FROM THE FIELDThe long, winding, and confusingly numbered road to La India Canela’s house
Something was in the air that Tuesday. I was having my first organizational meeting with La India Canela to discuss plans for the Folkways album we’d be recording in just two months, but I was clearly not meant to get there on time. I’d already paid a visit to the mechanic because the headlights and blinker on my ramshackle car, dubbed the “Millennium Falcon,” had burnt out. Then, on the way to La India’s house, I lost my way and was sideswiped by an SUV. I couldn’t find her street, and then I couldn’t find number three, either. There was no house between two and five. But then I finally identified it—right between 11 and 6, naturally—and parked my battered car, a half hour late.
An unfamiliar teenage girl answered my ring. “Is La India here?” I asked. “Yes, yes, come on in,” she told me, showing me to a seat at the dining room table.
She looked at me expectantly. I smiled.
She continued to wait. Another girl, younger than the first, came in and sat down, too. I smiled at her.
I pulled out my notebook, attempting to look professional and ready for the meeting to which I’d arrived so late. Another minute passed. What were they waiting for? I wondered. No one looked like they were making any move to fetch the accordionist, and the house was quiet.
“Umm… so, where exactly is La India?” I tried again.
“La India?” the first one said in a puzzled tone. “There’s no one by that name here.”
“What?! But that’s why I asked you when I got here!” I jumped out of my chair, startled that I was sitting in a strange house, with people that must have been off their rockers to bring me in off the street. Losing my way, suffering a traffic accident, and then being shown into a stranger’s house was out of the ordinary, even for me. In fact, I was still lost, I remembered.
“Ah. You’re looking for La India Canela, aren’t you?” the younger girl guessed.
“Yes, I am! My notes say Ninth Street, #3—isn’t this number three?”
“Yes, but there’s another three, around the corner,” she explained.
But of course. I should have known.
“Around the corner—but is it still the same street, then? Ninth?”
“Yes, yes. Just go around the corner and you’ll see the other number three. It’s two stories,” she elaborated.
“Well, thank you,” I said uncertainly, moving rapidly towards the door.
“But wait! Stay a while!” the first girl insisted.
I burst out laughing. This was too much. I hurriedly explained that I was late for a meeting and really had to be going.
The second number three turned out to have no one home. I gave up –my map seemed to be of no use here, since I was starting to believe “here” was actually the Twilight Zone. I had to try the phone, the instrument of last resort.
La India’s housekeeper answered, expressed sympathy, and then explained that the house was actually at #13,
“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.
April. We all got the traditional vacation for Holy Week, and I really needed it. Negotiating fees with the musicians had been a real headache. But in the end, we achieved my dream: Ramoncito and Boca Chula would join us for three tracks featured on that amazing Siano recording, including my all-time favorite, “Chicha.”
But the day after Easter, we had to hit the ground running. The Folkways team arrived Monday afternoon. We gave the press conference Monday evening, went into the studio on Tuesday morning at 10 AM, and hardly emerged until 11 PM Thursday. There were thirteen tracks to get down in only three days—and we did it, but only just. It was done by recording all the instruments live, then going back and cleaning up any problem parts instrument by instrument, and finally adding the vocal tracks. It was a great learning opportunity for me: Ramoncito was the biggest perfectionist, so from him I learned about the precision of güira rhythms and articulations; bass player Alfonso showed me some riffs, insisting the instrument was “simple” as he rolled off high-speed runs and jazzy chords; and in between numbers I listened in as La India worked out precisely coordinated passages with saxophonist Quiquito.
As we broke only once a day, for lunch, it was quite tiring for all involved and nerves began to run thin. The palos musicians found they couldn’t play together in the isolation booths—it was just too different from traditional contexts, and they lost the vital connection between the three drums. Then we lost an entire track from the hard drive after the tamborero had already left, so we had to rerecord the whole thing with Juan, the vocalist, as impromptu percussionist. Juan himself got particularly tired of the whole business when, after recording an entire vocal track, La India came back in and told him he wasn’t supposed to be singing that one at all. He started griping, loudly and long, about all the time he’d lost. A little later, as Juan sat with head in hands, Ramoncito came out of the booth and picked up an industrial-strength flashlight that was lying around the studio. He turned it on and started shining it all around the studio, paying particular attention to all the hidden nooks and crannies. “What in the world are you doing?” the other musicians asked. “Looking for all the lost time!” he replied. This got even Juan laughing.
Another high was when we picked up the morning papers. All the great coverage of our work got La India smiling again. And then she made me and Daniel Sheehy from Folkways laugh when she worked both of our names, tongue-twisters for Dominican mouths, into a song on the fly. In doing so, she fulfilled an old típico tradition of thanking musical patrons by recording homenajes, or songs of homage, in their honor.
In the end, in spite of the trials, we did get it done. All tracks down on the hard disc, all people filmed for the documentary, all our names included in some song or another, all contracts signed (even by those who were illiterate), and all lost time found—but not all lost sleep. The next morning was another early day for me: more contracts to Fed-Ex, more meetings to attend, even a conference paper to give.
At least now I knew where I was going.