Smithsonian Institution
Fall 2011: Dispatches from Latin America



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

The long, winding, and confusingly numbered road to La India Canela’s house

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La India’s housekeeper answered, expressed sympathy, and then explained that the house was actually at #13,
not #3.

“But WHICH thirteen?” I demanded, not wanting to get caught in the same trap twice.

“The one that’s just a couple of doors down from where you are. Keep going. Ah, you’re here now,” she said, and opened the door.

I told her and La India the story of my misadventure. They both laughed heartily about the girls who had invited me to stay. “Well, that’s Dominicans for you,” La India said, shaking her head.

*  *  *

Luckily, this inauspicious beginning didn’t seem to foreshadow doom for our venture. Like any recording project, it had its frustrating moments, but ultimately it exceeded our expectations.

February. Once I finally found La India that afternoon, we spent three hours listening to selections from my collections of historical típico recordings and discussing our favorite tunes. I was glad to find she shared my enthusiasm for a bootleg recording made by Siano Arias not long before his untimely death in 1994. Never released, the raw tracks have circulated hand to hand among típico musicians and fans over the years because of the fiery performances of Siano and his three accompanists: bass player Che, güira player Ramoncito, and tambora player Boca Chula. La India and I thought we could emulate the excitement of that recording by recording live in the studio, as they had, to get as close to a real party feeling as we could. We’d also record a few tracks a cuarteto—without saxophone, congas, or any of the other instruments often added to modern típico ensembles—to get that uncluttered sound, letting the accordion really shine. We thought, we might even be able to get some of those same musicians to play with her. By the end of the afternoon, we had narrowed our list to twelve songs we thought showed a good cross-section of rhythms, time periods, topics, and composers, and I left her with a copy of the Siano tape to study. For good measure, she taught me to play her own composition, “Apriétame Así,” that would open the CD.

March. Before long we met again, this time with Raúl Román to advise us. Raúl is the son of Rafaelito Román, my own accordion teacher and the keeper of típico’s oral tradition—the go-to guy for anyone who needs to remember a half-forgotten song or arbitrate between various versions of lyrics and rhythms. We finalized our track list and discussed everything from what musicians to hire to what studio to record in to the press conference it turned out they expected me to organize. The most complicated number would be “El Rancho,” La India’s unconventional composition that fuses palos drumming with típico rhythms. A few weeks later, we had a special rehearsal with my friends, the three Turbí brothers that make up Santiago palos ensemble Grupo Mello, in La India’s backyard. It turned out to be impossible to incorporate the palos into the percussion breaks as Raúl wanted, so we had to make some musical changes. But everyone seemed to have a good time.

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La India Canela

Merengue Típico from the Dominican Republic
by La India Canela

recording details