Although the merengue is widely known as a Dominican music and dance genre, its early development spanned across the Caribbean. Early forms of merengue existed in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Haiti and Venezuela. However, the development and evolution of the music and dance we now call merengue primarily took place on the island of Hispañola, which consisted of French Saint-Domingue to the west and Spanish Santo Domingo to the east. Today these countries are known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The relationship between these two nations during merengue’s early development was a tumultuous one. In 1804, Haiti became the first black independent nation in the Caribbean. Fears of black revolt caused the Spanish in Santo Domingo to emphasize their European ancestry while suppressing the African influence on the island. This included the popular music and dance of the rural areas, which some sources say made up as much as 97% of Santo Domingo’s population. The urban elite instead danced the tumba, a form of contredanse brought over from Europe.
The merengue, traced back to at least the 1850s or earlier, was not yet a single recognizable music and dance form during this time. There was little centralized communication during the period; therefore, there were many regional variations based on the culture of the communities as well as the instrumentation available. The merengue did not begin to develop on a national level until the United States military occupation in 1916. During the eight-year U.S. presence, the merengue was accepted and even embraced as a form of cultural resistance by people of all social classes. However, the pinnacle of merengue as a national music and dance genre would wait until after the occupation with the leadership of Rafael Trujillo.
Rafael Trujillo came to power in 1930, taking advantage of the American withdrawal and launching a national campaign with the help of the merengue. Trujillo won the support of the rural population by promoting merengue as a national symbol. The top merengueros in the country traveled with him, singing songs loaded with propaganda and praises for the man that would become known as one of Latin America’s harshest dictators. During Trujillo’s thirty years in power, merengue bands were promoted live on the radio, but they were rarely allowed to perform and then only with special permission. In addition, they were denied recording opportunities in favor of live radio performances. The suppression of their creativity and prospects prompted many artists to leave the country for New York and Puerto Rico.
Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 saw a renaissance for the Dominican Republic’s national music. Freed from the propaganda of Trujillo’s rule, merengue bands criticized the dictator in their songs and began to create fresh new interpretations. The tempo of the music was increased, the lyrics became more sexually suggestive, and the instrumentation became more creative and aggressive. These trends were at least in part linked to the importation of Rock & Roll from the United States, allowed by the relaxation of travel restrictions. However, increased travel also led to a diaspora under the rule of Joaquin Balaguer, who came to power with the help of the U.S. and introduced death squads to execute opponents who didn’t leave the country.
Beginning with Rock & Roll in the 60s, merengue began to see competition with U.S. music imports. The necessity of finding ways to compete with foreign music would become increasingly important, especially during the 70s and 80s with the importation of the US disco and hustle craze. One of the most important methods merengueros used during this time to compete against music imported from the US was payola. DJs were paid to play merengue and other local music instead of American music. This practice preserved merengue’s place as the Dominican national music and dance.
Two other practices that helped maintain merengue’s popularity were fusilamiento and el maco. Fusilamiento (literally meaning to fire, as in a gun) refers to the practice of changing popular songs from one genre to another (in this case, merengue). The term can be used negatively to mean the assassination of a song, or it can mean firing up or reinterpreting a song in a fresh way. El maco (also, merengue a lo maco) refers to a percussive rhythm, simpler than typical merengues and similar to disco, that allows songs from other genres such as bachata and pop to be remade into a merengue via fusilamiento. This remaking of songs continues to be used today and is one of the reasons for merengue’s continued popularity.
Merengue has been performed and heard in the United States since as early as the 1930s with the occasional touring of Dominican artists and, more often, the immigration of Dominican musicians. However, the music did not really gain a foothold in America until the Dominican diaspora of the 60s and 70s. New York in particular, with the second largest Dominican population in the world, became a center for merengue’s development and exchange with other musical styles. As a result, the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century have seen merengue fuse with rock, rap, pop and other popular music forms to create innovative new expressions of merengue. The relative rhythmic simplicity of el maco allows merengue to incorporate these other musical influences and still be recognized and danceable as a merengue.
Today’s most popular merengue artists and bands include Juan Luis Guerra, Amarfis, Elvis Crespo, Olga Tañon, Los Hermanos Rosario, La Banda Gorda, Fulanito, Tono Rosario, La Makina and Rikarena.