Short history of merengue típico
Merengue típico, or traditional merengue, can be traced back to the 1850s. It comes from the northern valley region around the city of Santiago, called the Cibao, so this term is sometimes considered synonymous with “merengue cibaeño.” The original group consisted of stringed instruments like guitar, tres, or cuatro as well as the güira and the two-headed tambora drum. In the early 20th century, a bass instrument called marimba was sometimes added to the ensemble. This relative of the African mbira is made of a wooden sounding box with 5-8 metal keys. The instrumentation is often considered emblematic of the three cultural influences that contributed to the music’s development: European guitar or, later, accordion; African marimba and tambora; and the güira, which some consider to be of native Taíno origin.
Though the güira has played an important role in merengue since its inception, the rest of the ensemble has been through major changes. A significant innovation occurred when Germans came to the island in the 1870s, trading their accordions for tobacco. The instrument quickly gained popularity and soon replaced the tres and cuatro as leader of the típico ensemble. The two-row diatonic button accordion continues to be used by most típico musicians, preferably made by Hohner; sometimes the one-row version is also seen. Also, though today the tambora is played with one stick in the right hand and the flat palm of the left hand, legend has it that it was not always so. A turn-of-the-century musician dropped his left-hand stick during a performance, but had to keep going; others soon latched on to the new sound he had created by accident.
As with many other kinds of rural folk music, merengue típico was originally considered disreputable. Its more descriptive and colorful name, perico ripiao (literally ‘ripped parrot’), is said to have been the name either of a house of ill repute where the music was played or a dish served there. The lyrics were often suggestive, and sometimes political. Predictably, activists tried to ban the music and the provocative dance done to it, with little success. It continued to be played in the Cibao into the 20th century, along with other dances like mangulina, carabiné, polka, guarapo, and zarambo.
Merengue experienced a sudden elevation of status when dictator Rafael Trujillo came to power in 1930. Himself of humble origins, he decided that this music should be the Dominican national symbol, in part simply to spite the upper class that had formerly rejected him. He used perico ripiao bands during his campaign and soon had it playing on the new medium of radio. Now that it was being heard in urban middle-class living rooms, it was only a short step from there to the ballroom. This transition paved the way for the next major innovation in the genre: big bands.
Following Trujillo’s election Dominican musicians adopted the instrumentation then popular in the US, replacing the accordion with saxophones and trumpets and initiating a split between mostly urban merengue de orquesta and mostly rural perico ripiao. Since then, the two styles have developed along separate but parallel trajectories. Típico musicians like Tatico Henríquez, the godfather of modern perico ripiao, updated their sound during the 1960s, since Trujillo’s musical influence died with his assassination in 1961. They replaced the marimba with electric bass and added a saxophone to harmonize with the accordion. In the 1990s, the now “standard” lineup was completed by the addition of a bass drum, played with a foot pedal by the güirero.
Orquesta merengue now rivals salsa in popularity on New York City radio, while merengue típico artists seldom got airplay in the States until just the last couple of years. Most groups stick to the five man lineup (women are seen infrequently in this genre) of accordion, sax, tambora, güira/bass drum, and bass guitar. However, some younger band leaders have added congas and keyboards to the group in an attempt to close the gap between típico and orquesta and increase their listening audience.
c.2002 Sydney Hutchinson