Merengue is a Dominican dance music form usually quite fast in tempo, and employing relatively simple melodies. It has been performed in the United States since at least the first two decades of the 20th century. The genre originally developed in the mid nineteenth century from the blending, or syncretism, of European and African elements.[1] Although regional variants of merengue, such as pri-pri and merengue de atabales, are found in various regions of the Dominican Republic, the best-known typical or folk style of the music merengue típico cibaeño, comes from the Cibao, the North-Central region. [2] The merengue típico cibaeño ensemble is composed of accordion, a double-headed drum called the tambora, and a scraped metal instrument called the güira. Other instruments, such as the alto saxophone, congas, and electric bass are often included, and the marímbula, a bass lamellophone, was a common addition at one time.[3] Merengue has also been played by “big band” ensembles with full saxophone, brass, and rhythm sections, as well as in medium-sized combo configurations.

Musical Structure

Two formal structures are used in traditional merengue.[4] The first is the sectional merengue cibaeño, which originally consisted of three parts paseo, merengue, and jaleo.[5] The paseo is often omitted and heard only in folkloric performances. Today, most sectional merengues employ a two-part form. Musicians refer to the sections as primera parte (first part) and segunda parte (second part) or jaleo. The latter term may also refer to the saxophone and accordion lines played during the second section. Although it has the smallest amount of composed material, the jaleo tends to have the longest duration, consisting of improvised repetitions until the closing figure is cued by the musical director.  

"Compadre Pedro Juan,” as sung by Francis Santana

The second formal structure of traditional merengue is the pambiche. This consists of the jaleo section only, played at a slower tempo, with a different rhythm in the tambora. In pambiche, the jaleo can be repeated almost indefinitely, alternating between instrumental and vocal passages.  Legend has it that pambiche developed during the US occupation of 1916-24, when US marines tried to dance merengue, but instead wound up with a hopping motion that resembled something between a fox-trot and a merengue. It is believed that the name pambiche is a Dominicanization of the “Palm-Beach,” the name of a popular fabric which, like the occupying Marines, was of North American origin.  Evidence, suggests that this form existed prior to the US occupation.[6]

"Pambiche Lento," Wilfrido Vargas y sus Beduinos

Merengue is a descendant of the French-Spanish contradance that was brought in the 1700’s to the Caribbean where it fused with African rhythmic elements such as the tresillo and cinquillo.[7] The rhythmic accompaniment in merengue is executed by the tambora and the güira. Three basic merengue rhythms are played on the tambora: merengue derecho, pambiche, and maco. All merengue groups play these rhythms, although the pambiche are less prevalent in merengue de orquesta, and maco is most common today in popular merengue combos and in merengue de calle.[8] Derecho means straight in Spanish, and merengue derecho is “straight-ahead” merengue rhythm. Its tambora patterns traditionally distinguish between the primera parte and segunda parte (first and second danceable parts). One of the most distinctive features of merengue is the run of 16th notes in the tambora that mark the revolving rhythmic cycle during the second part. Pambiche is often performed at a slightly slower tempo, with more off-beat, or syncopated, rhythms in the tambora. Maco is a newer rhythm that came into vogue in the 1980s with groups such as Los Hermanos Rosario.  It lacks the four-beat cadence and accentuates a two-beat feel, reminiscent of disco.[9]

Lyrics

Merengue lyrics are generally light-hearted in tone.  “Juana Quilina” is the earliest documented merengue from the Dominican Republic. Its melody dates back to 1855 and has been attributed to Juan Bautista Alfonseca.[10] “Juangomero” is a merengue from the Cibao that was collected and transcribed by the eminent Dominican composer Juan Francisco García. It was extremely popular in ballrooms in the 1910s and ‘20s, when it was played at the end of nearly every dance.[11]

Juangomero, Orquesta Santa Cecilia

The Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled from 1930 to 1961, supported merengue, and what had previously been a regional folk music from the Cibao became a national symbol. Many merengue lyrics during this period praised Trujillo’s regime. Other traditional merengues, such as “Compadre Pedro Juan,” became popular nationally and even internationally. Although it had been used as a means of propaganda for Trujillo’s regime, immediately after the dictator was killed in 1961 a merengue named “Mataron al chivo” celebrated his death.

“Compadre Pedro Juan,” Tatico Henríquez

“Mataron al chivo,” Antonio Morel y su Orquesta

Ensembles

There are four distinct merengue styles, which are distinguished primarily by their instrumentations.  Each also possess distinct musical features, repertoires, cultural associations, and different audiences.[12]

Merengue de guitarra, is merengue played by guitar-based ensembles. During the mid-nineteenth century, merengue groups customarily utilized string instruments such as the guitar as well as the tres, cuatro, and tiple. This practice changed in the 1870s with the introduction of the diatonic button accordion, which came to the Dominican Republic with German tobacco traders.[13] Many Dominicans, however, criticized the accordion, seeing it as a noisy foreign invader. The accordion, however, eventually prevailed, becoming a mainstay of Dominican music.[14] Nowadays, merengue de guitarra is performed only by bachata groups that incorporate merengue into their repertoires to contrast with the slower rhythms endemic to most bachata.[15] Such groups play in a típico, or folk style, reminiscent of accordion-based merengue.

Merengue típico, as mentioned above, is performed on accordion, tambora, and güira. In its trio format, this ensemble is also known as a perico ripiao (literally “ripped parrot”). [16]  The marimbula, a bass lamellophone which resembles a large thumb piano, was also occasionally used. The marimbula is replaced by the electric bass guitar in contemporary típico ensembles.[17] The alto saxophone is another common instrument of the típico ensemble that was introduced in the early 20th century.[18]  Today, congas are commonly used and some musicians experiment with adding other instruments such as timbales, keyboards, guitars, or even trombones.

Influenced by swing-era jazz, merengue de orquesta is an urban style orchestrated for saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm section consisting of tambora, güira, and often, congas.  The three biggest orchestras of what has been called the genre’s golden age, extremely popular during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s due to direct support of the Trujillo government, were Orquesta Presidente Trujillo (later Orquesta Santa Cecilia) led by Luis Alberti; Super Orquesta San José, led by Ramón “Papa” Molina; and Antonio Morel y Su Orquesta.  After Trujillo’s demise in 1961, merengue de orquesta evolved as artists such as Johnny Ventura developed a smaller combo format, scaling back the number of wind instruments, and adding flashy choreography.

Merengue de calle, also known as merengue urbano, is a hybrid genre combining merengue with African-American hip hop and house music. While it became wildly popular in the Dominican Republic, many of its innovations occurred among Dominican people in the United States.  For this reason, it is discussed below. 

Innovations by Dominicans in the U.S.

Merengue in the United States has developed both separately and in conjunction with merengue in the Dominican Republic. Established merengueros have been active in New York City at least since the 1930s; although the genre did not gain popularity until the 1950s.  Bandleaders in the 1930s, such as Rafael Petitón Guzmán and Rafael Damirón, developed their own unique styles, which resembled, yet differed from, those developed by groups such as Super Orquesta San José in the Dominican Republic, influenced by the swing-era jazz.[19] 

Angel Viloria y su Conjunto Típico Cibaeño was the first U.S. –based merengue group to achieve success, becoming popular not only in New York City but also in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere. Despite their name, the group did not play in a pure típico style.[20] Viloria experimented with a new instrumentation blending elements of a perico ripiao trio and a merengue orchestra. The classic line-up featured Viloria on piano accordion (which is different from the button accordions used in típico music), Ramón García and Ramón Quesada on saxophones, Luis Quintero on tambora, and Dioris Valladares singing and playing güira.[21] At times, the group also utilized upright bass. This modern sound expanded the capabilities of the traditional rural ensemble while at the same time allowing for an improvisatory flexibility not possible in orchestras, with their through-composed arrangements. After the premature death of Viloria in 1954, each of the group members went on to form their own groups, continuing this legacy.

“La empalizá,” Angel Viloria

Accordionist Luis Kalaff popularized típico merengue in New York during the 1950s, while Primitivo Santos’ group performed orchestral merengue in a pared-down combo format in the 1960s.   In 1973, Dominican salsa pioneer Johnny Pacheco included merengue in his LP entitled Tres de Café y Dos de Azúcar.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of Dominicans in the United States made an impact, not only in the U.S., but in the Dominican Republic and around Latin America, with their emerged merengue. Groups such as Milly, Jocelyn y Los Vecinos, La Gran Manzana, and the New York Band followed the stylistic trends developed by innovators such as Johnny Ventura and Wilfrido Vargas, incorporating hints of North American styles such as rock and R&B into their music while making occasional references to life in the United States in their lyrics.  For the first time, merengue recordings produced in the United States began to have a serious impact back in the Dominican Republic.

“Esta noche amanecemos,” Milly, Jocelyn, y sus Vecinos

Accordionists such as King de la Rosa and Arsenio de la Rosa kept típico merengue alive in New York throughout the late twentieth century. In the 1990s, a new style of merengue típico emerged, incorporating the innovations of New York-based típico artists such as Agapito Pascual, Fidelina Pascual, and El Prodigio. This style is known as merengue con mambo. Emphasis on the jaleo, or mambo section generated new distinctions within the section itself and featured several contrasting jaleos which were interjected with cortes, percussive hits in the tambora and güira. The use of the maco rhythm was prominent, which allowed for the execution of extremely fast tempi. Often, the tempo and rhythm may change in the middle of a piece Changes in instrumentation also marked this new style, with the expanded use of congas, the occasional addition of timbales (played by the tamborero), keyboard, and even guitar and brass instruments such as trumpets. Ethnomusicologist Sydney Hutchinson argues that the new style of típico is a product of transnational migration and its resultant restructuring of social class.[22]

“Aunque le pique,” El Prodigio

Merengue de calle developed in New York City during the late 1980s and early 1990s under the influence of groups such as Proyecto Uno and Sandy y Papo MC, who also called their music style as mereng-house or mereng-rap. These groups incorporated rapping vocals over merengue beats that were produced with a combination of electronic synthesizers, drum machines, and traditional merengue instruments.  These groups made overwhelming use of the maco rhythm in the tambora. Fulanito, a group of young Dominicans from Washington Heights led by Rafael Vargas and Winston de la Rosa, was unique for its incorporation of hip-hop into the traditional merengue típico style with button accordion played by Arsenio de la Rosa. The designations of “de calle” (of the street) and “urbano” (urban) place this type of merengue into the socio-cultural environment of the barrio.[23]

“Guayando,” Fulanito


[1] Other variants of merengue developed in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Colombia, and Venezuela during the 19th century, but it was the Dominican variant which spread across the globe.

[2] Austerlitz, Paul. Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997, 135-141.

[3] Del Castillo, José and Manuel A. García Arévalo. Antología del merengue. Anthology of the Merengue. Santo Domingo: Banco Antillano, 1989, 21-23.

[4] Alberti, Luis. De música y orquestas bailables dominicanas: 1910-1959. Santo Domingo: Taller, 1975, 78-80.

[5] Coopersmith, Jacob Maurice. Music and Musicians of the Dominican Republic. Washington, DC: Pan-American Union, 1949, 57-58.

[6] For an in-depth critique of the pambiche legend, see: Hutchinson, Sydney. “Entangled Rhythms of a Conflicted Island: Digging up the Buried Histories of Dominican Folk Music.” Resonancias, vol. 20, no. 39, July-Nov. 2016, 145-149.

[7] Alberti, Luis. Merengues. Santo Domingo: Editora de Santo Domingo, 1983, 15-16.

[8] Hutchinson, Sydney. “Merengue Típico in Santiago and New York: Transnational Regionalism in a Neo-Traditional Dominican Music.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 50, no. 1, Winter 2006, 39-40.

[9] Austerlitz, Merengue, 94-95.

[10] Del Castillo and García Arévalo, Antología, 15-16.

[11] Del Castillo and García Arévalo, Antología, 74.

[12] Hutchinson, “Merengue Típico in Santiago and New York", 39-40.

[13] Del Castillo and García Arévalo, Antología, 21.

[14] Alberti, De música y orquestas, 87-88.

[15] Pacini Hernández, Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995, 27-28.

[16] Brito Ureña, Luis Manuel. El merengue y la realidad existencial del hombre dominicano. Santo Domingo: Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, 1987, 60-61.

[17] Hutchinson, "Merengue Típico in Santiago and New York", 193-195.

[18] Del Castillo and García Arévalo, Antología, 26.

[19] Hutchinson, Sydney. “Merengue Típico in New York City: A History,” Camino Real, vol. 3, no. 4, 2011, 121-122.

[20] Hutchinson, “Merengue Típico in New York City", 121-122.

[21] The membership of the Conjunto Típico Cibaeño was not always consistent. It is believed that the members listed above were present on the recordings; however, various musicians played with Viloria live. For instance, the original singer was Ramón Emilio Morel. After Viloria passed away, Oscar Santiago and Jaime Richetti led the band for a few more years. See Francisco Rodríguez de León. El furioso merengue del norte: Una historia de la comunidad dominicana en los Estados Unidos. New York: s.n., 1998, 72-73.

[22] Hutchinson. “Merengue Típico in Santiago and New York,” 39

[23] Díaz, Rossy. Rumbas barriales: Aproximaciones al análisis del merengue “de calle”. Santo Domingo: Editorial Seña, 2011.