CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: Palo in the Dominican Republic - touring for folklorico

Thursday, February 2, 2012

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Palo in the Dominican Republic - touring for folklorico

How blessed to find myself in the Dominican Republic... totally beyond my comprehension.. it all happened so quickly.

With only two full days in Santo Domingo to locate and hit the folkloric experience we were seeking, the odds were slim.
the idea, was to hang with the Paleros of the area, and to see the Dia de Altigracia festival celebrated in the touristless barrio.

I had serious doubts we could pull it off, knowing no-one in town, and only having 48hrs on the Island of Hispaniola.

It's totally incredible how things like this happen, but the short and sweet trip to the Dominican Republic was beyond sweet.

DR is one incredible place. Santo Domingo is rich in visual art, and bursting with live music. Seemly every functioning speaker in town is regularly employed, pumping Salsa, Merengue and Bachata through the narrow streets.

If one took a taxi through most any part of town on a sunny afternoon, you would hear someone pumping loud tunes each and every block.. out of post offices, hair salons, corner stores, cafes and peoples houses.. More music than Ive ever heard in any city in my life.

Santo Domingo's vibe is like an African city, hardly a smile between locals as they pass in the street. Hard looks from hard lives, gritting their teeth through the day.

The city, with its jovial artwork and music, is somehow incorporated into a more serious life. If you walked through a busy part of town with your eyes shut (not the best idea, actually, but) you would think people were smiling and dancing, given all the uplifting Caribbean music.. and if you plugged your ears and just watched the people, you would think the streets were absent of music.

As in most places like this in the world, when you meet the right people, they open their hearts and houses to you with unabashed hospitality.

When among friends and family, hugging, laughing, hanging out and telling stories loudly, much more Cuban like in the animated hand gestures and demonstrative conversation... the Dominican way that makes me feel right at home.

They are confident, comfortable with themselves and with other people.. highly social and tightly bound with their closest friends.

And with this, a heavy Spanish and Caribbean flavor to the food, the music, the chill tropical love of hanging out and drinking beer and rum.

The Latin blood, with its almost middle-eastern look, running like streams through the African landscape of the Dominican people. Beautiful and strong people, they are... fervent and determined.

Its a totally unique place, as every place is, I guess. But this part of the island has a very unique kick to its spice of life. Starkly different vibe, compared to the island of Puerto Rico.

Ive seen few places in the world so close, both being 'democratic', yet with such a different vibes on the street.

DR, outside the protected tourist zones, is a rough place. Not to say PR doesn't have serious crime.. but we met some tough cats in Santo Domingo who had some violent situations gave them cause for concern. And when cats who scare me tell me to be scared of a place.. I listen.

In the main squares of the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, there was about one police or military cat with automatic weapon on display for every visible US tourist.

At one point, while eating in the town square next to omnipresent police man with an ak47, and the military guy standing on the corner watching the policeman, a taxi drove up.

The driver got out, opened the trunk and pulled out a ozzi.. dropped it, clunk, on the cobble stone street.. said something to another police man who walked up, put it in the back of his Taxi.. must have been undercover I guess. Yea, these guys were not messing around.

Outside the protected zones, Santo Domingo resembles a busy African city to me, with modern roads and cars all around, lots of traffic and business being done. Many of the people on the street looked as though ancient life was not so long ago, perhaps from the countryside, or the very poor from the sprawling city.

The hard looks and the lack of a single smile on the street was stark.

This hard edge is expressed in many ways there, from the frenetic baseball games, to the rocket speed Palo played for festivals and ceremonies. Life is no joke, and without question, to be thoroughly lived.

I have to say, for a tropical place, these people were up and about, moving quickly around town.

Unfortunately, this trip, we had little time to seek out the Merengue of various styles across the Island, next trip will be packed with Merengue and Bachata, for sure. I had way too much fun with the Paleros this go to be enticed by the popular music scene. Short on time, we had to hit one or the other.

Arriving in Santo Domingo to a hotel in the best part of Zona Colonial, a very smart move not to have to find a place to stay, but be able to get to work, so to speak.

Dropped bags, filled safe, headed out. And within 15 minutes, was in the central park listening to Merengue

I was planning on waiting to talk to the cat on Tambora, seemingly the most experienced, when the guiro player got up and walked past me.

I stopped him, introduced myself as a Rumbero from San Francisco.. he was like.. 'hay! Im Jose Tanibora, a percussion instructor in town. Come with me..'

In another few moments, we are in a local music school just off the square, he talks to security, and takes us to a back room. Jose finds and opens cabinets containing the instruments of the school, showing us all the folkloric instruments they use, including what he called Ataback - tall almost straight drums, three sizes, all waist high, fiberglass, with thick cow hide on them... the Palo set for the school.

Jose immediately plays a Comparsa like Palo, most likely a form played in the Carnival in February. He played all three parts for me against the pulse, with song.. let me film it.. try to play some of the parts.. too fun.. and within an hour of touching down in Santo Domingo.

I get Jose's number, and we plan on seeing each other the next day.

Later that night, we see him passing by our open air eatery, and we yell for him to drink with us.

He stops, and joins us for some el Presidente, the local lager.

Jose and I talk at length about what I do back home, and how developed Santeria is in the Bay. Amazingly, he welcomes me to join him for a celebration for the Virgin Mary, at his place the following day.

Beyond stoked, I fumble to get the directions down, and ended up with barely a legible scribble, indicating the general neighborhood on the North end of the sprawling Santo Domingo.

We were to take Maximo Gomez out to never never land and take a left at the running chicken.. kind of thing...

I had serious doubts we would find this place, as it seemed Jose himself was unclear of the exact directions or address.

So, next day, with our scrap of information, we attempted to find Jose, among the 2,000,000 people in Santo Domingo.

We had a taxi take us where we thought we were supposed to be, an outdoor marketplace down a side street to the busy Avaneda Maximo Gomez, far out in the sprawling city.

We uneasily walked up and down the market.. the place felt dangerous, even in broad daylight.

Although we didnt encounter any difficulties, we didnt hear drumming or anything live coming from the neighborhood in several blocks in either direction, our phones were not working and could not find or contact Jose. So we decided to take a taxi all the way back to the hotel to regroup and try again.

If I were by myself, I would have stayed out in the area to try to find a place to make a call, but it was a good and safe call to head back to the hotel.

In the end, the person at the front desk was crucial in deciphering our directions. Finally we had a detailed three way conversation with Jose, our front desk guy and the taxi driver to finally work out where the this hit actually was.

Incredible.. this must be one huge city, and one very remote part of town. The experienced taxi driver diligently figured out the right neighborhood, but when it came to finding the right house, it took serious dedication on his part.

And after a long ride to the north side of the city, the taxi driver had to ask several people, call Jose twice and drive around for an hour.. until we finally found Jose, waving his arms trough the bars of a second story house.. packed with his people.

The house belonged to a German man who's Dominican wife is in Jose's religious house.

The place was right across the street from the only pub in the residential area, how convenient, so the tables set out into the street added to the festive atmosphere of this private Dia de Altigracia celebration for the Virgin Mary.

The 'pub' across the street was more like a convenience store with four items: light beer, lighter beer, both in on and two liter bottles. The larger bottles of the coldest kind kept making there way across the street to the Palo hit..

This spot had incredible atmosphere for the local patrons of this pub. And they came out in mass to enjoy the balmy evening. Dressed comfortably, stretched out into the streets in conversation with friends.

Jose brought us into the house, introduced us as someone of importance to all the right people. By how everyone greeted us, I immediately realized how important this cat was in this house.

As soon as we got settled in with a small plastic cup of beer.. Jose snapped his fingers, rounded up the cats as if to say.. at any time Brother, we can make the call and lay it down.... on the spot!

.. and did they ever..

Super fast and turbo charged, with fat breaks leading into even faster sections sending the guiro players into a frenzy of double time.

This frenzied sound had the dancers totally bugging out, with the women shaking there butts and rubbing them on whatever moved. too fun..

The celebration continued throughout the day, with four or five long sessions of playing, singing and dancing.. just amazing to witness, so comfortable and familiar. Just like back at home with my Cuban family.

The world of percussionists who worship the Orishas is so small.. In a very short time, a brotherhood between Jose and I developed... one that will continue for many years, Gods willing.

It was truly the wonderful introduction to the Dominican culture I was seeking. Everyone in the house was so warm and welcoming. Jose obviously has earned the respect of the whole community, and we were his guest of honor.. what a privilege it was.

Jose is a religious leader in his community, representing both his African, Indian and Spanish heritage with his practice.

Speaking of holy men, Brujo Jose was so kind to give us readings, and found I am welcomed into his religious house as a son of St Miguel. A beyond amazing, and a life changing event for me.

I will be returning to further my study of the religion and culture.. and to learn to play and sing.. to contribute to the continuation of the tradition, and the homage to the gods.

The next day Jose met us at the local Cathedral, for truly Dominican blending of African, Taino and European practice - a blessing of the reading by Mother Mary, Jesus Christ and the Christian Saints.. ..and a beautiful and powerful blessing it was.

It was a beautiful Cathedral, with many old and beautiful works of European Art. Jose was dressed with respect, wearing his best shoes.

How lucky am I, and how amazing is it, that I am cared for so well by our gracious Orishas. Taken by the hand, I am.

The Dominican Republic is a large and wonderful country, or so I hear. I was fortunate to see such a small part.

One day soon, beautiful DR, I will return.

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