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A more indepth look at merengue...

The merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic. However, when one asks a Dominican to explain the merengue, one finds out that the merengue is much more than just a musical genre. It is the very heart and soul of music in the Dominican Republic. The merengue is part of the Dominican national identity and those who live in the Dominican Republic are very proud of what they consider their very own form of music and dance. In reality, there is very little concrete evidence about the origins of the merengue in the Dominican Republic. This is what makes the study of this genre of Latin American Music so fascinating. Beyond the shadowed history of this dance, we also find an historic battle taking place between the Dominican Republic and their adjacent neighbor, Haiti over what little information can be found and what it signifies. To better understand merengue, we must first look into the history of the Dominican Republic, their culture, and the evolution of their music.

The Dominican Republic is a small country that occupies the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola. A unique aspect about the Dominican Republic is that it shares the island of Hispaniola with another country – Haiti. While one would assume that the two countries would share culture and language, the truth is that they are two very different and independent entities. The Dominican Republic is a Spanish-speaking nation, this being related to its original occupation by Spain. Their neighbor, Haiti, is a French-speaking nation due to the fact that Spain ceded the western half of Hispaniola to France in 1697.

Europeans first discovered the island of Hispaniola in 1492 by Christopher Columbus of Spain. While Columbus was surprisingly kind (he was often ruthless with other natives) and therefore welcomed by the native peoples of the island, the Taínos, other colonizers sent from Spain were cruel and reduced the Taino population from 1 million to 500 people in under 50 years. With the decimation of the local populations, the Spanish needed a new source of manual labor and turned to African slaves, which had already proven successful in other colonies. These African slaves worked primarily on the western half of the island, where they exhausted the natural resources of the land. In 1697 Spain ceded the western half of the island to France, an obvious concession being that it held little value to the Spanish anymore. This French territory was named Haiti. Immediately a cultural division occurred as French influences came into conflict with the Spanish way of life. This came to a head when the remaining Spanish side of Hispaniola, then known as Santo Domingo, was invaded by the predominately black Haiti in 1821 and was under Haitian rule for 22 years. No longer a colony under the control of a European empire, Santo Domingo never developed the huge African slaves populations that Haiti did because there was no need for a plantation-based economy.

Santo Domingo gained independence from Haiti in 1844, however this did little to help the country prosper and due to the small nation’s instability, the United States invaded and occupied the country from 1916 to 1924. The United States left the Dominican Republic in 1924 after establishing the country’s first democratically elected government. However, in 1930 Rafael Trujillo, a powerful military leader, took control of the government and claimed absolute authority. The United States did not intervene to restore democracy because Trujillo claimed to support the advancement of capitalism and the economy in the Dominican Republic, something the United States supported due to the Cold War. While Trujillo was able to increase the economic output of his country, he was a brutal dictator who severely repressed the domestic human rights of his people. Rafael Trujillo remained in power until 1961 when he was assassinated and his family forced to flee. Another democratic government was established under the presidency of Juan Bosch in 1963, but this was short lived as another military coup removed him from office and placed a triumvirate dictatorship in his place. This government was yet again overthrown by a military coup that wanted Bosch back in power. The country fell into political anarchy until the United States finally intervened in 1965 and restored order. Since then the Dominican Republic has remained a democratic nation with a popularly elected president, although many still claim that most of the elections are fraudulent.

It is obvious to see that the Dominican Republic has had a tumultuous past. The reason why this is so important to the study of the merengue is that this turbulent past has directly affected the origins and evolution of this music style. Due to the fact that the Dominican Republic has never really had its own national history, being under the control of foreign powers for so much of its past, the Dominicans have never truly developed a strong and coherent sense of ethnic or national identity. While almost seventy-five percent of the Dominican population is mulatto, or one of Afro-European heritage, they do not acknowledge their African heritage at all. The occupation of their country by black Haiti has led to the hatred of anything of African descent. Instead, the upper and middle classes claim their Spanish heritage as their own and the lower classes, including the blacks, only trace their heritage back to the native Taínos, who were dark skinned themselves. Despite this hatred of African heritage and blackness and the lack of national identity, the Dominicans do have one thing that they have united behind as their own – the merengue.

As stated before, the history and origins of the merengue are very obscure and no one knows for sure where and how exactly this style of music came about. Ethnomusicologists believe that the word merengue is the Spanish variant for the French word meringue, which means exactly the same thing in English – a confection made from whipped egg whites and sugar. It was probably applied to this musical genre because of the light and fluffy nature of the dance where one gracefully shifts their weight between feet in a very fluid movement. Like almost all Latin American dances, the merengue can trace its origins back to the contradanza, the French dance that was hugely popular in Europe as they began to colonize the Americas. Other music that influenced the development of the merengue was the Cuban UPA, the Spanish décima, the African plena, and the Talanquera.

The original merengue was most likely very European in style, with a set dance step, rhythm, and form. However, due to the large African influences on the island of Hispaniola, the dance acquired Afro-Caribbean rhythms, which livened up the dance. Immediately the aristocracy denounced the merengue as a vulgar dance because of its relation to African music. However, they were unable to stop the wild popularity of the dance and the merengue spread throughout the island where it was popular in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic at the same time. The original musical ensembles that performed the merengue consisted of a guitar or cuatro, guiro scraper, double-headed tambora drum, and marimba. The marimba used for merengue was very different from the marimba we think of today. It is not xylophonic in nature, but instead is a wooden box with plucked metal keys. It is a very large instrument and has a very deep sound, thus acting much like the bass we use in today’s music.

One version of merengue that flourished was the merengue típico, which originated from the Cibao Valley of the Dominican Republic. Merengue típico became the most influential version of merengue to form and thus can be considered the father of the modern merengue. What sets this form of merengue apart is its use of the accordion, which, “in the hands of good players, provides a dazzling, shimmering, and constantly varying barrage of crisp staccato accompaniment figures” (Manuel 99). Along with the accordion many of these ensembles also incorporated the saxophone due to the development of Jazz during the same era. The use of saxophone was so popular that it is still considered one of the most important instruments of the modern merengue. Merengue típico has a very set structure, owing back to its age and European base. It starts out with a slower instrumental paseo section which then moves into the actual lyrical section where the singing is done. After this the merengue moves into a call-and-response section before closing. All of this is done while the audience dances a basic two-step pattern which is often danced at a very fast tempo.

Like the merengue típico, Rafael Trujillo himself has had a massive impact on the merengue. While the United States did invade the Dominican Republic on the helpful pretense of restoring order, the Dominicans were never happy that their sovereignty was infringed upon and many of the early merengues where nationalistic and against the American occupation. This was further enflamed when the United States supported Rafael Trujillo and his dictatorship as he came to power in 1930. Trujillo himself was never wealthy growing up, and he always resented the wealth and power of the aristocracy. He especially disliked their control over music styles and how they prevented those of the lower classes to listen to music at their social clubs. So once Trujillo came to power, one of his first goals was to turn the rural, lower class merengue típico into a popular symbol and thus destroy the aristocracy’s hold over music in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo had merengue ensembles follow him wherever he traveled on both political campaigns and tours and to perform for his audiences. He also had merengue groups commission merengue pieces that supported and praised him and his policies. Trujillo mandated that all urban dance bands include merengue as part of their repertoire. Trujillo’s brother, Petán, was given control of the country’s radio and television broadcasts and, under the direction of Trujillo, flooded both forms of media with merengue. In 1936, Trujillo made an official declaration making the Cibao merengue the official music and dance genre of the Dominican Republic. While the upper class versions of the merengue still remain present in the country, such as the ballroom and orquesta merengue, the merengue típico of Cibao is “the single most significant unifying cultural entity in the nation” (Manuel 103).

The modern merengue emerged after the reign of Trujillo was over and the United States placed Joaquín Balaguer in his place as “elected” president after the oust of Bosch in 1963. Balaguer created a huge wave of urbanization during his reign with tens of thousands of rural peasants flooding into the main cities such as Santo Domingo, whose population doubled in less than ten years. Along with urbanization, Balaguer removed all economic barriers put in place by his predecessor and thus allowed an inflow of international music to flood into the country that had never been there before. With so much of the populous in the major cities, international music, especially from the United States, flourished. Local merengue musicians found themselves falling out of popularity, as they had never needed and thus never learned how to compete in the record industry. North American rock and pop music dominated the music field in the Dominican Republic during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Merengue was also having a hard time finding a place outside of the Dominican Republic, as salsa had become the craze in the United States and elsewhere. However, by the 1980s things started to change. With Petán no longer discouraging competition and the export of music, the Dominican recording industry began to catch up with its international competitors. New recording studios were able to make high quality recordings of merengue. More importantly, Johnny Ventura, a Dominican bandleader, took the merengue and began to revitalize it by adding foreign influences to the music, such as the style of salsa and the bass drum of disco.

It is in the 1980s that we finally see merengue start to make an international appearance. Thanks to a decline in the popularity of salsa, the merengue spread to New York and Puerto Rico where it exceeded salsa in popularity. Another reason why merengue began to spread is because the Dominicans themselves started to migrate out of their country. Much like the Puerto Ricans before them, the majority of Dominicans moved to New York City. With them, they brought merengue bands that opened up dance clubs all over Manhattan and the Bronx. Many salsa venues converted to merengue clubs after they began to notice the huge popularity of the new dance. Another aspect that helped with the growth of the merengue in the United States is the fact that the Dominicans would play longer and for less money, making them more marketable. Also, the Dominicans appealed to American audiences by dressing up in very colorful and dazzling outfits that helped them fit into the mainstream music of the time. Currently, this invasion of merengue has slowed down since the 1990s. Salsa has started to regain some of its lost popularity and many dance clubs have started to alternate salsa and merengue bands. While at first the two genres may have fought each other for space to grow and audiences, nowadays merengue and salsa are often loved by the same fan base that learn how to dance both styles. It’s also common to find Dominicans enjoying salsa as much as their own merengue when out dancing.

The history and evolution of the merengue is very complex, involving influences from both inside and outside of the Dominican Republic. However, one questions still remains unanswered by ethnomusicologists. From where did the merengue originally evolve? We know that the music was heavily influenced by the contradanza from Europe and then by Afro-Caribbean influences from Hispaniola. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing struggle between the Dominican Republic and Haiti on whose music is the merengue. Ethnomusicologist Jean Fouchard has theorized that the Haitian meringue evolved from different slave music such as chica and balenda fusing with the French contredanse. He then states that the Dominican merengue developed directly from Haitian meringue as manual labor from Haiti would enter the Dominican Republic on a daily basis for work. Other ethnomusicologists from both countries have made claims that the merengue started in their countries, and most people will refuse to believe anything else. It must be understood that while the Dominican Republic claims the merengue as their source of national pride, Haitians also claim their meringue to be the same for them. Haitians embrace the Afro-Caribbean heritage of the dance, while the Dominicans do not acknowledge it. Due to the Haitian invasion of 1822, the Dominicans still harbor ill feelings towards their neighboring country and it would be a crushing loss if they ever were forced to believe that the merengue is Haitian in origin. On which side of the island merengue originally developed we may never know, but it is no longer an important aspect of what makes merengue the way it is. The two merengues diverged shortly after they began, the Haitian meringue becoming a slower, guitar based music while the Dominican merengue has become the international success it is today. This is ironically related to the way the two countries have developed. We find the Dominican Republic to have become a much more flourishing country than Haiti, which has become the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Even if the Haitians did originally develop this music genre, it was the Dominicans who triumphed in making their version popular.

Currently there are three forms of merengue still played. The first is Ballroom Merengue, or, merengue de salon. All steps are on the beat and have a characteristic limping appearance. Partners hold each other closely and perform simple choreography such as twirling and intricate pretzels while moving around in a slow circle. Despite the speed of the music, moves are always kept slow and majestic looking. The second form of merengue is Club Merengue. This form developed directly from Ballroom Merengue but has a much more urban and erotic sense to it. The dancing is much more suggestive owing to the fact that it is popular with the younger generations and is often danced at popular dance clubs. The last type of merengue still performed is Folk Merengue. This genre has its roots back in the traditional merengue típico of the Cibao Valley. It can still be found in the more rural areas of the Dominican Republic. Dancers of Folk Merengue tend to move their hips in full circles while maintaining a straight upper body instead of the usual back and forth movement.

The Dominican merengue has come a long way in its evolution, starting as a traditional folk dance and now being one of the most popular forms of Latin American music ever created. One of the greatest aspects of the merengue is that it is accessible to everyone, from the beginning dancer to the most advanced salsero. Anyone can be caught up in its lively rhythms and luscious musical textures. The merengue has survived so long because it ha been highly adaptive, having the ability to incorporate other forms of music into its repertoire and still maintain a sense of individuality. This is one of the many reasons that salsa has had to seriously compete with merengue for popularity. While the merengue explosion may be waning in today’s society, we can expect to see the dance live on many years into the future not only in the United States and the Dominican Republic, but also across the world.

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