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.