Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Nov 3rd 2009 3:00PM by Steve Hochman
That's a pretty noteworthy remark from anyone, but especially from an 86-year-old who has seen a lot of life. But then how many octogenarians get to have the kind of fresh start that was given to Puerto Plata? The Dominican Republic-native singer-guitarist just two years ago made what by any measures would qualify as a belated debut album, 'Mujer de Cabaret.' And the new acclaim and attention brought to his talents and to his style of music -- a lively, lilting mix of merengues and boleros that came to be known as bachata after having been suppressed during the brutal rule of Gen. Rafael Trujillo from 1930 until his 1961 assassination -- is what's behind his refreshed attitude.
That sense of renewal he's experienced simply sparkles in his new second album, 'Casitas de Campo,' a collection putting the spotlight on fellow Dominican songwriters with energy gained from his unlikely acclaim of the past two years. It's a direct line back to his childhood, something that without these opportunities would have probably just slipped away. Somehow he makes the wistful nostalgia of such songs as 'Brisa de la Tarde' sound like they evoke something that happened to him last week, not decades ago.
Puerto Plata, 'Brisa de la Tarde'
"When I was a child, my uncles were musicians, and when I was in the house I remember hearing them rehearse that song," says the man born José Cobles, recalling his youth in the coastal town from which he took his performing name. He talks with a hearty, delighted tone from his home in Denver -- where he moved in the early '90s to be with his daughter's family and worked mostly as a carpenter -- translated by his producer, Benjamin de Menil. "The song is about the sort of afternoon breeze, the time of day when the temperature is changing and getting cooler and there's somebody who is remembering his lost love."
It's a literal remembrance of a lost love for Plata -- it had been 50 years since he'd heard the song, written by Piro Valerio, a native of Santiago, the Dominican Republic's second-largest city after Santo Domingo, and he conjured it entirely from memory, a testimony to how in the two years since the debut he has become a living archive of music that was nearly gone, something he never considered possible. He credits the affection from a growing world of fans for the reconnection.
"Before the first album, I was semiretired from music," he says. "And, of course, everything has changed since then. It's been an incredible experience to play theaters with large audiences and hearing the applause -- not something I would have expected to happen."
But there's one place it hasn't happened: the Dominican Republic.
"We have yet to have him perform in the Dominican Republic," explains de Menil, though Plata does go back to the island roughly once a year to visit family. "We tried to do some collaborations with the government, especially with the consulates in the U.S. and overseas. And it's been a lukewarm reception."
This would seem to be a perfect time to make this happen. The Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, was recently tabbed by the International Bureau of Cultural Capitals to serve as the cultural capital of the Americas for 2010. The program, started in 1998, shines a light on both the interrelations of cultures throughout the Americas and the distinct qualities of the specific nations. For the Dominican Republic, it's a chance to show the full richness of the country in which native, African and European streams blended in a wide variety of aesthetics. But bachata, though a very popular rural "people's" sound in its heyday, has still not been able to emerge from the Trujillo desire to focus on music he considered sophisticated and classy.
"The attitude toward this style, this guitar music -- Trujillo was generally repressive," de Menil says. "He did create a culture of demeaning the people that were from the countryside, less sophisticated, this self-hatred. Since Trujillo's time, that took off into a much more formal kind of prejudice against guitar music, which continues to today. Since the early '90s, it's relaxed somewhat. Until the '90s you hardly ever got any type of guitar music on television. Censorship was on radio as well, even though the guitar music grew into what is now called bachata and it was really the popular music of the island. But if you went there in the '70s and '80s, you would never have known that. They would have been playing pure orchestral merengue. Even today when the government is putting on a spectacle, you're not going to hear bachata. Even today when you say you're working with guitar musicians, they tend to not be interested. We hope that will change."
De Menil and his iASO Records are working on that. At the same time iASO released Puerto Plata's first album, it issued 'Bachata Roja,' a collection of classic recordings from the early '60s to late '80s, spotlighting such leading singers as Eladio Romero Santos and Leonardo Paniagua and distinctive guitarists including Edilio Paredes and Augusto Santos. Paredes has also stepped forward on the Puerto Plata albums, his engaging playing and arrangements shaping many of the tracks, and the two have regularly shared the stage in concerts throughout North America, including some as part of a Bachata Roja Legends bill. (Plata will be taking the sounds overseas in the spring with a short tour set for Belgium and the Netherlands.)
"I was familiar with Edilio's work a long time," Plata says. "I remember back in the 1960s hearing songs where he was playing guitar but never met him or got to know him until work started on the first album. He's known as one of the pioneers of bachata, which was a style that became distinct after the time of my music. But he grew up listening to the kind of music I played. I'd never heard him play in that old style, but you'd think that was all he ever played."
The styles come together again on the new album's title song, a romantic bolero written by Santiago-based Enriquillo Sanchez.
Puerto Plata, 'Casita de Campo'
"It's very personal, in a way," Puerto Plata says. "It's a story about somebody remembering going and waiting for their lover, their girl, at the entrance to her little country house. It mentions a small stream, La Canada, that runs outside of Santiago. It's the kind of subject matter that anybody could have experienced. And it's another song I learned from my uncles singing it in my grandmother's house."
The one song sure to bring some memories even from those not raised in the Dominican Republic is 'Guantanamera.'
Puerto Plata, 'Guantanamera'
Yes, the same song that entered the mainstream the folk group the Weavers, ultimately taking a camp-song place next to 'Kumbayah' and 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore' in the great folk scare of the '50s and '60s. But Plata gives it something of his own but again in a tradition from his past. And in doing so he's made the song very current.
"These are improvisations that people use in the Dominican Republic that were popular around town when I was younger," he says. "People would put them in merengues, put them in any kind of song. You find this a lot, almost like folk sayings, each one sort of poetic, simple -- common-sense meaning, maybe a joke. This type of playing on words is definitely a big part of Dominican culture. So for each verse I took some of these popular Dominican phrases and put them into the song. Some of them are about race and some are hard to even understand, more like a feeling. 'Ones that were coming are left behind and the ones left behind are already here.' All the contradictions of the world. Playing on words to say the opposite, say things contrary to each other."
Should we be reading social commentary into the very fact that he's making this music with such commitment at all these days? On that, his words are to the point.
"It feels like a liberation from the repression of earlier times," Puerto Plata says. "Just leave it at that."