Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Friday, August 29th, 10:40 pm.
The group thing. I suppose it’s the same whether you’re just in conversation or trying to make music – groups (especially diverse ones) take a little more to navigate than pairs.
That said, I should just be grateful that I got to play music at all tonight. I spent the afternoon wandering around the city with the usual modus operandi – pay two coins to take a rickety little van stuffed full of people way the heck out of the city, and walk back into town (for the interested and Google-savvy, I took Avenida Mexico a few miles west until it split in two.) It was nice to get out and move, but I was in a third-day-of-travel-stuck-in-my-head phase, and at that rate I was wandering around staring blankly at my shoes, never going to meet anyone.
I came back to my little pay by the hour room (not really, but there WAS a condom package thoughtfully placed on the toilet when I got here) in the afternoon to shower and rest, and ended up proofing the second section of my book manuscript and looking through some old videos. About dark, I threw the little guitar on my back and headed out.
No sooner than I’d cleared the front door than I broke out in a giggle fit. The smells, the street, the people – this place is a matched pair to so many other places. Third world chaos is beautiful in its own way, like organic order and life pushing through despite it all – the toothless old men on rickety bikes, the hand brooms for sale made of plastic newspaper banding, the endless watch band sellers and knockoff Ray-Bans on every corner. Human ingenuity.
Down the street, into the square, do a lap around, hear the plink plink of a guitar, sit down on the bench, and introduce myself. Not a guitar, turns out, it’s a quinto. Little thing, the same size as my Cargo but tuned a fourth up. Nylon strings. He (the light-skinned sixty something Dominican guy with impeccable grey hair) plays some sort of classic Puerto Rican thing with lots of hard scale work he’s still trying to get right. I play a little rhythmic chordal ditty in A minor, and he hops right in. From introduction to full-fledged jam in about three minutes. Not bad.
We’re drawing attention, and a younger bright-eyed kid has come over to watch, deserting his girlfriend on the bench next to us. He starts in English, I guess he’s Haitian and respond to him in French. It works. The kid turns out to be a jazz bassist, with some pretty impressive guitar chops. I hand him the guitar and he comps his way through something, impervious to the Dominicano next to him who has folded his arms around his quinto and is now staring off into space.
The group thing. It’s hard enough to warm up to a total stranger, even more so when there’s somebody new in the mix. The Dominican guy seems put off and annoyed – he’d been practicing on the bench, minding his own business, waiting for his buddies to show up so they could go work the restaurants, then I showed up, and got this overzealous Haitian kid to drop a jazz bomb on us. Sure enough, when his buddies appear, they’re fascinated by the kid (turns out Sanon is his name) and they love what he’s making my guitar do. And they love the guitar. The Dominican guy tells them he’d love to stay and jam, but the three different styles are too much for him, and he’d like to go get to work. They oblige us with two songs, the second in tight three part harmony, like Hispanic barbershop. I got it on video, but who knows how it came out – it was pretty darn dark outside.
A small crowd gathers. There’s a guy filming us on a handheld camera, and a kid walks by with a handmade washboard guitar – a plywood board and a half coke bottle with one piece of fishing line strung between two nails. He’s playing the thing like a slide guitar with a piece of plastic on his left hand middle finger. Genius.
As the Cancioneros (catchy name) head off to work the restaurants, I get my friend to agree to a meeting – tomorrow at nine p.m. when they’re working in the nearby Plaza d’España. Sanon and his girlfriend stick around for a bit before they take off, then we agree to breakfast at ten tomorrow in the same spot. “American time, or Haitian time?” I ask. He smiles, returns the fist bump, and walks off. For all the trying hard in Spanish, it’s a welcome change to speak French with somebody.
Mission accomplished. I’d thought all day about taking off for Haiti tomorrow, then decided there was probably a good reason to stick around. Turns out, there is. I’ll stay another day, then head out Sunday. Sanon is going to set me up with a bunch of his jazz playing friends when I get to Port-au-Prince.
On the way home, I bump into the kid with the one-stringed plywood thing (he calls it the guitarra unica – as in, one string.) Long story short (it’s bedtime again) I jammed with him, a quena player, and a flutist whose principal instrument was to encourage the kid with the board (turns out he’s 18, and his name is Hippolito Santo, from a little village in the East.) People gather, film us with their phones, and a handful of people stop to ask me about the guitar. “Cheap plastic,” I tell them, when they ask the price. Apologies to Laurie at Composite Acoustics, but I really don’t need these folks to know exactly how much the thing’s worth. Besides, twice as many people stop to look at the one-string Coke bottle resonator, and one curious ten year-old even gets a lesson. I like Hippolito Santo – good kid. The flutist is Cesar, and as we break up the session (I got one of the watchers to film us playing through a few jams) He mentions that he’s got a good friend named Luis Diaz who’s apparently a nationally-known guitar god. Cesar says his thing is taking music from the countryside and urbanizing it. Would I like to meet him?
Uh – yep. I’ll connect with Cesar tomorrow at four in the hardware store where he works on the Conde. Looks like it’s going to be a full Saturday.