Rafaelito Polanco was born in the countryside of the Sánchez Ramírez province in the Dominican Republic, but moved to the city of Santiago in the Cibao region when he was three years old. One of eight children born to subsistence farmers, he was always interested in music, in particular perico ripiao, the traditional accordion-based merengue music of the region. At age five Rafaelito began playing accordion and organized a group together with his two younger brothers, Radhamés and David, using instruments they made themselves out of tin cans and other found objects.
My father used to send me out to watch over a little piece of land he had, where he would harvest his products, so that the chickens wouldn’t eat the corn. I’d take my radio, a little radio I had, and there I’d listen to my radio programs. One day I got the idea to make a little accordion. I took a cigarette paper and folded it, since that’s what I had. I folded it and pulling it with my two hands and humming with my mouth, ‘tacataracatá,’ that’s how I learned. The accordion stuck in my mind. I couldn’t do anything else because that’s what I loved.
A television producer soon “discovered” the talented trio while playing in the street and they were chosen to perform regularly on a popular children’s program called “Sheriff Michael.” They played on this show every weekday for three years, achieving some measure of fame, but had to leave hastily when the boys’ father discovered that they were in imminent danger:
They were planning to take us out of the country by night; to take us to another country, from there to here. To make themselves rich with us . . . this was Sheriff Michael and an agent [of his] there. They had their plot, you know. But my father and my mother were intelligent and they found out. A friend of my father’s told him, “Take the boys to Santiago, because they’ll rob them from you.” They took off for Santiago with us at midnight. We never again saw Sheriff Michael or any of the other television people.
Afterwards, the three brothers formed their own group called “Las Estrellas del Cibao.” By 1987, they were quite well known. One day Johnny Ventura, a star of big band or orquesta merengue, was performing an outdoor concert in Santiago. When he saw the three Polanco boys in the audience, he invited them to join him on stage, where they played a traditional merengue called “El Cabo de Vela:”
Johnny Ventura got excited and came up on stage with the whole band, accompanying us . . . About three or four days later, that merengue was already playing on the radio, because Johnny Ventura had recorded it. As it wasn’t then being played by orquestas, Johnny Ventura was the first to record it. And not because he heard it from Tatico Henríquez, but because he heard it from us three.
Rafaelito came to New York on tour in 1994, and has lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn ever since. He is highly respected among other típico musicians as a master of the Dominican two-row button accordion, since he is able to play both traditional and modern styles, can improvise complicated solos with ease, and is also a composer. He has led the group “Rafaelito Polanco y La Fuerza del Mambo” together with brother Radhamés on tambora drum for the past several years. Now, Rafaelito is working with famed bass player Alejandro Guzmán, who has performed and recorded with stars like Agapito Pascual, Siano Arias, and El Ciego de Nagua, to create an all-star combo called “La Diferencia Típica.” He enjoys all types of music, but states, “I’ve always wanted for merengue to stay on top. Because that’s what is ours: the traditional music, perico ripiao.”