Even the palms, dem bow

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Show curated by Holly Bynoe. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Deleón

A performance by Joiri Minaya and Ian Deleón

“Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts, date clusters. i say I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit stalks of dates.” – Song of Solomon

A grove of plastic inflatable palm trees are scattered throughout Field Notes: Extracts’ first room. The lights are down very low and there’s the occasional bright flash from a monitor playing one of the video works in the show. A speaker and a microphone are set up and there is a crowd. The blaring music alternates between Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian dembow, Dominican reggaeton, and Brazilian baile funk – describing the acoustico-linguistic migration and transformation pattern of this infectious language of the Americas.

Strings of very popular rhythms and ideologies throughout the Caribbean can sometimes be traced back across various languages and fragmented histories to a common root. Such is the case of dembow and reggaetón, two highly successful music genres in the Spanish speaking Caribbean that evolved from Jamaican dancehall music of the 80’s and 90’s, more specifically from the seminal song Dem Bow by Shabba Ranks.

Dem Bow, Dem bow, dem bow, dem bow
man under table that mean say him bow,
gal ah clean rifle me say that she bow,
hot leap it out and me know seh u bow,
little teeth in a bottom dat mean say u bow
lipstick on hood head that mean say u bow
dem bow, dem bow, dem bow, dem bow.

(Dem Bow by Shabba Ranks, 1991)

Recorded in 1991, Dem Bow is not only an epitome of dancehall music but also representative of its more problematic ideologies, conflating anti-gayness with anti-imperialism and nationalism. When this song was first translated into Spanish by Panamenian artists Nando Boom and El General (on the same year the original version came out), it didn’t merely translate the content and beat of the song, but also exported the homophobic aspects of dancehall culture, transforming them into the macho boosting, patriarchal, male-centered tones that permeate most of what later came to be known as reggaetón and more recently dominican dembow.

We both begin the performance by entering the gallery space and interacting with an installation by Deborah Anzinger, which includes a mirror with its center laser-cut out and replaced by a mounted potted succulent plant – this was our vanity. Ian starts to prepare himself by gazing into this flora-subject while purposefully teasing out his hair, emphasizing its coarse texture, which he carries from South American/Caribbean ancestors.

“I do this that I might highlight a daily ritual for me and many others, the ‘taming’ of so-called unruly or ‘bad’ hair. My hair in its ‘wild’ natural state is carefully shaped by me into a smooth curly-wave, like a small ocean breaking at the shores of my scalp, with the use of Black-marketed hair product. I also add a little makeup and lipstick to my face, then we both head to the ‘dancefloor’.”

As bodies that have been uncomfortably and repeatedly defined by the normative spaces informed by these musical genres, we wanted to create a new context where we could revisit those past experiences and allow ourselves to respond critically and unabashedly to them, so we put together a playlist comprised of an amalgam of examples across these genres.

Lo que yo quiero es una gata
Para darle guata-uba
Uba-uba-guata
Lo que tu eres es senda bellaca
Lo que tu eres es una guatagata

What I want is a (female) cat
To give her guata-uba
Uba-uba-guata
What you are is a big hornball
What you are is a guatagata
(Guata Uba by Plan B, 2002)

Just like the Panamenian singer El General would wear a military uniform as part of his musical persona, Joiri was interested in channeling this militant reference as one more element to transgress.

“I did this by wearing a black dress with a military design, with added epaulettes made with bra cups and braided hair extensions hanging from the shoulders, simultaneously referencing our own generalísimo Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic, whose authoritarian regime was echoed in other governments and dictatorships around Latin America at the time (several of them placed by, or at least with the support of the United States as part of its imperialist agenda).”

It’s also curious to note that the singer El Alfa, whose song appears in our playlist, calls himself ‘El Jefe’, another name that was once reserved for Trujillo which later became broadly used, (usually said between men) as a way to establish a friendly tone from a position of submission. Gestural investigations of authoritarianism, visible through pop cultural performances of hypermasculinity in Latin America and the Caribbean, are elements that permeate our movements throughout the piece.

To start with a scene of inflatable palm trees already implies a sort of caricature: oversimplified and dislocated representations of fantasies about exotic locations of leisure often imagined by a foreigner to those locations. Almost our height and with a pretty generous diameter, the erect plastic bodies had a size and posture relatable to our own, which gave them an anthropomorphic presence. But the trees were not merely reduced to their domesticated, slightly pathetic imperialist symbology; they also echoed some of the other ideas that representation of a palm tree have historically carried, from their phallic relation to regimes of patriarchy and heteronormativity, to their adoption as part of the visual culture of systems of control, like the Dominican dictator Trujillo and his appropriation of one erect palm tree as a symbol for his party, used throughout his government in everything from coins to official documents.

“For me, it’s a real quirky look, denouncing a form of sexual tourism, imposed on our Caribbean islands, materialized by inflatable plastic coconut palms that Joiri Minaya strives to destroy, shreds, rips, uses ‘til the end like a phallus covered with latex, and Ian Deleón grinds on, simulating a masturbatory act that he irrigates with a bottle of rum.”Annabel Guérédrat

In this manner, Even the palms, dem bow explored the intersection of the dance floor, the palm tree, capitalism, gender roles, expressions of sexuality and the Caribbean in a way that was liberating and challenging, while simultaneously acknowledging a complex oppressing history.

For Ian Deleón that meant behaving in a way that would be frowned upon by his heteronormative friends while growing up in Miami or by his conservative relatives in a visit to Brazil, which included liberating gestures like grinding, caressing, licking and “caring for” phallic inflatable palm trees. Ian would dance sensually with the trees, blatantly defying the lyrics of the songs he was dancing to, which threatened to kill “batty boys” and “chi chi men,” or condemned any undesirable behavior as a “bow”: “A man below a woman is a bow – under the bed, I say he’s a bow – under the sheet, I say he’s a bow – with the door closed, he turns into a bow.” (English translation of Nando Boom’s Ellos Venian, itself a Spanish re-interpretation of Shabba Ranks’ Dem Bow).

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Photo: Courtesy of Ian Deleón

“My meta-performance focused on cultivating a promiscuous and sultry relationship with each palm tree on the dance floor. A garden pressure sprayer filled with dark rum was used as a bizarre Burroughs-esque, narco-erotic prop. At times, I was predatory, sipping rum from the nozzle and using the canister as a way of marking my territory, flirtatiously dousing a certain palm tree I was desiring at that moment in pornographic pantomime. Other times the sprayer assumed a deadly quality, serving as a harbinger for a palm’s coming demise – an insectoid inversion, exterminating the fabricated tropical landscape.”

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Photo: Courtesy of Ian Deleón

Ian’s relationship to the music and its lyrics fluctuate greatly throughout the piece. He would display a subtle protest to a song’s homophobic lyrics in one instance, by grinding fiercely and unabashedly with the palms, while giving the finger to and smacking the audio speaker itself during flagrant lyrics such as: “It’s like boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head”. At another point, a dem bow track from Panama announces that to “swallow a microphone” makes one a bow (in other words, an undesirable, a man of questionable sexuality). Ian responds by picking up the live microphone and attempting to sing along to the track unironically while shoving the instrument as far into his mouth as possible, garbling the lyrics in an eerily snuff-ish gesture.

Blood out ah chi chi
Bun out ah city

Batty dem ah fuck and ah suck too much pussy
Blood out a chi chi
Blood out ah sissy
(Burning you / Bun out di chi chi by Capleton, 2001)

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Photo: Courtesy of Ian Deleón

“I was struck by the staging…there is a real interaction with the accessories, an erotic game with coconut trees as inflatable dolls. And the two performers appear in a sadomasochistic relationship: Joiri, wearing a strict, black dress and Ian, in small shorts and an open shirt. Ian is engaged in a very lewd gesture with the trees throughout the performance. While we, the spectators, are focused on the movements of Ian, Joiri interrupts the proceedings, striking provocative, but defiant postures, like a reggaeton dance, without ever allowing us to objectify her body. Joiri rampages, destroys, beheads the coco palms; as if she was wrecking a plantation. This brings us back to the world of the plantation economy in the Caribbean. Like the ongoing battle between industrial, exportable banana$ and those of the local growers, while there is fun and distractions to be had in the sun, others pillage our lands and compel us to ‘turn the other cheek’. What struck me most was the ambiance of the piece; it was quite dark in the performance space, like a scene emerging from the twilight–a nonexistent party.”
Henri Tauliaut

For Joiri Minaya, channeling her adolescent days dancing reggaetón in school parties in the Dominican Republic meant not succumbing to the beat with self-objectifying and submissive moves catered to a male gaze, but instead, holding poses for a confrontational affect:

“I would remain stoically motionless, defyingly looking at the audience, my eyes going from one individual to the next. I would only pause the periods of pose-holding by occasionally walking around the audience or destroying a palm tree with the spikes in my gloves.”

Sin ta lloviendo ella me ve
Y de una vez se moja
Cuando yo le doy
Sale caminando coja

It’s not raining, but she sees me
And gets wet right away
When I give it to her
She ends up limping
(Pal de velita by Mark B ft El Alfa El Jefe, 2015)

Much of the destroying and deflating started in a caressing, tempered manner, later escalating to squeezing and thrusting motions performed onto the different extensions of the inflatables – the tubular shapes used to simulate the fronds, or the small plastic coconuts attached to the top of the trunk – squeezing and slowly tearing them apart. Other times Joiri would kneel and wrap around the base of the inflatables with her arms, embracing them, sometimes with her legs as well, seemingly suffocating it while the gloves would eventually pierce and extinguish them.

“Often, I would be in the middle of an amorous rapture with a palm tree, or two, and Joiri would approach a tree, grabbing it by the trunk or the coconuts with her needle-sharp gloves and quickly take its life. I would then appear to mourn the palm, making futile attempts to re-inflate the ruptured plastic – to breathe life again into its collapsed lungs. The rum spray became an elixir of veneration then, as I ‘poured one out’ for my fallen homies.”

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In one particularly frenetic instance during a song with a fast-paced beat, Joiri gives into the dancing while kneeling on top of a palm tree and with the tips of stiletto heels that were laying on the ground among other prop ‘tools’ we had brought, she proceeds to slit the penultimate palm tree, one heel in each hand, as if holding picks for breaking up hard ground.

Our musical playlist was not essentially patriarchal, homophobic, or exhausting the conservative double standard of blatantly sexualizing and objectifying women while denying them agency, however. In fact, our playlist included a few of the limited examples where these genres have reflected and even embraced feminist or queer ideals, like Ivy Queen’s iconic Yo quiero bailar, which portrays a woman who’s in control of her body and sexuality as opposed to being defined by, or available to, a male gaze and its demands.

Yo quiero bailar
Tu quieres sudar
Y pegarte a mi
El cuerpo rozar
Si yo te digo si tu me puedes provocar
Eso no quiere decir que pa la cama voy

I want to dance
You want to sweat
And get close to me
Rub the body
If I say yes you can provoke me
That doesn’t mean I’m going to bed [with you]

(Yo quiero bailar by Ivy Queen, 2003)

Other recent examples of queer ideologies seeping through the cracks of these genres (or at least being openly discussed) are Vakero’s Echale Agua or La Delfi’s Mariquiqui. Vakero’s song narrates the case of a gay man in an ambivalent way, at times encouraging openness and inclusiveness and at times jokingly equating being gay with ‘being confused’, thus reinforcing heteronormativity in spite of not condemning the alternatives. La Delfi’s Mariquiqui talks about a man in the closet, whom the singer, an openly flamboyant gay man in drag, knows is not straight and is calling out.

Tu ta guillao pero ere mariquiqui en la caverna
Yo te doy besito y tu me da wiki
Pero to sabemo que tu ere mariquiqui

You’re passing, but you’re a mariquiqui (gay) in the cave
I give you kisses and you give me wiki
But we all know that you’re a mariquiqui
(Mariquiqui by La Delfi, 2012)

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We made it a point to include these songs in the performance to show the evolution in the mainstream culture around these genres, as well as to introduce contrasting instances in our performances.

Joiri and Ian agreed to inhabit the same performative space for the piece, but it was not until the very end that they finally interacted directly – their bodies having previously passed through each other, affecting each other’s environments without making contact, like spirits in a house of hauntings.

The hour-long dance party thus culminated with Ian lying exhausted on the floor underneath the last palm, clutching and clinging to it with heaving breast, like lovers entwined, while Joiri slowly let its air out before dowsing it and her partner with the sprayer, a sobering baptism that rendered regeneration from life to death and back again.

“And a grove of trees ‘bent its magnificent crest toward the earth, making the humble gesture of bowing down to kiss the ground in reverence of its Maker.’ … All the trees ‘bowed down their heads’ and then , after ‘humbly kissing the earth,’ rose again toward the sky, ‘repeating the rising and bowing many times.’

– Wounds of Love: The Mystical Marriage of Saint Rosa of Lima

“To protest too much, to insist too much—indeed, to do anything too much, to invoke excess—is to risk queering.” – Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall

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