Dominican music: Merengue and Bachata

Walk around Dominican streets at any time of day, one thing is clear: this country loves music.

You’ll notice Dominicans have a real passion for music, whether it’s playing out of their tiny phone speaker, blaring at top volume from a passing car, or pumping out of massive speakers at a beach club.

Dance is an important part of the culture in the DR. For most Dominicans, dancing is second nature – they’ve been moving and grooving their whole lives. This is why you might get some strange looks if you say ‘I don’t dance.’

There are two key styles of music and dancing that you will hear around town: merengue and bachata.

In Cabarete, a big Latin dance night is Thursday night at Ojo, upstairs in Lax. VoyVoy also often hosts live bachata on Sunday evenings at around 6pm.

Shout out to the friendly musicians who roam the beach, too. They perform wonderful traditional bachata and merengue music right at your table for a dollar or two.

Let’s learn a bit about the musical history of this island.

bachata and merengue

Merengue

Merengue is the Dominican national music and dance. In Haiti, they have a similar dance called Meringue or Mereng.

There is debate as to where the name came from. Some say it is named after meringue, like whipped egg whites and sugar, because of it light, frothy nature.

The origins of the dance are uncertain. One story is that locals imitated the formal closed-hold European dance styles they saw, then livened them up with Afro-Caribbean beats.

Another story is based on the foot drag motion in merengue, where a community tried to comfort a limping returned soldier by dancing with a limp themselves. It could also have been that the foot drag came from sugar pickers who danced with a foot in chains.

The three instruments of the merengue band, called a conjunto tipico, speak of the three strands of Dominican identity: the Taino guira, the African tambora drum, and the Spanish accordian.

The guira is a metal cylinder with holes that is brushed up and down.

Tempo is very important in merengue. Many enjoy a slow, bolero start that builds and builds until it is lightning-quick at the end. The fast, upbeat nature of merengue might be reminiscent of a jive, but with way more Latin hip movement!

Check out ‘Ta Buena’ by El Prodigio y Su Banda Typica, ‘Los Algodones’ by Banda Real, and ‘Yo Quiero a Ti’ by La Kerubanda.

Bachata

Bachata began in the Dominican Republic and has spread all across Latin America and beyond. It fuses elements from West African, European and Indigenous musical traditions.

The form developed primarily on the guitar, using a melodic arpeggiated plucking technique rather than strumming. Bachata bands today will often have a lead guitar, rhythm guitar and base guitar, maybe supported by bongos or a guira for percussion.

It is a very popular dancing style, intimate and romantic, with a one-two-three-tap basic step rhythm.

As well as being great fun to dance to, bachata is a very lyrical genre. It has a big focus on love and heartbreak.

It has been compared to the blues in this way, though bachata sounds a bit less sad in general. Indeed, bachata was originally known as amargue which stems from the word amargo, meaning bitter. Bachata began in the poorer rural parts of the DR, pioneered by people at the fringes of society.

Bachata experienced a revival after Trujillo’s dictatorship ended in the 1960s. Trujillo had apparently hated bachata musics, which didn’t fit his picture of the ‘modern society’ he wanted the DR to be. It was too rugged and working class, so he effectively banned it.

After Trujillo’s regime ended, the snobbery towards bachata persisted, but gradually wore off.

Jose Manuel Calderon is credited with recording the first bachata song ‘Borracho de Amor’ (drunk with love) in 1962. From then on, bachata’s legitimacy as a musical style grew as artists like Rafael Encarnación and Luis Segura brought it into the mainstream.

Today, bachata is popular and versatile, fused with other genres that have given it a more modern edge. Brooklyn-born Dominican Romeo Santos played an important role in modernising bachata in the 1990s and taking it to an international stage, as part of a band called Aventura.

Around the streets, you’ll hear bachata everywhere and see people singing and dancing along to their favourite tunes. Check out Luis Vargas’ ‘Yo Mismo La Vi’, Monchy y Alexandra’s ‘Dos Locos’, and Aventura’s ‘Enséñame a Olvidar’.

Best foot forward

Any immersive experience of the Dominican Republic must involve dancing bachata and merengue. There are dance classes around town to learn the basic steps or improve your skills,if you’re feeling nervous. Best way to go though is to just dance with the locals.

Cabarete is a very safe, judgement-free environment to try out a new dance. Locals are generally very patient and love to teach tourists a part of their culture.

Other popular music you might hear around town aside from merengue and bachata are Dominican jazz, rock, son and dembow (a personal favourite of mine, impossible not to dance to).

So, put your best foot forward and get involved in the Dominican music scene!

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