Pericles Vargas, whose friends call Felo, is 70 and he runs the only music school of the Luperon village, at his home. He was born and has always lived in Luperon, on Dominican Republic’s Northern coast. He started learning music at age of 10 at a little school supported by the municipality. He studied guitar, percussion and other instruments used in local music bands. Felo furthered his studies in the institutes, but also thanks to his own curiosity. When it was time for him to earn a living, he started performing here and there. Eventually, Felo became the music Master of Luperon.
INTERVIEW – march 2016
How did you come to music?
Since I was a little child, I was interested in sounds. Before I even formed the wish to become a musician, I was paying much attention to melodies and the way sounds were combined. So later I started to learn a little about music and to play. I wanted to understand the mystery, the enchantment created by the sounds.
Then I felt the need to move to a bigger city where there was an official institute of music. There I was able to receive better musical education, and to buy an instrument and music sheets.
The problem was, music education was used in political ways rather than artistically. New people were appointed as program directors whenever political leaders changed, and so there was no consistency in education. There were very few municipalities that led strong, coherent cultural programs.
In Dominican Republic, there are music institutes of a certain level in provincial cities. Then, students who want to further their studies have to go to the School of Fine Arts or to the National Music Conservatoire in the capital city, where you can become a musician of a professional level.
What is Dominican traditional music?
Well, Dominican Republic was colonized by the Spanish, so its culture is related to Europe. In many European villages, you have local bands playing folkloric music, like the bandas in Spain. This culture of local bands playing festive music for villages’ events was continued here. The bands have a diverse repertoire, including military marches, polkas, and waltzes, among others.
What is music to you?
I believe you can express a lot through arts, and music is the easiest and the most adaptable form of arts. When you play, you are saying something. When you listen to music, the sounds start making you having thoughts. The musician thinks about an image, and translates it through sounds, exactly as if sounds were paint. Sounds are very spiritual.
How is Dominican music being continued?
The problem is, community schools like this one are small, and they are not economically sustainable. The youth, when they grow older, have to go to university or technical schools, and so they move to other villages. So what often happens is that students come to learn an instrument during 6, 8 or 12 months, and then they quit. Therefore around here there are very few students who dedicate themselves to acquire a good musical level. It is a difficult cause.
As the world changes, many different kinds of music emerge. Most importantly the merengue, which originates from Spanish folkloric music, the pasodoble. It is played with same time structures. Originally, merengue was played with string instruments: guitar, bandurria and Dominican quinto, as well as a marimbula. Over time, diatonic accordion and tuba, or occasionally trombone, took over. It is only later that saxophone arrived in the composition of merengue instruments, especially alto saxophones, which took the lead on melodies. So merengue evolved to be played mainly with brass instruments. They are accompanied by percussions, including the tambora, the guiro and the conga, also called tumbadora, which originates from Cuba.
There is a very good musician who composed merengues that I like a lot: he was called Juan Espinoza. But the iconic Dominican merengue is El compadre Pedro Juan, which was composed by Luis Alberti.
Later, merengue evolved with the influence of Cuban music. For example the conga, a large drum, was introduced. And today, merengue is changing a lot. All art forms have to evolve. But, they can evolve in more or less rigid ways. If you don’t respect the art form, it gets perverted.
How do you envision the future of Dominican music?
Well, it has to continue! In any case, I don’t think Dominican music is going to die. But today, what works is popular music, what we call bachata. This is music played with accessible instruments: guitars, percussions, bongo drums… The world is more open, we receive international influence, and so popular music tends to be more similar everywhere in the world.
Few of my former students still play music. Most of them, when they start their studies, drop music classes. And fewer of them have embraced a professional carrier. If I am still the music teacher of this village, that is because there is no one to take over. I often asked the municipality to support the music classes, but politicians seem to have other things to care about, and they have never helped. It is difficult.
Do you have a message for the world?
I wish for everyone in the world to learn music! It is easy to try an instrument, to find education, so go for it!