Hello faithful readers!
My now-annual visit to the DR is now well underway. Although I arrived safely, my luggage did not. Somewhere between JFK and Syracuse, where I stopped off for a quick interview on my way west from Berlin, the bag with all my clothes in it got lost. I suspect it is still sitting in customs gathering dust, whereas I myself have hardly had time to sit still for a minute since getting here.
I got in on the 16th and found Santiago looking pretty much the same, only I had forgotten my clever shortcuts from before so ended up taking a rather long detour between the airport and the Centro Leon. There I met with the woman who’d be renting me a room for my stay this year, since my previous apartment was already taken.
All the errands that followed hardly bear mentioning. I did take a moment to reconnect with the good people of the Centro, however. I’ll be doing a little program there on Feb. 12 and, hopefully, we’ll still be able to get the ball rolling on the ethnomusicology summer school I proposed some time back. More on that later.
That reminds me that I need to tell you the purpose of this year’s visit. Because I actually finished my dissertation and graduated in September (!!), I am NOT going to be working much on merengue típico this trip – I probably won’t even be playing accordion, since I’m going to at least make the attempt not to get distracted from my task. Instead, I’ve been awarded a grant from the Society for Ethnomusicology to do a study on dance and movement in Santiago’s carnival. I am interested in how movement defines both the characters of carnival and the sense of place, even Santiago itself. For example, people often point to the way Santiago’s lechones move and the way the diablos cojuelos of La Vega jump around as a key difference between the two carnivals, and the two neighboring towns. I will therefore be looking at how movement defines things like place, class, and gender in Santiago by examining the movements of carnival participants and comparing with those of merengue típico dancers.
But before I could get to work on that, I had one other thing to do. Perhaps you remember from earlier years how I have gone to Samaná repeatedly over the past couple of years in various futile attempts to convince local musicians to play merengue redondo, a form of folk merengue unique to the area, for me and my recorder. Although I’d met the man reputed to be one of the last people knowledgeable about this form, he kept telling me I’d just have to come back on January 21, the feast day of the Virgin of Altagracia. This year I made sure I’d be in the country on that day especially for that purpose.
And so the night after I came in, my mom flew down to meet me and accompany me on this mission. As both she and her bags were – amazingly - at the airport on time, we had a day for shopping and visiting before we had to hit the road. We thus paid our now-traditional visits to the Mercado Modelo (tourist market) and Calle del Sol, then to Rafaelito and Carmen, and Laura and the kids. At Rafaelito’s we found the front room redecorated yet again, and were invited back for dinner following our road trip; and at Laura’s, while we were sad to note Chiqui’s continued absence and rather shady behavior over in New York, we did have a rousing dominoes tournament on the balcony of their new, breezy second-floor apartment.
The next day we hit the road – only two hours later than planned, and thus in good Dominican time. The roads were good up to San Francisco de Macoris, the drug-dealing capital and usual pit stop (they have a big grocery/department store with food and decent bathrooms), and afterwards more typically potholed. It was pretty uneventful but still took more than 4 hours to go the 200 kilometers. I hadn’t known they built a new toll road that goes up to Nagua from the capital through Monte Plata, which makes the trip from Santo Domingo now much faster and more direct than the one from Santiago. Also more comfortable, as the nice buses run a direct route from the capital to Samana, whereas the only direct service from Santiago is on the world’s more uncomfortable vans, which allow about 12 inches’ knee room between seats. So while Samana is considered part of the greater Cibao, it remains more difficult to travel there from elsewhere in the Cibao. Besides the potholes, the most interesting thing we saw on the road was a procession of a group of women with colorful cut-paper flags, a few of them carrying a small figure of the virgin inn a little house.
Road trips are always pretty tiring in this country, but we didn’t have time to rest. As soon as we got checked in to our hotel – the guide book and the hotel’s name had promised a bay view from our room, but new construction meant we only had a view of the backs of some houses and a dirt lot – we had to go searching for my friend Virgilio, the former mayor and my guide for all things Samanense. I’d been trying to call him for a month with no luck: his home number apparently belonged to someone else now, and I could only ever get his voicemail on the cell number.
After stopping at his old apartment on the Malecon, it was clear why he’d been hard to locate – he’d moved! No one answered the door at any apartment there, but a visit to the store across the street produced helpful information from the proprietor and we soon found his new house. Today was inauguration day and while CNN had been full of the news we wanted to hear back in Santiago, we got no news on the radio and had no TV in our non-bay-view hotel, and were a bit starved for Obama coverage. We found Virgilio, his son, and his father all gathered round the TV watching the continuing Obama coverage, but unfortunately we had missed the speech. However, Virgilio had other important news for us. First, his cell phone had been stolen, which explained the rest of the story. Second, it was actually tonight that was the big night for the Virgin here: there would be an all-night palos party getting underway shortly.
That didn’t leave us much time to prepare. Batteries still had to be charged, equipment tested, and dinner eaten, not to mention showers taken. A bit tired, we were nonetheless ready at the appointed time. But we couldn’t find Virgilio. After a couple of calls and a drive-by, we found out he was at the basketball game that we’d been able to hear emanating from the sports stadium, and went over there to pick him up. As it turned out, our phone call had reached him just as he was singing hte national anthem over the loudspeaker. Oops.
So we headed out to Acosta, a little village about 3 km east of town. At 9:30 the street was already quite crowded and it was difficult to get through., so Virgilio took over the wheel and got us parked. It was also nice to have his and his son’s help with the equipment – I’d had to get a much bigger microphone stand since the little portable one was one of the things packed in the lost bag, and also I couldn’t keep ahold of the microphone case once everything was set up and I was working on protecting the equipment and getting the recording done. It wasn’t an easy task in the space at hand.
Outside, the street was decorated with strings of those colored, triangular flags one sees at car lots and people were either standing around or resting on motorbikes in order to watch the fireworks going off. There were no streetlights, so except when something was exploding it was pretty dark.
Inside was where the music was going on, in a small, tin-roofed house with one large and two small rooms. In the large room, the paleros were set up in one corner, facing the wall and a window through which some people were watching, their backs to the room. The rest of the room was packed full of revelers, some dancing, some singing, many drinking. I set up my microphone near a doorway next to the drummers and was then stuck there for the rest of the night, unable to move with all my equipment through the crowd. My mom took over the role of videographer, however, and roamed around the house filming. One of the small rooms held an altar to the Virgin and a few people sitting quietly or praying, my mom reported. The whole thing was brightly lit, so someone must have had a generator or an inverter.
This style of palos was a little different than what I was used to, including one person always hitting a tresillo rhythm on the side of one drum with a stick. Another person played a really big güira. The older men present improvised verses, sometimes apparently competing with one another, while the rest sung responses, usually wordless. They did not do any songs familiar to me from my time with Grupo Mello in Santiago, not so surprisingly I guess, since my friends were originally from the Southwest, near San Juan de la Maguana, not the Cibao.
I saw a few people I knew: Yoyó, the merengue redondo expert, and Mártires, the local music teacher. Virgilio also introduced me to the owner of the establishment and patron of the party, who proudly told me that his family had been responsible for this ritual for 150 years. We made plans to come back to talk to him the next day, but that never happened. I also talked briefly with one of the singers, who then improvised some verses in praise of mine and my mother’s beauty, and expressing his desire to go home with us.
Sometime around midnight, we decided it was time to go. Although the music would continue all night, changing palos groups every few hours, it was very hot, very crowded, we’d run out of battery at some point, and anyway, Virgilio informed us that fighting generally began sometime after midnight. AS the musicians drank more and more, every year they got into brawls over whose turn it was, or who was the best, or any other reason.
So we got a bit of sleep, but not too much, as Virgilio had suggested we get up early to try and meet with some musicians in the morning. There would be an 8 AM mass and then a procession around 9 AM, and apparently this would be a good time for musician finding. As usual, however, it didn’t work that way. Even though we were late getting going anyway, when we passed by Yoyó’s place, a little shack on a hill, we were told he’d only recently gone to bed. When we went through Acosta, we found most of the town in bed, except for a group of three tígueres still on a drinking spree. They stopped us and asked for money. When Virgilio asked what for, they said, “Whatever!” Because of their honesty I tried to find some change to give them, but we honestly didn’t have any, and they didn’t seem to mind too much.
Down on the Malecón, we did find a trio of musicians getting ready to play merengue típico for the cruise ship passengers just arriving. Virgilio introduced us: one was Pai, Yoyó’s partner in merengue redondo, and another was his son. They agreed to play some stuff for us later, but since they’d be there until 4, there was no hurry. We decided we might as well see some sights in the meantime, as my mom’s time in the country was short. One tour company told us a boat to Los Haitises would be leaving in just a few minutes and if we hurried we could get on it, so we really hurried and made it down to the dock in time – in time to wait around for an hour. The wait time was not a total loss, however, since we could listen to the típico. They played the usual standards, but Pai did have a unique way of playing the tambora. Meanwhile, my mom talked to some people coming of the cruise ship and found out they’d been told to “look but not buy anything.” This I found incredibly offensive. How dare they (a) make up people’s minds for them and (b) refuse to bring desperately needed resources into the communities whose ports, resources, and labor they are using! I wish I could tell you which company to boycott or send angry letters to, but unfortunately there were 2 ships in that day. This is certainly something that tourism scholars and policy-makers should be looking into, however.
In the end, guess what, we weren’t even allowed to go. Cruise ship people only. Instead, we hired a local with a boat to take us out to the beach on Cayo Levantado, where we spent a pleasant couple of hours, after which I felt recuperated and ready to deal with more musicians (unfortunately, I was also a little sunburned). We even found another musician deserving of a later visit – an old tres player from a nearby town, who was playing waltzes and corridos (not the Mexican kind) accompanied by a younger partner on guitar.
Having already arranged a time and meeting place with the musicians, all that was left was to look for a recording location, and hope they’d actually show up. Searches for a suitable indoor location were unsuccessful: city offices were closed as was the radio station, and the local music professional was sleeping after a gig (we woke him, but only briefly). Parks were too noisy, so Virgilio’s suggestion of a nearby, mostly-deserted beach was the best we could do on short notice.
Back at our meeting point, we found no musicians, so got ice cream. Then we found two musicians, followed shortly by one more. One, Yoyó, was still missing, off in search of a marimba, apparently. The sun getting lower on the horizon, we had just decided to go look for him at his house when he arrived.
Now the trick was getting everyone and their instruments to the beach, with just one tiny car with a trunk big enough for a single suitcase stood on end. We ended up doing it in two trips, so it was good that the place was only 5 minutes away. It was a beautiful spot in an enclosed little bay with cliffs on either side and white sand in the middle, the kind of thing that would have been good for a music video - at least, if someone had cleaned up the trash, and without the big new resort whose walls formed the backdrop. The dumb thing is that the hotel didn’t even use that nice beach, but by building there had effectively kicked out the locals who used to use it. The musicians told us that Samanenses had used to go down there in the evenings, make up a big pot of rice, throw rocks at the mango tree to get the fruit down, and generally make merry. Since the hotel had gone up – which Pai’s son had himself worked on plastering – things had been kept quiet and locals now went elsewhere.
Well, we livened things up again at Puerto Escondido, if only for an hour. Merengue redondo, bamboulá, even a merengue típico and a popular merengue about Samaná were played on accordion, guira, a tambora turned upright, and a marimba Yoyó made himself. It sounded so nice on the beach at night that one of the hotel security guards came down to listen in (I just had to make sure he turned off his noisy walkie talkie).
The marimba isn’t native to Samaná but Yoyó explained he heard it on a visit to the capital as a young man, liked it, and went home and made his own. So this was actually the “modern” instrumentation for merengue redondo, adapted from merengue típico and based on the higher availability of these instruments. When pressed, however, Yoyó said that when he was a child merengue redondo was accompanied by atabal and bamboo tubes as percussion. Now they only play these instruments occasionally and with enough prior notice to prepare the bamboo – a few old folks in the mountains still hire them to play this kind of music and they indicated that I could do the same, if I so desired, and I think I do.
Unfortunately, we got started so late that the sun went down about 15 minutes after starting, making further filming impossible, although we kept playing a little longer until the wind came up and made that impossible too. Oh well, it was a good start and more than I’d been able to record on three previous trips to Samaná. I hope to come back soon for the bamboo and the tres.
Our next day was set to be pure vacation. We had made a reservation for a whale-watching trip, since the season in which the humpback whales visit the bay had just begun, and while I’d been out to see them before, my mom hadn’t. Once again we patronized the tours led by Kim, a Canadian marine biologist who’s lived in the area for over twenty years and is responsible for the development of whale-oriented tourism here as well as conservation measures. (Her off-season job is breeding mules at her country home.) We were told not to have high hopes of seeing the big guys, as only 50% of trips since the season started had been successful, but our captain Pimpo would do his best. (Yes, I did ask him why he was called Pimpo, and he claimed not to know! I told him to ask his mom.)
Last time on this trip I experienced the only bout of seasickness I’d ever had in my life and it was pretty awful. Today, with no cold, I was luckier even though the seas were really rough and we were pitching all over the place and could barely even stand up for a second. We did indeed go for a long time without seeing a thing, but then we encountered a school of bottlenose dolphins, two of which leaped out of the water to greet us. Then Pimpo got a call from some other boats following a pair of humpbacks, and we hurried out to get in line. It was really spectacular: last time I’d seen mothers and babies, but they were pretty mellow and I never saw more than their back. This time, these two were actually jumping completely out of the water, turning around with noses out, flipping their tails, in short, making an amazing show for us. The hard part was getting a picture with ten people sitting between us and the whales, and the boat going up and down the big swells like a rollercoaster, but we did manage a couple of whale portraits.
On this trip, we also made a new friend: a French geographer consulting for local tourism organizations and making recommendations for sustainable development of the industry. His brother, as it turned out, is a sociologist specializing in Cuban music who will be visiting soon, so maybe they will come along to my future merengue redondo party. At any rate, I thought it would be good for this guy to meet Virgilio, since both are involved with tourism, so we brought him to the Mercado family house. However, Virgilio had left early that morning to go to the capital for some carnival organization business. Instead, we played with his adorable daughter for a little while before hitting the road once again. (She is about 4 and engaged me in conversations like the following. After asking the names of all the family members she could think of, she said, “What are your children’s names?” “I don’t have any children.” “Oh, they died?” “No, I never had any children. What about you?” “No, I don’t have any, either,” said very seriously.)
Since we were setting off so late, we decided not to go so far but instead to stay in Las Terrenas, a beach town with a big expat population – particularly French – on the northern coast. There we found that things were changing rapidly. The stretch of beach at the eastern side of town where we drove in, where we had stayed in one of many adorable and colorful little bungalows last time, was now being paved over with giant condo and resort buildings. Thus we decided to opt for the other end of town. But due to the recent heavy rains, we found the road impassable for our tiny car. Eventually we found a good candidate on a side road, where we got a bungalow decorated with a pirate theme. It was a relaxing spot to spent the next 20 hours, minus the time we spent eating tapas and crepes, sitting on the beach, and shopping for gifts. After that we had t o hit the road again for the long and uneventful if potholed drive back. At least we knew that at the end a delicious dinner was waiting for us at the Roman house. In this we were not disappointed. There we ate locrio (with jalapenos added just for my benefit), habichuelas, pastelon, spaghetti, and salad followed by pineapple upside down cake, all with little Mauricia, the new cat, looking on. (Perhaps you remember that Rafaelito’s cats are all named Mauricio because they all say “mau.” Since this one is a girl, I suggested the altered form and it appears to have stuck.)
Then it was mom’s last day already – time really flew. It was naturally spent in a flurry of shopping, though this time principally for a carnival costume for my nephew who was just turning five. He is rather theatrical and has developed a taste for costumes of all types. Because it was still early in carnival season, this was a difficult mission, and necessitated visits to four different shops, each shopkeeper giving us directions to the next, and even so, we were unsuccessful. At this point I was completely frustrated with driving around on this ridiculous scavenger hunt so we got a purple feathered boa instead, which I hope will be a fabulous addition to the costume trunk. Maybe I can get the little lechon suit later.
After all our errands were done, we celebrated by going to the cinema to see Twilight, which both of us had read and my mom had already seen twice (although never before with Spanish subtitles). And after that, we had our traditional dinner at Amici, the incredibly delicious Italian restaurant across the street from my former apartment. It did not disappoint. Even the limoncello we remembered was still there.
The plan for the next day was to get up ridiculously early, take mom to the airport, return the car, do the paperwork for my lost baggage at the Delta office while there, then go home, have a nap, write and read a little before going to Rafaelito’s gig in the evening. Alas, things did not work out as planned. After arriving at the airport we found that mom’s 9:30 flight had been rescheduled for 4:30 in the afternoon! The crew hadn’t had the required amount of sleep. Neither had we, so we went back to my place where I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to nap. At noon we went back again, I used the meal voucher they’d given as a consolation prize, did the required tasks, and went home again for another unsuccessful nap attempt. Clearly, no reading or writing was meant to be done this day. I did nonetheless make it to the gig, hitching a ride with the Roman family to Las Vegas, a disco out on the Santiago-Navarrete highway, where I enjoyed the tail end of El Ciego’s set and two of Rafaelito’s, all while filming the dance activity as best I could. I also talked to a few of the notable dancers present in order to convince them to (a) submit to an interview, if they hadn’t already and (b) participate in my upcoming event at the Centro Leon.
Afterwards, Rafaelito took me and the kids (his youngest son and daughter, niece, and stepson) to eat a Naboa, a kind of snack they make at only one food cart in town. It was made of a ball of Mapuey, a root vegetable, with a cheese filling, dipped in some kind of crust and deep fried. Totally unhealthy but just the kind of thing you want at 2 AM.
stay tuned for carnival news!