The Impact and Influences of Merengue in the Dominican Republic
When you think about folklore, what comes to mind?
I usually think of Indigenous interpretations of astronomy or even stories told at a campsite. The former do exist in the culture of the country I decided to look into: the Dominican Republic.
But, in researching Dominican folklore, I started to understand how music and dance could also be classified as folklore – particularly merengue. I decided to focus on the topic of merengue, as I personally have a music and dance background, but have never dug into specific Latin American genres.
If we look at this broad definition of folklore from the American Folklore Society, which says: “folk traditions – the things that people learn to do largely through oral communication and by example,” music and dance are definitely named. Another article from the American Folklore Society states, “Though folklore connects people to their past, it is a central part of life in the present, and is at the heart of all cultures. . .”
The English translation of the page “Amo ser Dominicano,” or “I love being Dominican” on the Presidency of the Dominican Republic website includes a section about Folklore. In a video on the page, sociologist Dagoberto Tejada breaks folklore down to mean “el saber popular,” or as the translated article below the video describes, “the knowledge of our people,” specific to Dominicans. More of his translated explanation relates to how folklore is the “expression” and “manifestation” of who Dominicans are, whether that be through their food, idioms, or music.
Interestingly, there were already elements of folklore present in just the introduction of my discussion about merengue with Indira White, a Dominicana who grew up in the Bronx, New York, who is also an Ithaca College alumna and founder of the previous campus dance organization, IC Muevete.
“I do not have any recollection of when I was first introduced because it’s just so ingrained in our lives,” White begins, “I’m sure I danced merengue in the womb. It’s something that, anytime family gets together, happens.” Jumping right into a connection with the concept of folklore as popular knowledge common to Dominicans, White adds how there is also “. . .a knowing [that] it is important to dance babies. . .to instill that feeling, that rhythm, that connection to music with them.”
If you’re like me and did not grow up surrounded by merengue, it is important to clarify what type of music and dance it encompasses. As far as merengue music goes, its base rhythm first came from the güira, a metal percussion instrument that is played by scraping it, a tambora, or drum divided into two heads, and accordion when Merengue was developing in the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s in the rural area of Cibao. While these three instruments are still involved in some capacity in most merengue music, merengue de orquesta became prominent from the 1950s and through the 1970s, meaning there were more jazz-based instruments like trumpets and saxophones and eventually bands of singers performing cheesy dance moves, similar to many American groups during these times.
Though variations of merengue típico exist, White noted how dancing to this music is much faster than the more commonly danced-to music that fits more in the realm of merengue de orquesta. White summed up the dancing aspect of Merengue as a “dragging of the feet in that 1-2 rhythm.” Merengue típico has also been popular in DR in a slower version, when surprise, surprise, more Americans were visiting when the U.S. occupied DR from 1916-1924. As White correctly explained, merengue típico is now, as it historically was, mostly associated with campesinos, or people that live in the more rural, countryside areas of DR. But, White also emphasized that merengue típico is still tied to the identity of many Dominicans. White herself reserves this style to dance with her father.
Now we know what merengue is and that it was developed in the Dominican Republic, the “by who?” question has a few possible answers. What you may typically think of as lore, or stories, are involved when determining how the “dragging,” or “limping” Merengue dance movement was developed. Two of these stories center on enslaved people of African descent in the Dominican Republic around the 1700s, with one asserting that the “limping” was because these people were trying to dance while one leg was confined as they were cutting sugar cane and another story attributing this movement to a victory dance honoring a soldier with a hurt leg in a nondescript battle.
White noted that she did not hear any lore about the origin of merengue growing up, and had only recently heard a story similar to the first one, involving enslaved Taínos from her cousin. She expressed that it “. . .felt like an appropriate background. . . because [the dance movements and footwork] of Merengue can be so subtle. . . and small.”
In his 2022 article about Afro-Dominican music, ethnomusicologist and merengue musician Paul Austerlitz discusses how merengue undoubtedly has both European and African characteristics even though Dominican dictator Trujillo, who was in power from 1930 to1961, denied this and made merengue the national dance to suppress the Afro-Dominican characteristics of Dominican culture. Further, based on folklorists’ explicit arguments included in the same article, there are other types of music that are more widespread in the country, like palos drumming, and can, therefore, be considered more folkloric than merengue, but have not been as publicized as much being that they are more explicitly Afro-Dominican.
This has to do with the overarching anti-Haitian and anti-Afro-Dominican history in the Dominican Republic. On a note of empowerment, Austerlitz argues throughout his paper how Afro-Dominican music has been alive in the Dominican Republic for generations and has still been growing there and among Afro-Dominican Americans.
While I have hinted there is not a concrete link between merengue and the storytelling typically associated with folklore, White says the lyrics of songs can be “about just about anything.” One song I came across that came out during merengue’s boom in popularity like “Patacón Pisao” by Johnny Ventura is about a husband who will only accept stewed fish for dinner, and patacón, or fried flat plantain. White recommended looking at songs like “El Niágara en Bicicleta” which is an idiom translated to “Niagara Falls on a Bicycle” by one of the most famous merengueros, Juan Luis Guerra. The song centers on a story of a man in a hospital where everything keeps going wrong regarding his treatment because of issues with the hospital’s monetary resources.
In an essay by composer, professor, and researcher, Dr. Raymond Torres-Santos about the history of merengue leading up to a discussion of Juan Luis Guerra, he includes the quote, “When asked why people love him so much, Guerra replies that he believes ‘Dominicans relate to my songs, because those songs are already part of their lives and they tend to see me as part of their families.’” This quote heavily relates to folklore previously being defined as representations of who Dominicans are, with Torres-Santos also detailing how Guerra used phrases and sang about topics common to people throughout the Dominican Republic.
Currently, many musicians in the DR are influenced by merengue and even bring new versions of popular songs to their repertoire. For example, singer Steffany Constanza just performed at “los carnavales de la capital,” and famous Urban Merenguero, Omega previously sang a cover together of a song by Juan Luis Guerra and his group 440, called “Ella Dice,” from 1985.
When I asked White about her familiarity with particular merengue singers and songs, she was not familiar with Steffany Constanza nor this song by Guerra, but thought her mother might know the song. The fact that this up-and-coming merengue artist covered a song that is a few generations old demonstrates the common theme of how the messages of merengue are often timeless.
Writing from the perspective of a white American, I have found that learning about a cultural activity that is so widely loved is a wonderful starting point for learning about both the history and customs of the people who developed the culture. Researching merengue led me to learn not just about popular Dominican singers and songs, but about Dominican society, governmental figures, popular foods, and different ethnic groups and religions in the Dominican Republic that are all tied to a discussion about this type of music and dance. So the next time you go to research a country or people discussed in a class or the news, or, because you are eager to generally expand your education, I recommend starting by looking into the beloved folklore of said culture or people and working your way back, forward, and all around from there.
Jenna Krause is a senior Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology major who is interested in how folklore can help us learn about other cultures. She can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Julia Young.