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Salsa: The Music
Salsa: The Dance
A History Of Salsa
Merengue: The Music
Merengue: The Dance
A History Of Merengue
Glossary: Rhythms & Styles (A–M)
Glossary: Rhythms & Styles (N–Z)
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Merengue: The Music
(extracted from “Teaching & Salsa” by Loo Yeo)

Merengue as a music (and dance) form, is most strongly identified with the Dominican Republic. Its spread has been aided, in part, by the large numbers of Dominicans immigrating to the United States, bringing the merengue with them. The merengue, like salsa, is now recognised as a transnational phenomenon, spanning an increasing number of countries in an ever-shrinking globe. As of this writing, merengue outsells salsa by more than four to one in Latin America.

History of Merengue
What is not commonly known is that there are several kinds of merengue in the Dominican Republic alone, and there have been forms of the merengue indigenous to other Latin American countries, some of which have become extinct. The form of the merengue that we are most familiar with originates from the El Cibao region of the Dominican Republic and is called Merengue Cibaeño. It was considered by some to be the music of the underclasses, a little like what bachata is now. The merengue's rise to prominence and acceptance by all classes was stimulated by two key events. The first was its role in maintaining Dominican cultural identity from the time when the United States took over the running of the Dominican Republic's customs house in 1905, which had great repercussions on national sentiment. The second was the adoption of the merengue as a national symbol by the dictator Rafael Trujillo. These factors are largely responsible for the dominant portrayal of the Dominican Republic as the home of the merengue.

Structure of the music
The musical structure of the merengue cibaeno has either two beats or four beats to the bar (2/4 or 4/4 time respectively), although the latter appears to be more common nowadays. In that, the merengue is hardly different from many current musical forms. What sets it apart is the presence of certain traditional signature instruments and how they work in the four beat structure.

The first instrument is a double-headed drum called the tambora. It is placed horizontally across the thighs and played with a stick in the right hand and an empty left hand. Apart from other functions, the tambora is most prominent when playing a drum roll (called a tambora roll) of sixteenth notes between beat four and the beat one of the following bar. The other signature instruments, saxophone and accordion, also play a similar “roll” of notes (a section of their entire role) that span beats two and three, in response to the tambora. Hence the tambora calls and the saxophone or accordion responds.

music structure Note: only a small section of the tambora, saxophone or accordion roles are illustrated.

The effect of these notes played by the tambora, saxophone and accordion, bridging the gaps between the primary beats gives the merengue its “characteristic drive” - Paul Austerlitz (1997). One-row button accordions were originally used in merengue, but were displaced by saxophones on the account of the accordions being incapable of playing in sufficient major keys. Merengue Ripiao, which is a form of merengue dominated by the accordion, made a comeback with the introduction of the two-row button accordions, which have none of the shortcomings that their one-row cousins possess.

The similarity of structure between merengue and contemporary western musical forms makes it easy to “borrow” hit songs from other genres and release them with a merengue arrangement. The word “fusilamiento” meaning shooting, assassination, pinching, plagiarism, or piracy is applied to this practice as a negative term. On the other hand, it can also be taken to mean that a song has been fired-up or improved as a merengue. Irrespective of the connotations of the word, there is little doubt that this practice has made it easier for the resulting fusions to be accepted in countries where the merengue is not indigenous, contributing to its popularity and transnationalisation.


I am a Spanish teacher in the United States. I recently presented at a local foreign language teacher's workshop on using music in the classroom. We were selected to present at the Northeast Conference of Teachers of Foreign Languages... in New York City.

I am hoping to include information from your organization's web page about salsa and merengue music and its history. I have looked and no other site provides such succinct yet detailed explanations of salsa and merengue musically and culturally.

L. Fabrizio




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