by Alex Cosper (3/26/2018)
Merengue music originates from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The dance associated with the music known as "the merengue" is the national dance of the Dominican Republic, as established by the country's dictator Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961. The roots of the music trace back to the rural northern area of Santiago in the mid-nineteenth century. The dance combines elements of African and French roots and evolved from a circular group orientation to a couple's dance.
The Dominican Republic gained independence from Haiti in 1844, which is when some historians point to the birth of merengue music. Early merengue was mainly played on stringed instruments and then the accordion was added after it was introduced by German traders in the 1880s. The accordion went on to become the lead instrument of the genre. Later instruments included piano and horns with percussion from tamboras and guiras.
Francisco "Nico" Lora helped usher in the accordion age in the early 1900s. He wrote thousands of songs, which included plenty of improvisation. Many of his songs commented on social events, such as Cuban independence and US occupation of the Dominican Republic. The music spread to the United States with the popularity of New York-based Rafael Petiton Guzman in the 1930s. The music grew in popularity by the 1950s with acts such as Luis Alberti and Angel Viloria y su Conjunto Tipico Cibaeno. Alberti's recording "Compadre Pedro Juan" in 1955 became an international hit and established the two-part form of the dance as the standard. Johnny Ventura was a leading merengue star of the fifties.
Over the years merengue music expanded to include a wide variety of tempos. The ballroom version of the dance is usually done at a slower tempo than in a typical nightclub. The most traditional form of the music is known as merengue tipico or perico ripiao. The two other popular types are the big band-sounding merengue de orquestra and the more guitar-oriented merengue de guitarra. A typical line-up in the 90s was a five-piece band that included accordion, sax, tambora, guira and bass.
During his reign as leader of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo ordered music to write music according to his tastes. His brother Petan Trujillo promoted the music on his state-sponsored radio station, La Voz Dominicana. Albert's music of the big band era was considered more acceptable to the masses. One of the most well known merengue tipico musicians was Tatico Henriquez, who helped make the sax a more prominent instrument in merengue. Some of the top artists of the 21st century include Los Toros Band, Rubby Perez and Alex Bueno.