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Revealing Items

Part One:
A Dance around the Caribbean
Part Two:
It's Black and White
Part Three:
Defensive Dancing
Part Four:
Rafael Trujillo
Part Five:
Coming of Age
Part Six:
Merengue Moves Abroad
Part Seven:
Merengue in the U.K.

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A History of Merengue
Part 2: It's Black and White

Hispanola (alias Quisqueya)
Often regarded as the powerhouse of merengue, the island of Hispanola is split between Haiti (formerly French Saint-Domingue) and the Dominican Republic (formerly Spanish Santo Domingo). These two nations constitute a complex dipole divided by a “Sugar Cane Curtain” whose socio-political tensions have resulted in genocides numbering tens of thousands of people on one hand, and the rise to dominance of one of the most exuberant forms of music known to man on the other.

Although an appreciation of the history of Hispanola is invaluable to understanding the development of the merengue, it remains beyond the scope of this article. I direct you instead to Paul Austerlitz's excellent synopsis “Prologue to the Dominican Nation, 1493-1844” in his book (see Resources).

The problem with Haiti
Suffice to say that between Haiti becoming the first black independent nation in the Caribbean (in 1804), and the fear of a similar slave revolt occurring in Santo Domingo, the Spanish ruling elite was led to deny, demonise and suppress African culture within their sphere of influence. Dominicans became increasingly euro-centric and tended to ignore or downplay African influence because of anti-Haitian sentiment. Until as recently as the 1970s, some Dominican musicologists failed to acknowledge African contributions to the merengue genre.

When merengue first appeared in the salons of the Dominican Republic in the 1850s, it encountered heavy resistance from the intellectual elite. The prevailing dance of the time was the tumba - a stately contredanse derivative performed in groups. In contrast, the merengue was an individual couple dance executed with a “lascivious” swinging hip movement. Its music incorporated African syncopated rhythms similar to the Cuban danza, so much so that the words “danza” and “merengue” were used interchangeably. To the ruling classes, the merengue (danza) symbolised Cuban/Afro-Caribbean cultures whose African (read Haitian) aesthetics they abhorred. Consequently, the merengue found little hospitality in 19th century urban life.

Country music
But uptake of merengue by the rural population (which constituted 97% in 1880) was extremely rapid, possibly because they were already “steeped in African traditions” (Austerlitz, 1997). The physical geography of the Dominican Republic comprises of very distinct areas; their relative isolation and a willingness by their inhabitants to adapt music instrumentation to whatever was at hand, spawned a number of merengue variants that were regionally distinct e.g. merengue cibaeño, pri-prí (merengue palo echao) and merengue redondo.

The Cibao region at the centre of the Republic was economically the most important, had the highest population, and possessed the largest city - Santiago de Los Caballeros. It also held the top spot in the regional hierarchy because its population was predominantly white. Because of these factors, its variant the merengue cibaeño came to dominate all other rural merengues and is the version we recognise internationally today.

Accordion-based merengue cibaeño called “Perico Ripiao” [lit. ripped parrot] became prominent in the 1930s. It is uncertain how it received its name but two theories exist: a parrot is of little gastronomic substance and was used as a metaphor for the musical simplicity of early accordion-based merengue; alternatively Perico Ripiao, a double entendre referring to the male genitals, was the name of a popular brothel in Santiago where such music was often performed.

Entering the 1900s where this phase of merengue's evolution draws to a close, we see a sharp distinction between its acceptance by a poor rural majority, and its suppression by an urban minority (less than 4%) who controlled all education and communications in the Republic.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society