6: Merengue Moves Abroad
Trujilloist dictator Joaquín Balaguer assumed
power in 1966 with the assistance of U.S. intervention. During his government,
the outflow of Dominicans that began under Trujillo grew to a flood
with the collapse of land reform policies, a burgeoning population,
the presence of pro-government death squads, and the leave or
'disappear' policy aimed at Balaguer's opponents. The diaspora
coincided with a relaxation in U.S. immigration policy, so economic
and political migrants found their way to New York City and the associated
free state of Puerto Rico.
Rico has a history of adopting other Caribbean musics in preference
to her own bomba and plena. It was the same with merengue
cibaeño, which Puerto Ricans had been playing for years before
the diaspora; well enough for some bands to have gained acceptance by
the Dominicans themselves. Merengue eventually became part of Puerto
Rican culture (as salsa did) establishing the island as a centre for
the genre, creating a market that immigrating Dominicans could supply.
the 1990s, nearly a million Dominicans lived in New York, making it
the city with the second largest Dominican population in the world.
Dominican York, as it was called, developed into another centre for
merengue in parallel with Puerto Rico, but its contribution to the growing
genre extended far beyond just providing a demand for merengue. The
juxtaposition of hispanic and black communities saw a trading of ideas
which spawned new movements in merengue-house and merengue-rap. New
York also had the necessary musicians, recording facilities, mass media
and distribution networks to help merengue overcome resistance from
key figures in the music industry and salsa.
Immigrant populations tend to face an erosion
of cultural identity over successive generations, as witnessed in the
Puerto Ricans of New York. Dominicans share a similar fate, but are
trying to mitigate it by using the merengue as a cultural link to the
Republic. For them the merengue is more than just a music and dance
- it's a nostalgic and ethnic reminder of who they are and where they
come from. Perhaps this has helped the merengue to avoid the crisis
of legitimacy that salsa endures today: merengue cibaeño is Dominican,
a fact affirmed by them at every opportunity, to the acknowledgement
even of Puerto Ricans who play it so well and have absorbed it into
their own culture.
Salsa in the late seventies was suffering a bout
of creative depression, inflicted by the formulaic output of the major
record labels. Salsa suave, salsa erotica and salsa romantica were the
mainstays of the era: with lyrics that were virtually identical between
songs, music that was uninspiring, and sung by artists with small voices.
Salsa, whose appeal had once been its relevance to urban life, had lost
touch with its audience; causing second generation Puerto Ricans to
abandon Latin music in favour of mainstream pop.
arrival of merengue came as a breath of fresh air when salsa was at
its most vulnerable. It was, then, what salsa used to be: a driving
contemporary sound, with lyrics describing real events, and performed
by personalities of substance. Merengue's rhythmic structure, which
is similar to pop, also ensured its musical relevance - it made covering
non-Latin hits and adopting the latest musical trends both easier and
quicker. Furthermore, an effective marketing system (pioneered by William
Liriano) helped merengue bands displace their salsa rivals at live venues,
giving it greater exposure. But probably the biggest competitive advantage
merengue has over salsa is that it's much easier to learn. As former
New York mayor Ed Koch puts it, the merengue is the one dance
you can do from the moment you're born.
merengue in Europe
The transnationalisation of merengue is clearly
carried more on the back of Dominicans than any other Latin American
nationality, bar Puerto Ricans. And while they have been extremely effective
in supplanting salsa in the Americas, the same cannot be said for merengue's
impact on the Old World. It remains to be seen whether Dominicans have
a reach long enough to displace salsa without first establishing a centre
somewhere in Europe. I suspect not. Personally, I'd look forward to
a stronger Dominican presence, so that more of us can experience their
culture through their music and dance.