Monday, March 16, 2009

Capital week, and the End


Monday was mostly pointless: all day I was calling people who didn’t answer, or stopping by to interview people who weren’t home. So it was just as well, I thought, to get away for a night. Now that I didn’t have to go away for another job talk, I was freed up to accept an earlier invitation from my friend Dario to give another kind of talk at the Instituto de Estudios Caribeños in the capital, an all-expenses-paid one-night trip. Having decided to do it on Monday, I left on Tuesday and got there just in time – a half-hour late, due to the famous Santo Domingo traffic jams.

This was an event held in preparation for the upcoming third installment of the Conference on Music, Culture, and Identity in the Caribbean. I and one other participant in the first two had been invited to talk about our research processes, in order to give ideas to those who were busy preparing their papers for April. The first speaker was a Cuban researcher now living in the DR, who had done a discography of merengue in Cuba. The interesting aspect of that research, to my mind, was how genres were assigned to the various styles: in most cases, the genre was not specified on the recording itself, so it was up to her and her research partner to determine the categorization after listening to the record in question.

Having had about 24 hours to think about it, it wasn’t the most prepared I’d ever been for a talk, but I had done what I could on the bus ride down. Surprisingly, in the end people really liked my little description of my writing process, which I coupled with a short discussion of ethical issues in doing fieldwork (my friend Rossy had recently suggested this was a big problem for people doing field research without any training in an ethnographic discipline, so I just thought I’d throw it in there). Dario showed up just at the end, having just flown in from New York, and he and Rossy and I then went out for dinner. Since it was then an 11 PM dinner there weren’t many options – in fact, all that was open was a Chinese-criollo fast food joint. On our way, we ducked into the new Metro station to check it out. I haven’t ridden on it yet, but it certainly looks impressive and clean – quite a bit different from the ol’ New York subway system.

On Wednesday, I hurried back to Santiago to squeeze in a couple of interviews before I had to run back to the capital yet again. I’d decided I ought to speak with some carnival officials, so my first stop (straight from the bus station) was Channel 25, the headquarters of MUCI, Medios Unidos del Cibao, the organization in charge of the commercialization of carnival.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find Sergio, the Robalagallina of my program the other day, there with a couple of others signing up for the carnival competition. This was also the headquarters for that enterprise. When you signed in, you got a color-coded placard (according to categories like lechon, “personaje,” comparsa, individual, etc.) with a number on it to be affixed to your costume, or hung between the horns in the case of a lechon. After a few minutes, Angelo the maskmaker showed up as well, as did the person I was there to interview, a MUCI official who wished to remain anonymous. But this person then also put me immediately in touch with a carnival eminence of years past, a member of one of Santiago’s traditional families and of a cohort of folklore enthusiasts that had also included well-known locals like Tomas Morel and Tin Pichardo. After a long talk in his beautiful house in La Zurza, he gave me a further lead by mentioning that an old acquaintance, a composer and arranger who had produced El Prodigio’s last album, was the person who had been charged with creating a local carnival music style for Santiago. This gave me another interview to add to the list, as well as a possible paper topic!

The next day I had to go back to Santo Domingo yet again, but first I really had to do some more interviews, this time of the president of MOSACA, the carnival association to which my group belongs, and, since I would be in their joint place of work anyway, a follow-up with Carlos of Los Reyes, this time about his role in FELECSA, the federation of carnival groups. After that it was on the bus again, this time to attend the opening ceremony of the Red Cultural Dominicana. My friend Rossy had been working on this new project, funded by the EU, which is seeking to create a network and inventory of cultural resources in the country, as a step in developing cultural policy from the bottom up. In fact, this was why she’d been sent with me to Samana the week before.

While waiting for things to get rolling, Rossy and a college friend of hers went with me for a drink in the bar next door. On the way we ran into a Hunter College student doing a master’s thesis project on carnival who, as it so happened, had seen my tertulia the week before, so he came along too. Back at the ranch, we found Luc of Samana and his twin musician brother in attendance as well.

The first part of the event consisted of a mass of speeches, naturally enough, from a variety of dignitaries. These included the subsecretary of culture (an old acquaintance of mine), the secretary of sport, an EU representative, and I can’t remember who else besides the director of the Red himself, Roldan, a rock star type in a black guitar t-shirt, long flowing hair and a mustache. Afterwards came the good part, a musical performance by a variety of traditional and not-so-traditional musicians from all around the south. Eneroliza singing salves from Villa Mella, four men from Bani improvising chuines – many of them about fellow ethnomusicologist Martha Ellen Davis (who was right next to me), a group playing sarandunga from the same region, and finally a group combining ga-ga rhythms with reggae electric guitar in an idiosyncratic way.

Back again to Santiago in the morning. It was getting hard to keep track of the days with all this back and forth. At any rate, I was getting things done.

But now I enter into the realm of memory. As is usual, I didn’t manage to write up my blog notes at all during the last week. No matter how well organized I think I am, during the last week of my stay I always end up running around like a crazy person anyway, and hardly sleeping..

So here is my last week in short.
On that Friday I hurried back to Santiago, and was in time to do an interview with music producer Jochy. It was actually more of a follow-up interview to one I’d done five years earlier, but this time I wanted to focus on carnival. I got lost going there because in the five years the tiny shrubs I’d remembered in front of his gate had turned into big palm trees. After that things went well though, and we listened to a new track he’d put together as an ad jingle for a rum company. They’d rejected it because it had only percussion and whistling in it – a typical carnival sound, but apparently not rousing enough for them. Afterwards, La India Canela had invited me to dinner. I got there late, too, now because of a traffic jam, but that was ok. We still had two hours to talk and drink wine before dinner was ready. In the meantime, we listened to the product of our labor (the Folkways CD), shared memories and new experiences. She told me about her trip to Washington, DC, a city that greatly impressed her although she had no time to visit museums because her time was totally booked with interviews. And we discussed her upcoming gig in the Midwest, for which I’d been asked to write some program notes. I was happy to hear about how much her life had changed for the better, how many new doors had opened for her, since our marathon recording session almost 2 years earlier.

On Saturday I dragged myself out of bed with difficulty in order to hear a lecture by a visiting Catalan, about devils in Catalunyan celebrations. The footage of the firework-spewing devils dancing around fires inspired me to go over there and check out this living medieval tradition someday. Afterwards I shlepped over to Tonito’s to say my goodbyes, since I didn’t know when else I’d have a chance to, and then ran back to the CL once again for the “Tarde de Carnaval,” their annual event to which are invited carnival groups from all over the country. Some of the guests had attended the earlier lecture (they were easily identified by the whips slung casually over their shoulders). This year features the Toros y Civiles of Montecristi, the Mascaras del Diablo of Elias Pina, the Cachuas de Cabral, the Papeluses of Salcedo, Platanuses and Funduses of Cotui, and of course many local lechon groups. The two first named were new to me and quite impressive and scary – along with the Cachuas, these people still actually hit each other with whips, while we lechones only use them to make scary noises. There were also some local comparsas in attendance, including a bellydance comparsa! After this I was pretty tired but since I still in all this time hadn’t seen my old friend Claudia, I made the effort to stay awake long enough to see a movie with her – a silly new Dominican production called “Cristiano de la Secreta.” It wasn’t exactly brilliant, but it was entertaining enough to me in my sleep-deprived state.

On Sunday morning I realized I had no money so ran around looking for a functioning ATM, which I found only on the third try. I made it to Betania’s just in the nick of time to catch our “taxi” (actually a pickup truck) to the usual carnival holding area behind the monument. And we were there just in time to – you guessed it – wait around for five hours in our costumes in the sun. Somehow I managed to get burned even with a costume. I also didn’t have anything to eat except for popcorn and a beer all afternoon. But there was enough happening to break up the boredom: a Haitian stilt walker sitting on a high wall getting dressed and then dancing humorously but with an intense expression for the bystanders; endless streams of vendors selling ice cream, sunglasses, peanuts, confetti, beer, etc; groups of teenagers in matching t-shirts; the comparsa “Los Deportados” in matching checked pajama pants. I also chatted a bit with the mother of the new girl in our group – turns out she too used to dress up, quit when she had a baby, and is now passing the torch on to her daughter. She recalled that, when growing up in La Joya a couple of decades past, female lechones did not yet exist, at least ot her knowledge, so she and friends dressed up as gypsies, jardineras, or clowns instead.

Just like last year – although a change had been promised – we finally got on the road just as it was getting dark, parading down Las Carreras under the street lamps. there was a moment of fright when a panicked crowd started running towards us, reporting that someone had a gun, but nothing happened. Twice I got stopped by photographers attempting to photograph my obviously bluish eyes through the mask holes. I thought they were noting my foreignness, but one of them said, “Anyone can see they are a woman’s eyes.” Like before, I kept on dancing the whole time my mask was on, even when pouring sweat, and only noticed how tired I was and how much my knees hurt when I took it off. But my work wasn’t don’t even then. I had to make do with more fried street food (empanada and bola de yuca, or bola de grasa as I call it) for dinner so I could hurry off to catch Rafaelito’s gig at Las Vegas. It was my last chance to see him play this year, so carnival was no excuse to miss it. And afterwards there were more greaseballs to ease my sleep, this time the famous naboa.

Monday was spent at the CL reading some reports. Also went out for Chinese food with some of my colleagues there. Among other things, we discussed the experiences one of them had had in carnival as a young person, working on floats on the Calle del Sol. On Tuesday I dragged myself out of bed early enough to see a performance the Ballet Folklorico del Centro de la Cultura was putting on for highschool students. I went to videotape but found myself a surprise part of the show when Tony, the director, asked me up on stage to demonstrate merengue with him, apparently in a bid to shame the high schoolers into admitting they didn’t know how to dance a decent merengue themselves. Afterwards I did some gift shopping, then some more reading at the Centro, then went to interview ol’ Polanquito before the MOSACA meeting. In searching for an appropriate interview space, we also payed a visit to Dionisio, a maskmaker. Then it was home for an early farewell dinner with Arlette and Laura, where we shared tales of hypochondria.

On Wednesday morning I met with a couple of members of Los Reyes del Pueblo Nuevo, had a quick lunch of cheese sandwiches and coffee and a colmado, and then headed out to El Ingenio to do my annual, and long-overdue, round of visiting. El Buty found me before I found him, as he was coming by Rafaelito’s anyway. Then I saw Domingo and family, who had a new cat named La Rubia although she was actually a he, they had discovered belatedly, and a new, tiny puppy called Floppy. Floppy and La Rubia were the best of friends and abused each other mercilessly until they got tired and both went to sleep together. I suggested renaming La Rubio El Rubio instead, but when we tried it out the cat didn’t respond. Domingo presented me with a wacky güira he’d recently unearthed in a closet or something – an El Pinto work,vintage 2000, made out of a Johnny Walker can. Next I went to see Laura where we discussed the costs of education and then got poured on by an unexpected rainstorm, and then I hurried back to Rafaelito’s in time for the typically fabulous dinner Carmen prepared for my farewell. Finally, I rounded out the evening at the Casa de Arte hearing a talk about Moises Zouain and the bolero, with performances by local boleristas.

Thursday was taken up with more reading, more shopping, and more meetings, with a palos party at Casa de Arte as a variation. There I saw all the usual suspects and caught up a bit with Grupo Mello. I felt bad I hadn’t called them or visited all this time, but our schedules don’t really mesh during carnival time as I’m busy on all the days they are free, and I am parading while they are rehearsing. Someday I must come back at another time of year.

Friday, my last day, was also independence day. I still had lots of people I wanted to meet with or interview but no one was answering their phones. Instead I wrapped things up at the CL and met Claudia for lunch at the vegetarian Taiwanese restaurant. Then her boyfriend kindly offered to drive me to Los Ciruelitos, where I planned to go to observe the barrio carnival. Because the Catholic church had made a big stink this year about carnival on independence day – they are against it, although I’m not sure what independence day has to do with the church, nor am I clear about why they chose this year to complain when this tradition is many decades old – the official carnival parade had been moved to the prior Sunday and only unofficial events would take place today. Somehow, things had gotten split in two, and some groups were parading in Los Ciruelitos, others on Las Carreras again.. I was pretty sick of Las Carreras and my group wasn’t dressing up anyway, preferring to save their energies for the following day, when MOSACA had organized yet another barrio carnival as their final event (too bad I didn’t know this when I made my plane reservations – I would miss it). So I decided just to film.

As mentioned, Claudia’s boyfriend agreed to drive me there, but where “there” was was another matter. I thought I’d try to get together with Sergio, the Robalagallina of Los Ciruelitos, and his group of kids, but we couldn’t find them anywhere. Felt like a bit of a wild goose chase – or maybe more of a search for El Dorado - as we kept stopping to ask people and they kept pointing us down the road in a “he went thataway – you just missed him!” routine. Eventually someone told us that he usually left his stuff at the home base of Los Tuaregs, a group of lechones, and got dressed over there so I decided to wait it out with Los Tuaregs. The problem was I didn’t know any of them, only one made an effort to talk to me, and the rest of them looked busy, flitting in and out of the backyard of a little house whose living room was full of glittery masks. Since I didn’t know the homeowners I couldn’t exactly go back there myself, and as I waited to be able to introduce myself to their leader (who disappeared in a car shortly after I arrived) I watched the neighborhood kids get into carnival mood. Eventually some carnival groups from other areas started appearing on the street, carrying masks and costumes and dragging suitcases on their way to the staging area on the avenida One of them was Los Reyes del Mambo, led by my friend Carlos, so I decided to give up on Los Tuaregs and join them instead.

Up on the avenue everyone was milling around, most already in costume, some playing some music, in a kind of pre-carnival carnival. I saw Obama with his security detail: they let me shake his hand, and I told him I voted for him. They like that.There were Los Muertos Tambien Trabajan, whose float this year featured dead guys building their own coffins. Man, death is no picnic. There were some comparsas practicing dance routines and an Ali Baba group playing drums. I wandered around filming the groups until things got started, then took a spot down the block. From there I observed a group of dancing flight attendants and another of lottery ticket sellers, Sergio – at long last- with his kids, lots of lechones, an obscene flasher accompanied by a dwarf, and a scary group of half lechon/half lucha libre wrestlers (the costume of the former, the mask of the latter) who went around whacking everyone possible with their bladders, and hard. But I never did find El Papelon, the performer of a traditional carnival dance I’d been searching for for weeks. At least I made it out of there without bruises and on to do some final tasks – get a CD from Denio and borrow some historic videotapes of old merengue típico musicians from Gaspar, just long enough to make myself some copies. This I did for as long as I could take it, then went home to pack.

And that pretty much brings me back to here, Berlin, and my German classes, which have no place on this blog.