Survey of Dominican Music


Colonial period / Merengue: History and types / Palos or Atabales / Congos de Villa Mella

Salve / Gagá / Cocolo music / Folk dances / Dominican son / Bachata / Further Info

During the colonial period, the inhabitants of Santo Domingo mostly listened to music imported from Europe, but there was also significant interchange with the other Spanish colonies of the Caribbean. The Latin American adaptation of the Spanish contradanza was popular throughout the region, where it later evolved into forms like the danza (still played in Puerto Rico), danzón (a Cuban style), and related genres. The African-derived calenda (or kalenda) dance was also found on many of the islands and survives today in varying forms found in Martinique, Trinidad, and Carriacou (Grenada).

Dominican musical history naturally begins with the country’s independence from Spain in 1821 and from Haiti (which had taken over the Spanish part of the island in 1822) in 1844. The merengue first appeared just a decade later. Although this dance’s origins are much debated, it seems to have evolved out of the mix of African and Spanish-derived styles then current throughout the Spanish Caribbean colonies. In the beginning, it was played on the tambora drum, güira scraper, and any string instrument that might be handy, from the guitar to the tres or cuatro. Thus, many Dominicans consider the music symbolic of their tripartite heritage, a combination of the African (represented by the African-derived tambora), the European (the guitar, or the accordion), and the Indian (the güira, though its origins are debatable).

Merengue is now considered the Dominican national dance and music, but it was not always so. By the 1870s merengue was extremely popular but then-president Espaillat banned it for its lyrics and its dance style, which he and other moralists considered lascivious. Nevertheless, rural musicians kept the music alive, and when accordions first arrived in the island in the 1880s they gladly exchanged their guitars for the new, louder, and more portable German import. Saxophones were occasionally used as well, and the marimba, a large bass thumb piano derived from similar African instruments, was also added to fill out the sound.

Around the time of the first US invasion of the Dominican Republic, musicians began once again to see the need for a national musical style. Again they turned to the merengue. In the 1910s, bandleaders like Julio Alberto Hernández, Juan Espínola, and Juan Francisco García in the northern region called the Cibao, by then the rural merengue’s stronghold, attempted to set folk merengues in orchestrated arrangements. Most of their upper-class listeners were scandalized. In the end, it took the mandate of a dictator to bring merengue to all levels of society.

During Rafael Trujillo’s initial presidential campaign, he brought merengue accordionists with him on his tours around the country. After he attained power in 1930, he insisted that the music be played in society ballrooms around the country, seemingly as an act of revenge against the elite that had initially rejected him. Thus, leaders of orquestas adapted the folk music to their big band ensembles, trading the button accordion for a big brass section. Luis Alberti had the first merengue hit with his “Compadre Pedro Juan,” a folk melody to which he set new and more palatable lyrics. Petán Trujillo, Rafael’s brother, also promoted merengue on the state radio station, La Voz Dominicana.

Since then, orquesta or popular merengue and merengue típico or folk merengue (also, though somewhat disrespectfully, known as perico ripiao) have to a large extent gone their separate ways. Both changed a great deal after the death of the dictator and his restrictive policies. Orquestas adopted the slimmed-down “combo” format and the rock and salsa influences popularized by singers like Johnny Ventura and Wilfrido Vargas in the 1960s and 70s. Típico ensembles went the other direction, exchanging the marimba for electric bass and adding instruments like saxophone and congas to the traditional trio of accordion, güira, and tambora, in emulation of the sound created by 1970s accordion superstars like Tatico Henríquez (d. 1976), Fefita la Grande, and El Ciego de Nagua. In just the past decade, típico has reached new audiences through the efforts of young groups like El Prodigio, La Kerubanda, and many others, who have further expanded the ensemble with timbal, bass drum, sometimes keyboards, and even trombone, in El Prodigio’s case. Today, both típico and orquesta merengue styles are widely consumed by Dominicans wherever they have gone, and thus can be found in New York, Miami, and beyond. In the típico world, groups from New York like Aguakate have been both particularly popular and particularly controversial for their adoption of hip-hop styles and fusions with popular music like reggaetón.

The Cibao’s merengue típico, while the best-known variety of folk merengue, is not the only variant that exists. Other regional varieties of merengue include the merengue redondo of Samaná and the merengue ocoeño of San José de Ocoa. Pambiche and merengue apambichao are other, more syncopated rhythms pertaining to the perico ripiao repertoire, while pri-prí is a related type of accordion music native to the South. Each uses different percussion instruments: for example, the tambora of the north is replaced by the smaller balsié in the south.

Nevertheless, merengue, while generally considered the country’s “national” music, is far from being the DR’s only native genre. Palos or atabales, an Afro-Dominican drum ensemble tradition, has also vied for top billing. Palos groups generally belong to religious brotherhoods or cofradías, much like the cabildos who maintain the batá drumming tradition in Cuba. Some such groups may have their origin in the settlements of Haitian-origin people established during the 22 years of Haitian rule, while others were likely founded still earlier by cimarrones or runaway slaves who recreated the guild-like groups Africans had formed in medieval Spain. Today’s Dominican cofradías have both male and female leaders in hereditary positions, and their patron saints are tied to African deities, which Martha Ellen Davis finds derive mainly from the Congo-Angola region. While palos groups play music for all occasions, they focus on rituals associated with their patron saint as well as with the deaths of members.

People play palos all over the country for both festive and religious occasions, and many local styles exist. In general, the ensemble consists of two or three long drums playing interlocking patterns, accompanied by a variety of smaller percussion instruments like güira, maracas, or catá, a stick beat on the body of one of the palos. It is music for dancing, usually by couples that do not touch but instead circle one another in a stylized pursuit.

Other Afro-Dominican musics differ in style and repertoire from the palos but use a similar ensemble of instruments. The best known of these is the Congos of Villa Mella, an area just north of the capital. UNESCO declared the Congos a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2001. The Cofradía de los Congos del Espíritu Santo perform their music on two drums (congo and conguito), a clave-like instrument in a canoe shape (canoíta), and maracas. Meanwhile, the sarandunga dance, played by a cofradía from the town of Baní, is a set of three dances performed on a set of three smaller drums for the feast of San Juan Bautista.

The salve is another important, and more syncretic, genre of Dominican religious music. Combining a Spanish Catholic text with an African approach to rhythm and call-and-response singing, these songs are performed for Catholic saints’ feasts days, for pilgrimages, at funerals, or in convites (work groups). Here, rhythms played on panderos (small, rustic, frame drums similar to tambourines), or sometimes on güira and balsié or palos drums, accompany the words of the “Salve Regina” prayer.

Religious societies composed of the descendents of Haitian workers of the early 20th century play gagá during the Lenten season that follows Carnival. The gagá ensemble consists of drums associated with the Petro family of loas or luases (vodoun spirits) and an ensemble of blown tubes of bamboo or PVC pipe called fotutos. Even though it came from and is in many respects the same as Haitian rará, gagá can also be considered an Afro-Dominican music as many songs are now sung in Spanish.

Still other unique styles of Afro-Dominican music come from the cocolos¸ the descendants of English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans from the Virgin Islands and elsewhere who were brought over a century ago to work the sugarcane fields. Their energetic fife-and-drum groups accompany dances like the Christmas-time momises (mommies or mummers in English) and guloyas (David and Goliath). Like the Congos, the cocolo dance drama tradition was named a UNESCO Masterpiece in 2005 for its maintenance of a distinctive blend of African and British cultures.

Dominican folkloric dance groups, from the national Ballet Folklorico Dóminicano down to the many university- and school-based groups around the country, play not only the styles I’ve already described but also a variety of older musical genres now seldom heard outside of the context of folklore shows. The mangulina, carabiné, chenche matriculado, and others are generally performed using the same instruments as the perico ripiao trio, though adapting the percussion section to fit the different rhythms.

The son, though generally though of as an exclusively Cuban genre, also has a long history in the Dominican Republic and continues to play an important role in Dominican popular culture. The Cuban influence began to be felt in the DR when Cubans started migrating to the country following their independence war. Later, Cuban radio could be heard in the DR in the years before airwaves became cluttered. Then Cuban recordings began to enter the country through its ports. Because of these factors, son music became popular in Dominican cities like Santiago, Puerto Plata, Baní, and Santo Domingo in the early to mid twentieth century. The first center of Dominican son was the working-class neighborhood of Borojol (from Brooklyn’s Borough Hall) in the capital district, where numerous cabarets operated during the first American intervention (1916-1924). Later, in the 1940s, a true culture of soneros arose in the area, one that was based on a natty dress style, a Bohemian ethic, an ideal of gentlemanly behavior, and excellence in dance.

Son culture still exists in the DR, particularly in the capital area, where son events are held most nights of the week. The “Monumento del Son” is the most famous son club at present. After 80 years of development within the country, a uniquely Dominican variety of son has developed. The dance, in particular, is quite distinct, as Dominicans step on the beat while Cubans tend to dance on offbeats. Dominican son likely influenced today’s popular bachata music and dance style. Although little research has been done on Dominican son, projects are currently underway at the Centro León and Instituto de Estudios Caribeños to rectify this deficit.

At present, another musical style has been competing fiercely with the older merengue for dominance in both national tastes and the international Latin American music market. Bachata arose in the 1960s out of earlier rural interpretations of the internationally popular bolero. Performed on two guitars, bongó, güira, and bass (early bachata used maracas and marimba instead of these last two), bachata is a sentimental style of music for listening or dancing. Its urbanization was produced mostly by the efforts of Radhamés Aracena and his radio station and record label Guarachita; he also imported the Puerto Rican jíbaro, Cuban trio, and Mexican ranchera records that served as inspiration for many bachata musicians. Yet soon artists like Leonardo Paniagua and Luis Segura had created an unmistakably Dominican product, one with the staccato articulation of merengue típico and grittier, urban lyrics. Following successful incursions into the genre by respected singer-songwriters like Juan Luis Guerra, Luis Díaz, and Sonia Silvestre, bachata became enormously popular even among the middle classes in the 1990s. Recently, New York-based groups like Aventura have further innovated by incorporating R&B influences, electric guitar techniques, and even keyboards.

c. 2006 by Sydney Hutchinson

Further information

Further reading on merengue

Recommended merengue recordings (coming soon)

On Palos:

Davis, Martha Ellen. 2003. “A survey of Afro-Dominican palos sacred drum music.” Actes du Séminaire d’ethnomusicologie caribéenne, 7-11 July, Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe. <>

Lizardo, Fradique. 1979. Cultura africana en Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo: Editora Taller.

Buy CD of Palos music (hard to find); the CD Quisqueya en el Hudson includes some palos tracks. Or try Afro-Dominican Music from San Cristobal from Folkways Records.

On Salve:
Davis, Martha Ellen. 1981. Voces del purgatorio: Estudio de la salve dominicana. Santo Domingo: Museo del Hombre Dominicano.

Buy CD of Dominican salve (Eneroliza Santos, singer)

The CD Quisqueya en el Hudson includes salve along with other genres of Dominican music played in New York.

On Congos:
Hernández Soto, Carlos and Edis Sánchez. 1997. “Los Congos de Villa Mella, República Dominicana.” Latin American Music Review 18(2):297-316.

UNESCO declaration of los Congos as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

Photos of the Congos brotherhood in Villa Mella

On folk dances:

Lizardo, Fradique. 1975. Danzas y bailes folklóricos dominicanos. Santo Domingo: Fundación García-Arévalo.

On bachata:

Pacini, Deborah. 1989. “Social identity and class in ‘bachata,’ an emerging Dominican popular music.” Latin American Music Review 10(1):69-91.
Pacini Hernández, Deborah. 1995. Bachata: A social history of a Dominican popular music. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Buy Bachata CDs

On many genres, including Dominican son:

Tejeda Ortiz, Dagoberto. 1998. Cultura popular e identidad nacional. Santo Domingo: Consejo Presidencial de Cultura, Instituto Dominicano de Folklore.

Buy CDs by Dominican son artists:
Chichi Peralta, Cuco Valoy, Coco Merenson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: