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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 5: Coming of Age

Trujillo's death brought rapid changes to the development of merengue, not least because pro-Trujillo merengues stopped being played overnight. Instead, songs appeared soon afterward in which he was the subject of scorn. The sedate and formulaic merengues he favoured so much gave way to new interpretations - featuring increases in speed, a resurfacing of sexually suggestive lyrics (based on double entendres), and more aggressive arrangements of the tambora drum and saxophones.

This new edge reflected in part, the political optimism that Dominicans were experiencing, and the injection of fresh ideas - stimulated by the lifting of travel restrictions within and outside the Republic (the most important of which was the arrival of Rock & Roll from the USA).

Johnny Ventura
One young performer, Johnny Ventura, captured the essence of the moment and spearheaded merengue's transition into the popular culture of Latin America. His lack of contact with the Trujillo regime gave his songs a fresh exuberant quality, in stark contrast to those of songwriters who had experienced years of creative repression. Johnny's group, the Combo-Show was also innovative: the “combo” part referred to a slimmer line-up more in common with the Cuban conjuntos, containing just 2-5 brass instruments; the “show” was the visual spectacle - an idea borrowed from the States where all the musicians played standing up, and the vocalists danced whilst singing (previously, all musicians performed sitting down). The Combo-Show format took the Dominican entertainment scene by storm and forced other merengue artists to follow suit.

The onstage act was complemented offstage with a clever marketing strategy masterminded by the band's business manager, William Liriano. He recognised that Ventura's main competition was foreign music over the radio, so he promoted live performances tailored to a target audience of campesinos and barrio dwellers. It was the first time marketing techniques were applied to merengue as a commodity, a practice which was later to assist the transnationalisation of merengue at the expense of salsa.

Shooting toads
The mantle of best performer passed to trumpeter/bandleader Wilfrido Vargas in the 70s and 80s, who presided over even greater increases in tempo. During this era, he encountered stiff competition from the US imports disco and hustle, similar to Johnny Ventura's tussle with Rock & Roll just a decade earlier. Once again, merengue proved able to absorb new influences, this time through two avenues:

The first was fusilamiento [lit. firing, as in the context of a gun], which describes the practice of converting popular Latin American baladas [ballads] into merengues. Fusilamiento is a pejorative term that could be taken to mean the “assassination” of a perfectly decent song. Or it could mean the converse; that a song was “fired up” i.e. given a new lease in life.

The second was increased incorporation of “El Maco” [the toad], a percussion pattern containing elements of Haitian konpa and Puerto Rican plena. El maco merengues have a rhythmic pulse similar to disco, which allowed both genres to compete on an equal footing and simplified the fusilamiento of U.S. pop.

Both fusilamiento and el maco succeeded in maintaining merengue's relevance to the local public during a period of great social change, simultaneously broadening its appeal to new audiences.

In the 70s, radio was the most important means of disseminating music in the Dominican Republic because the cost of hi-fi equipment was prohibitively high. Radio DJs were not governed by station play-lists and so were free to broadcast whatever they wanted. Inevitably record companies began to “reward” DJs who gave their songs more airtime (or competing songs less), a practice that became known as Payola.

Payola is a pun derived from the “Playola” music label that was found in jukeboxes - it implies that you have to pay to hear the music you want. Merengues used to receive airplay only during the weekends but soon came to be heard at all hours of every day, simply because DJs did not receive payment for playing foreign music. Payola unwittingly promoted local music over imports, ingraining merengue in the Dominican national consciousness.

Juan Luis Guerra and 4.40
The Dominican Republic's greatest son was not born of lower class parents, and yet his music succeeded in bridging the gap between the privileged and the not. A graduate from the Dominican Conservatory and Berklee College in Boston, Guerra draws upon an eclectic mix of Caribbean sounds and jazz to produce songs that transcend class boundaries.

Undoubtedly his greatest gift is in writing merengues and bachatas through which he succeeds in drawing in audiences from different social classes: party music for the masses, coupled with acute lyrical commentary for the intelligentsia. Guerra calls his music “el merengue dual” [dual merengue], meaning music to make you dance and think at the same time.

Although he is sometimes criticised for popularising bachata without making audiences aware of its underclass origins, the fact remains that Guerra and his quartet 4.40 formed a major conduit through with bachata achieved pan-American recognition and prominence.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society