The History and Spread of Merengue

From the Dominican Republic to Dancehalls Around the World

Couple Dancing
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Merengue is a type of music strongly associated with Dominican national identity, but the genre only started gaining in popularity in the mid-19th century, displacing the former musical leader of the Dominican Republican, tumba.

Influenced by Spanish decema and plena, merengue is probably a close cousin of the Haitian "meringue," a musical genre sung in Creole but with a slower tempo and more sentimental melody.

This is likely because both styles emerged because of the slave trade of their respective regions, which integrated large swaths of African prisoners with the culture of their new homes.

Origins and Evolution of Merengue

The early merengue was called "merengue tipico" and was originally played on accordion — introduced by German trade merchants — saxophone, box bass, guyano and double-ended tambora drum. It was the music of the lower-classes in the early 20th century, called obscene because of oblique references to sexual and political issues.

However, in the 1930s, merengue came into its own during the dictatorship of Rafael Turjillo. Because of his country roots, he was already a merengue fan; during his presidential campaign, he asked several bands to write merengue music promoting his political bid and was a champion of merengue as the symbolic music of the national culture. But Trujillo's rule was a reign of terror, and the somber mood of the country was reflected in its music.

With the assassination of Trujillo in 1961, merengue starting incorporating American rock, R&B and Cuban salsa elements. The instrumentation changed, with electronic guitars and synthesizer replacing the traditional accordion. The first internationally well-known musician (and Dominican idol at the time) promoting merengue was Johnny Ventura.

Johnny Ventura, Wilfrido Vargas and Milly Quezada

Johnny Ventura started playing music in 1956 with the espoused goal of "waking up the audience." He succeeded by adding matching costumes and synchronized dance movement ala Motown. Ventura was the undisputed "King of Merengue" for 3 decades, abetted by the "pay-as-you-play" (payola) radio promotion system that is still in effect today.

In the 1970s and 1980s, attention turned from Ventura to Wilfrido Vargas, the trumpeter and composer who was primarily responsible for bringing merengue to an international audience.

Ventura had taken the first step in modernizing merengue, but Vargas took it a step further. He increased the tempo to what it is today — a distinctive galloping speed. He then started fusing the predictable music with Latin American rhythms such as Colombian cumbia, reggae and eventually added hip-hop and rap to the mix. He also broadened the appeal of the music by covering familiar Latin American ballads in the merengue style.

There were many merengue stars that made their claim to fame during the 1990s including Jossie Esteban y La Patrulla 15, Sergio Vargas and Bonny Cepeda but the vocalist — and one of the few female merengue artists — that caught the public's attention was Milly Quezada.

Vying for the title of "Queen of Merengue" with Puerto Rico's Olga Tanon, Milly Quezada got her start as the lead vocalist for Milly y Los Vecinos which, while based in New York, proved that merengue could be popular and successful in the enclave of Puerto Rican salsa.

Olga Tanon, Elvis Crespo and the Spread of Merengue

Merengue did have an uphill battle catching on in New York but it finally made successful inroads among the dance-crazy population toward the end of the 1980s. Helping to promote merengue's popularity was the large influx of Dominicans into the Puerto Rican dominated city. Over time, Dominican merengue gained an equal footing with Puerto Rican salsa romantica both in the dancehalls and on the radio.

As merengue's popularity increased with New York's Puerto Rican population, the Caribbean island started to spawn its own merengue stars.

Chief among them is Olga Tanon, the other "Queen of Merengue" and probably the artist most responsible for promoting the genre's popularity in Puerto Rico itself. Tanon's style is unique and wild, her contralto voice is strong and her music often courses through styles from electronic to flamenco.

Elvis Crespo hit the Puerto Rican merengue scene with a big bang. While his musical style is similar to Tanon's, his look is unique with characteristic long, straight black hair and wild, trippy antics. Crespo originally sang with Grupo Mania before breaking out on his own in 1998. His debut album was the massive hit, "Suavemente."

Here are some suggestions for albums that are representative of the merengue artists in this article. It will give you an opportunity to listen to each of the artists and give you a sense of the changes to the genre with each successive wave of stylistic evolution.