a history of
dominican music
in the united states

Genre Guide: Afro-Dominican Music

Dominican music developed through the process of syncretism, or the fusion of African and European influences. The most explicitly African-influenced Dominican musical types are those linked to African-based religious traditions.  Thriving in rural contexts, Afro-Dominican genres are also practiced in urban centers, as well as in Dominican communities outside of the Dominican Republic.

During the colonial period, many enslaved Africans in La Española successfully rebelled and ran away, establishing autonomous communities. These communities were called palenques or manieles and their members were called cimarrones.[1] Whether in the palenques or manieles or in mainstream colonial society, as free people or not, black Dominicans cultivated rich traditions based on influences from music that was originally performed for everyday people as well as for kings, queens, and gods in West and Central Africa.

Today, the major Afro-Dominican genres include 1) Palos, congos and sarandunga drumming and dances associated with cofradías, or religious mutual aid societies, sometimes also called religious brotherhoods; 2) The salve, a syncretic Afro-Catholic religious song often performed with panderetas or frame drums similar to tambourines often played by women; 3) Gagá, a processional form played on one-note horns called fututos and percussion during Holy Week; 4) and Guloya dance-theater with percussion and hand-made flutes. 

Banco de Palos

Palos and salve are also played at rituals venerating a pantheon of syncretic spirits called misterios, which blend African deities with Catholic saints. Researchers often refer to this religious tradition as Dominican Vodú, while practitioners generally call it La 21 División because there are said to be 21 divisions or types of spirits.[2]

New Fusions

"...Afro-Dominican music remained marginalized in mainstream Dominican society..."

Spanish colonization meant the imposition of Spanish cultural views upon the colonized peoples in La Española, whether Taínos, enslaved African Blacks, or any other inhabitants in the colonized territory.  Though practiced by people across the Dominican Republic in the countryside and in the barrios, Afro-Dominican music remained marginalized in mainstream Dominican society.  In the 1960s, however, a slow trend toward greater valorization of Afro-Dominican music culture emerged, when folkloric dance companies began presenting choreographed versions of rural music and dance. The Latin American Nueva Canción movement, which originated in Chile in the 1960s, used music in leftist political movements.  Convite, a cultural group, represented the Nueva Canción movement in the Dominican Republic. Active from 1974 to 1981, Convite used music as a tool for educational, social, and political activism.  Their music fused a variety of genres including Afro-Dominican music and rock. Convite member Luis Días remained on the forefront of this movement until his passing in 2009. 

“Liborio,” Luis Dias

Blending Afro-Dominican music with jazz and rock, José Duluc, Toné Vicioso, and Xiomara Fortuna emerged as major exponents of a new style, called música de fusión (fusion music), as the genre came to be called.  Duluc and Vicioso founded a band called Los Guerreros del Fuego in 1985. Duluc distinguished himself for his in-depth knowledge of gagá, palos, and congos. He gained his wide knowledge through years of field research. Vicioso also thoroughly researched traditional forms and emerged as a formidable composer.  Xiomara Fortuna, a renown singer-songwriter, cultivated a dedicated following, performing regularly in the Dominican Republic, as well as in Europe and now in the U.S..

“El behique,” Jose Duluc

“Ay caramba,” Xiomara Fortuna

"...Conjunto Folklórico of Alianza Dominicana, directed by Convite alumnus Iván Dominguez, became a popular feature of the Dominican community, with a full portfolio of presentations and an educational program for schoolchildren..."

Afro-Dominican music has a long tradition in New York. Already in the 1950s, New York –based Dominican composer Manuel Sánchez Acosta had a hit in the U.S. with his song, “Papa Boco,” which refers to the 21 Division religion. “Papa Boco” became popular in the Dominican Republic in spite of State-sponsored cultural initiatives that were actively suppressing Afro-Dominican traditions. Also in New York, in the late 1980s, the Dominican jazz and Latin music virtuoso saxophonist Mario Rivera created innovative fusions of palos drumming and jazz with his Salsa Refugees band. The new wave of Afro-Dominican fusion music came to the diaspora in 1979, when Convite visited New York to carry out a series of cultural programs and concerts, including a performance at Madison Square Garden[3]. Raíces Folklóricas Dominicanas, a New York – based dance company, started including Afro-Dominican acts in its repertoire, and the Conjunto Folklórico of Alianza Dominicana, directed by Convite alumnus Iván Dominguez, became a popular feature of the Dominican community, with a full portfolio of presentations and an educational program for schoolchildren.[4] Luis Días, another Convite alumnus, called the “Father of Dominican Rock,” lived in New York from 1980 to 1982. His formidable contributions were recognized in 2018, when a New York City street, the corner of 165 St. and Amsterdam Avenue, was named after him through the efforts of the Honorable Ydanis Rodriguez, member of the New York City Council. [5]

“Papa Boco,” Manuel Sánchez Acosta

Afro-Dominican Music Flourished in New York

Despite its preservation and innovations, Afro-Dominican music remained confined to small circles both in the Dominican Republic as well as in New York City. Although Toné Vicioso had a small following in the Dominican Republic, his music did not receive support from the conventional music industry.  Vicioso felt that “people didn’t appreciate this kind of thing” in the Dominican Republic.[6]  In 1990, Vicioso decided to start a band in New York.  He thought that if Afro-Dominican fusion made inroads in the Big Apple, the increased exposure might lead to greater acceptance in the Dominican Republic.  Vicioso called his new group AsaDifé.  He explains that while the word asa has different meaning in Dominican Spanish argot, including hoe and bell, difé means candela, fire in Haitian Creole.[7] The use of a Haitian term in the band’s name is significant. Vicioso said that, “people say we’re pro-Haitian because we sing in Creole and are friends with people in the bateyes,[8] but we are not political.” [9] Vicioso believes that, rather than engaging in civic debates, the music speaks best for itself.  AsaDifé maintained an active presentation schedule in New York. These presentations included concerts as well as educational workshops in schools and universities.

“Erzili Danto,” Tone Vicioso

In 1994, Vicioso coordinated high-profile concerts in New York City, at the City College of New York, CUNY, and Symphony Space.[10] Travelling to New York especially for this event, they included Roberto Aybar, a specialist in sarandunga music and dance, who stayed in New York City after the concerts, to work alongside other musicians and dancers in the development of Afro-Dominican music. 

AsaDifé became an informal educational institution whose alumni made major impacts on New York Afro-Dominican music even after the group disbanded in 1998.  AsaDifé members Chago Villanueva, Pedro Raposo, and Genaro Ozuna, became skillful gagá dancers. During their concerts and workshops, they encouraged the audience to dance with them. Osvaldo Sánchez, Edis Sánchez, Ernesto Rodríguez, and Bony Raposo, also all members of AsaDifé, distinguished themselves as masters of Afro-Dominican drumming.  Edis Sánchez, however, returned to the Dominican Republic to pursue a degree in anthropology, and in 2000, was appointed Director of Folklore at the Ministry of Culture.[11]  His brother, Osvaldo Sánchez, founded a new Afro-Dominican group, a U.S.-based band called Pa’lo Monte in 1998, which is notable for its recorded collaboration with the famed black nationalist hip-hop artist Chuck D.. Bony Raposo, on his part, founded a successful group called La 21 División in 1999. Finnish-American saxophonist Paul Austerlitz, who also played with the group, later completed the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and started his own band, which fuses jazz with merengue and Haitian music. 

“Enigma,” Palo Monte, featuring Chuck D.

Instead of combining traditional music with instruments such as guitars and keyboards, Raposo and Sánchez’s groups featured only percussion and vocals.  Field research remained central to New York Afro-Dominican musicians, who maintained long-term relationships with rural musicians in several regions of the Dominican Republic.  María Terrero, a long-time member of La 21 División group, affirms that Boni Raposo, who lived in New York until his passing in 2007, always stayed in touch with the countryside in the Dominican Republic: “he frequently travelled and spent time conducting research in rural Dominican communities.”[12] 

Notably, while ritual drummers in the Dominican Republic were traditionally members of cofradías, with a few exceptions (such as Roberto Aybar, mentioned above), New York -based Afro-Dominican drummers were not associated with cofradías.  Interestingly, the rise of non-cofradía ritual drummers gradually became more prevalent in the Dominican Republic. 

In addition to presenting formal concerts and educational workshops, Bony Raposos’s La 21 División and other palo groups started playing ritual music at discotheques, eliminating, in fact, the distance between the spiritual and the secular. This practice carried over to the Dominican Republic becoming widespread in the 1990s, adding a commercial element to the practice of Afro-Dominican music. Longtime AsaDifé member Nina Paulino organized a series of outdoor summer concerts, dubbed Quisqueya en el Hudson, presenting Afro-Dominican music from 1996 to 2001. Genaro Ozuna, on his part, founded Gaga Pa’l Pueblo in 2011, a group that began a practice of playing gagá and palo music in New York City parks weekly in the summer. [13] In addition to providing music for people’s enjoyment, Gaga Pa’l Pueblo’s events enlist the support of professional Afro-Dominican healers, or servidores de misterios, who set up altars to the 21 División spirits, adding a sacred component to the musical performances. Other notable U.S.–based Dominican fusion ensembles included Afro-Dominicano; EcoKumbe; KumbaCarey (click here to listen), directed by Pedro Raposo and María Terrero, and PaloTré, led by Yasser Tejeda, a guitarist whose innovations include blending progressive jazz, rock, and Afro-Dominican traditions, creating a brilliant musical fusion.      

“Nuestras raíces,” Yasser Tejeda y PaloTré

Drummer Claudio Fortunato grew up in a rural Dominican community, immersed in Afro-Dominican music and spirituality. After he moved to New York in 1986, Fortunato and his brothers passed the time by playing drums in their apartment.  Their neighbors, 21 División practitioners who owned the prominent botanica called Los Reyes, asked them to play for ceremonies.[14] Fortunato then created Claudio Fortunato and los Guedeses, a group that played at rituals. The guede are a division of Afro-Dominican spirits. While fusion groups such as AsaDifé play Afro-Dominican music to educate the public about Afro-Dominican culture and to entertain people, Fortunato infuses religiosity to the act of playing palos. Fortunato says “when I am playing in front of a spiritual altar and a spirit medium … I, as the leader of the group, am aware of which misterio to look for and to call with my music.”[15]  Though other ritual palo bands have emerged in New York City, Claudio Fortunato and los Guedeses remain the most sought-after Afro-Dominican palo group. 

“A Papá Legba,” Claudio Fortunato y sus Guedeses

In the 1990s, an acclaimed salve singer named Andrea “Doña Chicha” Nolasco, came to New York.  Hailing from Villa Mella, a historic center of Afro-Dominican culture, she distinguished herself for her singing as well as for her pandereta drumming, which, as mentioned, is a notable woman-dominated tradition. Doña Chicha taught younger women songs and pandereta playing, influencing Francia Reyes, who rose to prominence, eventually being dubbed the “Queen of Palo.”[16]

“En vivo,” Francia Reyes La Reina de los Palos

Former Convite member Dagoberto Tejeda notes that the world-view represented by maroons, has “transcended its historical moment, representing the conscience and behavior of rebellion ... A maroon is anyone who defines his or her own life in the face of injustice.”[17]  In this context, we will end with a quote from Afro-Dominican music singer Maria Terrero, who speaks quasi-poetically when sharing details about Bony Raposo’s life. Terrero said that Bony Raposo “has been clear that his condition was that of an urban maroon,” perhaps a classification applicable, we argue, to all Afro-Dominican musicians.[18]

[1] Maroons.

[2] Deive, Carlos Esteban. Vodú y magia en Santo Dominigo. Santo Domingo: Museo del Hombre Dominicano, 1979; Davis, Martha Ellen. La otra ciencia: El vodú dominicano como religión y medicina popolares. Santo Domingo: Editora Universitaria, UASD, 1987.

[3] Van Buren, Thomas, and Leonardo Iván Domínguez. "Transnational Music and Dance in Dominican New York.” In Dominican Migration: Transnational Perspectives, edited by Ernesto Sagas and Sintia E. Molina. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004, 253.

[4] Van Buren and Domínguez, Transnational Music, 259.

[5] Alcantara, Amanda. “Luis Días, Father of Dominican Rock, Honored with a Street in Washington Heights.” Remezcla, 10 December, 2018,  https://remezcla.com/music/luis-dias-washington-heights-street. Accessed 25 October 2019. 

[6] Vicioso, Toné. Interview with Paul Austerlitz. 23 August 1994.

[7] Vicioso, Interview.

[8] Bateyes are Dominican-Haitian communities located on sugar cane plantations, or in areas previously utilized as sugar cane plantations. See Moya Pons, Frank. El Batey: Estudio socioeconómico de los bateyes del Consejo Estatal de Azúcar. Santo Domingo: Fondo Para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales, 1986.

[9] Vicioso, Interview.

[10] Concerts sponsored by the World Music Institute. This concert series also received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Community Folklife Program. 

[11] Santana, Josué and Edis Sánchez. La música folclórica dominicana. Santo Domingo: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia, 2010.

[12] Terrero, María. Boni Raposo: Biografía, 2007. Unpublished paper. Translation by the author. 

[13] Gagá for the People.

[14] Botánicas are religious goods stores.

[15] Fortunato, Claudio. Interview with Paul Austerlitz. 18 October 2019. 

[16] Van Buren and Domínguez, Transnational Music, 254; Tallaj-Garcia, Angelina. Performing Blackness in a Mulatto Society: Negotiating Racial Identity through Music in the Dominican Republic, 2015. City University of New York, Ph.D. Dissertation, 250.

[17] Tejeda Ortiz, Dagoberto. Cultura popular e identidad nacionalSanto Domingo: Ediciones Indefolk, 1998, 332. 

[18] Terrero, Maria. Boni Raposo, 2007.