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Prologue
Part One:
A Dance around the Caribbean
Part Two:
It's Black and White
Part Three:
Defensive Dancing
Part Four:
Rafael Trujillo
Part Five:
Coming of Age
Part Six:
Merengue Moves Abroad
Part Seven:
Merengue in the U.K.
Resources

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A History of Merengue
Part 1: A Dance Around the Caribbean

Merengue today has come to be perceived as a child of the Dominican Republic for a number of reasons. But contrary to popular belief, merengue's early history locates it to multiple sites across the Caribbean:

In Puerto Rico, Cuban marching bands introduced the upa around 1842 which later became known as the merengue. A danza variant containing African elements, the different manner in which it was danced got it labelled as a “corrupting influence” by the local elite. Laws were quickly passed where people were fined and imprisoned for indulging in it. Under such extreme pressure, Puerto Rico's merengue died out within forty years. But it did have the last laugh - its shoes were eventually filled by the Dominican merengue.

Both Colombia and Venezuela developed their own versions, from the late 1800s through to a peak in the 1930s. They were performed more in the coastal areas which hints at an outside influence, but their precise origins remain unclear. The Haitian mereng sprang into existence as a local contredanse derivative in the 1850s, and is arguably one of the oldest forms of the merengue.

Developing dances
At this point I must digress a little to highlight two of the three engines that power the development of Latin American music and dance:

The first is the inevitable hybridisation of African and European practices (creolisation) as a result of colonisation: witnessed in dance by pronounced hip movements while in ballroom (contredanse) hold; and in the merging of heavily syncopated rhythms with ensemble music.

The second is, quite simply, an obsession with food terms. Take for example, the French word “meringue” - a fluffy white confection of Swiss origin. Some etymologists believe that it became creolised in Haiti to the word “mereng” where it was used to describe a music and dance genre, and that it was via this route that the Spanish equivalent “merengue” came to describe the phenomenon it is today.

Historical limbo
If history was shaped by words alone, then French Haiti would have strong claim to being the birthplace of merengue. But as Paul Austerlitz puts it, “In the final analysis, no hard evidence links merengue's early history to any particular nation”. What we can say with certainty is: that the merengue is a truly pan-Caribbean genre, that it is comparable to the Cuban son in age, and that as such it predates salsa by more than a century.

 

 
1999 Salsa & Merengue Society
Email: enquiries@salsa-merengue.co.uk