Typical Dominican Music
Dominicans are extraordinary musical beings. From the simple and sunny work of field hands with their “cantos de hacha” (songs of the fields) to the daily errands of the highest urban official, the country is constantly filled with music, rhythm and gaiety. As a result of an apparent psychological need for music, an impressive number of radio stations exist in the country, distributed from the capital to the most remote provinces. This abundance of daily song fills a significant part of the musical quota that the population requires.
In the Dominican Republic, every activity has its own music: any political event is worthy of a story narrated by music and lyrics, including verses dedicated to candidates during presidential campaigns. Specific music exists for the celebration of anniversaries, weddings, mothers, patron saints, patriotic heroes, the raising of the flag in schools, for trees and flowers, for towns and villages, sports teams and celebrities. All is sung in the Dominican Republic!
This impressive musical fixation (meriting a study of the national psyche) frames the most prominent characteristics of the popular culture of a people who have survived struggle after struggle, since the beginning of their country. This constant conflict explains the refuge the Dominican allows him or herself in his songs, rhythms and dances.
With or without the radio, music is present every day in national events through various media: municipal or military bands, orchestras and merengue bands, folk music groups, as well as constant ballads and bachatas on the lips of people from all walks of life. The Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional (National Symphonic Orchestra) performs in some seasons at the Teatro Nacional, or the National Theater, as do choruses, both the National Chorus and the Chorus from the Primada Catedral.
Typical Dominican Music
One of the unique characteristics of Dominican popular music is its constant variation. For some, that fact is an admirable proof of the creative gift. For others, such variation can only bring confusion and dissolution of original cultural values. What is sure is that the country has, for decades, been a scene of a great explosion of music, rhythms and styles that, though different, are inextricably linked to merengue. The result has been positive, undoubtedly, if it is measured in international impact.
Though it has sustained a clear loss of its earlier international importance, the merengue of today has maintained the structure it gained over the last three decades of the 20th century. Complaints follow, and not without reason, for its loss of importance, but the overwhelming popularity of other tropical rhythms such as mambo, salsa and others should be recalled, as their peaks are only a memory. Popular music has always been subject to the inexorable assault of commercialism, always cold and unscrupulous.
Returning to the undulating trajectory of merengue, casual or forged by the hands of its various leaders in turn, it would be interesting to get a panoramic view, though succinct, of the most prominent changes, not in its popular dimension nor in the enthusiastic (or not) response of the masses, but strictly in its musical construction as well as its form.
Of old, the rhythmic concept of Dominican folk music featured a cadence without punctuations nor provocative or exciting aspects. The accordion, a foreign element naturalized by popular acclaim, promoted that sense of enchanting movement (“jamaqueo” as it is called in the Cibaeño slang) that characterizes the original style. When the rhythm, formed in the din of Dominican parties, was dressed in a coat and tie and introduced into the social salons, the different instrumentation did not elicit a negative reaction among various parties. It was the same fragrance, just a new package.
The world, then buried in wars and conflicts, sparked a series of radical cultural transformations that penetrated even the deepest parts of the human character and personality. Our country was not exempt from the globalization of those sentiments. Merengue absorbed these transformations and changed within itself in an eloquent reflection of the surrounding world.
Our folk music, in the hands of the perico ripiao, the typical Dominican merengue group, has become a great phenomenon of popularity and attraction for more than a decade, much superior to its past reputation. This rise in popularity has paved the way for a strange proliferation of these groups, responsible for many appearances in all places of amusement, most notably in the region of Cibao. It is important to recognize the valuable support that this music has received from Dominicans living abroad, who have an even more extreme sense of dominicanidad.
The perico ripiao only used the drum, the güira (a typical percussion instrument) and the accordion, from their appearance in the end of the 19th Century and until 1970. Then, with the inevitable marriage of electronics to music, the groups began to use amplified bass guitars. This addition brought with it the final replacement of the useless “marimba”, made of a wood box with a hole in the front fit with thin sheets of metal that, when pulsed, sounded in a dull approximation of a contrabass and produced an atonal, undefined sound.
The saxophone, an instrument of belgian-french origin, fascinated the “merengueros”, or merengue musicians, who adopted it without objection, acquiring with it an innovative style and a greater variety of sound. Recently, with the success of these groups and the demand and competition they have birthed, the trumpet has been incorporated into the sound. This addition is, in some ways, unfortunate, as the original sound is lost and becomes similar in quality to the popular combo.
By Rafael Solano