Merengue

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ueBoth Merengue and Trujillo have shaped the landscape of the Domincan Republic today, but what is not commonly known is how each influenced the other. Rafael Trujillo was a ruthless dictator of the Dominican Republic who killed thousands during his thirty-one years of rule. It is often overlooked, however, that he also reorganized the country, left a lasting infrastructure after his death, and made merengue the national song and dance of the Dominican Republic. Merengue is a type of folk song and dance of the Domincan Republic popularized during the Trujillo era, which can be immediately recognized by its noticeable instrumentation. Through library research, movie analysis, and a brief interview with Paul Austerlitz the topics of merengue and Trujillo will be deeply examined. Although merengue was not created by Trujillo, the culture surrounding this music was indeed created by Trujillo and without his dictatorship, this style of music and dance would never have developed through its different styles and caught fire across the globe.

Merengue, performed on the accordion, the tambora, the marimba, the güira, as well as the occasional alto saxophone, broke sound barriers as the dominant style in the early twentieth century in the Dominican Republic. The accordion is a box-shaped musical instrument of the aerophone family. It is used by expanding or compressing a bellows while pressing keys, causing pallets, to open, which allow air to flow across strips of brass or steel, called reeds, which then vibrate to produce sound inside the box. The tambora is a short two-headed cylindrical drum played with a stick on the right head and a palm on the left head. The heads are made out of goat skin. The marimba is a wooden box with between four and eight metal tongs fixed across an opening in the front. This instrument is then plucked by one’s thumbs. The guira is the metal version of the guiro, which is a wooden scraper. It is played with the metal wires attached. In the early 1930s musicians combined it with North American jazz for performance in elite ballrooms. Merengue’s style features simple diatonic harmonies ensconced in African influenced ostinatos that interlock with dance steps (Austerlitz). The combining of cibaeno-- jaleos with jazz elements gave the music its spicy danceablity along with the national link between tipico and modern culture (Austerlitz 1997: 56). Merengue dancing utilizes the ballroom dance position, a sideways step in one direction, and an all-important undulating motion of the hips. North American influences encouraged couples to abandon the ballroom position to dance without touching each other, disco-style, beginning in the 1970s, but the traditional choreography by no means fell into disuse (Austerlitz 1997: ). In 1936 the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo embraced this new, big-band, jazz-tinged merengue, going so far as to elevate it to the status of a national symbol. Trujillo implemented an isolationist foreign policy; international travel and contact with the outside world were closely regulated. This isolationism, combined with a lack of recording opportunities in the Republic, caused Dominican merengue to develop differently abroad than it did at home.

Merengue has achieved international appeal in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States. What once was forced upon the poor and elite has now become each Dominicans identity. Merengue has been used to build the Dominican Republic as a nation and as an identity, unlike any other music of the Caribbean (Sellers 2004: 14).

As Julie Seller’s mentions, one can travel to the Dominican Republic and never forget it. She notes how there is a festive atmosphere, where merengue is being blasted out of speakers and danced in the streets as well as there being a relentless pulse of merengue everywhere she traveled. Dominican’s of all shapes and sizes recognize merengue as their national dance. One of Trujillo’s finest accomplishments...
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