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  • FROM THE FIELD
    A Midnight Serenade
    Music from the Dominican Republic
    by Sydney Hutchinson

During my fieldwork in the Dominican Republic, ongoing battles against the local "crazy ants" (so called because of their chaotic movement patterns) seemed to take up an inordinate amount of time. I knew that with my graduate-school education I had to be smarter than they were, but in spite of all my precautions, the ants did occasionally win. I was just recovering from a particularly nasty bout of ant-induced itching on the Friday that my friend Chiqui Taveras, a merengue típico accordionist, invited me to join him at a friend's birthday party in the nearby town of Moca. The timing was also good because I'd just got new CV boots put on the Millennium Falcon, as my 1984 Honda Civic had been christened. I therefore volunteered to transport musicians and instruments in exchange for the evening's entertainment.

Merengue típico was, after all, the whole reason I was in Santiago to begin with. I had fallen in love with this fiery, accordion-based Caribbean music while living in Brooklyn, New York—the other hotbed of típico activity. The only sure-fire way to learn to play it myself, it seemed, was to go to its home, the Dominican Republic's northern Cibao region, and study with the master, Rafaelito Román. Soon after starting my apprenticeship in 2004, I'd met Chiqui, a multi-instrumentalist then playing saxophone in Román's group, and had become fast friends with his entire family. Although Chiqui came from the border town of Dajabón, his wife Laura's family lived in Moca. Thus, Laura joined me, Chiqui, and his tambora (double-headed drum) and güira (metal scraper) players for the drive out.

Besides the crazy ants, another bane of my Dominican existence was driving on "highways" at night. When the power is out (which is often the case), you can't see where the potholes are hiding (which is everywhere), and those drivers who refuse to turn down their brights (all of them) blind you from seeing those motorbikes that have no lights or reflectors (most of them). It is a harrowing experience, and by the time we got to Moca, my eyes were burning. I realized I hadn't blinked the entire time.

We pulled up to a large, two-story house with a carport and tile floors, indicating the birthday boy's position in life as a successful businessman in this medium-sized town. He and his friends were seated around a table on the patio in back, separated by a barbed-wire fence from a plantain grove behind. The light from the single energy-saving bulb was eerie in the midst of all that darkness. Someone was getting a barbecue fired up at the other end of the porch, and most of the women were busy in the kitchen. We took our seats at one end of the table and were soon brought beer. Before long, hors d'oeuvres were served too: olives and cheese, peanuts and raisins, and guacamole and chips, an exotic touch for this locale.

Though not an old man, the birthday boy seemed to be a real traditional rural leader type, the kind of "big man" in the country who has always supported merengue típico. So to him, a party just wasn't a party without a perico ripiao, a merengue típico trio. He said that he liked to hear "merengues de mangas largas," an expression I'd never come across. Just what would "long-sleeved merengues" be? Turns out they were the classics, the kind people here usually called "merengues de fiesta" or party merengues, but that didn't explain why they were long-sleeved. Laura suggested it was because long sleeves keep out the cold.

The musicians played for some time, joking about getting through "two sets" as if they were in a nightclub. As at any gathering of true aficionados, they played the older, more difficult repertoire dating from the time of Tatico Henríquez, the legendary accordionist who died in 1976. Sometimes they were joined by "guest vocalists" from among the partygoers. After a while, they made me play a couple of tunes—something I had been fearing, since I was completely unprepared. I hadn't played accordion in months, and so while I remembered how to start forty or so merengues, I could only manage to finish about two of them, and my technique was rusty at best. It was pretty embarrassing, but our host cheered me up. "Hey, I'm impressed you can play any merengues at all. I have an accordion in there," he said, pointing inside. "It's been there for ten years, and I still can't play a note."

Eventually, it was time for food: enormous legs of turkey from the grill and slabs of casabe flat bread made from the cassava root, one of the few bits of indigenous Taino culture still around, four hundred years after their near-extinction. Next was a round of the birthday song, in both Spanish and English, accompanied by the trio. Dominicans end the tune with neither "shave and a haircut" nor "and many more..." but with a different tag ending that signifies "se está poniendo viejo"—he's getting old—to which the celebrant replies that he isn't looking viejo but rather bueno, good. Finally the cake came out, slathered in Dominican-style dulce de leche, a total sugar overdose.

Around midnight, the party was wrapping up, but there was still one more task we had to accomplish. An old musician, Manolo, who used to play with Tatico, was said to be ailing here in town. He was scheduled for heart surgery this very week, and everyone was concerned about his health. To cheer him up, we would bring him a serenata, a gift of three merengues played in front of his house.

When we arrived the street was dark, no one was in sight, and it was starting to rain. But as soon as the musicians started playing, a few neighbors came out to hear, and I held my umbrella up to keep the tambora dry. It is difficult for a modern-day tamborero to play a serenata, since tamboras no longer have straps attached for playing while standing. Instead, ours had to balance his drum first on the trunk of the car and then against a tree. I felt surprisingly touched to see how bonds were reinforced between musicians by way of a couple of midnight melodies, showing the indebtedness these young musicians feel to those who came before.

Soon, Manolo himself appeared, umbrella in hand, a stout, elderly, dark-skinned man in a baseball cap and colorful shirt. He was pleased with the display of affection and shook all our hands. We wished him well and disappeared into the night as quickly as we had appeared.

The events described here occurred in 2007. Since then, Chiqui has moved to New York, Manolo has passed away, and only the memory of that serenade has remained—a picture of what merengue típico was, and still is.

About the author

Sydney Hutchinson is the author of a book and numerous articles on Latin American dance and music, as well as co-producer of the Folkways CD La India Canela: Merengue Típico from the Dominican Republic. Currently a Humboldt Fellow at the Berlin Phonogram Archive, in 2010 she will join the faculty of Syracuse University's Department of Art and Music Histories. In her spare time, she plays merengue típico accordion and yodels (though usually not simultaneously).

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