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Salsa & Merengue
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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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Revealing Items

A History of Merengue
Part 6: Merengue Moves Abroad

The Dominican diaspora
Trujilloist dictator Joaquín Balaguer assumed power in 1966 with the assistance of U.S. intervention. During his government, the outflow of Dominicans that began under Trujillo grew to a flood with the collapse of land reform policies, a burgeoning population, the presence of pro-government death squads, and the “leave or 'disappear'” policy aimed at Balaguer's opponents. The diaspora coincided with a relaxation in U.S. immigration policy, so economic and political migrants found their way to New York City and the associated free state of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has a history of adopting other Caribbean musics in preference to her own bomba and plena. It was the same with merengue cibaeño, which Puerto Ricans had been playing for years before the diaspora; well enough for some bands to have gained acceptance by the Dominicans themselves. Merengue eventually became part of Puerto Rican culture (as salsa did) establishing the island as a centre for the genre, creating a market that immigrating Dominicans could supply.

By the 1990s, nearly a million Dominicans lived in New York, making it the city with the second largest Dominican population in the world. Dominican York, as it was called, developed into another centre for merengue in parallel with Puerto Rico, but its contribution to the growing genre extended far beyond just providing a demand for merengue. The juxtaposition of hispanic and black communities saw a trading of ideas which spawned new movements in merengue-house and merengue-rap. New York also had the necessary musicians, recording facilities, mass media and distribution networks to help merengue overcome resistance from key figures in the music industry and salsa.

Cultural ties
Immigrant populations tend to face an erosion of cultural identity over successive generations, as witnessed in the Puerto Ricans of New York. Dominicans share a similar fate, but are trying to mitigate it by using the merengue as a cultural link to the Republic. For them the merengue is more than just a music and dance - it's a nostalgic and ethnic reminder of who they are and where they come from. Perhaps this has helped the merengue to avoid the crisis of legitimacy that salsa endures today: merengue cibaeño is Dominican, a fact affirmed by them at every opportunity, to the acknowledgement even of Puerto Ricans who play it so well and have absorbed it into their own culture.

Merengue displaces salsa
Salsa in the late seventies was suffering a bout of creative depression, inflicted by the formulaic output of the major record labels. Salsa suave, salsa erotica and salsa romantica were the mainstays of the era: with lyrics that were virtually identical between songs, music that was uninspiring, and sung by artists with small voices. Salsa, whose appeal had once been its relevance to urban life, had lost touch with its audience; causing second generation Puerto Ricans to abandon Latin music in favour of mainstream pop.

The arrival of merengue came as a breath of fresh air when salsa was at its most vulnerable. It was, then, what salsa used to be: a driving contemporary sound, with lyrics describing real events, and performed by personalities of substance. Merengue's rhythmic structure, which is similar to pop, also ensured its musical relevance - it made “covering” non-Latin hits and adopting the latest musical trends both easier and quicker. Furthermore, an effective marketing system (pioneered by William Liriano) helped merengue bands displace their salsa rivals at live venues, giving it greater exposure. But probably the biggest competitive advantage merengue has over salsa is that it's much easier to learn. As former New York mayor Ed Koch puts it, the merengue is “the one dance you can do from the moment you're born”.

Perspective: merengue in Europe
The transnationalisation of merengue is clearly carried more on the back of Dominicans than any other Latin American nationality, bar Puerto Ricans. And while they have been extremely effective in supplanting salsa in the Americas, the same cannot be said for merengue's impact on the Old World. It remains to be seen whether Dominicans have a reach long enough to displace salsa without first establishing a centre somewhere in Europe. I suspect not. Personally, I'd look forward to a stronger Dominican presence, so that more of us can experience their culture through their music and dance.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society