06 Nov 2009
The merengue is the national music of the Dominican Republic and is played to accompany the very popular folk dance of the same name. The name merengue has little to do with the music, instead it is derived from the steps in the dance where the legs of the dancers look like eggbeaters, in much the same way the eggs and sugar are beaten to make the sugar confection named merengue. Both the dance and music are rousing and vivacious, very different in character from the Haitian mereng or meringue, which is danced and sung slower.
The traditional band playing merengue music is a trio composed of an accordion, a two-sided drum called a tambora and a percussion instrument called a güira. The güira is a scraper made of a sheet of metal shaped into a tube, with one area pricked outward with nails. This perforation makes the unique sound associated with the merengue when a stiff brush is run against it. The güira is played in syncopation with the other two rhythms from the tambora, which is played with the hand on one drum and the stick on another.
The resulting rhythms play a pattern called the quintilla, which is synonymous with merengue music. Many purists claim that if it is not played to a quintilla, then it is not the merengue. Other instruments could be added to the merengue band, but the three main instruments are standard.
Merengue music was originally played by Dominican bandurrias, the tres and the quatro, along with the güira and the tambora. However, when German traders came to the Dominican Republic, they introduced the accordion to the locals in exchange for tobacco and the new novel-sounding instrument replaced the roles of the string instruments in merengue music. It is often said that the three main instruments of the merengue band are symbolic of the Dominican Republic’s diverse cultural landscape: the foreign accordion, the Caribbean güira and the African tambora, all working together to produce the country’s national music.
The most common form of merengue music is the Perico Ripiao, also called the Merengue Tipico or typical merengue. Perico ripiao actually translates to “the ripped parrot,” which was actually the name of a famous brothel. Perico Ripiao is the most common form of merengue and is the merengue music that you hear today. Other forms of merengue music are the Merengue Orquestra and the Merengue Gitarra.
One of the first, important composers of merengue music is Francisco “Ñico” Lora, who was responsible for the accordion’s swift popularity. Merengue music’s popularity rose even further when the dictator Rafael Trujillo held control over the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, by commissioning several merengues to be written to glorify him. It was during Trujillo’s time that a merengue song became a hit all over the world. Entitled “Compadre Pedro Juan,” it was written, performed and popularized by Luis Alberti.
Other merengue musicians of note include the Queen of Merengue Milly Quezada, Juan Luis Guerra, Los Hermanos Rosario and Elvis Crespo.