In our online classes we introduce our students to simple merengue dancing. We may not be able to dance as fluidly as one might in the Dominican Republic, but we have to start somewhere. We start by simple marching — stepping with the left foot, then step with the right. Step on each count. The most important thing though, is that we slightly bend the knee on each step. This leads us to shift our weight from side to side, which will make our hips move. WE KEEP MARCHING. WE KEEP HIPS MOVING. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Merengue evolved from Dominican folk music to become an infectious, mambo-inspired dance. While the basic rhythm– 1-2, 1-2 — inspires the dancer to march, the real magic of merengue comes in the ways dancer keep constantly moving their hips. The Dominican Republic’s “Generalissimo” Rafael Trujillo, an avid merengue dancer who, once of humble origins, had been barred from elite dance clubs, declared merengue as the music of the people and forcefully required urban dance bands to include it in their shows.
A tambora is a bass drum that appears in various forms in various parts of Latin America but which is especially essential to merengue. It is usually a double-headed drum, sometimes carried and sometimes fixed on a stand, sometimes with cymbals attached to provide for varying types of sound. The most traditional tamboras are converted rum barrels. The tambora in this video probably didn’t have a previous life as a rum barrel, though we have no cause to complain.
LonelyPlanet.com’s Dominican Republic page describes the D.R. as “a land of contrasts,” from its hot, coastal beaches to its cold, high hills, from the vibrant urban life of Santa Domingo (“La Capital”) to the slow, more simple pace of the nearby rural areas. The Dominican tourist infrastructure may try to direct you to all-inclusive beach resorts, but if you really want to experience the Dominican Republic, explore on your own.
Dominican bachata is a form of bolero-based Dominican blues that originated in neighborhood bars and other “dens of ill-repute.” Bachata musicians sing about pain, struggle and the troubles of daily life, most often with a strong string of double entendres. Luis Vargas is one of the genres’s stars. Vargas has been performing bachata since the early 1980s but only rose to the forefront of the Dominican music scene when he started playing bachata with an electric guitar. He and former-bandmate, bachata star Anthony Santos, have harbored a legendary rivalry; Santos is the more commercially successful artist and generally ignored Vargas, though Vargas hasn’t been shy about acknowledging Santos in some lyrical twists and turns on his albums. Can’t we all just get along?
For more than 40 years Johnny Ventura, born as Juan de Dios, is a preeminent Dominican singer and band leader who Dominicans know for bringing American R&B and rock to merengue. His greatest hit, which you’ll absolutely enjoy in this video, is an ode to the patacón, a flattened, fried green plaintain you’ll find in many Caribbean nations’ cuisine. Ventura is a popular musician to be sure, but he didn’t stop making friends with his tunes. From 1998 to 2002 Ventura was mayor of Santo Domingo, the DR’s capital and the largest city in the Caribbean.
This week our All Around This World online class gets quite a treat — we visit the Dominican Republic. The “D.R.” is a nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Despite having its own challenge, when the Dominican Republic compares itself to the neighbor on its Western border–which it seems to do often– it is proud of its relative prosperity and stability. As we’ll find when we look at the history of the Dominican Republic, those things have come as the result of great struggle, much of it at the hands of the famed “Generalissimo,” Rafael Trujillo. Over the thirty years of his rule, Trujillo–known as “El Jefe”/”the Boss” –renamed the capital Ciudad Trujillo, erecting a huge neon sign that read Dios y Trujillo/”God and Trujillo”, required churches to post the slogan “Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra”/”God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth” and eventually reversed the the order of the phrases, making it, “Trujillo on Earth, God in Heaven.” Today the Dominican Republic is known less for its dictatorial politics than for its beach resorts, merengue music (more about that through the week), and the fact that the second-highest number of baseball players in Major League baseball, after U.S. nationals, hail from its shores.
We end our week in Haiti with our own take on a Haitian rara. Contemporary rara processions start taking place on the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday and end on Easter Sunday. The songs are in Haitian Creole, a language largely based in French, though influenced by Spanish, Portuguese, Taino and languages from West Africa. Lyrics are often political in nature and may include both playful and powerful social commentary, challenging the powers that be. In class we simulate a rara by giving kids hand drums, shakers, rattles and other hand instruments — the louder the better! — and using our percussive powers to whip up enthusiasm to elect one of our classmates as Haitian president. A tough job to be sure, but our kids think they’re up to the challenge.
In a Haitian rara a vaksen is your friend. Haitian rara music is literally music of the street. Rara bands wielding drums, maracas and multiple hand percussion instruments take to Haiti’s streets in raucous public processions. These street celebrations are most prevalent during Easter week, but they also pop up during political campaigns to inspire enthusiasm for candidates. The vaksen is a long, cylindrical tube, a rousing, brazen trumpet . Whether you make your vaksen out of bamboo, as is tradition, or metal, or anything else, the most important thing is that you make tremendous noise.
In the early 20th century Haiti developed a tradition of “twobadou” (troubadour) music, which was a personal, folksy style of narrative music, like American blues or Cuban son. Traditionally Haitian twobadou performers traveled from township to township, singing songs that blended themes of contemporary social issues with twisting tales of love. Though today you’ll most likely find a twobadou band at a restaurant or tourist hotel, the music is endearing, resonant and real.