The tattoos marbling Patrick Shannon's arms offer glimpses of his past. The one with Bugs Bunny banging on a drum is emblematic, he says, of his postadolescent years in a speed-metal band. The one with the words Semper Fidelis illustrates his stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. The one with American and Irish flags juxtaposed on his upper arm acts as a reminder of his late grandmother. After her death, Shannon says, "I felt very Irish. I felt like I was losing my heritage."
But none of these fleshy pictograms hint even remotely at Shannon's latest incarnation: that of a merenguero, an aspiring Latin-music performer whose song, "Estás Enamorada," is on heavy rotation at Miami's top Spanish-language radio station WXDJ-FM (95.5). Most would agree this is a pretty improbable accomplishment for a kid from Brooklyn's fabled Flatbush neighborhood and the descendant of Irish immigrants. But in his midtwenties, following his discharge from the Marines, Shannon found an affinity for another of New York's more gregarious immigrant groups: Dominicans.
While installing cable TV boxes in New York, Shannon was befriended by a number of Hispanic co-workers who introduced him to the Latin club scene in upper Manhattan, including Washington Heights, the city's Dominican stronghold. Shannon says he was surprised to find "it was easy to communicate with people," despite his lack of Spanish. "You could talk to girls and ask them to dance without worrying about having five guys jump on you afterward," he says. "Where I come from, if you talk to the wrong girl, you can really get your ass handed to you." Pretty soon he was going to house parties with Dominican friends and soaking up the atmosphere, especially the music.
When he heard a record by Dominican master Ramon Orlando -- featuring songs such as "Te Compro Tú Novia?" ("How Much for Your Girlfriend?") and "Te Espero" ("I'll Wait for You") -- he says he became enraptured by the music. But he didn't stop at buying CDs, like most ethnically adventurous gringos. "I told my friends: 'Hey, dudes, I can sing this,' and they said, 'How are you going to sing in a language you can't even speak?'"
Shannon began rehearsing at his parents' home after work, setting down the path of a musical crossover more remarkable than that of Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, or Jennifer Lopez combined. After all, Puerto Ricans, the focus of much of the crossover hype, have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Barely ten years ago, Shannon was "a skinny kid with hair down to his ass," emulating Metallica and Stryper onstage for Manhattan's bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
And while a handful of non-Latinos have made their mark as salsa performers (Seventies band leader Larry Harlow, Japan's Orquesta de la Luz), Dominican-rooted merengue has yet to see its first Anglo impact player. It should be noted that Lubbock, Texas, native Ned Sublette (known chiefly for his Qbadisc label and its championing of the latest bands straight out of Cuba) scored a minor hit last summer on Spanish-language radio with his merengue version of the Western classic "Ghost Riders in the Sky." But the song was recorded in English, and Sublette was targeting an Anglo audience as much as a Latin one. (Ramon Orlando, Shannon's early source of inspiration, produced the track and handled the arrangements.) Sublette surely met Latino listeners halfway.
Shannon, by contrast, hopes to be the first Anglo merengue artist to appeal to Latinos in their own language, and has styled himself after some of the Dominican Republic's most admired romantic crooners, including Ruby Perez, Fernando Villalona, and Sergio Vargas. This poses the apropos question for Shannon: "Can a white man sing the blues?" Sublette offers the following perspective: "When you sing merengue you are joining the Dominican family. In a family there are natural children and adopted children. The family maybe loves the adopted child in a different way, [but] they often go out of their way to make the adopted child feel loved."
In terms of making your bones as a legitimate performer, ethnicity aside, Sublette says, "You have to do your homework, and you have to work hard to be respected. You're not going to get a tasty track that can win in the highly competitive merengue world unless you collaborate deeply with Dominicans. In my case I worked with Ramon Orlando, about the most respected merenguero in Santo Domingo."
What's clear is Sublette and Shannon share the same attraction to Dominicans, their culture, and their music. Both felt enriched by their contact with these newcomers to the United States, rather than threatened, the way a cultural chauvinist might. And both discovered in merengue a new and gratifying form of making communion with the world. Not long after his initiation by co-workers and acquaintances into this subculture, Shannon was carrying around a demo tape of himself, singing in Spanish.
His break came circa 1994, when members of a New York-based act were desperate for a back-up singer to join them for a gig in Boston. The group was slated to open for several prominent acts, including one of his favorites, Los Toros Band. Back in his days as a metalhead, Shannon used to go early to the studio and imitate Stryper's Michael Sweet, but admits, "I didn't have the guts" to sing onstage. "The first time I sang in public was in Spanish, and I was terrified." He had to master the lyrics and dance moves in two days, the latter being his biggest challenge. "I'm not Joe the Dancer," says the 34-year-old construction worker with a laugh, though he does a passable merengue shuffle.
The crowd in Boston was in an appreciative mood that night, and Shannon was hooked. "Once I got over the initial nervousness, it was a rush," he says. He then worked his way through the ranks like any other merengue wannabe, playing in house bands on the Washington Heights circuit. Shannon played clubs, weddings, quinceañeras, even New York's Dominican Day Parade before 500,000 spectators. He recalls, "I thought we were going to be playing at a restaurant along the parade route, when the band leader told me: 'Gringo, get on the float. Let's go.' At first I thought they were going to hate us because we were just a small cruddy band, but we got cheered the whole way."
Shannon says he enjoyed the anomaly of "being the only white guy in a club." He recalls he was often suspected of being an undercover police agent, but says the mistrust usually melted when people heard him speaking in Spanish. "It's the most beautiful thing in the world. I never once had a problem," he says. He did get hassled once while lugging amplifiers and rehearsal gear inside a friend's place in a Dominican neighborhood. But his antagonists were cops. "They were like, 'What are you doing here?' They didn't say it, but they implied, 'What are you doing here, little white guy, buying drugs?'"
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Despite his sense of acceptance by Dominicans in general, Shannon did encounter some problems getting fellow musicians to take him seriously. He suggests some of his erstwhile musical associates may have been afraid of being upstaged by a gringo. "That's when I realized if I don't do something on my own, if I don't call the shots, I'm never going to get where I want to go," he says. He took out a $10,000 bank loan and began work on his debut album, the eponymous Patrick Shannon. After hashing out four tracks, in which many friendly musicians and composers gave him cut rates, Shannon was discovered by someone with genuine industry connections.
Randy Ramos, formerly a singer with established Dominican artists such as Luis Almonte, remembers the first time Shannon visited his basement studio. A mutual acquaintance asked Ramos to listen to a demo, without disclosing any details. "Two of the tracks gave me goosebumps," says Ramos, who also owns a Washington Heights travel agency. "I told them to play it for me again, and when I asked who it was, I remember Patrick was sitting on the floor, and he said, 'It's me,' and I said, 'Get out of here.' I couldn't believe it."
For a stake in the proceeds, Ramos agreed to bankroll the remainder of the production and set Shannon up at a major studio in Santo Domingo to complete the album. The final product, slated for retail release this week, is more than a novelty. It is a well-crafted record from first song to last and showcases Shannon's fine voice. And though his origins do not go without mention, he refrains from milking them and sings without an accent. (He now speaks Spanish with only a slight accent.)
Ramos admits that Shannon's nationality was part of the initial intrigue, but says he believes Shannon will make the cut with Latin consumers on artistic merit. "Honestly if you're trying to cross over from your culture or race in the recording business, you better have some talent to back it up," he offers. "If not, you're not going to last very long. The beautiful thing this guy has is he loves singing the music. It's not about making money or becoming famous; it's because he really loves singing merengue."