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An overview of the basic styles of merengue, from tipico - perico ripiao - to orchestral.
Merengue is a Caribbean dance and music style in 2/4 time. Usually associated with the Dominican Republic both because of the huge international popularity of Dominican merengue and because of the increased visibility of Dominican immigrants in the United States, other types of merengue were also developed in Haiti, Colombia, and Venezuela in the 19th century. Today, merengue is considered the national music of the Dominican Republic.
Three Styles of Merengue
Perico Ripiao / Merengue Tipico
Merengue de guitarra - coming soon
Part I: Perico Ripiao / Merengue Tipico
Three main types of merengue are played in the Dominican Republic today. Though similar rhythmically, they are distinguished by their instrumentation and repertoire. Perico ripiao, which is usually called merengue típico in the DR, is the oldest style still commonly played. It originated in the northern valley region around the city of Santiago called the Cibao, a rural, agricultural area, so some merengueros call it the "country music" of the DR. It first appears in the historical record in the 1840s, when moralists tried to ban the music because of its suggestive lyrics and the sensual movements of merengue dancers. The music's very name suggests controversy: "perico ripiao", literally "ripped parrot", is said to be the name of a brothel where the music was originally played. Of course, efforts to censor the music were unsuccessful and largely counterproductive, since its popularity has continued up to the present time.
At first, merengue típico cibaeño (traditional Cibaoan merengue) was played on stringed instruments like the tres and cuatro, but when Germans came to the island in the late 19th century trading their instruments for tobacco, the accordion quickly replaced the strings as lead instrument. The two principal percussion instruments, güira and tambora, have been
part of the ensemble since the music's inception, and are so important that they are often considered symbolic of the whole country. The güira is a metal scraper believed to be of native Taíno origin, while the tambora is a two-headed drum of African origin. Together with the European accordion, the típico group symbolizes the three cultures that combined to make today's Dominican Republic.
One important figure in early merengue was Francisco "Ñico" Lora (1880-1971), who is often credited for quickly popularizing the accordion at the turn of the 20th century. Lora was once asked how many merengues he had composed in his lifetime and he answered "thousands", probably without much exaggeration, and many of these compositions are still a standard part of the típico repertoire. He was a skilled improviser who could compose songs on the spot, by request. But he has also been likened to a journalist, since in his precomposed songs "he commented on everything with his accordion" (Pichardo, in Austerlitz 1997:35). His compositions discussed current events such as Cuban independence, World War I, the arrival of the airplane, and US occupation of the Dominican Republic. Among Lora's contemporaries are Toño Abreu and Hipólito Martínez, best remembered for their merengue "Caña Brava". This popular song was composed in 1928 or 1929 as an advertisement for the Brugal rum company, who were then selling a rum of the same name. Brugal paid Martínez $5 for his efforts.
Merengue experienced a sudden elevation of status during dictator Rafael Trujillo's reign from 1930 to 1961. Although he was from the south rather than the Cibao, he did come from a rural area and from a lower class family, so he decided that the rural style of perico ripiao should be the Dominican national symbol. Like any dictator, he was a megalomaniac who constantly required fuel for his ego, and he ordered numerous merengues to be composed in his honor. With titles like "Literacy", "Trujillo is great and immortal", and "Trujillo the great architect", these songs describe his virtues and extol his contributions to the country. Trujillo's interest in and encourangement of merengue created a place for the music on the radio and in respectable ballrooms. Musicians like Luis Alberti began to play with "big band" or orquesta instrumentation, replacing the accordion with a horn section and initiating a split between this new, mostly urban style and mostly rural perico ripiao. Today, New York City Latino radio is still dominated by orquesta merengue (covered in part II).
Típico musicians continued to innovate within their style during the latter half of the twentieth century. Tatico Henríquez (d.1976), considered the godfather of modern merengue típico, replaced the marimba with electric bass and added a saxophone (it was used before, but infrequently) to harmonize with the accordion. A prolific composer, Tatico's influence cannot be overestimated: nationally broadcast radio and television appearances brought his music to all parts of the country, leading to widespread imitation of his style and dissemination of his compositions. Today, these works form the core of any típico musician?s repertoire. Other innovations from this period include the addition of the bass drum now played by the güirero with a foot pedal, a development credited to Rafael Solano. Many of today?s top accordionists also began their careers during this period, including El Ciego de Nagua, Rafaelito Román, and Francisco Ulloa.
In the 1990s, most groups maintained the five-man lineup of accordion, sax, tambora, güira, and bass guitar, though a few new innovations have been made. Some younger band leaders have also added congas, timbales (played by the tamborero), and keyboards to their groups in an attempt to close the gap between típico and orquesta and increase their listening audience. The most popular artist at present is El Prodigio, a young accordionist respected by típico musicians of all ages. Though he has become famous for recording his own compositions in a modern style, he is also able to perform all the "standards" of the traditional típico repertoire and is a talented, jazzy improviser. New York-based groups like Fulanito have experimented with the fusion of típico accordion with rap vocals. Young artists such as these have been able to bring merengue típico to new audiences.
Merengue típico songs are generally composed in two parts. The first section is rhythmically straightforward and is used to introduce the song's melodic and lyrical material; here, verses are sung and the only improvisation heard occurs at the end of song lines, when the accordion or saxophone fills in. The second section is dominated by improvisation, more complex rhythms, and hard-driving mambo, or the part of the song where melody instruments (sax and accordion) unite to play catchy, syncopated riffs or jaleos which help motivate and stimulate dancers. Típico rhythms include merengue derecho, or straight-ahead merengue, which is the kind of fast-paced 2/4 time merengue most of us are used to hearing, usually used in the first section. Pambiche or merengue apambichao is similar but usually slower, and can be recognized by the double slap rhythm on the tambora. Guinchao is a third rhythm combining the first two that is commonly heard in the second section of a merengue. Típico groups do not have to limit themselves to merengue as they can also play other traditional rhythms from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, though this was more common in the past than at present. Mangulina and guaracha are now seldom heard; the latter is a clave-based style in 4/4 originally from Cuba, while the former is a 6/8 dance native to the DR. Paseo was a slow introduction to a merengue song during which couples would promenade around the dance floor in stately fashion.
Part II: Merengue de Orquesta
Orquesta or big band merengue became the merengue of choice for the urban Dominican middle and upper classes in the twentieth century. Although merengue had been played in upper class salons as early as the 1850s, moralists like then-president Ulises Espaillat succeeded in banning the dance from such locations only two decades later, causing the merengue to effectively die out in the cities. Still, it was kept alive by rural musicians such as accordionist/composer Nico Lora, and it began to reappear in towns of the Cibao during the 1910s.
During that decade, several composers, including Julio Alberto Hernández, Juan Espínola of La Vega and Juan Francisco García of Santiago, tried to resuscitate the dance by creating orchestrated, written scores based on folk merengue melodies. One of these was García's 1918 work titled "Ecos del Cibao." Composer Luis Alberti later reported that such pieces, especially the famous tune known as the Juangomero, were frequently played at the end of an evening's program that otherwise featured imported styles like waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, danzas, danzones, and one- and two-steps.
While these early efforts in orchestrated merengue generally succeeded only in scandalizing their audiences, the political changes that occurred in the Dominican Republic over the next few years made a resurgence of the merengue possible. The resented North American invasion of 1916 seems to have made the general public more disposed to support autochthonous rhythms over imported ones, though the raucous rural accordion sound was still unacceptable to high-society tastes. Nevertheless, when Rafael Leonidas Trujillo took power in 1930, he imposed the merengue upon all levels of society, some say as a form of punishment for the elites that had previously refused to accept him. The soon-to-be dictator must also have realized the symbolic power of the rural folk music and its potential for creating support among the masses, since he took accordionists with him around the Republic during his campaign tours from the very beginning.
Following his election, Trujillo ordered musicians to compose and perform numerous merengues extolling his supposed virtues and attractiveness to women. Luis Alberti and other popular bandleaders created a style of merengue more acceptable to the urban middle-class by making its instrumentation more similar to the big bands then popular in the United States, replacing the accordion with a large brass section but maintaining the tambora and güira as a rhythmic base. They also composed lyrics free of the rough language and double-entendres characterizing the folk style. The first merengue to attain success at all levels of society was Alberti's famous 1936 work, "Compadre Pedro Juan." This was actually a resetting of García's "Ecos," itself based on earlier folk melodies, and thus it upheld a long-standing tradition in merengue típico of creating songs by applying new words to recycled melodies. The new, popular-style merengue began to grow in quite different directions from its predecessor, merengue típico. It became ever more popular throughout the country through its promotion by Petán Trujillo, the dictator's brother, on his state-sponsored radio station, La Voz Dominicana. Musicians like Luis Senior and Pedro Pérez kept listeners interested by inventing new variations like the "bolemengue" and "jalemengue." After Trujillo's assassination in 1961, the merengue orquesta underwent great change. During that decade, Johnny Ventura's Combo Show drove crowds wild with their showy choreography, slimmed-down brass section, and salsa influences. In the 1970s, Wilfrido Vargas speeded up the tempo and incorporated influences from disco and rock. (Today, the term "orquesta," simply meaning a large musical ensemble, is used to describe the pop merengue groups based on Ventura's and Vargas's models as well as the older Alberti style.) In addition, a new rhythm called "merengue a lo maco" appeared and was popularized by groups like Los Hermanos Rosario and Cheche Abreu. Far less complicated than other merengue rhythms, it was particularly useful for adapting songs from other styles like bachata, Colombian vallenato, Mexican rancheras, and North American pop. This process of remaking is called fusilamiento and continues to be a source for many merengue hits to this day.
Merengue has been heard in New York since the 1930s, when Eduardo Brito became the first to sing the Dominican national music there before going on to tour Spain. Salcedo-born, Julliard-educated Rafael Petitón Guzmán formed the first Dominican-led band in the city with his Orquesta Lira Dominicana, which played in all the popular ballrooms in the 1930s and 1940s, while at the same time Angel Viloria played popular tunes on accordion with his "conjunto típico cibaeño" for Big Apple fans. However, it wasn't until the massive migration of Dominicans in the 1960s and 1970s that the music reached a mass audience. In 1967, Joseíto Mateo, Alberto Beltrán, and Primitivo Santos took merengue to Madison Square Garden for the first time. Later, New York-based groups like La Gran Manzana and Milly, Jocelyn y los Vecinos, a group unusual for being fronted by women, gained a following in the diaspora as well as back on the island.
By the 1980s merengue was so big it was even beating out salsa on the airwaves. That decade was also notable for a boom in all-female orquestas, and Las Chicas del Can became particularly popular. Since then, musicians like Juan Luis Guerra, trained at Boston's Berklee school, and former rocker Luis Díaz have brought merengue even further abroad, truly internationalizing the music. Guerra collaborated with African guitarists, experimented with indigenous Caribbean sounds, and explored Dominican roots music with típico accordionist Francisco Ulloa, while Díaz (an innovator since his work with 1970s folklore group Convite) fused merengue, rock, merengue típico, and bachata in his productions. In the 21st century, orquesta musicians began to voice concern that their style would be eclipsed in popularity by bachata and merengue típico. Perhaps for this reason, some pop merengue singers have gone to extreme lengths to attract attention, such as Tulile and Toño Rosario's excursions into women's wear. But even without such antics, recordings by groups like Los Toros Band, Rubby Pérez, Alex Bueno, Sergio Vargas, and the ever-popular Los Hermanos Rosario continue to sell well. Pop merengue also has a remarkably strong following on the neighboring island of Puerto Rico, which has produced its own stars, like Olga Tañón and Elvis Crespo.