Tigers of a Different Stripe: Performing Gender in Dominican Music

Tigers of a Different Stripe: Performing Gender in Dominican Music

by Sydney Hutchinson

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Tigers of a Different Stripe takes readers inside the unique world of merengue típico, a traditional music of the Dominican Republic. While in most genres of Caribbean music women usually participate as dancers or vocalists, in merengue típico they are more often instrumentalists and even bandleaders—something nearly unheard of in the macho Caribbean music scene. Examining this cultural phenomenon, Sydney Hutchinson offers an unexpected and fascinating account of gender in Dominican art and life.
Drawing on over a decade of fieldwork in the Dominican Republic and New York among musicians, fans, and patrons of merengue típico—not to mention her own experiences as a female instrumentalist—Hutchinson details a complex nexus of class, race, and artistic tradition that unsettles the typical binary between the masculine and feminine. She sketches the portrait of the classic male figure of the tíguere, a dandified but sexually aggressive and street-smart “tiger,” and she shows how female musicians have developed a feminine counterpart: the tíguera, an assertive, sensual, and respected female figure who looks like a woman but often plays and even sings like a man. Through these musical figures and studies of both straight and queer performers, she unveils rich ambiguities in gender construction in the Dominican Republic and the long history of a unique form of Caribbean feminism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226405636
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/21/2016
Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Sydney Hutchinson is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Syracuse University. She is the editor of Salsa World and author of From Quebradita to Duranguense

Read an Excerpt

Tigers of a Different Stripe

Performing Gender in Dominican Music

By Sydney Hutchinson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-40563-6



Maluca Mala, a Dominican American performer whose stage name roughly translates to Crazy Bad Girl, emerges from a salon into the daylight with her hair still in four-inch rollers. She struts down the streets of Upper Manhattan in a rose-print motorcycle jacket and red leather bustier over sequined hot pants, red-fringed fishnets, and stiletto heels the color of her cherry-red lipstick. An amped-up bass outlining tonic and dominant chords in E minor joins electronic handclaps at 168 beats per minute as she rhythmically speaks a boast beginning "Lo tengo todo, Papi" (I've got it all, baby). Maluca begins to tell her story — "I went to 182nd and Audubon just the other day" — as she passes a series of men who are counting money, playing congas and maracas, talking on cell phones, or just watching her go by. Continuing "Papi, you keep blowing all that tiguerazo in the air ... / Durango boots and all / Bacano walking tall," Maluca ditches her heels in favor of a pair of rubber sandals and takes off on a bicycle. But she soon finds herself surrounded by a circle of these street-corner men, each putting on a flirtatious look. With exaggerated eye rolls and expressions of disgust, she taunts them in Spanish: "No, no, I don't have a phone number."

Maluca enters an apartment building and emerges again at night, her outfit changed but her hair still in rollers. As she visits a bodega to buy a cigarette, we see a montage of Dominican New York's nighttime scenery: the corner store; a "Spanish" restaurant; men playing cards, dominos, or pool; a group of dancers at a club, one of them wearing those rubber sandals over socks. Maluca — her hair now rolled around beer cans — is performing with an all-woman back-up band on keyboards, bass, and accordion, saying, "A mí me gusta el tiguerazo porque tú tienes la calle unlocked" (I like the tiguerazo because you have the street unlocked). As she and her bandmates continue chanting "el tíguere," the audience looks on and dances, one man stroking an inflatable leopard.

* * *

Maluca's real name is Natalie Yépez. Her music reflects the experiences of many Dominican Yorks, island Dominicans' sometimes admiring, sometimes disrespectful name for those who grew up abroad. Yépez calls her sound "experimental tropical punk, ghetto tech, and hip-house" (MTV 2014), and indeed this song produced by the well-known DJ Diplo sounds only distantly "Latin." Auditory references to her latinidad (Latina/o identity) include the use of Dominican Spanish mixed with English, an occasional rustling sound like maracas or a güira scraper, the up-tempo 2/4 beat recalling Dominican merengue, and the nearly constant presence of the claves, wooden sticks used to tap out Caribbean timelines. Here the rhythm they play (along with the electronic bass) is a 3 + 3 + 2, or tresillo (see Fig. 1.1), an Afro-Caribbean rhythm found in everything from salsa — where it forms the "3" side of the timeline known as son, or salsa clave — to New Orleans jazz, Bo Diddley, Trinidadian soca, or the music of the Afro-Dominican congos brotherhood.

"El tigeraso" (sic; tiguerazo in Spanish orthography) was Maluca's first single, released in 2009. As this example shows, the music refers on the one hand to a sort of global Afro-Caribbeanness in its use of the widely dispersed tresillo, familiar far beyond the region through the travels of popular Caribbean sounds, as it reaches out to a broader audience through its electronic danceability. On the other hand, the lyrics and imagery are far more local in their references and meanings: they derive directly from New York Dominican life, even though women in many locations can empathize with the protagonist's half-amused, half-exasperated dealings with the men around her.

The song's title refers to a specifically Dominican kind of masculine figure: the tíguere or street-corner tiger, a principal figure in this book, which in the video is embodied in both the male flirts and the plastic leopard. The tíguere is known for (among other things) his amorous successes, at least according to his own estimation; his mastery of the urban environment; and his tricksterish ability to come out on top of any situation, whatever it takes. The -azo is an augmentative suffix indicating that the song's subject is the maximal tíguere, with a twist of irony. Indeed, the rest of the song lyrics, and especially Maluca's appearance and actions in the video, show that she is poking fun at Dominican gender stereotypes for both men and women: the men flirting ineptly and posturing as they try to appear to be suave bacanos (see Chapter 2), the women wearing curlers and flip-flops all day long. Maluca's exaggerated grimaces are a wink that lets us know she is taking none of this too seriously, and that she is the true master of this particular street.

These clues show that Maluca's performance of gender is a local one. Yet it has a broader resonance for non-Dominican viewers, and these resonances suggest that the cases my book discusses have a significance beyond their Dominican home context. Her avant-garde fashion and exaggerated bodily performances have been termed "drag queeny" and compared to Lady Gaga. Gaga is also known for experimenting with various forms of drag, including hyperfeminine performances as a form of "bio-drag" (Davisson 2013, 55), but instead of Maluca drawing from Gaga, the influence may have traveled the other way: Maluca's look appears to have inspired Gaga's use of beer can rollers in her nine-and-a-half-minute 2010 video, "Telephone," also featuring Beyoncé. Some Latino viewers slammed this as a white, "first-world" appropriation of an unknown Latina's creativity, though Maluca has refused to assign blame. Whatever the case, Maluca's unusual performance of gender — hyperfeminine in appearance, but with an assertiveness more typically coded as masculine — may draw on historical Caribbean models more than on contemporary Northern pop stars. One could easily draw parallels to the 1960s Cuban bolero and salsa diva La Lupe, particularly when viewing Maluca's live performances, where she may lie down and writhe on stage as if taken over by the music — much as La Lupe once did (see Chapters 4 and 7, this book; Maluca 2011a and 2011b). Yet there are precursors even closer to home.

In response to a New York Times interviewer's question about what was Dominican about her music, Maluca responded, "I think Dominicans don't hold back. We're very vocal, we're loud, passionate and I think that comes out not only on stage, but also in my everyday life. I'm very honest and I say what I feel. We're very feisty people" (Chang 2011). In claiming her feistiness, this Dominican American woman is not only creating a stage persona that can further her music career but also contesting gender stereotypes that circulate widely among the general public and even in academia — those that present "normal" Latin American men as excessively "macho" and women, conversely, as subservient. More than that, she is claiming for herself a deeply rooted Dominican femininity that by its very existence demonstrates the limits of such a depiction: the tíguera, the assertive, sensual, and often surprising female tiger. The Dominicanness of Maluca's music thus comes through clearly, but only to an audience already in the know: those who have hung with the tígueres, responded to their catcalls (or tiger calls), or been tígueres or tígueras themselves. My book's title pays homage to these tigers, both male and female.

This opening scene is a brief example of what I seek to demonstrate in this book. As a whole, Tigers of a Different Stripe is about how gender is performed through music: not only by playing on stage but also through dancing, listening, viewing, and discussing. While my findings should have relevance beyond the specific cases I describe, I limit my discussion to a particular cultural context, that of the Dominican Republic and its diasporic outposts in New York. I look at a variety of Dominican musical genres — and beyond them to dance, music video, literature, and the visual arts — relating these examples to forms of expressive and gendered culture elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America. My focus on gender also leads me to explore how that facet of identity is linked to musical genre, movement, migration, race, class, and notions of tradition and modernity. All these concepts are brought together by the principal musical style I discuss: merengue típico, a traditional, accordion-based genre that has undergone great change since the 1960s as a result of the rapid urbanization and migration that occurred after dictator Rafael Trujillo's assassination in 1961. This musical culture has constituted the main focus of my fieldwork for the past fourteen years.

Merengue típico is close to the heart of many Dominicans, particularly those from the northern Cibao region. It is constantly linked to ideas about national and regional identity, and through them Dominican ideas about race, class, and gender also come to the fore. Even Maluca's video refers to this musical genre, in spite of the fact that the sound of "El tigeraso" is quite distant from that of traditional merengue: one of the men on the street pulls on a child's toy accordion near the beginning, and in the final scene, set in a nightclub, one of her backup musicians is depicted playing a button accordion. Although the accordion is never heard in this song, its silent presence in the video serves to remind knowledgeable viewers of merengue típico and all it stands for.

I first became fascinated with merengue típico after hearing it performed live at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 2001, and soon thereafter I began regularly attending típico gigs all over Brooklyn, my home at the time. From the beginning, my intention was to learn to play this music on accordion as well, so I began visiting accordionists at their homes to pick up tunes; I also incorporated my new interest into my job as staff ethnomusicologist at Long Island Traditions, a nonprofit folklore organization, for instance, by organizing a merengue típico concert and workshop series.

My project therefore began as a diasporic one, looking at merengue típico in New York, but soon expanded to include the music's homeland, beginning with my first trip to Santiago de los Caballeros, the Cibao's largest city, in 2004. There, I studied accordion under master musician Rafaelito Román; attended numerous live performances of típico and other musics; initiated research, education, and preservation projects with the Centro León, a museum and cultural center; and even conducted research on carnival while participating in the barrio masquerade group Los Confraternos de Pueblo Nuevo. While I no longer live in either of my field sites, I continue to be in touch with my fellow típico fans in New York City through email, Facebook, and the occasional visit, and with musicians, culture workers, and other friends in Santiago through visits, occasional telephone calls, and, in some cases, social media.

As this personal history suggests, it was my interest in típico as a musical style that led me to research gender, rather than the other way around. As with many other researchers, my first attempts to analyze the topic of gender centered on a study of women in music. Contrary to my initial expectations, I found a number of other women playing típico soon after becoming involved in the music myself. Their presence and general acceptance in this scene surprised me because academic literature, media portrayals, and popular perceptions had led me to believe that Dominicans were quite machista — sexist and patriarchal. While such a view was not wholly inaccurate, the general mismatch between mainstream perceptions and my experience in the típico world inspired me to investigate women musicians and their experiences further. My exploration of women's roles in Dominican music eventually led me to look more broadly at how gender is performed in the Dominican Republic, since I realized I could not understand Dominican femininities, or consider the possibility of a Dominican feminism, without also grasping Dominican constructions of masculinity and other gender categories.

On a more personal level, my research helped me to engage with questions I had long had about gender identity in general, and my own in particular. Why, for instance, did I detest all things pink from early childhood? Why had I performed mainly male roles in high school plays and insisted upon singing tenor in college, even though I had never doubted my own femininity or heterosexuality? Upon reflection, I realized that these had been gut reactions to societal expectations of women in the United States and meanings of the "feminine" with which I did not identify. I identified with many of the Dominican female musicians I met precisely because of how they performed critiques I felt to be similar to my own early efforts, principally through tigueraje or the domain of the tíguere (tiger), a key concept in this work that I explain further below.

In this book, I aim to explore new ways of analyzing gender and music, dance and movement without engaging in academic wordplay. I do employ some social sciences terms whose meanings are explained in this introduction. I hope this approach to style makes my work accessible to a broader audience, including Dominican music fans and the musicians who appear in these pages. I also believe it better fits my topic: gender is an everyday fact of life that all of us have and perform, all the time; we should thus be able to analyze it using everyday language. Even more broadly, this approach fits with my most basic assumption in studying culture, which is that everything is connected: gender, genre, sexuality, race, nation, tradition, modernity, music, movement, ethnography, biography, research, and writing all feed off and influence one another in all of our lives. I hope to reveal a bit of that complexity in this book.

Gender and Performance

Gender is a topic that affects every person, all the time, everywhere: attached as it is to our bodies, it is fundamental to our identities and our interactions with society. One of the most basic assumptions on which this book is based is that gender is performed, not inborn. This viewpoint is frequently encountered in the social sciences today, but perhaps requires further explanation for an interdisciplinary audience.

To say that gender is a performance means that the categories we use to describe this facet of an individual's identity are created through the repetition of acts: behaviors, habits, words of proscription or approval. Another way of saying this is that we become "female" by imitating how "feminine" people walk, act, talk, sing, dance; as "women" we eventually learn to do what is considered "feminine" based on what we see other women doing and how others react to what we do. Fundamentally, gender is an exchange between the individual and society aimed at creating societal order. If we feel uncomfortable with what is required of us in this exchange, at the very least we run the risk of feeling ostracized; at worst we may become victims of violence. Far from being "natural," or based on laws largely outside of human control, gender is cultural, created by people to regulate individuals' places in society. This is true even though we attach gender categories like female and male to what we call "biological sex," the particular anatomical features of a given person. Thus, this book is not simply about bodies performing music but also about their representation in music, as well as music's contribution to and influence on a broader discourse about gender, the lives of particular musicians, and how fans deal with all of these things.

This shift in perspective — viewing gender as something that we learn to enact according to the demands of the culture into which we are born, rather than as something we are born with — has been quite influential in the social sciences, including ethnomusicology, and is generally attributed to the work of philosopher Judith Butler, even though her work drew heavily on precursors like anthropologist Esther Newton. In her study of female impersonators, Newton found that drag's theatricality was important for how it brought into question the "naturalness" of the entire system of gender and sex roles, thus showing that these were superficial and manipulable (see Rubin 2002, 48). Further focusing on the analysis of gender as performance, Butler proposed that what we think of as "female" does not automatically follow from the particularities of the bodies we describe as "female": "I think for a woman to identify as a woman is a culturally enforced effect. I don't think that it's a given that on the basis of a given anatomy, an identification will follow. I think that 'coherent identification' has to be cultivated, policed, and enforced; and that the violation of that has to be punished, usually through shame" (in Kotz 1992, 88). The diversity of femininities (ways of being female) in history and other cultures is one piece of evidence suggesting the rather arbitrary relationship between anatomy, masculinities, and femininities. Butler even suggests that so-called biological sex is itself cultural, because it does not exist apart from discourse about it: sex categories are ideals that few material bodies can live up to (Butler 1993, 1–2).


Excerpted from Tigers of a Different Stripe by Sydney Hutchinson. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 Introduction
2 A Gendered History
3 Tatico Forever
4 Fefita the Great
5 Filosofía de Calle: Transnational Tigueraje
6 Temporary Transvestites: Cross-Dressing Merengue, Bachata, and Reggaetón
7 Listening Sideways: The Transgenre Work of Rita Indiana
8 Dispatch from an Imaginary Island

Appendix A: Dominican Musics Mentioned in This Book
Appendix B: A Comparison of Two Accordionists’ Botaos
Appendix C: Movement and Gesture Analysis of Fefita la Grande Performing “La chiflera”
Works Cited

What People are Saying About This

Michael Largey

“A highly sophisticated and welcome engagement with the shifting terrain of genre and gender in the merengue típico of the Dominican Republic. Spanning forty years, Tigers of a Different Stripe explores a series of key artists and performers and makes a much-needed, deeply insightful, and timely addition to the ethnomusicological literature on gender in the Caribbean.”

Ellen Koskoff

“In Tigers of a Different Stripe, Hutchinson pushes the theoretical boundaries and potential of gendered music scholarship in new and highly productive ways. Along the way, she introduces us to her delightfully quirky and passionate collaborators in such a way as to make them and their musico-political acts come alive. Pulling together years of study and performance, as well as careful and sophisticated theory, this book will become a staple for courses in ethnomusicology and anthropology or enjoyed by anyone interested in ethnography, performance, and gender told through the words of a skilled thinker and writer. This is a truly wonderful book!”

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