viernes, 7 de diciembre de 2007

Livin´ La Vida La Ceiba with Aurelio Martinez and other tales

Here I blog in the last days of my La Ceiba existence - tomarrow I head into the Mosquito Rainforest with my host Aurelio and a team of Brazilian documentarians, which I am incredibly excited for, and then there are visitations and plane rides and then holy shit I´m in Argentina.

I´ve mentioned a bunch of times that I life with a pop-star/senator named Aurelio Martinez, but I don´t think I´ve communicated exactly what its like to live with a popstar/senator named Aurelio Matinez. Well first of all, he´s a pop star. Hailing from Plaplaya - the deepest, most isolated, most traditional Garifuna town in the country - he played with a bunch of Punta Rock conjuntos untill leading his own called the Bravos del Caribe, who became famous with the subtly-named "pompis con pompis" (ass to ass), which as maybe you can imagine comes with a special dance. Since then, he´s departed into the lucrative and less bootylicious genre of "world music", exporting deliciously sad Garifuna blues to all over. Then, at about age 30, he got elected as a sentor - the first black senator from his province in Honduran history. He´s basically the man.

With amazing kindness, upon hearing that I came all this way to study Garifuna music, Aurelio offered to put me up for practically nothing. Living in his half-built mansion in the ghetto is hilarious. Being the man, he decided not to hire archeticts and instead design the house himself. As a result, its basically the strangest house ever, huge (on Honduran standards) but with no space to do anything, filled with endless hallways yet no rooms. You walk through the bathroom off the kitchen to get to his office; rooms are bizarrely shaped and uneaven. On top of this, its decorated entirely in motel-quality landscapes alternating with endless award plaques he´s won over the years. Our little family consists of Aurelio, his brother, his son, the maid, and a rotating cast of people, whom I honestly still can´t figure out who they are and what they´re doing there. It´s really a wonderful and bizarre place to live.

I realize I tend to give Aurelio a hard time, due to his slightly megalomanical personality, but the truth is he´s an amazing guy. He´s basically a born rock star - the kind of guy who can do or say anything and people will think it´s cool. He possses a certain level of swagger that makes you not question him when he walks around in a white jumpsuit with a USB pen around his neck. He has an electric and spontaneous personality, a thunderous earthquaking laugh, insane dance moves, and a magic touch with the ladies.

On top of being a rockstar, he really works himself near to death, selflessly fighting for his people in a senate characterized by sticky-fingered old-money crooks. Being Aurelio´s friend has given me access to Garifuna communties in an incredible way: he´s incredibly loved and respected, and people assume that if Aurelio is down with me, I´m allright. Countless times I´ve showed up to a village and knocked on doors of freinds of his, and have been instantly treated like family.

I´ve spent a lot of the last few weeks teaching Aurelio how to record himself with his shiny new Macbook, and we´ve basically put together a demo of his new album. Recording with Aurelio is humbling. I never realized how great a musician he was untill we began to overdub him playing every godamn instrument, nailing the parts on the first time, inventing harmonies on the go, like clockwork in time with the metronome. With one shitty mic, Garage Band, and my minnimal recording know-how, we´ve made some really incredible recordings, and its just proof that serious talent is really all you need. Maybe he´ll let me put one of the songs up here, who knows.

I´ve also been going out to a nearby, incredibly tranquilo village called Corozal to take lessons with a guy going by the name "Chiche Men," which is Garifuna for "Baby Man." And in a way, he is like a big, grown-up, genius baby. Chiche lives in a former cassave factory in a little room filled with endless instruments, and basically spends his days jamming, eating delicious food brought to him, and smoking giant blunts pretty much constantly. To give you an idea of the kind of skills this man posseses, Belizian Gariufna music producer Ivan Duran calls him his "secret weapon," responsible for the arrangments on Andy Palacio´s recent WOMEX-champion album. Lessons with Chiche were more like long musical chill-sessions, as sometimes he´ll just take a nap in the middle, and then we´ll go hang out on the beach and play dominoes, and then play some more music. He´s kinda like a big teddy bear that teaches you everything you ever needed to know about Garifuna music.

Other than that - I took a trip last week to Tela Bay to visit some more villages and meet musicians. Triunfo, a town of endless bycicles driven by children and old ladies heading in endless directions, was especially alive in culture, and I interviewed anciently-wise and kind Neta who runs the best folkloric troupe around. Then I headed to Tornabe on a bus stacked to the seams with fish, bus the bus broke down, so I had to walk a bunch of miles, and pay a dude 20 cents to ferry me across a river with a canoe, to get there, wherupon I hung out in a similarly ridiculous mansion owend by Victor Arzu, a former Spanish-reggae star and NY-based producer who was really the nicest guy on Earth, possibly.

Played my last expat-gig (on Honduran TV yet again, but no dancing this time!), said goodbye to the crew, and ya me voy volando.

martes, 27 de noviembre de 2007

Garifuna 101

I realize that many of my faithful blog readers (assuming I have faithful readers, there’s no way to know really) may not have a clue what the word Garifuna means, and since this is what my stay in Honduras is all about, I thought I’d give a little crash course, and share awesome videos and music and so forth.

The Garifuna, once known as Black Caribs, are a really unique and practically unheard of ethnic group, of about 250,000 people, who live along the Caribbean coast of Central America, though mostly in Honduras. As the story goes, during the Caribbean colonial era, two slave ships got shipwrecked on St. Vincent, a little island given by the French and English to the last remaining indigenous Caribs and Arawaks in return for an end of indian raids on the colonies. The Caribs accepted the Africans into their society, whose numbers increased as escaped slaves throughout the Caribbean made their way to the island. Over time, they adopted the language and culture of the Carib, and became the Garifuna, and became fairly prosperous farming and selling goods to colonists on other islands. The ever-greedy English hungry for more cane-growing land of course broke the treaty and began to clear plantations on the free island. Just at this time, French Revolutionary ideas and the nearby Haitian Revolution sparked a war between the Garifuna and English. Eventually, the English won, but had such a hard time doing so that they decided to just deport the entire population to Central America.

Those were the early 1800s, and since the Garifuna have spread up and down the coast. They are the only black population in Americas to have never been enslaved, and the last living speakers of indigenous Caribbean languages. Up until the 1960s or so, they lived very traditionally on a subsistence basis – the women harvested yucca and coconuts and men fished the sea; houses were made of sticks, adobe or palm fronds, with thatched roofs. People were catholic but practiced elaborate ancestor-worship ceremonies called dugu. They are without doubt beach people – no Garifuna really lives more than a couple of hundred feet from the sea, and seafood (especially conch soup) makes up most of the diet.

Times have changed though, and the two big bad words “globalization” and “transculturation” have shaken things up. Little known fact is that a huge percentage of Garifuna live in the Bronx, and people from the communities go back and forth a lot legally and illegally. Being very comfortable out at sea, many Garifuna men a generation ago found work in the merchant marine or on international cruise ships, and used that mobility to find their way to New York. As a result, the reality of most Garifuna lies somewhere on the spectrum of traditional and American ways of doing things. And it’s all very hard to get a grasp on. Garifuna in Honduras tend to claim that they are extremely poor – while I am in no position to really refute that, Garifuna communities don’t look poor, not at first sight, and not at all compared to rural Honduran campesinos you see throughout the country living in collapsing wooden shacks, or the crowded squalor of the Dominican barrios I worked in. Most of the palm-and-stick homes have been replaced with comparatively spacious suburban-California-style concrete houses, most people have TVs and stereo systems, and mostly everybody is rocking some kind of designer or clever imitation ghetto-wear. Indeed, black American culture has successfully been imported to the seaside villages, and most everybody under thirty sports either fitted caps and basketball jerseys or hardcore Jamaican rasta stylings. Yet at the same time many people in the communities are going hungry. While many people still harvest their yucca or go out at night in oar-propelled canoes into the ocean depths to catch dinner for the week, many sit around and wait for remissions from relatives in the states. While the picturesque but probably not-so-much-fun-to-live-in palm and thatch houses still abound, most have been converted into tool sheds or bathrooms, or spaces to perform rituals for the ancestors. The towns are also pretty isolated – to get to one called Santa Fe, I bumped along a mud road for an hour, crossing four rivers in the back a pick-up truck, only to incongruously land in what looks like a middle-class American town dumped onto a dirt road in the jungle. Or maybe I just forgot what America looks like.

The oldest generation, especially women, is wearing traditional patterned dresses and head wraps and gabber unintelligibly (to me) in Garifuna, while the youngest kids run around in the ocean all day signing Panamanian reggae songs and don’t speak a work of the language. Most people in-between these extremes can speak Garifuna, but mostly speak Spanish, switching over for the occasional anecdote, or sentence (or I suspect, to make fun of the weird gringo hanging around and asking where to find musicians.) It seems to me that there is a pretty obvious divide between Garifuna with family in the states and those without. One of my teachers in Trujillo, named Pancho, had no family abroad, and was very poor as a result. He lived with his seemingly endless children in a tiny dwelling and was definitely hustling to get by. Yet at the same time, he was the most impressive person that I’ve met, living and breathing the traditions. While others sat on their asses drinking moonshine, he would wake up and make a drum, then go fix a boat, and then spend all night fishing, and then play a concert the next day.

While Garifuna towns still alternatingly laze in the midday Caribbean sun and bustle with Caribbean exuberance, they are communities in crisis. Among people old enough to care, there is a lot of talk about culture – people understand that that Garifuna beat is unico-en-el-mundo and incredibly important to hold on to, and they are losing it before there eyes. Garifuna struggle to hold on to their communal land rights in the face of encroaching land-starved mestizos and strong-arm developers who want to sea the beautiful Honduran coast dressed in high-rises. They struggle to modernize and keep their traditions at the same time; they struggle to get their kids to learn to speak their language, just a little too little too late. They struggle, first and foremost, to find opportunities – there is just no work, anywhere, at least not without going to larger Honduran cities, and so people leave, because it’s the only way to make anything change. And due to immigration, Garifuna really has improved their material conditions incredibly. But nobody knows exactly how to go forward and keep proudly living Garifuna style at the same time.

One interesting twist is that practically nobody in the villages still host dugu, an elaborate ritual that takes a year to fully complete. Its just too godamn expensive. Yet relatives in the states who feel the need to placate the ancestors (“forgive me grandma for choosing the Bronx?”), host several in every town every year. It’s that the going rate for the ceremony is about $13K, only affordable on an American salary and even then not so much. Yet this has created a way for, spirit mediums, drum-makers, musicians, and dancers to eek out a living.

Anyway what I’m really here for is the music, and there is plenty of it. There are many traditional styles, played on drums of various sizes sporting jury-rigged snares out of guitar strings, sea turtle shells, and maracas. They range from a Christmas mask dance called jancuru, to ritual music played on giant versions of the drums, to social commentary dance songs called hungunhugun. These styles are mostly played at traditional or folkloric events, at specific times during the year. My favorite stuff though, is parranda. It’s the Garifuna blues – tragic minor key soul jams played on guitar, played with a strum that is really hard to understand. Sadly, very few young people play guitar, and the music is fading. My senator-pop-star host is among the only young people driving the music forward. Parranderros, as the bluesmen are called, are universally awesome tired-eyed and sun-scarred badasses. This video is of a parranda played by Pancho, who I mentioned earlier. His hands are kinda messed up and had trouble playing, but you can get a glimpse of the awesome.

Better known though is punta, a modern adaptation of, bizarrely enough, funeral music, which is played by modern-style electric bands and has come to be the national music of
Honduras. The basis for this, as Aurelio tells it, that Garifuna believe that when a man dies, another man must replace him. Velorios, or wakes, are thus festive events celebrating human fertility, and women dance around a beach bonfire doing a provocative dance in order to symbolically fulfill the creation of a new person, aka, sex.

Somehow or another this turned into pan-Caribbean party music that took off in the late 80s and 90s known as punta rock. Despite the penchant of some musicians for synthesized horns and drum machines, its really cool stuff, combining elements from merengue and soca with the off-kilter 6/8 Garifuna groove that’s hard to get a grasp on. The dance involves incredibly high speed booty shaking, that I am either not doing right or is just really exhausting. Punta was the most popular music in Central America for a while, though just now it’s being supplanted by the cancer that is reggaeton. One common Garifuna complaint many ladinos, as mestizos are called here, used the image of Garifuna culture to sell punta on the international scale – the first band to take off in the style, to give you an idea, was called the Banda Blanca (uhh, White Band). Indeed there’s a difference between Garifuna punta bands and those that just threw in one drummer for good measure. But business-savvy ladinos get the lion’s share of the pie, and just aren’t quite as good.

Though I was having trouble finding a live music scene, ironically, in the country’s party capital of La Ceiba, it is alive and well in Trujillo. I already wrote in my last post about the dance parties I went to, but not enough can be said. It makes any other party you ever go to forever after comparatively lame. Despite modernization and what not, people still really get down in an old-school way. The hot band in town is Renovacion Lunu, a bunch of young guys who play punta rock and parrandas at high speeds, only with percussion and voice, so its modern Garifuna stylings that sound like traditional music. On my trip to Santa Fe, I recorded a demo for them, which you can here a little of (unprocessed), right here: Lunu2ndSong.m4a

I passed my week in Trujillo meeting a million people and taking lessons and just being in the awesomest place ever, and I kinda regret not choosing to be there the whole time. I had not one but two Thanksgivings, one with Lillian’s awesome family, and one with Naomi and the 5 million American volunteers in her little town of Cofradia. Much more to be said, but this post is already very long, and you have things to do.

domingo, 18 de noviembre de 2007

Rain Rain Go Away

Its been raining. For a long time. In fact, its been raining pretty much without stop since I arrived in La Ceiba. Apparently they don´t mess around when they speak of the "rainy season." Living in a coastal city during hurricane season means that there is pretty much water everywhere at all times. And this a sort of rain that only can happen in the tropics - thundering down with terrifying force, unrelenting. Now, my first reaction to the rain was stay inside and get some quality reading/lazing time, waiting for the rains to end. Then I realized that I was bored, and that Ceibenos seem entirely unfazed, going about their business. Bycycling with an umbrella is a popular move. So I eventually got used to riding on streets with water up to my bike pedals, and accepted that I would spend most of my time in Honduras kind of damply. Wet becomes state of being, state of mind.

Where we last left off, I didn´t have malaria, which is awesome. However, a couple of days later I was back in the hospital, and it turned out I had BOTH ameobic and bacterial dysentery. You know, that thing the kids died of in Orgegon Trail in your 3rd grade computer class. After halucinatorily panicking with fever for a few days, I got better.

So between sickness and rain, I lossed a lot of time, but then finally the sun came out, and I started going to the villages and creepily asking around for musicians, and doing interviews and being a the busy little "musicologist" that I apparently am being paid to be. As it turns out La Ceiba is surrounded all around by beautiful jungle waterfalls, and I´m determined to find them all.

I´ve spent most of my time chilling with the surprisingly large Ceiba expat crew (if theres one thing I´m learning, its that theres Americans, Danes, and Australians living in every forgotten corner of the Earth. You are never really more than a stone´s throw away from a Peace Corp member, Bilingual School volunteer, or some weird overwieght and hawaiian-shirted propreitor of something.) Though I do miss being really part of a local community, they are great, and I´ve gotten to feel settled. Its a different kind of thing. On Wednesdays me and some buddies play a gig doing drunken acoustic covers of American pop songs, with repetoire ranging from Bright Eyes to Gorillaz. It´s really fun wilding out on the melodica to Kanye´s "Goldigger", but I think the irony/hilarity is maybe lossed on our largely middle-aged Honduran audience.

I´m now spending the week in Trujillo, an isolated and sleepy town built on a hill overlooking the most beautiful godamn stretch of Carribean beach, in the shadow of emerald towering mountains from storybook chilhood imaginings, and I´m getting some serious grandma treatment from Lillian´s abuela, and its awesome. That means delicious things to eat at all times of day, and an insistance that I not lift a finger to do anything. We watch soccer all day long and indulge in family gossip. Something great about being here in, well, the middle of basically nowhere and seing a Wesleyan flag on the wall.

Trujillo is the site of the first Garifuna mainland settlement, and is unique in being the only really urban Garifuna community. And I´m realizing I should have been here all along. While everywhere I´ve been I´m found people lamenting the shriveling up and dying of hundreds of years of tradition, here culture runs deep. Last night I went to a "disco" in which a group of 8 traditional punta drummers was leading a ridiculous dance party that mixed the traditional music and dance, normally played for wakes, with a modern context of Saturday night wilding. People make a circle, which a girl enters rocking out with rules-of-physics-defying hip swinging, and eventually a guy comes in following her aroun, but never touching. Its straight up traditional, but all young kids dressed in shirt-dresses and yankees fitteds, and in the set breaks All around town people are playing this game that i think is called Santo Malo, in which a dude in a mask and full body paint runs around town chasing kids and blowing a whistle, who have to give him some money if they get caught. This results in hordes of children running around and screaming, and while maybe bizarre, looks like everybody is having fun. Meanwhile I´ve been invited to a nearby village to record yesterday´s drumming group, so you know, moving on up.

Its still raining, but I guess I don´t care.

miércoles, 31 de octubre de 2007

Sickly in Ceiba

This blog post will probably be short/nonsensical because I have malarial dizzyness and can´t quite think straight.

Well actually, as it turns out, I don´t have malaria, but I´ve spent the last few days violently shaking in Central American hospitals, interspersed with gems of American cinema such as Harold and Kumar goes to White Castle. Hopefully this sickness leaves soon.

Where we last left off, I was dancing punta on national Honduran television. I had really hoped that nobody in Ceiba saw that, but alas, I go to get my bicycle fixed (oh yeah! I have a bicycle, its great), the next day, and the guy behind the counter start laughing and says "I saw you dancing on TV with that leeeetle guitar." Sigh.

That Saturday, I went to an backyard expat Holoween party, shocked and amazed to find large quantites of Americans and Europeans living here in little La Ceiba, dressed as wizards and geishas, dancing to classic rock covers played by a Honduran cover band. This was very exciting, as I hadn´t really talked to a single human being minus my hosts since getting into town. The completely open bar led to too much Gifiti, a lethal Garifuna concoction of moonshine and various herbs and grasses, which in turn led to me vomiting on the side of the highway the next morning after approximately 2 hours of sleep. I was going with Aurelio to a Garifuna catholic youth meeting with lots of music in a dope thatched-cabins-on-the-beach town, but more on all that later.

Some absurdities about life in Honduras so far:

- public transportation is all in tricked-out American yellow school busses that got handed down at some point - little seats for little legs and all.

- Though Spanish is indeed the language here, people for some reason say the phrase "rice and beans" exclusively in English.

- Before I got here, I would have to introduce myself like this: ¨My name is Marlon¨¨ ¨WHAT?" "Marlon like Marlon Brando" "Ohhhh". Well... it just so happens that there is a large fried-chicken chain here in La Ceiba called ¨Pollos Marlon," so I get to say "Marlon, you know, like Marlon Chicken"

- My host Aurelio, ridiculous in many ways, among them his extremely tacky and ostentatious mansion (well, a normal house on American standards I guess, but really out of place luxurious here) and his favorite activity of choosing where to hang his countless awards. Which is not to say anything bad against him - he´s a really incredible guy, a brilliant musician, and a person who really works tirelessly for his people. BUT I was shocked that on the 2 hour drive to the Garifuna village he actually listened to the same song on repeat the entire time. Actually. Its his favorite song, an incredibly tacky country song called "Put Your Troubles On My Shoulder"

OK feeling weak, gotta roll.

sábado, 27 de octubre de 2007

Nuevas Tierras

A new place, new things.

Been in Honduras little over a week, and suddenly I am surrounded with new people, new cusines, new language, new reality, and its time to readjust. I spent my first bunch of days in a dusty little cowboy town called Cofradía, where Naomi and 9 other Americans live cramped together in an awesome little compound, where they teach large numbers of rowdy little people how to speak Enlgish, and other life skills. Though I was in an abusrd forgotten corner of the Earth, it was pleasantly college-like living there, spending the night cooking communal meals, drinking beer in hammocks, and making fun of the fat and/or stupid kids in their classes. I guess starred in Miss Naomi´s class as a visiting music teacher, and instructed the 4th grade on the art of beatboxing. Really fun, and hilarious, hopefully I will put a video of the spectacle up here.

Let me tell you about Honduras, or least the part of it I started ot in - think Texas 200 years ago. Really, though, its the wild wild west. Firstly, there is a conspicious lack of people, and endless, gorgeous emerald jungle covered mountains everywhere. The towns are dusty dirt road kind of places where women stay indoors, and cowboy-hated and mustachioed men in sober serious faces play pool in hard-drinking saloons. And when they go out, all cary an old-school revolver in their back pocket. Insanity. The only vehicles are pickup trucks, who will seemingly always stop for you to hitch a ride, and riding in the back of some farmer´s truck through the moutains is an excellent way to fulfill any romantic travelling fantasies.

The food is Mexican-ish, but a little blander, with beans, tortillas, and salty chunks of cheese seeming to make up a large part of the diet. Many restaurants serve three things: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, breakfast and dinner are identical, and pretty similar to lunch. I can´t say I yet understand anything.

Took a weekend trip with Naomi to Copan, famous for crazy Mayan ruins, but I was more impressed by the bizarreness of the town. Due to the backpacker nature of tourists that come to Copan, the place is the Burlington of Central America, the sort of place where Honduran cowboys and curried thai tofu live peacfully side by side. Its absolutely bizarre, though, as the town is filled with sleek cafes and bars owned by painfully-cool-blonde-belgian-expats, fairtrade art stores AND even a higher cowboy hats per capita rate than in Cofradia. The other thing, is that there were no actual tourists there. It was as if they are all waiting for the tourists to come.

All thats past now, and after 6 hours of winding through beautiful jungle mountains, I arrived in my new home, La Ceiba, where I am currently living in the half-built mansion of senator and pop-star Aurelio Martinez. La Ceiba is like a whole other country. It sits sweating on the Carribean Coast, filled with a diverse group of hispanic Hondurans, afro-indigenous Garifuna (more on them later), English-speaking decendents of imigrants from Grand Cayman, and decendents of Americans and Europeans that came to administer or work on the banana plantaions. Built entirely by Chiquita banana, the town looks more like a Southern American city, maybe New Orleans, and has a sort of pan-Carribean culture, where you never know what language to address anybody in. And the only nightlife in Honduras to speak of, with a bustling beachside club strip. No cowboy hats, lots of doo-rags. Every other person is selling lychee nuts on the street, I don´t know why. Most insanely, American country music is one of the most popular music styles here, with thugged out types dancing the latest Nashville two-steps.

Aurelio invited me to play with him headlining a benefit concert for disabled children on national TV. Crilaton 2007, as the event was named, went down last night in a school gym, and had a sort of high-school-talent-show thing going on. Once again, sound failure in the last moment prevented me from being able to play, yet somebody Aurelio tricked me me into dance on stage with him, feebily shaking my hips on national Honduran television. Hopefully nobody in town will remember this.

I did meet some cool musical expats there however who invited me to play a weekly gig with them, and to go to a Haloween party tonight at the subtly-named "Expatriate´s Bar." I am excited for this, but somewat feverish (malaria? dengue? dysentary?), and need to find a costume.

Till the next update, all my love.

jueves, 18 de octubre de 2007

Bored in a Miami Airport, Goodbyes, and Maybe Americans Really Do Suck

I’m in Miami, well, in the airport. Its funny, to me, to reflect that this is the most time I’m going to spend in America for the next year. I was excited for the prospect of a 3 hour layover with wireless internet connections to lose myself in the sweet surrender of email. But actually, I really was looking forward to joys of internet, a lot, and this disturbs me. Alas, no wireless in the Miami airport. Other than that I’ve gorged myself on American things, National Geographics, Starbucks Coffee, Kettle Chips. Strangely… unsatisfying. But how lovely to be able to throw toilet paper in the toilet. It’s the little things.

But really on my mind are the goodbyes, there were many, and how sad to leave a place that really became home. My last week in DR was spent getting ready for the next leg of the journey, doing little things, having fun with Dominican crew. Since my eviction I crashed on the couches (metaphorically) of various members of Santo Domingo’s artist community, eventually ending up renting a spare room in the colonial house of an impoverished gay writer. The kicker – a pool and a roof terrace. Went to the beach in the hippie-mobile of my friend Guillermo, passed up an opportunity to jumpstart my acting career as a French soldier in a History Channel rendition of the Haitian Revolution. Had a goodbye party in which we played music all night in the park, gave hugs and said “nos vemos” and ya, me fui ya.

Amazing though – my recorder that was stolen in the robbery got back to me. How this happened is a long and convoluted story, but basically I went back to Villa Mella a couple of times to talk to community members, tell them about the assault, and ask for them to do their best to help find my stuff, above all my recorder. A drummer fiend Giovanni, who happens to be a brujo or witch, told me it was going to turn up, though I was pessimistic. He spent three whole days entirely investigating my situation, found the thieves through their mothers and girlfriends, found the corner store they traded it to for a night of free beer, bought it back from grocer, and got it to me hours before my flight, all without asking for a penny. This is true kindness. I gave him a bottle of vitamins in return (he said he always wanted vitamins…) a bizarre trade in the last moments of Dominican life in a Santo Domingo pizzeria.

But really, truly sad to leave, but this is the nature of my life now. Get there, get comfortable, get going. I sometimes think I know more people in Santo Domingo than in New York. I can’t help but think that I worked so hard to make a life that worked, and its gone like the dust with a snap of the fingers. But this blog wasn’t supposed to be about feelings.

Being an American living and traveling in the Dominican Republic is met with about three basic responses. One is “I’ll give you 8 thousand dollars to marry me for papers.” Another is, “Oh I have a tio in Washington Heights, I’m waiting for a visa to go myself.” The third is, “Yuck, Americans suck,” translated into the appropriate Dominican slang. To the first two, I sometimes will just smile blankly or will try to explain that although I understand the economic impetus to want to bounce out of the DR, that America’s streets aren’t actually paved in gold and there are certain things about the quality of life that really are better on the island. To the third, I try to convince people otherwise, that the bullshit on American television and in American government doesn’t represent the real people, that we have a rich artistic aesthetic of jazz, diners and beatniks, that we aren’t really that bad. I try to be an embassador of American chillness.

However, on being back in America for three hours, I have to say, maybe Americans really do suck. At least ruddy-faced, frumpy, screechy voiced and unfriendly Floridians. I can already tell it’s going to be rough to be back.

Which is not to say I don’t miss you New York, and all of you beautiful people in it.

Next time in Honduras!

martes, 9 de octubre de 2007

The Colorful Characters of Parque Duarte

This is an old blog article I wrote and never put up. Why not, I figure?

I have the great fortune to live one block from Parque Duarte, a little plaza that has been at the very center of my social life here in Santo Domingo, and the spot where I got connected to virtually everybody in the folklore/Afro-Dominican scene. Think, perhaps, a Union Square, minus hipsters, plus the ability to legally drink in the park, plus a colmado (Dominican for bodega) that sells jumbo sized Presidente beer for a mere $2.50. The park, though packed to the brim on weekends with all sorts of people, is consistently stocked with regulars who seemingly never leave. It is certainly the center of alternative culture in the city, filled with brilliant and mostly broke artists of all generations, drinking and… well, drinking, day by day.

Each crew has a part of the park where they traditionally congregate – the gay community is over by the statue of the horse, then the black-clad heavy metal kids, the domino-toting dykes, and the main part inhabited by my friends, who for lack of a better word, are the hippies of the Dominican Republic. My best buddies are Pipin, a writer and self-proclaimed leader of the "Movimiento Erranticista" who carries himself with constant rock star swagger, Jean Jean, a Haitian actor who has no money but 50 pairs of shoes, and Renato, an artist who almost exclusively paints cats.

When there is nothing to do, I just go down to the park, and am sure to find friends drinking on the benches, a jam session, a man who sells delicious cheese on sticks, some strange performance art, a magic show, at least one crazy person yelling nonsense, and always, good times.

But what I want to write about are some of the more colorful personalities who frequent the park.

Victor Camilo

The unico-en-el-mundo Victor Camilo, now at the ripe age of sixty-something, studied sociology in the states for 19 years (claiming to have all that time never gone to a class without being stoned), and knows seemingly everything. He is usually raving drunk, and never stops talking, using the word "discourse" every seven words. He used to be the official photographer of the Fania All-Stars, and finds himself in every possible situation. He has pictures of himself with Pele, with the Queen of Spain, with everybody imaginable. His friends all think he's over-educated, so he has taken to me because I have a degree from an American college and put up with his verbosity more than most. In the words of Jane's mama, Carol Charles, who shared schooling with him, "He's really crazy."


Yeyo is the black Dominican Elvis. He is obsessed with American blues, country, and rockabilly and consistently talks about how Elvis was the true messiah. He speaks in a low, incomprehensible growl, constantly laughing and hugging people he doesn't know. The man exclusively dresses in black pants, black shirt, black leather vest, and black cowboy hat, and though it may seem that he only owns one outfit, his friends assure me he just has a closet filled with 10 versions of the same clothes. He sings in a poorly-rehearsed but high-spirited psychedelic blues band.

El Rey de Los Perros

The best-known beggar in the Zona Colonial is the King of the Dogs, and lanky fellow who travels with a pack of 30 dogs of all shapes and sizes. Like clockwork, every night he comes over with the same speech. "Please, 5 pesos for the Rey de Los Perros, so he can feed his wolves, etc etc." He speaks to his dogs in a language of whistles, which they seemingly understand perfectly. In one recent park drama, the police beat him up (the police beat people up pretty regularly) for some disrespectful comment, with the whole park protesting and the dogs yelling. What the police didn't know is that the Rey de Los Perros was once a well-regarded amateur boxer. When one argument with the acid-head bum who lives on my corner turned violent, he knocked the guy out with one punch. Don't mess with the Rey de Los Perros.

sábado, 6 de octubre de 2007

Robberies, Jail Breaks, Evictions or Trouble in Paradise

Things have gotten a whole lot crazier since last posting. Best buddies Laura and Vlad were in for the weekend and I was determined to show them a good time. Saturday, the third day they were here, was the fiesta of San Miguel, one of the biggest Saint’s Days of the year, so it was a perfect excuse to bring them along to the parties to see what it is exactly I do here. The whole weekend had a strange energy in the air in general; the day before the lights went out in the entire Zona Colonial, and the torrential tropical rains came down heavier than normal. We checked out one fairly uneventful celebration in the neighborhood and then caught a guagua to Mata Los Indios, Villa Mella, the distant shack-and-mango-tree filled barrio where I do most of my work.

There was, as always, a wonderful huge celebration going on there, with communal food, kids playing, a beautiful altar inside the house, and a live electric band leading the festivities. We got our plate of rice and beans and settled under a tree. San Miguel is syncretized to Belie Belcan, a god of storms, of warriors, and of many other things. The participants were doing a dance that involved circling a machete around people’s heads. We ate delicious passion fruit icees and dug the glory that is a Saturday in Mata Los Indios.

My little buddy Elan, the 8 year old heir to the Cofradia de los Congos, a terrific drummer, and all-around coolest kid in the neighborhood took us down to the river past the town. Along the way we got together a gang of little dudes to guide us, running around and freestyling reggaeton and generally being free-spirited village children. The path went past town, through pastures dotted with soaring palms and jungle, across streams. We chilled out bathing in the river, took pictures of our crew doing flips off an overhanging branch, smoked cigarettes in the shade. We all agreed it was one of the nicest days we ever had.

We returned to town and started heading out on the road that leads to the highway back to the city. Walking along happy-as-can-be, the sun setting past the point that I like to be walking by myself in Villa Mella, a guy in front of us motioned for us to stop, and wham, my first-ever-in-life mugging. Six guys, two of them with guns aimed at us appeared out of seemingly-nowhere, took everything we had, and were gone. And I mean everything – recording equipment, camera, licenses, credit cards, keys, sunglasses, my notebook with my music transcriptions. Everything. Except for Vlad’s coca-cola he was holding, he got to keep that, as one onlooker duly noted.

No time for panic as night sets in the hood and three gringos without even one peso and stranded far far from the safety of home, I panic somewhat anyway and we hurry into the barrio to find someone I know. Luckily, and I repeat, so luckily we run into Giovanni, a friend of mine, drummer, and brujo. He gives us all the money he has, the 5 dollars we need to make it back, and takes us up the back road to the highway. Due to festivities all over Villa Mella, the world’s worst traffic jam awaits us, and the busses leading back to town don’t appear. We get into a public taxi, who doesn’t charge us after hearing our story, and start on our long journey home. On the last leg of the trip in carro publico, a woman in front of us turns around, and with great concern, says “You guys are tourists? You should be really careful, you could get robbed” We smiled amongst ourselves. We didn’t have the heart to tell her.

Miraculously, I somehow left the door of my apartment unlocked. This is really miraculous, because I’ve never done this before, and there would have been no way to get to the last of our money, or even their passports to go home the next morning. Strange happenings.

We head down to Parque Duarte, where a big festival that me and Vlad were supposed to play in is happening, tell our story to my friends. As it turns out, my friend Renato was picked up by the police that morning for no reason, and he’s stuck in a 12 meter cell with 37 murderous thieves. Off to the rescue.

We get to the jail, where various sinister, pot-belied, gray-uniformed policemen are sitting around and laughing as horrible screams of pain are coming from the cell. I tell them I am a respected anthropologist and they have arrested my associate, a vital contributor to Dominican culture. For the first time, my official letter of introduction from the Watson Foundation comes in handy. When four white people show up to the jail at 1am to get a guy out, the police respond. They let him out, and Renato comes out of that stinking cell the happiest man in the world. He was going to be sleeping on the floor in his own urine until Wednesday. As the cops even admitted themselves, he was picked up for having suspicious looking hair, little pointy dreads. Que pais. I earned myself a free Renato original (my boy is a badass painter), and its time for celebration. Our spirits, pretty fucking low, have been lifted.

The night continues and we go to a crowded palos drumming-house-party with a huge altar covered with millions of kinds of fruit, and we dance till the early morning singing ancient songs to San Miguel. Life is absurd, sometimes. More often than not these days.

Well my friends have left, and here I am with no money, my contacts lost with my cellphone, my transcriptions gone, my equipment gone, seemingly starting from scratch after months of work. But I’m alive, and all things considered, feeling allright. After getting robbed like that, there is this feeling of violation I’ve never known, of helplessness. Its going to be a while before I start to live without an ugly tasting ball of fearfulness lodged somewhere in my throat. Traveller’s innocence robbed, in a way, and after months of happily roaming where I please and having marvelous adventures, its time to step back and remember after all that I am a conspicuous gringo in an impoverished land. Piece my piece I’m putting my life back together.

Its rained all week since, and there is a certain gloom in the air. I’ve been slacking on doing my investigation and spending lots of time cooking dinner parties with my friends and digging the last moments of my glorious Santo Domingo life. My buddy Jean Jean and his Spanish girlfriend Cristina have been crashing on my floor, and it’s nice to have housemates again. Thursday was my third show with Duluc, this one also fraught with sound failure, but an amazing, drunk, and enthusiastic crowd. As he went around the corner after the show to get cigarettes, he too was arrested for suspicious hair, until the police realized he was a famous musician.

The bad news, though, is that I just got kicked out of my apartment today by my landlord, under accusations of “haciendo coro con tigueres y enanos,” or “having parties with swindlers and dwarves.” While my friends do have suspicious hair, mostly, they are certainly not tigueres (the word basically meaning delinquent/ rapscallion). As for the dwarf… I have to admit I didn’t invite him over and somehow new having a dwarf over would mess my shit up. So shitily, I have to find a new place to stay in three days. I will really miss my apartment, it’s become home, and symbolic of the settled-ness I feel in this country. Oh well, time to ramble.

domingo, 23 de septiembre de 2007

(Extremely) Close Encounters With the Saints

On Wednesday I was invited to a private ceremony in Haina, on the outskirts of the city, to hear a truly awesome palos group called Yogo Yogo. They are a boutique drumming group of sorts, with matching uniforms, tight arrangements, vocal harmonies, and a much higher price tag for playing ceremonies. I was surprised to find myself rolling up to a big fancy yellow house to hear palos, as up till now I’ve found that middle and upper-class people hereabouts are not so down with Afro-Dominican spirituality, to say the least.

Anyway, this was a different kind of event than I have become accustomed to, a closed ceremony in a private house, with a hired spirit medium - an older bald woman with a crazy voice. Once the musicians started playing, her eyes opened wide in the way people do when they enter trance, and she proceeded to go around to people in the room, dancing with them, hugging them, giving advice, and generally directing people in how to please the saints.

I, as normal, was hugging the walls and keeping very still hoping that nobody, especially her, would notice the random fair-featured gringo in the room. This seemed to be working just fine, when all of a sudden she came up to me with those wide-spirit eyes. She looked at me for a while, and then poured a bottled of something on my face and then gave me a rough smack on the head. The unknown liquid burned in my eyes, and there I was a public-spectacle, cringing in pain.

Besides the pain, I felt really bad about this because I thought that I had somehow angered her, or the misterios, or someone, but apparently not. I asked the guy who threw the ceremony and he just shrugged and said, “no, there’s no problem, the spirits just do that sometimes.”

I told this story to Duluc and he told me his interpretation: That this was an invitation to the community, a reminder that I couldn’t come here to learn about this music without being involved in the connected spirituality. He said that if the spirits didn’t like you, they would ignore you, and that they usually don’t interact with outsiders. Who knows. Duluc likes me and thinks that I have come here with an especially open heart and mind, but I still don’t know what was really going on.

In other news, I have less than a month in this country, which makes me extremely sad. Its been so easy to get connected to amazing people, get opportunities to listen and play music, and create a little life for myself here. I know my way around Santo Domingo almost as well as New York, learned how to properly select and cook platanos, and finally figured out how to pepper my Spanish with Dominican slang. It’ll be like leaving home, but I may as well get used to it, as the rhythm of getting somewhere, being confused, getting comfortable, and leaving is going to repeat itself… four more times before I make my merry way back to the good old USA.

Tonight I’m splurging and going to the Cultura Profetica concert, who if you don’t know is the all time greatest Latino reggae band, incredibly dope, and the idols of hippies all over Latin America. I expect to be hit in the face by flying dreadlocks, many, many times.

lunes, 17 de septiembre de 2007

Encounters with the Saints

I have just barely survived long and crazy weekend filled with religious festivals, music, possessions, rum, and not much of sleeping. Here it goes.

Friday night was the big concert we’d been preparing for all week. Duluc was playing the Cinema Café, a hipster-ish open air bar and essential element of music and art culture in Santo Domingo, and had invited me to play as well as a bunch of other young musicians hip to Dominican folklore and willing to not be paid well. We practiced all week, and became a pretty tight band, me on melodica and mandolin. The concert was all set up to go beautifully, a working sound system (for a change), a packed venue, and a collection of amazing invited guests. Yet, as always, some disaster lurks. After two songs, the invited Gagá de Haina (gagá are costumed troupes of drums and keyless metal trumpets, who dance and twirl sticks and basically wild out, more on this later) bumrushes the stage and starts to play along. Instead of try to control the situation, Duluc throws his guitar down, and starts leading the gaga, they proceed to leave the stage, march through the audience, past the bar, out the front door and down the street, then back again. I put away my instruments. End of show.

Duluc is an amazing all-around person, a beautiful spirit but lets just say that what he has in soul, he lacks in any type of discipline, whatsoever. Thus illegitimate children throughout the hemispheres, and frequently unpredictable behavior at shows.

A lot of people left, and the club owner was pretty furious. I was kind of disappointed, after so many hours of careful rehearsal, but am quickly learning this is how it goes sometimes. No hard feelings. Joel, the guitarist and leader of pioneering Afro-Dominican fusion band Son Abril, was not the least bit surprised. He and the folklore crazy kids of his generation are used to dealing with the inconstancies and excesses of their masters from the previous generation, if somewhat tired of it. At the very least I learned a lot from the rehearsals, and it’s an honor just to be asked to play in the first place.

Saturday night I taxied myself out to a small riverside barrio called Mazano. It was the second night of the novena for the community’s patron saint, the Virgin of Las Mercedes. For nine days before the actual saint’s day, everybody in town gets together around a wooden open-air chapel containing the altar prepared for the saint, and plays palos music. Played on three different drums, guira (the ever-present Dominican scraper), tambourines, maracas, the music is the Afro-Dominican manifestation of salves, or psalms, and are led by a singer who improvises lines inbetween the responses of the chorus. They play from about 7pm-1am each day until the last day, when they play through the night until sunrise, about 12 straight hours, and that’s apparently when the spirit of the Virgin comes to Earth to possess the worshipers and give messages, heal the sick and so forth.

If this sounds all very spiritual, it is, but it’s also a serious party. I show up with a bottle of rum to offer the queen of the fiesta, as I am told one should, which gets placed on the altar with a candle on top of it. Drinking, dancing, and having a good time is essential to these festivals. The Christian saint’s and African gods want people to enjoy life, it seems. Afro-Dominican religion is all about euphoric communal transcendence (for the funk soldiers out there, its quite a bit like the cosmology of P-Funk). Besides, these festivals are important ways of keeping the communities together in a day and age when many people are leaving their barrios for opportunities elsewhere. And besides that, drinking is considered a way to help facilitate closeness to the gods, permitting trances, and letting people let loose for a little bit of rising above temporal existance. For the musicians, frequent shots of rum keeps their hands from stinging with pain, especially the last day when they play straight through the night.

And of course, there is lots and lots of food. And this will surely be the eventual downfall of my vegetarianism. I was invited by the dueno of the festival to eat, and to refuse in this context seems outrageously rude, so I accepted and luckily the feast of the night was asopao, stewed rice and vegetables and pieces of meat big enough to take out. Surely some tiny bits that I missed contributed to the deathly-terrible-stomach pains I had the next day.

Some footage of the night can be found right here. Unfortunately my camera has a terrible microphone, so you can download some hi-fi stuff from this night HERE: 9-15Palos2.m4a

And if this wasn’t enough locura for one weekend, I had to rally Sunday morning back to aforementioned Mata Los Indios for one of the biggest parties of the year. Unlike the previous day’s festivities, this was a maní, which means “peanut” literally, but as I understand it, is just a one-day worhip/party not directed at any particular saint. This particular one is being thrown by Jesus, a venerable member of the Congos, who is famous for having particular good manís. And so it is. This community is famous countrywide for being the epicenter of Afro-Domincian spirituality, and indeed many of the salves sung throughout the country originate here. All in all this is a much bigger affair than the previous day, with multiple groups of musicians, three rooms of altars prepared inside the house, a huge pot of rice and beans cooking over a bonfire. And by the late afternoon, many hundreds of people in attendance.

But the brain-exploding, soul-rattling shock for me was witnessing the arrival of the saints, who come in droves hereabouts. Possessions, or trances, happen every couple of minutes, and it’s a seriously powerful thing to behold. Even a naturally skeptic, western-educated fellow as myself is left speechless. The spirits, or misterios as they are called here, almost exclusively possess women and gay men. Usually it starts as a woman starts screaming and writhing, having powerful convulsions. Her friends run to her to restrain her and rush her inside to the altar, or sometimes make a circle around the possessed, who after going through the initial tremors usually lies on the floor as if unconscious for a period. Then they rise up, and dance, or run around in circles, or wander aimlessly pulling at their hair. They roll on the floor, pour bottles of beer over their head, smoke cigars. Some, especially inside by the altar, act as mediums for the saints, giving advice or predictions, hugging family and strangers alike, offering healing to the sick.

Different saints are always in attendance, distinguishable by their different traits. Different misterios have distinct ways of walking, talking, behaving. For example Yemeyá is a young, beautiful, and somewhat narcisitic spirit, and will usually posess pretty girls in lavish dresses. Another, whose name I forget, is a wilder spirit with a penchant for alochol and cigarettes. People who live their lives in communities that practice this trance-religion develop relationships with certain saints, who talk to them over their years and follow up on their lives. The girls who experience poessesions, while not needing to be professional brujas or spirit-mediums, are a speicial bunch said to have cabezas de misterios (a spirit-head). They often come to the parties dressed in specific colors and adornments to faciliate the reception of particular saints, who all have their own tastes. One girl came in an extracagant wedding dress and sat by the altar all day hoping to be posessed by Yemeya, but it just diddn’t happen for her. So it goes.

From the musician's perspective, it is of course great than none of this can happen without music. Traditionally, palos drumming was the music of the fiest, but recently the Villa Mella manis have featured electrified groups who play salves on guitars, basses, and congos. The feel is almost merengue, but the lyrics are purely devotional. People will often receive the spirits right at the beginning of a song, when the beat drops. At the beginning of the party, things were mostly relaxed, with the occasional posession, mostly giving consultations. Later though, as more people showed up, a soul-train style corridor was formed, in which the posessed do the things that they do, and trances were starting left and right. When somebody first receives the spirit, everyone else screams and comes running.

The whole thing is fairly mind bending. The coming of the spirits for these people is a part of the fabric of daily life as anything else, and provides catharsis, releif of tension, resolution for local disputes, hardcore bonding, and well, a lot of fun also. As an outsider, it’s a little strange to be there, and I withold any judgements about whats really going on here. I certainly feel weird about posting a video of it, as I think you really have to be there to get a feeling for how powerful it is. Maybe sometime.

That’s all for now.

lunes, 10 de septiembre de 2007

La Confradia de los Congos del Espiritu Santo de Villa Mella

There I was the other day, sitting alongside a dirt road in a poor Dominican barrio, women passing by with fruit baskets on their heads, kids playing beisbol with a branch and a ball of yarn. I was eating my rice and bean casually as if my setting was not extraordinary whatsoever, and I couldn’t help but start laughing spontaneously that this was my life now. It’s amazing how fast you get used to things, people can adapt to anything.

The place was Mato Los Indios, a community at the top of the poor northern suburb called Villa Mella, practically the farthest point you can go and still be in the city. Although officially still part of sprawling Santo Domingo, you really wouldn’t know it. A world apart from the lonely endless boulevards downtown, Mata los Indios is luscious and green with mango and avocado trees, its residents live in spacious but rickety clapboard houses. Men sleep in rocking chairs, women in curlers sit around a dominoes game and talk in hushed tones.

I’ve been coming here quite a bit because the community is well known for retaining old-school Afro-Dominican musical practices long forgotten elsewhere. There is a lot of stuff going down here, but I’m here specifically to check out a particular group called the Brotherhood of the Congos of the Holy Spirit of Villa Mella. They are a religious brotherhood of sacred musicians organized into a kingdom, with their own king, and dukes, and princes, and the whole thing gets passed down hereditarily, so if you are born into a confradia family, you know right then and there that you have a lifelong obligation to keep the music alive. The confradia plays a unique music called congo, consisting of a strict repertoire of 21 toques, or tunes, on a unique set of instruments that they build themselves. Other than a few select fiestas patronales (saint's day parties), the sole responsibility of the Congos is to play for the funeral rites for people in the community. The songs are a sung in Spanish mixed in with long forgotten African words. Nobody knows what the words means anymore, but the point gets across.

The Confradia was recently recognized by UNESCO as patrimony of humanity, whatever that means, so this group of sagely old men has gotten a bit of international attention. The local anthropology museum is funding a drum-making workshop taught by them on for the local kids, and I’m helping out by taking pictures and recording the class. You can check out some footage of a demonstration of Congo here:

The king of the Congos is about to hit the grand old age of 102, and isn’t doing much playing nowadays, so the class is led by the Captain of the brotherhood, Sixto Minier. I couldn’t help but be kind of nervous meeting him – the man literally pulsates with some kind of crazy gravity, he has a look in his eyes that almost makes me believe that he does indeed communicate with the misterios, the spirits of the saints that come down to Earth to cure the sick and possess the musicians during long nights of playing. Instantly though, I feel accepted by him, he welcomes me warmly in his home as a family member, this is just how it goes in Mata Los Indios. Unlike the incredibly depressing and hopeless poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in DR, this neighborhood has this strange peacefulness about it, as everybody that goes there insists, there really is something powerful going on there.

I decided to stick around for the afternoon, and as I was both sick and somewhat hungover, I took an amazing nap underneath a mango tree and enjoyed a respite from the maxed out car stereos that pass by my window every 15 minutes. After politely declining several mothers insisting on offering their daughters in marriage, I got my ass kicked in dominoes by three 7-year-old girls, and then played first base in a short-lived baseball game in which no player was over 4 feet tall.

My personal self-appointed guide in town is this little dude who happens to be the heir to the throne of the Confradia. He is awesome, and teaches me all sorts of things like how to cheat at dominoes, and the shortcut to the dirty river down the hill. I asked him what his favorite music was, and he told me “reggaeton, and congo.” The tradition sure isn’t going anywhere. But the other reason that this answer was perfect and beautiful to me is because, as my teacher Duluc’s theory goes, reggeaton descends from congo. The style of drumming played here in Mata Los Indios has been found in isolated little pockets all over the Americas, the theory going that it these spiritual brotherhoods and their music carry over directly from a specific part of Central Africa. Duluc thinks that the group of Congos in Panama, where reggaeton was first born, influenced the music. Sure enough, the basic rhythm of played on the smallest drum is the very same dum-da-doop-dum that itches your brain behind every Daddy Yankee club jam.

Could be, anyway, I am no longer surprised by the intricacy of the webs. As Anthony Braxton once said, “Hooray for music.”

More blog updates to come soon! I promise.

viernes, 24 de agosto de 2007

Ain´t no MTA

One thing that never gets old is Santo Domingo’s inane transportation system, I find it endlessly fascinating. That is – there is no system to speak of, but out of the chaos has emerged what is probably the world’s most efficient way of getting around.

Maybe you’ve tried convincing a New York cab driver to let 5 people in a cab once upon a time? Not easy to do. Zipping around Santo Domingo’s endless forlorn boulevards and twisty cobblestone alleys are carros publicos, barely-running taxis that drive a fixed route, piling up to 8 or 9 people into a regular sedan. Traveling in the publicos is almost always highly uncomfortable and hilarious at the same time. Five strangers in the back seat, an overweight Dominican woman on your lap, merengue blasting out of the radio, the driver without his hands on the wheel, and lively conversation going on, all at insane speeds. Its great, and costs about 35 cents.

Hailing a publico takes some practice. First, you have to learn to recognize them from regular cars. This is easy because nearly all publicos have either a broken windshield, a missing door, or just a generally battered exterior. This is probobly related to the complete disregard for traffic lights, and general insanity of driving in the country. Secondly, you have to make sure you get the right vehicle, which you do by pointing in the general cardinal direction you are heading with one hand, and waving the other one towards the floor. Someone will eventually pick you up.

Complementing the publicos are guaguas, similarly battered minbuses (think volkwagon hippy-mobile style) that are better for longer distances. These range from luxury air conditioned models to vehicles that are seemingly held together entirely by strategically placed pieces of rope. Guaguas are operated by two-man teams, one driver who keeps his eyes on the road, and a cobrador who hangs out the door of the vehicle doing his best to convince any and all passersby, irrespective of the their destination, to hop on board. These are slightly more expensive, at 50 cents a ride.

Despite the complete lack of central organization – this system works amazingly well. Though outside of my colonial hood Santo Domingo ranks among the least pedestrian-friendly cities I’ve seen, getting around is really no problem. You never wait more than a few minutes to find some vehicle that will take you where you want to go, and for pocket change. The intense competition between the army of carros and guaguas drives down prices, and transportation is the most affordable aspect of an otherwise-not-that-cheap island. You can get clear across the country for the cost of a NYC subway ride.

Interestingly enough, there is a giant elevated train under construction, leading from the poor northern barrios to the city center. This is the hot conversation topic of the day – nobody thinks its worth the absurd amount of money pumped into the project, and the guaguas work just fine. It’s yet another case of the government’s weird spending priorities, mostly centered around beautifying the country for the tourists sake, or at least that’s what Dominicans are saying. As the most visited country in the Carribean, the DR’s economy revolves entirely around tourism, though the cash stays firmly in the cellars of the all-inclusive vacation gulags on the coast. Dominicans are overwhelmingly poor for how much money comes through this country. And the government builds swanky trains and pretty highway-side landscaping instead of schools.

The up-side for me – the Politur, a police force entirely dedicated to keeping gringos out of trouble. Because the government knows that one headline about a dead foreigner could mean serious declines for the sun-and-sand industry.

Anyway, I have to go practice: I have a gig accompanying Duluc on mandolin tonight in the central plaza! Just me and him, and all of Friday night out listening – I am terrified.

martes, 21 de agosto de 2007

The Beggining

Compadres... you have arrived at my first ever blog posting. I don’t know how I feel about it, but here we go. I find as I begin my journey wondering the Western Hemisphere that having crazy adventures just isn’t the same without anyone to share them with. Thus: I will blog, and hopefully some of you will read.

For those that don’t really know whats going up, the project that the Watson Foundation gave me cashmoney to do is, obstensibly, study five types of music in five different countries that share the following things: strong roots in African music and having been largely ignored on both the commercial and adacemic levels. Making recordings, interviewing musicians, taking lessons, etc, etc.

And so I live in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, in the godamn tropics, far from the all-inclusive beach resorts that make the DR the vost turisted country in the Carribiean. And rhree weeks into my new life, I have to say that things aren’t too bad. I’ve survived Hurricane Dean, learned to deal with being endlessly harrangued by taxistas and prostitutes, and have battled the biggest flying cockaroaches you have ever seen. But I’ve also made friends with a crew of funky-ass musicians, jammed with Juan Luis Guerra’s piano player, recorded a band at a traditional vodu ceremony, followed a pilgrimage to a cattle-blessing festival in the countryside, and attended a swanky party that the president was at. It goes on.

Which is not to say it was easy at first. Getting off the plane with mandolin in hand, I had a sudden urge to shit myself. I was arriving in a foreign land with no idea what I was doing, I knew nobody, and I barely remembered how to speak Spanish, let alone Dominican. My hotel was inhabited entirely by nasty, smelly, old European sex tourists. It rained all the time, I felt constantly in danger, and I tried my hardest to never leave my bed. But the remarkable thing I’m learning about truly independent travel is that you learn, and fast. You learn how to catch a bus, how to not get swindled, the foods, places, and sayings. Survival instincts kick in, and with nobody to talk to, you busy yourself with figuring shit out.

Specifically, I live in the Zona Colonial, the very first settlement in the Americas founded by Columbus himself, and its definitely the neighborhood to be in, filled with a mix of crumbling colonial buildings, old men crowded around serious curbside chess games, surprisingly hip bars tucked between the ruins, angry crippled bums and starving artists. I have a nice little one-bedroom apartment to myself, and despite frequent power outages and the occasional gecko, its an awesome place. I learned quickly that candles are not for ambiance, but for finding your way to the godamn bathroom when the light goes. I also learned to be able to sleep living across the street from a karaoke bar blasting Latin pop hits all through the night. The bar is called Bicycle, and, inexplicably, is decorated with large, shiny posters of various kinds of bicycles. A strange theme for a karaoke bar, it seems to me.

Most importantly, there is a falafel place two blocks away, run by an awesome Israeli-Dominican named Isaac. It was the moment I found this out that I started to have hope. Falafel is a very serious matter.

My introduction to a social life in this country, though, came from Duluc, one of the only contacts I had in this country. As a kid, Jose Duluc traveled all over the countryside learning regional Afro-Dominican drumming styles, and later became one of the first people to bring the music from the countryside to the cities, and fuse it with other styles. At nearly 50, extremely skinny with a head full of dreadlocks, Duluc continues to be a complete maniac. He has been rich and famous twice, lost everything twice, and lives day to day despite being a celebrity in his country. With at least twice my energy and a mind containing endless wisdom, he is an inspiring presence. He has also taken the job of teaching me this music very seriously, which is awesome for me.

Through Duluc I was introduced to a circle of people vaguely centered around admiration for him, of all ages, talents, and persuations, who hang out in a plaza called Parque Duarte, two blocks from my house. The park has the reputation, among respectable Dominicans, as being the worse place in the country, filled with potheads, vagabonds, and homosexuals. This is true – it’s also a center of youth culture in the city, and a place where a real movement of sorts is developing.

I came at a fortuitous time – all of a sudden young Dominicans are growing their dreads out, taking the traditional palos and gaga music that has been repressed by Eurocentric upper classes for hundreds of years, and wilding out. Various groups are fusing folkloric music with jazz/rock/reggae, with Batey Cero leading the pack, and jams go down in the park nightly. A lot of these kids are doing the same thing as me, and going out to the barrios to record and learn from communities that have been keeping some serious musical traditions alive for a long time. And smoking a lot of pot. But all that is for another post.

Anyway, the point is that things are happening, and with motivation, more and more things will happen. This is enough for the first post, but I hope to be updating regularly with pictures, recordings, rants, diatribes, and stories. Adiiiiioooos.