The merengue is an essential aspect for life in the Dominican Republic that can help us to better understand the Dominican culture. Its impact is felt in politics, economics, and the country's social structure and national celebrations, and it is important to transnational communities. The merengue is more then simple a genre of music, it is a living bit of history which should be studied.
The merengue is the product of a variety of cultures blending together in the Dominican Republic , and this music is now one of the defining symbols of the nation. The African, French and Haitian cultures played particularly significant roles in the evolution of the music in the early 19 th century (Behague p65-9). The rise of the merengue correlates with the time in which the racial and ethic terms of the Dominican society slowly became less a matter of black and white, and more a matter of elite and poor. The merengue has since become a source of national pride and identity, allowing the Dominican Republic to incorporate its music in almost all facets of daily life.
The Dominican Republic is located in between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean on the island of Hispaniola . It shares the island with its neighbor to the west, Haiti . The Dominican Republic , when compared to states in the USA , is more then twice the size of New Hampshire . The landscape is that of rugged high ground and peaks with basins between. The weather in the Dominican Republic is classified as a tropical maritime, it has slight seasonal temperature deviation, and the rainfall depends on the season. Due to its location between the Caribbean and Atlantic bodies of water, the Island of Hispaniola is at a high risk for hurricanes and serious tropical storms. ( www.cia.gov 2004)
The original people of the island, the Taino Indians, literally meaning “gentle”, were a peaceful and self-sufficient population. They were quickly reduced in numbers due to disease when invaded and overtaken by Spanish rule. The modern history of the Dominican Republic began with Spanish explorations on the island of Hispaniola (Manuel 1995). The Spanish half of Hispaniola was named “ Santo Domingo ” (Manuel 1995). Due to the demand for slave labor, the Spanish began the importation of Africans, which caused the island to become even more diverse. In 1795 the French were able to oust the Spanish, and took control of Santo Domingo (Behague 1994). In 1822 Santo Domingo was again invaded, this time by their western neighbors, Haiti (Manuel 1995). The Dominican Republic became sovereign in 1844, despite economically and politically unsteady conditions ( www.cia.gov 2004). Until the mid 20 th century the Dominican Republic worked towards stability, and since has finally achieved and matured to have one of the fastest economic growth rates in the hemisphere over the past decade ( www.cia.gov 2004).
A distinguishing feature the Dominican Republic, which also is significant to the evolution of the merengue as a unique class of music, is the ethnic background of the Dominican Republic. As one can interpret from the progression of the Dominican Republic from its colonial origins to its present independent status due to the assimilation of several types of peoples, the Dominican Republic is a very vibrant and integrated society. The amalgamation of the various cultures of the Taino, Spanish, French, African, and Haitian backgrounds is evident in all aspects of life. The estimated population composition is sixteen-percent white, and eleven-percent black, while seventy three percent of the population claims to be some mix of the various ethnicities ( www.cia.com 2004, Manuel 1995). The interactions between these different cultures as the Dominican Republic struggled to find itself a national identity gave way to the union of all the different facets the island encompassed, which can be seen the music of the area. The merengue in particular portrays some early European influences, as well as a distinct African flair. There is also a striking Caribbean similarity, but many scholars struggle to decipher where the association is due to the merengue's influence on the surrounding Caribbean islands' music, or vice versa (Behague 1994). Regardless of the true origins of the merengue, there is no doubt that the traditional merengue is unique to the national identity of the Dominican people, a point which will be further explored below.
The origins of the merengue are obscure, due in part to the integration of so many musical customs in a particularly unstable region. The structure of the merengue is “an introduction, followed by an eight measure slow melody and a fast section of the same length” (Weil, 1973, p 119). As discussed in Cambeira, the ethnomusicologist Fradaique Lizardi, suggests that the merengue is a byproduct of African and Haitian sources (Cambeira, 1997). Others suggests that the music initially made its appearance in the 1840's, as a popular dance that accompanied celebrations (Behague 1994). The establishment in 1844 of the First Republic of the Dominican Republic may have spurred the development of the merengue (Cambeira, 1997, p252). Merengue could be easily recognized as the popular genre in lower income populations throughout the early 1920's, and continued to infiltrate the musical scene until finally being accepted by the elite classes in the 1950's (Behague 1994). The acceptance of the merengue by the elite classes was crucial to its establishment as an emblem of national identity for the Dominican Republic .
The Cultural Significance of the Merengue
As the Dominican Republic grows and spreads itself further into the world, the merengue will adapted and become a stronger genre of music. The national identity of a nation is always changing due to outside factors, namely globalization. The merengue will be the traditional music of the Dominican Republic for years to come, but it may not always sound the way it does today. Other musical realms will likely influence and cause it to be altered. The mostly likely prospect is the Americanization of the merengue, simply due to increasing travel between the two countries, and the number of Dominican immigrants currently living in the USA . Despite this possible change, the merengue will remain interrelated with the Dominican Republic.
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