Thursday, May 24, 2007

New to the blog?

So I was thinking, some of you may be new readers, and if you are, you may have no idea about what the deal is with my blog. This should bring you up to speed.

I'm an ethnomusicologist working in Latin American music and dance. I have been researching Dominican merengue tipico for six years and am now in the midst of the horrific process of writing up that research in the form of a dissertation. That, and procrastinating a lot by taking on other projects and drinking lots of beer.

Merengue tipico is the traditional kind of merengue from the northern Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. It is very different from the kind of big band/pop merengue you may have heard on the radio in instrumentation, rhythm, and repertoire. It's based around the accordion and uses several different rhythms, some highly syncopated, unlike the monorhythmic pop merengue, and is an oral tradition that incorporates improvisation, unlike orquesta merengue, which relies on written arrangements. If you want to know more about merengue tipico, you should be able to find most of what you'd need on my web site:
If you want the quick version of tipico and orquesta history, read what I wrote for this small record label:

I started the blog when I moved to the Dominican Republic in 2005 as a way to document my research and other activities and get out of writing icky field notes. If you look back over the course of the blog you will see pictures and stories about merengue tipico in different contexts: in ranchos and car washes in the city of Santiago, in parties in people's houses, etc. You'll also hear about how I learned to play it on accordion and the various places I've performed.

While in the DR I got involved in several other projects as well. Being the only person yet granted access to the complete papers of Fradique Lizardo, the late Dominican folklorist, I got interested in his research on Dominican folk dance and how he started the Ballet Folklorico Dominicano, so I observed current ballet folklorico groups in different parts of the country and talked to dancers.

I also got interested in carnival - how could you not? - and joined a carnival group called Los Confraternos in Pueblo Nuevo, a Santiago barrio. I dressed up as a lechon, Santiago's traditional carnival character, with them and went through the grueling parades every Sunday through carnival season in both 2006 and 2007. If you are interested in seeing pictures of carnival, visit my posts from February of both years, as well as late January and early March (carnival lasts a long time in the DR). This year I also tried to visit other carnivals for comparative purposes, so you can also see pictures from La Vega and Cotui in February-March 2007.

My other research site is New York City, where there is a very active tipico scene, particularly in Brooklyn. Since the bulk of my NY research was done between 2001 and 2004, you won't see much of it here, but I have paid some return visits. You'll find chunks about NY tipico from June-July and October 2007, and at other random points.

When I'm not in the DR, I'm usually in Tucson, AZ, or traveling about randomly. Since tipico doesn't make much of an appearance outside of the DR and New York, when I'm away I usually post stuff random stuff from my tipico files or other observations about Dominican culture. I try to post at least once a week. Please subscribe to the feed if you want to be sure not to miss anything!

That's the blog in a nutshell. If you have any suggestions for accordion, tipico, or Dominican-themed topics you'd like me to write about, please post them here!

I've been tagged, damn it!

My sister ( tagged me, so now I gotta do this.

Mi hermana me lo pegó, así que ahora tengo que hacerlo yo.

The rules: Each person tagged gives 7 random facts about themselves. Those who are tagged need to write on their own blog those 7 facts as well as the rules of the game. You need to tag seven other people and list their names on your blog. Then you leave those you plan on tagging a note in their comments so they know that they have been tagged and to read your blog.

Las reglas: Es como un juego de pilla-pilla. Cada persona a quien tú se lo pegues (a quien tú pilles) tiene que dar 7 datos al azar sobre si mismo. Los a quienes se le pegaron tienen que poner los 7 datos en sus blogs junto con las reglas del juego. Tienes que pegárselo a 7 personas más y poner sus nombres en su blog. Después, dejarás un comentario en los blogs de ellos para que sepan que se lo han pegado y que tienen que leer el blog tuyo.

Those I'm Tagging: (Los a quienes se lo estoy pegando:)

Tes, living on the crispy edges of grad school:

Linda, a friend to turtles:

Alex, the friendly Francophone:

Rossy aka PayolaMusic, una amiga en Santo Domingo:

Accordion Guy, who oddly enough, I've never met and know nothing about, although we almost share a name:

Let's Polka! Another accordion-happy blog made by strangers (but they look friendly):

Dial "M" for Musicology. They are musicologists, I am ethnomusicologist, but they say they "want to be friends with everyone." Is it true???

7 random facts:

I hate revealing all my secrets, but here they are.

1) At age 15 I was the host of a televised variety show on cable access titled "Syd's Show" because some friends of mine told me, "you should be on TV," and proceeded to create the show. It had a different band on every week, a bizarre set of guests, and a theme song whose lyrics went, "Syd's Show, Syd's Show. If it weren't for Syd, I don't know what I'd do - how about you?" I briefly had a co-host who laughed heartily at my jokes and clapped for everything else. Damn! I sure could use a co-host now.

2) I was a semi-professional bellydancer for five years. I can balance a sword on my head, or a tray with candles - take your pick.

3) I was a salsa dance performer and teacher in New York, a member of Razz M'Tazz mambo company. I performed once at the Congreso Mundial de la Salsa in Puerto Rico but soon thereafter I quit because I went back to school.

4) Two knee surgeries have effectively ended my dancing career - hence all the accordion playing, writing, and blogging.

5) I'm very competitive when it comes to Boggle or Blokus, but not much else.

6) My favorite vegetable from an aesthetic standpoint is the eggplant.

7) My first publication was a drawing of a neuron in the Journal of Comparative Neurology. I always thought I would go into science. And now look at me! Go figure!

a prophet in my own land? not quite, but...

Hey blog pals,
just so's you know, yours truly appeared in the local weekly this week in Tucson, talking about merengue tipico, carnival, and other random things.
The reporter wanted me to have a name for my accordion, but I don't (took me a month to think of one for my CAT, for pete's sake), so I offered to buy a beer for the person with the best suggestion. Only problem is, you will have to come to Tucson to get that beer from me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Congos de Villa Mella

Well, we’re coming right up on Pentecost. I confess that I don’t actually know what Pentecost is, not having a religious bone in my body, but in the DR it is celebrated as the Fiesta del Espíritu Santo (Feast of the Holy Spirit). That is the main time of year in which the Cofradía de los Congos del Espíritu Santo gets together to play a very unique type of music in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, just north of the capital. So I figure this is a good time to put up some info on the Congos de Villa Mella. It is I think the only major type of Dominican traditional music that I haven’t yet been able to experience in person since I’m usually not in the country in the months of May and June, but I hope to rectify the situation before long.

The Congos are a type of drum ensemble music only played in this one part of the country. Both instruments and repertoire are different from those of the more widely-distributed palos. In fact, the congos are so unique that in 2001 UNESCO declared the Cofradía de Congos del Espíritu Santo de Villa Mella one of its 19 “master works of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” worldwide. UNESCO is currently engaged in a research and preservation project with the Congos.

In Carlos Hernández Soto’s book titled Kalungah Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella, he tells us that cofradías are voluntary associations that arose in Spain as to provide mutual help among the poor. Because blacks were excluded from white associations, they began to form their own cofradías in Seville during the 14th century. From there, the organizations came to Latin America and in the DR they still exist in San Juan de la Maguana, Cotuí, and Villa Mella. “Congos,” he goes on to tell us, was a term applied to blacks in general in the colonial Dominican Republic, since many African slaves in the DR came from the Congo River area. Today, the word refers to the music played by people associated with the Cofradía or Hermandad (brotherhood), who are still very connected to their African roots. It seems to have similarities to ritual music associated with groups of Congo origin in Cuba and Brazil.

The music of the congos is principally played for the days of Espíritu Santo, la Virgen del Rosario, and the funerals of cofradía members, but the congos are so important that now even non-member residents ask for the music to be played upon their deaths. They also play for cultural activities and fiestas patronales, but death rites are the most important use for the music of the congos. Unlike in Cuba’s African brotherhoods and secret socities, both men and women are allowed and can hold offices in the cofradía. Women are not prohibited from playing the ritual drums. The Espíritu Santo is the patron saint of the area and Hernández Soto suggests that the saint is syncretised with Kalunga, god of the dead in the Congo-Angola region.

Congueros, members of the cofradía, say that their instruments were brought directly to Villa Mella by the Espíritu Santo in the form of a man. The ensemble consists of two double-headed drums, the congo or palo mayor of about 3 feet long and the conguito or palo menor of about 12 inches. These are combined with a couple of idiophones: maracas and the canoíta (little canoe), a hollowed-out wood block with a handle that’s beat with a stick.

Congueros say they have 21 toques (pieces), since this is a sacred number, but there are actually more than that. All are sung in call-and-response fashion. The song “Palo Mayor” refers literally to the lead drum and figuratively to the group’s principle ancestor, as ancestors are generally called “tronco mayor” (main trunk) or “cabeza mayor” (main head) and children are known as “ramazones” (branches). Trees seem to be very meaningful in general to congueros, as a recent article reported that the Hermandad and an agronomist were protesting the cutting down of five trees in the park in Villa Mella that stood over the spot in which they have always played. The agronomist argued the trees, too, were part of the “patrimony of humanity.” The “king” of the hermandad, 96-year-old Pio Brazoban, called them the “soul of the fiestas.”

Hernández Soto describes the Fiesta del Espíritu Santo as follows. During the nine days before Pentecost, each part of Villa Mella elects kings and queens who all meet at the parish church on the eve of the feast. Official greetings are exchanged, and congregants enter singing “Ya llegó, ya llegó” accompanied by percussion instruments (panderos, balsie, mongo, and guiro). To the left of the entrance, the Cofradía plays and one couple at a time dances, then people pray and sing novenas. Theater and poetry may also be enacted by the youth. During these activities, the cofradía exits to the park, where they set up opposite the house of the current king of the cofradía. They take turns singing and entering the house to eat. In another part of the park, people sing and dance pri-prí (local accordion music) until morning. On the next day, Sunday, a couple dances a solemn congo piece in front of the alter during the offertory, to the accompaniment of the church choir. After mass, a procession tours the town with the image of the dove while singing pieces like “Ya llegó” and “Quítame lo malo,” and the cofradía again plays, continuing on rotation for the rest of the day.

Different music is used during funerary rites, Hernández Soto explains. For funerals of a cofradía member, the three main Congo pieces (Palo Mayor, Camino Real, and Kalunga) are played during the wake, as the body is carried to the cemetery, and again upon arrival at the grave. Kalunga is always the last piece, as it asks Kalunga to accompany the deceased on his/her journey. Thus, in the community to say “Le cantaron Kalunga” (they sung Kalunga for him/her) means “s/he died.” The cofradía meets to play again on the ninth day in front of an altar on top of which sits a doll representing the dead person and perhaps the god Kalunga as well. No dancing takes place at these rituals until they meet again to play on the Cabo de Ano, the one-year anniversary, at which all dance except the family. At the Banko ceremony, which ideally takes place on the seven-year anniversary, everyone may finally dance because the dead person has become an ancestor and no longer inhabits the home. The dead person often “mounts” a family member and dances too. At the Banko the papers from the altar are burned and the ritual enramada shelter is swept and cleaned. After this, the cofradía enters the room next to where the mourning women are secluded and play the “toques de viuda” (widow’s pieces) to officially take the family out of mourning.

What connection there between the congos and merengue típico, my usual topic? Probably not much, except perhaps in vocabulary. For instance, there is a merengue in call-and-response form called “Cumandé.” I asked several típico musicians, including my teacher, what they thought this word means and they didn’t know. (My teacher said he thought it was a Haitian word.) But according to Hernández Soto the word “kumande” appears in the song “Ya cantan lo gallo” (the roosters are already singing) and means “there is no death” in the Fon language. Since call and response is not the usual form for merengue songs, those songs (like Cumandé) that have that feature could be borrowings from other Dominican folk traditions. I’ll be very interested to see pri-prí, the accordion music from Villa Mella, to see how it is similar or different from the music I know.

Hernández Soto, Carlos. 2004. Kalungah Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella. Santo Domingo: Editorial Letra Grafica.
Hernández Soto, Carlos and Edis Sanchez. 1997. “Los Congos de Villa Mella, Republica Dominicana.” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana, (18)2:297-316

music download:
documentary for purchase:
palos, salve, & congos tracks:
article on Palos by Martha Ellen Davis, with comparison to congos:
article on the trees:

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Adventures in Ethnomusicology and Espionage

Some of you readers know that by trade I’m an ethnomusicologist, some of you don’t. Well, now if you didn’t, you do, and the reason I’m bringing it up is that (a) that’s what this blog is about and (b) I just watched this old Hitchcock film in which, I was surprised to discover, the hero is an ethnomusicologist, too. The movie is The Lady Vanishes from 1938. If you’ve seen Flightplan you have the basic idea, except that here the heroine is traveling on a train, not a plane, and the person who disappears is a kindly old woman she’s just met, not her daughter. Everyone denies the old woman was ever there, causing great consternation, but all is made clear at the end, and it has to do with the fact that Europe was about to enter WWII. I highly recommend the movie, especially if you too are an ethnomusicologist.

Anyway, the ethnomusicologist comes on the scene in the beginning as the heroine is trying to get a good night’s sleep in a quaint little inn somewhere in continental Europe (probably Germany, though we’re never told for sure).

A great stomping noise echoes throughout the hotel, rattling the light fixtures in the room below. The young woman staying there calls the front desk, demanding the manager put a stop to it so that she can get some sleep. Because she is one of the wealthier guests, the manager sees to it immediately.

When he opens the door to the room of the guilty party upstairs, he finds a strange scene. A young, mustachioed Englishman lies on a couch playing a very Central European-sounding melody on his clarinet as three picturesquely clothed peasants dance about in what appears to be some poor imitation of the Hungarian csardas. When he stops, they strike a pose, he makes a few notes on a pad, and then they all start up again. The manager insists that they desist.

“Will you kindly stop? They are all complaining in the hotel, you make too much noise!” he explains.

“Too much what?” the guest demands.

“Too much noise,” the manager replies in embarrassment.

“You dare to call it a noise?! The ancient music with which your peasant ancestors celebrated every wedding for countless generations, the dance they danced when your father married your mother, always supposing you were born in wedlock, which I doubt. I take it you are the manager?”

“Sure I am the manager of this-“

“Yes, unfortunately I am accustomed to squalor. Tell me who is complaining.”

“This young English lady underneath.”

“Well, you tell the young English lady underneath that I am putting on record for the benefit of mankind one of the last folk dances of central Europe, and furthermore she does not own this hotel!” he shoos the manager from his room with a flourish of his clarinet. A short while later, however, she succeeds in getting him thrown from his room with a well-placed bribe.

She should have known that he can’t be gotten rid of that easily: this man appears to be everywhere and know everyone. Later, on the train out, the woman encounters him on the coach class car, watching different peasants dance, this time to the music of violins. He reveals that he is writing a book on European folk dances, which he expects to finish in about four years. And when together they go about enquiring about the missing woman who is the subject of the film, and are introduced to some Italians, he exclaims, “Oh yes, I met her husband. He presented prizes at the folk dance festival. Minister of Propaganda,” he explains in an aside to his companion.

Naturally enough, the ethnomusicologist ends up saving the day. You could have seen that coming, no?

Basically, I wanted to bring up this movie because it is so much like my blog. Except that instead of clarinet, it’s accordion; instead of Germany, it’s the Dominican Republic; instead of a stomping pseudo-csardas it’s merengue; instead of a quaint Alpine inn clothed in snow, it’s a Santiago apartment under the boiling sun; instead of Ministers of Propaganda, it’s politicians, secretaries of tourism, and the like (although the difference there may be more of degree); instead of four years, I have one to finish what I’m writing; and instead of a train, it’s the Millenium Falcon. And of course, there is only a heroine in this story and no hero. But otherwise, the story is virtually indistinguishable. I’m hoping I too will be able to save a trainload of innocent passengers from the evil machinations of fascist spies at the end, although I could probably do without the shootout.