Rafaelito Román was born in Puerto Plata province on November 15, 1953, the son of Monguito Román, a locally well-known accordionist of the 1940s and 50s. Rafaelito began playing his father’s instruments as a child, though without permission, and in 1968 formed his first trio with two other boys from his barrio. He notes that he has music in his blood from both sides of the family, since his three maternal uncles, Juan Ramos, Francisco, and Juan Francisco, were all musicians as well. Besides these relatives, Rafaelito’s earliest musical influences were the recordings of Trio Reynoso and, later, El Ciego de Nagua, who he describes as “the most outstanding [accordionist of the time] in terms of technique and speed.”
Rafaelito recalls that when he first started performing, in the early 1970s, the situation for merengue típico was much different than today. His first group consisted only of accordion, tambora, güira, and marimba, though for recordings they would hire a bass player. He earned only 20 pesos for his first gig, and his father earned only 37 for his monthly performances at a local business. But then Tatico Henríquez emerged, and with his fame, was able to raise the price to 300 pesos. From then on, all típico musicians were able to make a better living.
The style of playing has also changed a lot. but Rafaelito continues to play a traditional repertoire for the true fans of merengue típico. “I have a large audience due to the fact that I have maintained a traditional style,” he says gratefully. But, “our struggle, and I include myself in this, is that the rhythm that others are calling merengue does not deserve to be called merengue in some cases.” Many young people prefer new rhythms like “a lo maco,” so Rafaelito’s audience is generally in their thirties or older. But he is not worried. He also sees how some young people who listen to modern tipico styles later get interested in traditional merengue as well. “Merengue has a great defense [in people like me] – merengue wo’=t die because it is really our cultural patrimony.”
Rafaelito has indeed played an important role in the recent revival of traditional merengue. He runs the world’s only school for merengue típico out of his house in the Ingenio Arriba section of Santiago, teaching young people to play the traditional repertoire on accordion, tambora, güira, and saxophone. He has worked with Rafael Chaljub Mejía and the Centro León to produce a two-CD set of traditional songs. Entitled “Ripiando el perico / Ripping the parrot,” Rafaelito plays accordion on all the tracks of this well-received recording.
Since his career began over thirty years ago, Rafaelito has recorded 8 albums and numerous singles, taught many dozens of students how to play merengue típico, and performed all over the Dominican Republic and the United States. And although he never completed a formal education, he is one of the only típico musicians who reads music and plays every instrument in the ensemble. He has produced a dynasty of típico musicians: his New York-based son Javier plays güira, while Santiago-based Raúl and Nixon are multi-instrumentalists like their father, performing as accordionists with La Selección Típica and a self-titled group respectively. Rafaelito continues to perform weekly at Santiago=s Rancho Merengue (Mondays) and La Tinaja (Sundays).
text by Sydney Hutchinson