Discovering the Baroque Above a Torture Chamber

Patio del Museo for blog.jpgOn a narrow street in the Colonial City area of Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, there is a building called Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana, the Memorial Museum of the Dominican Resistance. A converted home, with a central patio surrounded by two stories of walkways and rooms, its walls are covered with quotes from the heroes and survivors from those who resisted against many oppressive governments during the Twentieth Century, including the government of Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.

Inside there is an electronic visual enactment of the three Mirabal sisters who tell their own story made famous in the historical novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Yesterday, which happened to be the International Day of the Disappeared, local school children had posted notes in the entry way to the museum with phrases like “Donde está…” followed by the name of a person from someplace in the world who was taken away by the police, never to be seen again.

Upstairs there are huge, haunting photographs, some of them taken during interrogations of political prisoners strapped to wooden chairs, wide-eyed as they faced their own certain death. The interrogator is never shown; only the face of terrible fear or of ultimate defiance.

When you return to the plaza, you can open a door and descend the stairs into a dank, musky basement. There you will find a mock torture chamber, containing objects that look like they should belong in an auto body repair shop. Those were some of the instruments of torture utilized by the Trujillo regime. These remnants were among his many tools to remain in power.

I serve as Artistic Director of a new project, Conciertos de la Villa de Santo Domingo, and this whole endeavor has been framed around the idea of creating a musical community around a series of events featuring a very high level of participating artists, and drawing upon the collaboration of many different organizations, ancient sites and historic resources within the Colonial City.

Our first public activity took place last night. In a lovely air conditioned room, directly above that torture chamber, about 75 people listened to Catana Pérez de Cuello, a well-respected cultural leader here, give a presentation on the Baroque era culminating with a discussion of music by Boyce, Handel, Purcell and Bach. Those composers’ music will be played next week by Camerata Colonial, a chamber orchestra of musicians from the United States and the Dominican Republic, in the Iglesia del Convento de los Dominicos, a building whose roots date back to 1530. While the visiting musicians are here they will also offer master classes to the conservatory students, work with the youth orchestra, perform a concert for 400 young children brought here from across the country, and perform in recital at Capilla de los Remedios, the personal chapel of Francisco Davila, the richest man on the island during the Colonial Era days of the sixteenth century.

At each of these events, there is a discovery experience: a time to learn about the building, its history, the story of this island – the very place Columbus found when he thought he was in India – and to have a new appreciation of the riches that are already here, but have been neglected in the astonishing growth of this city and the relentless onslaught of the modern world.

And that brings us to back to last night. The idea for this introductory event was to collaborate in the Colonial City in an unexpected way – to bring people with differing interests together to learn more about their own resources, broaden their experiences, and, hopefully, entice them to attend something new. Last night there were people present for various reasons: the draw of the speaker, the curiosity about the museum, the support of the revival of the Colonial City and the love of music. By the end of the night, there was a NEW community, a group of people who would return to hear the music again live, but this time in the old, historic Convent in the same neighborhood within the Colonial City.

You build a community from the intersection of non-concentric circles. Competing interests become strengths, forces of growth, and means of magnetizing disparate organizations around a single idea. Last night, that idea was the opportunity to hear Baroque music of a very high quality performed in Colonial sites rich with 500 years of history.

Underneath us, in the shadows of the basement was another, much darker and more recent history, one that is still raw and having its effects among the living. As we left the building last night, I met an old man who is mentioned in the book In the Time of the Butterflies. He knew the Mirabal sisters, and was, himself, once imprisoned. He spoke of going to visit one of them one day, only to find the authorities at her home. When she saw him coming, she waved him off, wanting to keep him from getting arrested. He understood her message and drove away, and he can’t forget her hand fluttering in the air – a small gesture intended to save his life.

As I walked out into the street the old quote came back: Art is long and life is short. And, I thought, if the stories are told over and over again, the memories will remain.


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  1. MWnyc says

    Sounds like a wonderful project!
    Any thoughts of reviving any sacred music from the colonial period that may have survived in the archives of Santo Domingo’s churches? (As has been done in several others parts of Latin America.)

  2. says

    We did check into that. We spoke to several people well versed in history and in the archives here. It appears that there is virtually nothing extant from that era – a surprise to us. The DR wasn’t rich in the resources that Spain was seeking, and they moved on to other lands where the gold, etc., was more plentiful. There are extraordinary treasures here, but original sacred music doesn’t seem to be among them.

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