Rhythmic Truth to Power: RIP Luis "Terror" Días, 1952-2009

(Boing Boing guestblogger Ned Sublette is a writer, historian, photographer, and singer-songwriter based in New York. His latest book: The Year Before The Flood.)


"Singer/songwriter/guitarist, musical anthropologist, and one of rock and roll's pioneering forces in the Dominican Republic, Luis Días, passed away from a heart attack and other health-related complications on the morning of Dec. 8th, in Santo Domingo."

That's from an obit at Kiko Jones's blog, written by someone who knew Luis Días and felt what he was about.

I borrowed the photo from writer-photographer Eliseo Cardona's fine music blog Blue Monk, which also has an appreciation of Luis's life and work.

In the Santo Domingo daily paper 7 Días, Alfonso Torres writes a eulogy (in Spanish):

Nadie como él desafió la muerte, la noche terrorífica del último cuarto del siglo 20 dominicano, con su lírica estremecedora, su irreverencia, sus acordes exóticos tan lejanos y tan cercanos de nuestra cultura popular.

Which I crudely translate to (though I have to repunctuate):

Nobody could defy death—the terrorific night of the last quarter of the 20th century in the Dominican Republic – like him, with his shake-you-up lyrics, his irreverence, his exotic chords so far away from and so close to our popular culture.

Luis Días was a folklorist, albeit an unorthodox one, and a Dionysian theorist of his own musical culture. He and his generation had to find a creative cultural response to a national history that still lives in a direct way the consequences of 16th-century Spanish conquest, the 18th-century Haitian Revolution, and 20th-century US clientism. (In 1965, when Días was a teenager, US President Lyndon B. Johnson invaded the country with tens of thousands of troops and blockaded it with the US Navy to keep the Dominican government right-wing so that it wouldn't become "another Cuba.")

Días not only spoke truth to power, he spoke Dominican truth to Dominican power. To understand his importance fully, you have to know something about the insults endured by Dominican music.

Rafael Trujillo, who from 1930 until he was assassinated on May 30, 1961 was "the dictatingest dictator who ever dictated" (Junot Díaz's Pulitzer-winning words), unsubtly imposed on the country a musical monoculture of one strain of Dominican music that he favored, along with a murderously racist anti-Haitian ideology that demonized the republic's hardest-laboring class, to say nothing of his near-total disinterest in educating children. Moreover, because Trujillo's brother owned the radio broadcasting industry and didn't want competition from records, there was almost no recording of Dominican music for thirty years—three decades of music, wiped out of history. (This story is told in Deborah Pacini Hernández's Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music.) So the fact that Luis Días was a student and connoisseur of the diverse unrecorded, under-researched musics of his land — a precious, neglected cultural legacy — was a case of speaking rhythmic truth to power.

After Trujillo was assassinated, the music called bachata began to be heard. Días was at the head of a new songwriting movement that valorized this romantic but realist guitar-driven music of the Dominican underclass. He was at the cutting edge of a brilliant Dominican artistic generation in the years preceding the megasuccess of Juan Luis Guerra (who titled one of his albums Areíto, something Días had done eight years before; areíto was the indigenous form of music of the Taínos). His rock band, Transporte Urbano (urban transport), is often credited as the beginning of a Dominican rock movement. His megahit, "El Carnaval," first recorded with his great interpreter Sonia Silvestre, became a street-and-stadium anthem in 1985 as sung by Fernando Villalona; with its simple, impossibly catchy refrain of "Baila en las calles de noche, baila en las calles de día," it's a carnival perennial 25 years later.

His Dominican colleagues, including Silvestre, Guerra, Sergio Vargas, and Víctor Víctor, remember him (in Spanish) at hoy.com.do

Luis Días was the kind of person about whom everyone has a story. My friend Henry Mena is a songwriting Dominican rocker in New York and leader of the band La Ruta, which in summer 2009 played a short set of Días's Transporte Urbano classics as a birthday present to him at New York's Quisqueya on the Hudson Festival. Henry recalled a hang with Luis:

"One afternoon I dropped in on Luis at his and then-wife Laura's apartment in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Town. He confessed not having more than $5 on him but, regardless, asked me to accompany him to get a six-pack and spend the afternoon listening to Soundgarden. As we made our way back to his place form the corner bodega, he noticed the mail had arrived and with it, a check for a few hundred bucks: airplay royalties from "Carnaval (Baila en la Calle)".


"But the best part came a few hours later: between beers, 'Superunknown,' and tales from his days working with Dominican record producer/music biz impresario Cholo Brenes—'I've got a smash for you, Cholo. A hit. Send the messenger with the money, so I can send you back the cassette,' and then after hanging up with Brenes, he'd proceed to hurriedly write the promised winning song, heh heh. Invariably, Brenes would excitedly call back a short time later: 'Damn, Luis! What a song!' heh heh—ASCAP called asking if he'd stop by or would he prefer they mail him a royalty check for $2,000+ he'd earned from 'Si He de Morir,' which Luis had contributed to Marc Anthony's debut salsa album.'Man, you're my lucky charm!' he said to me. And so, we rushed uptown to get that loot."

I said to Henry, what makes this story perfect is the listening-to-Soundgarden part. He answered, "The man loved his rock and roll, Ned."

[PHOTO: Eliseo Cardona]