “Looking for all the lost time! Where is it? Where has it gone?” This got even Juan laughing. Later he was laughing still harder when Ramoncito started imitating the vocal stylings of Julian, an old-school accordionist who apparently has a particularly bad break in his vocal range. Over and over, Ramoncito tunelessly skipped from high to low, and Juan fell on the floor and was actually holding his sides from laughing so hard.

The other moments of mirth came, unfortunately, at our sound engineer’s expense. Trying to learn a new system on the fly (ProTools was not his accustomed home), he was taking longer than the musicians were used to or had hoped. Bocachula, our wacky tamborero, started calling for “Duran! Duran!” over his mic, confusing me thoroughly, as there had been an engineer called Duran there in the beginning but he had left long ago. As I insisted, “Duran isn’t HERE!!” the musicians were all collapsing in hilarity. As I soon realized, this was Bocachula’s way of saying the guy was taking too long: durando.

One completely non-funny moment was experienced on the first day, however, and one that took the wind out of all of our sails – particularly mine – for some time. After recording four tracks a cuarteto with Bocachula on the first day, we broke for lunch feeling quite satisfied. They sounded great, and the fourth had sounded particularly awesome – we needed only one take and it just clicked into place. Beautiful. Bocachula was anxious to leave so we paid him and he took off, as for the other tracks we’d be using a different tamborero, one better able to play slow and controlled (Bocachula is fantastic, probably my favorite, but is known for always pushing the limits of speed). Shortly thereafter, we discovered that the entire last track had somehow been erased from the computer, leaving no trace. Bocachula had completely disappeared, and we were unable to contact him for the rest of the day, and for the next two days (he appeared to have gone to the beach and left his phone with some unknown woman). We had no choice but to redo the track with different personnel at the last minute on the last day. Bummer.

In the end, though, we did get it done. All tracks recorded, all contracts signed (even by those who were illiterate), all people filmed (they were making a documentary at the same time), all our names included in some song or another (in accordance with típico homenaje tradition), all lost time found – but not all lost sleep. And again, there was no time for me to recover from this tiring time, as the very next day the big, three-day, biannual conference (Musica, Identidad, y Cultura en el Caribe) would begin at the Centro Leon.

It was good to see friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen since the last installment of the Congreso, but my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by sleep deprivation. That and the embarrassment of seeing and listening myself on the big screen right at the start of the event. I’ve never particularly liked to be in front of the camera, but I’d agreed to appear as the Voice of Academia in a documentary on son in Santiago as a favor to the friends who were making it. As thanks, I had to see my giant face sans makeup plastered up there when they showed the film at the opening ceremony, and again at a huge concert a few days later which was televised all over the country. Zoiks!

More fun than that were the panels I attended. I particularly enjoyed one on changui, a music from eastern Cuba that has much in common with merengue típico, and two that dealt with Dominican son dancing complete with demonstrations. But even more fun than those was taking friends to my final dinner of 2007 at the continent’s greatest Italian restaurant. And on a similar level of fun was the second night’s concert (minus my documentary appearance there), where Chucho Valdes, one of my favorite pianists, did an amazingly salsariffic solo.

There was no time to catch up on sleep, what with all that fun, which put me in a bit of a state on the day I was to give my paper. It was scheduled for 9:30, not a good time for me, and I had to get up even earlier anyway in order to FedEx some contracts to the Smithsonian. I was standing in front of the FedEx office at the exact moment it was to open, 8:30, when I discovered that it was closed on Saturdays. Frantically, I ran down the street to the Mailboxes, Etc, which thankfully was open, sent the package off, and ran away as quick as possible – it was now almost 9 and I hadn’t eaten, had coffee, or been able to set up the technical side of my presentation.

And I wasn’t going to be able to now, either. Turned out I’d locked my keys in my car. Imagine the mirth of the FedEx guy! Imagine the consternation of Sydney! Another guy in Mailboxes offered to call a locksmith, and did so, but the locksmith said he would be there in “twenty minutes” (translate: forty-ish minutes in Dominican), not soon enough. I was so flummoxed that a third guy who was just standing around offered to break into my car using some wire, and I agreed to this plan. While he worked on that, I bought some coffee and a cheese sandwich at the sidewalk stand across the street and ran around a bit as bees chased me and my beverage. By the time that was done, so was he, and I was on my way again. Or almost on my way again – I also realized I’d left my phone at home and had to run back and get it, since I would definitely need it (both for communication and timing purposes) in the long day ahead.

It was not my best morning. My paper was OK though, and after that I was able to relax a bit more. Well, after that and after my tenure as panel moderator afterwards.

The highlight of Sunday was definitely the performers’ panel, where Chucho Valdes, tres player Pancho Amat, and salsero Johnny Pacheco were able to tell their own stories and answer questions. Pacheco was the star of the conference, since he was given some long-deserved recognition by the Centro Leon and the Dominican government for his instrumental role in the creation of salsa music in the 1960s. Though nearing the status of ancient, he was still both hilarious and insightful in his comments. For me, the best part was when he said that he was originally an accordionist, playing merengue típico here in Santiago – a revelation I don’t think he’d ever made before –and that perhaps some of his salsa ideas came from there. The lowlight of Sunday was the announcement of the next conference’s theme – bolero. Blah. Having little to no interest in slow, romantic music, I’m unlikely to give a paper at that event.

The conference finished with a patio performance by Son Santiaguero, and after that, I had a quick errand to do. It was my last opportunity to say goodbye to Tonito of my carnival group, and when I went by I discovered it was his son’s birthday, and they were in the middle of a party. That was cute, but I couldn’t stay as I was booked to take some friends for a less official but more típico conference closing event, by going to see Raul Roman at Andy Ranch and then Francisco Ulloa at Rancho Merengue. In between, we also had a típico style dinner from the cafeteria at Parada La Tinaja. And John Taveras, the owner and originator of RM, told me he is putting the business up for sale so he can go back to Pennsylvania. He asked me to put it on the web, so I’m telling you, loyal blog readers, first. If you have any money you’d like to invest, consider investing it in Santiago’s oldest and most prestigious rancho típico, thereby helping to keep the music alive! Write for further details.

So the recording was over at last, and the conference as well. After that I had only two days left, and my last days in the DR were, as usual, a whirl of activity as I tried to tie up loose ends and get everything arranged for my time away. As usual, whenever someone asks how long it will be until my next trip and I tell them eight months, they exclaim, “Why so long?!” They can’t believe I actually have a life, family, and friends somewhere else, and sometimes it’s hard even for me to believe, so involved am I in life here. In fact, I will be happy to get home to Arizona and see everyone there, but the transitions are always hard.

At any rate, there is little worth writing about in this section - who really wants to hear about picking up things, dropping off things, packing things, and paying for things? One noteworthy occurrence was a major ant invasion discovered when cleaning things out. I waged my usual war on them but victory was incomplete. I found out later they had invaded my purse as well – after they’d bit me about ten times on the arms, causing incredibly itchy, swollen lumps all over that made it hard to sleep. After a sleepless week, it was the last thing I needed, but perhaps all the deprivation would help me be able to sleep on the plane, I reasoned. I also received going-away gifts from three friends: earrings from Claudia, a scarf from Zoraya, and a bottle of Brugal from Tonito.

On Monday, I paid my last visit to Rancho Merengue, going to see Rafaelito play for one last time. My last evening was spent in the best way possible, in what is now becoming the traditional final farewell game of dominoes. As we’d done last year, the Taveras-Peralta clan came over with their dominoes, this time accompanied by saxophonist El Mambi, and we played three rounds over beer. Laura and I won two out of three. Mujeres al poder! Mujeres al poder!

Coming back is always bittersweet. I was looking forward to seeing my family, eating Mexican food, and just generally being at home. I was also ready to be done with running around for a while and get back into the mode of sitting around and writing. But I’ll also miss my friends, as well as the music, in Santiago. Actually, it looks like the missing people is going to be a constant theme – when I’m there I miss the people here, when here, I miss those over there – but hey, having people (and music) worth missing makes life worth living, doesn’t it?

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