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    Background to Merengue
    by Paul F. Clifford

    Of all the dances available to us, Merengue is by far the easiest to learn!

    Since the 1930s Merengue is readily recognised as the national dance of the Dominican Republic. However, there is some controversy regarding it's origins. To get an unbiased opinion we really do need to differentiate between the music's historical roots and the nostalgia of the dance itself. Musically, it has links with Cuba but the dance belongs to the island of Hispaniola - one third of which is now called Haiti and the other two thirds make up the Dominican Republic.

    A quick look at the island's history might assist in providing some understanding to the debate about Merengue's origins.

    In 1697 Spain ceded one third of the island of Hispaniola to France, who created the colony of Saint-Dominique. The French colony became the most productive agricultural colony in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo was small and it's economy mainly depended on subsistance agriculture. Prosperous French plantation owners sought to maximise production by importing great numbers of slaves.

    By 1790 Saint-Dominique was a powder keg waiting to explode! About 500,000 black slaves were being managed by only 57,000 whites and freedmen (in Santo Domingo there were about 60,000 black slaves to 65,000 whites and freedmen). The inevitable happened and in 1791 the slaves revolted. The initial reaction of Freedmen, French colonists and Spanish colonists to news of the slaughter of Frenchmen to armies of rebellious slaves was to flee to Cuba taking some of their slaves with them. It took 20 years before the first of these emigries returned to the island. Hence the Cuban connection. It is regularly discussed whether the Merengue music was taken to Cuba (influencing the music there) or whether on return to Santo Domingo the emigries brought back Cuban music which in turn influenced the development of Merengue.

    The independent nation of Haiti was established in 1804 and ruled the entire island to 1844. Hence, the Haitian connection. Of the dance; one story alleges it originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of the drums. This being true the dance probably originated with the slaves of the French Colony.

    However, the most popular story relates that a great hero of the revolution, who had been crippled in one leg was welcomed home with a victory celebration. It was known that he loved to dance but all he could do now, was step with one leg and drag the other to close. Out of respect, everyone dancing copied him and the Merengue was born. The trouble with this story is that "which revolution" is not mentioned. If it is the slave revolt then the dance originated in Haiti. If it was the revolt of Spanish emigries against the Haitians then the dance could be either Dominican or Hiatian depending on which side tells the story.

    Who invented the dance and how it came to exist really doesn't matter to anyone but the Dominicans and maybe the Haitians! The important thing is the imagery of the above stories, both describe stepping side and dragging the other leg to close both are worth remembering as you learn the basic dance steps.

    From the middle of the 18th century the Merengue developed as rural music in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, the Haitian méringue is sung in Creole and tends to have a slower, more nostalgic sound, based on guitar.

    The most representative form of Merengue only survives in the rural areas of the Dominican Republic. It consists of paseo (walk), body and "jaleo". In time the walk disappeared, the body has been extended and the jaleo has been alienated by the insertion of exotic rhythms.

    These days, Merengue is done with the man holding the woman in a vals-like position, they step to the side (paso de la empalizada - stick fence step). Turn clockwise or counter clockwise while maintaining closed dance position (merengue de salón) or individually perform turns while holding onto at least one hand of their partner (merengue de figura).

    Strangers and older couples tend to keep a respectable distance from each other, while more intimate couples break the barriers of personal space and entwine their bodies. Whatever age the contagious beat causes the adrenaline to rise and you can imagine yourself dancing bare foot to the pulse of a Caribbean sunset.


    Dance Survial Guides...

    Heritage of Merengue
    by Paul F. Clifford

    From 1838 to 1849, a dance called URPA or "UPA Habanera" (UPA from Havanna), which had a movement called Merengue, gained some popularity throughout the Caribbean. Whether or not URPA is the root of the Merengue is unconfirmed. Extant documentation from about 1850, indicates that Merengue was very popular among the peasant classes. However, because of its obscene lyrics urban class moralists considered it vulgar. Consider the following lyric and make your own judgement...

    All prostitutes are from Santiago
    and they have a good life in Santiago
    and because of that damn woman
    I am from Santiago too

    Its known that in 1875 the moralist, Ulises Francisco Espaillat, started a campaign against Merengue. However, by that time the dance, especially in the Cibao region, had been so integrated into peasant society that the campaign failed. As more educated musicians from the urban classes were introduced to the Merengue rhythm, the music started to be modified. By the beginning of the 20th century, educated musicians established Merengue's musical form and attempts were made to introduce it into the urban dancehalls. However, the lyrical content hadn't been changed and because of the vulgar lyrics mainstream society continued to reject it. The situation changed from 1930 onwards.

    In 1930 Rafael L. Trujillo, used several "Perico Ripiao" bands for his presidential campaign. Using the recently installed radio stations he caused the Merengue rhythm to be heard in the parlors of the urban classes. Trujillo became dictator of the Dominican Republic and held power from the 1930s until his assassination in 1961. He was from peasant roots and he promoted the Merengue as a symbol of national expression and the culture of the former underclass. Though he repressed its traditional role as a music of social commentary, he did provide a forum for the musicians in the dancehalls. Larger Merengue orchestras were developed, with piano and brass to cater to the taste of the new urban audiences.

    Still for some time Merengue wasn't accepted by the more refined classes, until an aristocratic family of Santiago asked Luis Alberti to write a Merengue song with "decent lyrics" for their daughter's fifteenth birthday. Alberti wrote "Compadre Pedro Juan". The song was not only accepted, but became a hit. With the help of the radio the Merengue then started to disseminate rapidly. As its popularity grew variants of the Merengue rhythm began to appear and while the rural peasants continued playing Merengue the same way (Folkloric Merengue), a new music form began to appear that we associate with the Merengue today.

    Merengue was originally interpreted with the instruments common people owned and were easy to obtain, Dominican Bandurrias, Tres and Cuatro. At the end of the 19th century the German accordion displaced the bandurria in the Cibao region. The music began to be played on accordion, saxophone, box bass with metal plucked keys, a guayano (a metal scraper transformed from a kitchen implement), and a two ended tambora drum, struck with hand and stick. However, due to the accordion's melodic limitations, the music itself became limited, and consequently altered the Merengue.

    Since the 1960's the sound has changed even more with the accordion being replaced by electric guitar, keyboards and synthesizers. The saxophone is now highlighted, giving the music a sharp, stuttering momentum that the old style only hinted at. Despite the change of instruments, the basic rhythm of Merengue remains unmistakable, with the tambora keeping a fast pulse, working around conga patterns, while the bass drum, operated with a foot pedal, provides a continuous 1-2-1-2 pulse

    Today, throughout the world, Merengue has become a Salsa sister dance, with many of the Salsa body moves being practised in the easier to perform Merengue.


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    This page was last updated November 2000
    copyright Paul F Clifford (2000)