Oh, Macho loves to grimace when he plays the conga,
his forehead stretches so, reaching for those high notes,
you’d think his scalp would snap back like a window shade.
And for those lower tones, the open-palm timbres,
his face a punched-out speed bag, jowls jiggling,
curled upper lip, showing reefer-yellow teeth.
But it’s those three-drum solos, the crossed eyes,
the nostrils flaring wide, the unfurling tongue, screams
of Ya-ya-yiii! that keep the girlies’ knees clacking.
The guillotine-edged intonation
of Jackie Wilson’s “Doggin’ Around.”
The trembling insinuation of Fats
Domino’s “I Want to Walk You Home.”
The clucking cacophony of the
Fendermen’s “Mule Skinner Blues.”
For three decades, Papacito has been one of Latin music’s top draws. Ten minutes before he’s due on stage, he sprays his throat with mouthwash, croons do re mi fa so la ti do in two registers, and pulls a palm-sized package of Peruvian Pink from the inside of his crushed velvet sports jacket. The anxious, high-pitched voices of his band members suddenly drop an octave and all eyes are trained on Papacito’s right hand. He’s folded the tin foil the exact way his mother folds the banana leaves of her pasteles—two long flaps on both sides covering the succulent plumpness of pork chunks, raisins, garbanzos, olives, capers, yautía and platanos. Papacito unwraps the tin foil, and with a tiny gold spoon hanging around his neck, takes a three and three—three heaping pink piles up each nostril. Then he smiles and passes his pastelón—his big silvery pastel—to other band members for a round or two until the sax player, the timbalero, and the bongocero, pull out their packages—peanut-sized compared to his—after which he refolds his pastelón, puts it in his jacket pocket, and joins the others, huffing away at the three packages until he hears his theme song, and the squeals of his fans, and mambos into the stage lights.
LISTENING TO “MIO AMORE” BY THE FLAMINGOS
A bank of golden snowflakes
Sunflowers swaying to church bells
The tart bite of early raspberries
A fox flashes among corn stalks
Wheat sprigs caress bare thighs
The smell of simmering marinara sauce
My ex lives with a banker in the 72nd Street Boat Basin. I’m sick of these rich lames, she says; invite some of your Barrio brothers so we can really party down. I bring my cousin Leon, a dozen friends, a can of wacky weed, samba whistles, rhythm sticks, and my three congas. In no time, we have the yacht rocking like a raft in white water. By 6 o’clock, Leon, stoned on coke and cognac, sprawls on a deck chair and uses my drums as a hassock. I was taught to play congas by a master, and revere their spiritual meaning: the tumbadora, the bass and mother, the segunda, the middle-pitched and father, the quinto, the highest-pitched and son. I tell Leon, Get your goddamn feet off my drums! Leon, who lived for a year in Madrid and spits at anything Latin American, says, ¡Yo caigo en tus congas!—I shit on your congas! Later, still half in the bag, he goes down to the kitchen for something to eat. He spots a huge pot cooking lobsters, and just as he lifts the lid, a wave rocks the boat, the water scalding his feet, causing him to do a red-raw midair mambo. I practically have to carry him to a cab to get him home. He misses two weeks of work and can’t go to the bathroom or heat a can of soup without using crutches.
THE PHILLY DOG
Pennsylvania Military College, 1966
I hide in a corner near the bathroom,
the only cadet in the bar,
staring at a couple doing the Philly Dog.
Within the circle of clapping hands, stomping feet,
a man pumps his crotch into a woman’s ass,
the two holding hands, rowing and sawing.
“Function at the Junction,” by Shorty Long,
blasts from the juke, groans from the dancers,
each drumbeat a sharper thrust, a deeper squat.
I toss down a shot of Red Eye, hear the snarl,
of a urinal, smile at the whore next to me,
my fear of an officer raiding the joint flushing away.
PATSY’S JUKEBOX, 1957
“My Saucy Ravioli,” Gino and the Jet-Setters
“Beatnik Boogie,” The Tea House Five
“Banned from the Drive-in,” Nellie and the Teasers
“Spaghetti House Princess,” The Braciole Brothers
“The Stegosaurus Stomp,” The Thundertones
“Collars Up,” Jivin’ Joey and the JDs
“High On You,” The Tree Top Trio
“Homely Boy,” Warren and the Dateless Wonders
“Quiz Show Love Affair,” The Four Jackpots
“Snooty Cootie,” Melvin and the Fly-By-Nighters
“King Cannoli,” Carmine and the Cut-Ups
“My Queen,” Butch Rinaldi and the Bronx Squires
“Boot Camp Blues,” Sidney and the Sad Sacks
CUTTING THE RUG IN PHILLY
When I was young, my father told me that Negroes were born with a natural sense of rhythm, and this explained why they were the undisputed kings and queens of the dance floor. Especially when it came to jazz and rock, the best that whites could do was a mere pale and clumsy imitation of what colored people did so facilely. And, indeed, the dancing I saw growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, confirmed my father’s dogma of Negro dance superiority. Then, in 1964, while a cadet at Pennsylvania Military College, I began to go to dances and clubs in the Philadelphia area. There, to my astonishment, I saw white people doing the Twist, the Bird, the Stomp, the Watusi, the Continental, the Hully Gully, the Pony, and the Mashed Potatoe, with the same technical skill, the same ease, and the same depth of feeling as their black counterparts. These “whiteys” swayed in big boss lines, shook and shimmied, bopped and boogied—an intrepid few even did splits, handsprings, and knee drops. And while my painful self-consciousness prevented me from ever becoming a proficient dancer, as a spectator, I’m still grateful to Philly’s hip white dancers, who did so much to demolish racial stereotypes.
THE CHIEF CHINGÓN
By the mid-Sixties, the Latin bandleader nicknamed the “Chief Chingón”—The Big Fucker—was bombing out. The club bookings were going to the younger musicians who played the Latin Boogaloo, a mixture of R&B, Cuban rhythms and English lyrics. The Chief Chingón boycotted the new craze, called it pura basura—pure garbage! Cashing in some old chips within the music industry, he succeeded in renting Carnegie Hall for a comeback extravaganza featuring, as MC, the septuagenarian DJ Salsero Sam, who was popular among the younger set. At the concert, Sam stumbled from behind the curtains, his Greek fisherman’s cap low over his eyes, his back teeth floating in Ronrico. He ran down how he had been the first to recognize the greatness of the Chief Chingón—who he called “the CC”—how his wives loved “the C.C.,” his girlfriends loved “the C.C.”, his children loved “the C.C.” After twenty minutes of drunken blah-blah-blah the crowd began to chant: ¡Música! ¡Música! ¡Música! But Sam rattled on about how he once watered “the C.C.’s” plants when “the C.C.” was gigging in Puerto Rico. Finally, the Chief Chingón himself came on stage raised his hands to his fans, tightened his arm around Sam’s neck, and dragged him off backstage, as the curtains opened in a hurricane of horn blasts and drum solos.
STAN KENTON AT THE PALADIUM, 1954
The brass section shrieks. Suzie shimmies.
Lanny purrs, I’d love to go to bed with you.
Suzie bends closer, I can’t hear you.
The brass section shrieks. Lanny raises his voice,
I’d love to go to bed with you.
Suzie moves closer. I still can’t hear you.
The brass section stops on a dime.
I’D LOVE TO GO TO BED WITH YOU! Lanny screams.
The lead trumpet player opens his spit valve,
shakes out some drool, Susie takes a powder.
JAZZING WITH MACHITO
To Graciela Grillo Pérez
“Moliendo café,” Graciela sings
and the crowd knows she ain’t
talking about grinding coffee.
The audience rising from their seats
a rhythmic tangle of heads, elbows, hips.
To the backdrop of dueling congas,
three trumpet players stand up.
The first repeats like a question
the same note six times.
The second bubbles from the bottom
with trills, shaved notes, and rapid runs.
The third shifts into high C
showering sparks like a comet’s tail.
Ten minutes of molten mingling,
the trumpets die out, people dropping
in their seats like spent lovers.
Gil Fagiani is an independent scholar, translator, essayist, short story writer, and poet. His translations have appeared in such anthologies as A New Map: The Poetry of Migrant Writers in Italy, edited by Mia Lecomte and Luigi Bonaffini; Poets of the Italian Diaspora, edited by Luigi Bonaffini and Joseph Perricone; and Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943, edited by Francesco Durante and Robert Viscusi (American Edition).
His first poetry collection Rooks, is set at Pennsylvania Military College in the 1960s, (Rain Mountain Press, 2007); A Blanquito in El Barrio (Rain Mountain Press, 2009) pulses with the streets and music of Spanish Harlem; Chianti in Connecticut (Bordighera Press, 2010) focuses on the immigrant generation of his family, as well as his childhood in Stamford, Connecticut; and Serfs of Psychiatry (Finishing Line Press, 2012) was inspired by his experience working in a state psychiatric hospital. His latest collection, Stone Walls (Bordighera Press, 2014) focuses on his relationship with his father during the turbulent ‘60s.
Fagiani co-curates the Italian American Writers’ Association’s reading series, and is an associate editor of Feile-Festa: A Literary Arts Journal. A social worker and addiction specialist by profession, Fagiani directed a residential treatment program for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in downtown Brooklyn for 21 years. Earlier this year, he was the subject of a New York Times article by David Gonzalez, “A Poet Mines Memories of Drug Addiction.”
My new book: Stone Walls (Bordighera Press)
Focuses on my relationship with my father growing up in Stamford, Connecticut in the ’50’s and ’60’s.
CONTACT: Gil Fagiani