What is Merengue Music?

Merengue is a type of music and dance belonging to the Dominican Republic officially as a cultural heritage since 2016.

People tend to use the term “Latin-American” as it sounds more familiar but “Afro-Caribbean” is the right term to define the genre that includes merengue besides salsa, reggae, calypso, and many other well-known sub-genres.

The word “merengue” has been used in many different ways over the years. You can come up with a division of ideas on the idea that Dominican merengue is a mix of African and European music and dancing styles. It seems like there is no way to talk about merengue music without mentioning the historical and political characteristics of the Dominican Republic.

Dominicans from different social and racial backgrounds have different ideas about what it means to be a Dominican, so looking into the roots and basics of Merengue can lead to conflict.

The Dominican Republic has had a lot of political and social problems in the last few years. People in the Dominican Republic have always talked about their country and culture through music and dance, which makes this even more true.

The Origin of Merengue Music

Merengue music and dance are originated on the island of Hispaniola where the Dominican Republic is situated. The Dominican Republic is the only country in the Caribbean that has made merengue its official dance and song. Yet, other countries in the region still say that merengue is their own. There are several stories about the origin of merengue music and dance:

  1. It is said that merengue originated in the year of the Dominican Republic’s founding. It was invented when soldiers were celebrating the new Republic. Merengue is based on the funny story of a runaway soldier who gave up on fighting for the battle. There are also other variations of this story.
  2. According to another story, the dance was invented by slaves who were forced to chop sugar while dragged by one leg and they moved to the beat of the drums.
  3. In the Dominican Republic, there is one more story that says a great hero was hurt in the leg during one of the many revolutions that took place there. A group of people from the village celebrated his victory with a party, and everyone dancing felt they had to limp and drag one foot as they felt sympathy for the wounded soldier.

In the end, the origin remains a mystery.

Dominicans were able to transform the original Merengue into something of their own, which was a major factor in its enormous popularity. It is rather up for discussion where merengue music came from, but most agree that it started to be performed in the Dominican Republic between 1844 and 1850, right after the country achieved its independence from Haiti.

The Characteristics of Merengue Music

Merengue is characterized by the presence of a definite beat in a consistent rhythm that accompanies a mixture of French style and African style minuets in three different parts called paseo, merengue, and jaleo.

Like a sponge, merengue soaks up things. There are a lot of different things that can be added to the merengue, like other types of music, lyrics, and topics. In the same way, there are a lot of different ways that the merengue can be improved.

There are African and European characteristics in merengue. Some Dominicans think that the merengue was promoted mostly with the focus on European characteristics, which is why music has been so popular all over the world since its birth. Still, the merengue was able to maintain its African roots despite the transformations that happened throughout their history.

Even though many people do not regard their African history as particularly significant, the Dominicans still kept and celebrated its African characteristics.

Typical Instruments

When you put the division of ideas aside, you can see that Merengue was initially played on European-originated (at least, they are considered so today) traditional string instruments such as acoustic guitar and bandurria, some of which were built in the Dominican Republic by Dominican artisans.

In Puerto Plata, however, the Dominican peasants began to play this type of music with accordions accompanied with regional percussion instruments, güira, and tambora. This new interpretation spread Merengue.

By the way, the accordion was initially presented as one of the typical merengue instruments in the early nineteenth century, when European traders and merchants brought it over to the Dominican Republic from their own countries.

Later in time, electric guitar, electric bass guitar, saxophone, piano, bongo, and variant percussion instruments also took place in the merengue bands and orchestras.

Types of Merengue Music

Tipico, orquesta, and guitarra are three types of merengue that have been traditionally broken down into three groups. All three categories are genuine, and in today’s society, a combination of them and the matching dancing moves is a blessing.

Merengue tipico has been around for a very long period in terms of musical instruments. Both the track and the dancing parts of merengue tipico have a slow start but pick up speed as the music proceeds.

Merengue de Orquesta is played in a symphony form when a lot of different instruments are used

Merengue de guitarra is based on the use of both acoustic and electric guitars, which are both important.

A lot of people play the accordion, güira, and tambora, and as it is mentioned before, these are the main instruments. In addition, leg movement is needed in the last section, which has 2/4 beat.

Even though the merengue is originally a country-folk dance, it became a ballroom dance in time. There aren’t many different beats or percussion time signatures in ballroom merengue, because the limping characteristic is a big part of the style of the music itself as described in the historical component.

A new type of merengue is called Joke Merengue by some musicians, and Street Merengue by other musicians. It is only a merengue that came from poor areas, like slums. It has a lot in common with other urban music that comes from the streets, like reggae, from Jamaica.

People delight and entertain themselves in public places, on the streets, but in the poorer neighborhoods with this type of music. But the national rhythm can be felt in the drum sound, the guiro sound, as the same national sense.  

Merengue Dance

The sensual nature of this dance type is enhanced by the use of slow and well-coordinated frame motions in 2-step beats.

A more current version called membership merengue is characterized by a fast-paced tune and a wide range of hip motions that may be done simultaneously while dancing.

Popular Artists through the Evolution of Merengue

Accomplished merengue composer, Luis Alberti introduced merengue to elegant ballrooms across the world. The orchestras of Luis Alberti and Antonio Morel were great orchestras that enriched the Merengue, Merengue well listened back then.

Alberti, for example, introduced the accordion and the saxophone to the large bands of the day. The merengue gained popularity in the Dominican Republic’s social clubs.

The “golden era” of merengue rising lasted from the 1950s until the mid-1960s. A lot of great orchestras played at the Dominican Voice (Dominican radio “La Voz Dominicana), not just the three orchestras that worked at LVD (La Voz Dominicana). Besides, there were also a lot of great orchestras that played outside, too.

Besides, Johnny Ventura‘s appearance and rise to power are very important to the way things work. For the Trujillo government, Felix del Rosario somehow added jazz rhyme characteristics and encouraged the globalization of celebrities. Joseito Mateo was one of those people.

The second phase of merengue showed up in the 1980s. In the 80s and 90s, the stars of the Merengue started to emerge. For many years, they would be the best-known Merengue stars. It was a time of superstars at that point in time.

During the period, there were several outstanding vocalists. Fernandito Villalona is one of the rising stars in the music industry. In the Dominican Republic, he has one of the most unique and captivating voices.

Luis Dias was, without a question, a significant artist. He belonged to the Convite group. Participants of the Convite group were conducting a variety of merengue-related studies and events. When Luis Dias mixed different rhythms and music cells together, he did it in a way that didn’t change or lose the merengue’s uniqueness. They were fresh ideas.

As the merengue music was diffused by the Dominican immigrants in the American culture and music, Puerto Recan descent merengue stars also were raised such as Elvis Crespo and Olga Tañon.

You can find more information and details about Merengue music here.

Popular Merengue Songs

Luna sobre el Jaragua composed by Luis Alberti

Siña Juanica recorded by Antonio Morel Y Su Orquesta

Cuidado Con el Cuabero recorded by Johnny Ventura

Suavemente recorded by Elvis Crespo

Kulikitaka recorded by Toño Rosario

Summary

Merengue music and dance are a big part of the Dominican Republic. They have African roots even though their history has transformed into something different.

They have tipico, orquesta, and guitarra as three main types of Merengue music. A combination of those three types along with the dancing styles enhances the experience for everyone involved.

The origins of Merengue are one of the most interesting aspects of how it came to be, with the accordion being introduced by traders who brought it from Europe. Then, with time electric guitar and other instruments started becoming a part of the mix that is still used today.

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