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(Soundbite of music)

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This musician was born Lidia Maria Hernandez Lopez. But she's known throughout Latin America as La India Canela, the Cinnamon Indian.

Ms. LIDIA MARIA HERNANDEZ LOPEZ (Musician): (Speaking in foreign language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOPEZ: Yeah, La India because of my color and cinnamon because of the flavor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is the national music of the Dominican Republic, merengue, and La India Canela is merengue royalty. Those are her fleet fingers working the accordion's buttons. She sings like a bird, too. You'll hear that in a few minutes. La India's new CD is called "Merengue Tipico." It's a more raw and rootsy-type of merengue than which you'll find on commercial Latino radio stations, like El Sol (speaking in foreign language).

During a stop on her recent tour, we asked La India Canela to come into our studio, along with interpreter Maria Elle(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: La India Canela, welcome to the studio.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Thank you so very much. It's a great honor.

SEABROOK: You have won the Dominican Republic's highest arts award, the Cassandra, twice. You're famous across the country and in Central America for hit dance songs, and now here in the United States the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways label is releasing the CD. It's a great success story, especially for a woman accordion player. How did you get started?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) At the beginning it was difficult. My father didn't want me to play the accordion. That was not something the girls did. So it was quite hard. I used to hide so that I could practice.

SEABROOK: And then you were discovered. You were swept away to the city by this saxophone player, Juan de Dios. What happened next?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Yeah, at the beginning it was quite the ordeal to get my father to give his permission so that I may go to Santiago. It was very difficult. I was very young so people will get on chairs to see me. So, as you can tell the beginning was very difficult.

SEABROOK: What was it like to be a 14-year-old, 15-year-old girl living in the city without her parents, playing at first in the bars and clubs of Santiago?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) What I can tell you is back then there were only three female accordion players - Fefita la Grande, Maria Diaz, and of course me, who was just coming out. So as time has gone by and I have tried to perfect my style and pick more difficult pieces, ones that have been traditionally performed by men but I've done it to prove not only men can do it but women can, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: And you started writing your own merengue tunes when you were young.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: For example, "Aprietame Asi," that was one of your biggest hits. It means squeeze me like that, and I gather it's a play on words, the idea of squeezing the accordion.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Yeah. It was the second one that I wrote and it's the one that is mostly recognized in my country from my repertoire.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LOPEZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

SEABROOK: I want to ask you about your instruments. It's a small accordion. It's much smaller than I thought it would be. What's the picture on the side of it? Is that of an eagle?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) An eagle.

SEABROOK: An eagle. What is that for?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

SEABROOK: You have an eagle on your accordion for your favorite baseball team, your home team. Is that right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Yes.

SEABROOK: Oh, please play it for us.

Ms. LOPEZ: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: What is the name of that song?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

SEABROOK: "Las Siete Posadas," which stands for the seven different rhythms that are in the piece.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) She says yes.

SEABROOK: That is a really fun song. And it occurs to me while you're playing that the accordion is a really percussive instrument. I mean, you can hear the clackity clack of the buttons and you hear the bellows. It almost digests rhythm.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Typical merengues. It's a very warm-type of music, like the Caribbean. And when I play it, even my blood gets hot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: It's so complex and intricate. Are there things that you learned musically that you couldn't have learned if you stayed home in the countryside of the Dominican Republic?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Of course. Not in the country. You have to be in the city to be exposed to the clubs, and there is now formal education for accordionist. I have to tell you that accordion music is very profound and you feel it, probably from the moment that you are in your mother's womb.

SEABROOK: So, you come with that inspiration?

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) Oh yeah, yeah. I believe that I came from my mother's womb with that inspiration.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LOPEZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

SEABROOK: The accordion player is Lidia Maria Hernandez Lopez, better known as La India Canela. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Through translator) On behalf of the Dominican Republic from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for having invited me to your program.

SEABROOK: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of music)

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