The Dominican Republic, in its traditional music, holds a stunning variety and wealth at the rhythmic, harmonic and instrumental levels. Instruments like the güira, the tambor and the accordion are essential elements in Dominican folk music. Some of the most recognized genres are the bachata, son and merengue, which, without doubt, hold an extremely important place in the Dominican national identity.
Instruments and genres
The güira, tambor and accordion constitute the instruments that define the "perico ripiao" or the "conjunto típico", the typical and oldest type of merengue played in the Dominican Republic.
There are various opposing positions on the origin of the güira (a percussion instrument that is played by rasping a rod against the rough surface of the instrument). For some researchers, it was used by aborigines under the name "guajey". Others maintain that it is a Dominican or Puerto Rican creation.
Early on, a güira made of a squash was used, but today those made of metal are preferred, called "guayo".
One of the key instruments in the rhythmic structure of our national dance is the tambora, an instrument arriving to us from Africa. The drum was constructed in the Northeast, where they used hollow tree trunks with patches mounted on the rim, which were held together by a thin rope. Goat leather was then placed on top of these patches, while on the other side, the leather of a female goat was used, as it was the side played with a wooden implement.
The sensual interplay of the music is palpable in the rhythmic cadence of the merengue: While the palm of one hand plays its patch, muffling the sound, the other strikes it with a wooden rod. A third, dull sound, is created by the impact of the rod against the rim made of reed.
As in other expressions of Dominican culture, popular music has been enriched by the importation of foreign musical instruments. Such is the case of the accordion, which arrived to the country at the end of the 19th century directly to the Cibao countryside, a region that maintained an active commercial exchange with Europe, and especially with Germany.
The Austrian accordion arrived to the Cibao region among the goods imported from Europe when merengue was already in style. Until that time, its melody was based on the Spanish string instruments: guitar, tres, cuatro and triple.
These strings all but drowned the sound of the tambora and the güira and the accordion offered the solution, rapidly displacing the first two instruments to make a trio with the cuatro and triple. Later, the trio was expanded to include the "marimba", a rudimentary substitute of the contrabass, and later, the saxophone.
Also known as the genre "amargue", this rhythm pulses with the spontaneity of street musicians. It was born as a bolero using string instruments. According to some researchers, José Manuel Calderón is considered the originator of the genre in the 60s. Later, the singers Rafael Encarnación and Luis Segura popularized it, playing to more popular tastes.
Since the 80s, Luis Vargas has set himself apart as a singer of the genre, contributing harmony differing from the original bachata. Later, Anthony Santos incorporated a new sound with the use of the guitar and percussion.
The new bachata began in Montecristi, in the Matas de Santa Cruz.
Within the variety of Dominican rhythms, the position of bachata with respect to merengue has generated discussion among experts as to the future and expansion of both musical genres. The general theme of the debate is the place these musical expressions occupy in the market in order to achieve privileged positions for both in popular tastes.
Over many years, the possible Dominican origin of son and its possible position as a national rhythm have been discussed. This musical genre appeared between 1870 and 1890 around the cities of Montecristi and Puerto Plata. The theory that son was a hybrid of Hispanic and African elements derived from bolero or that it was a native form of rhythmic or energetic bolero persisted into the 1920s.
With time, the playing style of this rhythm was named bolero-son and its creation is attributed to Miguel Matamoros. Typically, "Lágrimas Negras" is recognized as the first musical composition with this variation, as it was written in the 1930s.
In 1925, the Sexteto Habanero first recorded. In this era, in Cibao and especially in the province of Santiago, similar groups already existed, during this decade and those following. From then on, the Cuban influence, through recording and distribution, transcended its geographical limits, reaching its pinnacle with the spread of Cuban son in the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1950.
For some researchers, what is known today at the bachata fina is no more than son in the style of the early 20th century.
This is the genre of Dominican music that best represents the African rhythmical tradition still found in the country. It also offers, as counterpart to its many rhythms, a melody and language of European origin. Also called Palos de Vela, more than fifty types of it exist in all of the regions.
In its purest form, it represents ceremonial music brought by slaves directly from Africa and in which the influences of Congo, Angola and Cameroon dominate.
For many authors, the "meregue apambichao" or the pambiche originated in Puerto Plata around 1917.
It is said that the pambiche is a type of merengue developed during the first North American military occupation, between 1916 and 1924, as an imitation of the frustrated attempts of United States military men to dance in the appropriate manner at the parties they frequently attended. The Dominicans created a dance step called Yankee merengue, accompanied by a new tambora rhythm and a song with lyrics about a factory in Palm Beach.
The name pambiche emerged from the reference to the city in Florida as a way to lighten the political humiliation suffered by Dominicans during the foreign occupation.
Of African origin, la tumba was the national Dominican dance until the middle of the 19th century, gaining widespread popularity throughout the country until concentrating in Jarabacoa, in the La Vega province, and finally disappearing.
Its complicated choreography was similar to court dances of the 18th century, when couples bowed and changed partners. It was danced by forming four lines of two couples each, with women and men in parallel lines that later divided in small mixed squares of four people. The squares would then, with a series of bows and changes, execute fourteen different figures in which the step of the woman and the man always differed.
Academics estimate that early merengue emerged around 1850, accepted from the beginning by one part of the population while the other rejected it. Initially, it began in coexistence with the tumba, finally displacing it around 1860.
The predisposition to this new dance was possibly due to the fact that couples that before had danced separately, began to "embrace", increasing the hip movement and closeness of the dancers.
At first, string instruments like the guitar were used in the merengue's performance. Later, however, the piano, güira and tambora were added to the ensemble. In 1870, the arrival of the accordion and its incorporation into merengue took the place of the strings.
For the members of the Baní brotherhood of the Peravia province, the dance of the sarandunga is a manifestation of religious devotion to Saint John the Baptist. It is for love and reverence to this saint that year after year they organize their festival. The sarandunga or festival of the sarandunga is the motive of the celebration.
There are three common rhythmic variations of this dance, two danceable and one not. The two danceable rhythms are named "La Jacana" (live rhythm) and the "Morano", a chant that exclusively complements the marriage ceremony prayers.
The chenche matriculado is a loose dance of long strides. It was often danced at the beginning of the 19th century. In the middle of the 20th century, it was danced in some areas in the Santiago province.
El carabine is an elegant dance originating in the 18th century, with moves such as the march and countermarch, balance, half turns and full turns. It is danced with six couples, which allow the dance to have a combination of figures.
It dominated the south of the country in the middle of the 20th century. It features quick spins like the waltz but with more movement and variety, as the spins follow the steps forward and back.
Danced by only one couple, it is found mainly in the El Seibo and Cibao provinces. Its variations have various names, such as sarambo, callao, guarapo and cibaeño.
This dance originated in the attempt to imitate the work of mashing yucca to make casabe (a type of bread made by various native peoples). The couples pass an object hand to hand while a soloist sings and the chorus responds. According the dance, the rhythm and vivacity of the movements increase. This step exists in the Cibao regions.
By Rafael Solano
Sistema Nacional de Cultura de la República Dominicana
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