by Sue Steward

In it`s traditional form, merengue is played on accordeon, saxophone, box bass with metal plucked keys, a guayano (a metal scraper -transformed from a kitchen implement), and a two ended tambora drum, struck with hand and stick. It's rural music with close affinities to Haitian méringue - though the latter, sung in Creole, tends to have a slower, more nostalgic sound, based on guitar rather than accordeon.

In the Dominican Republic, merengue experienced something of a golden age during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who held power from the 1930s until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo was from peasent roots and he promoted the music as a symbol of national expression and the culture of the former underclass. He constrained its traditional role as a music of social commentary but provided a forum for the musicians in the dancehalls. Larger merengue orchestras were developed, with piano and brass to cater these new urban audiences.


More often, though, these days merengue comes as big-band, salsa -cousin dance music, employing hi-tech instruments. The sound was developped from the 1960s on, notably by Johnny Ventura, as the country opened its ears to North American influences - and to the salsa that was being forged all across the Caribbean.

The biggest change to the sound came through boosting the saxophones role, either in overdubbing in the studio or lining up players on stage, which gives the music a sharp, stuttering momentum that the old style only hinted at. The other significant break has been in replacing the accordeon with electric guitar, keyboards and synthesizers, or occasionally sampling it, like a goast memory. Despite the change of instruments, the rhythm of merengue has changed very little, and remains unmistakable, even in the radical versions by singer-songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, the star of the moment. The tambora keeps a fast pulse going, working around conga patterns, while the bass drum, operated with a foot pedal, provides a monotonous thumping 1-2-3-4 beat.


Source: "World Music. The rough guide.", Rough Guides Ltd, London 1994. Copied without permission.

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