Like the rhythm Salsa, one of the best-known and most liked dance music genres in the Hispanic community is the irresistible merengue from the Dominican Republic. This rhythm was born from the mixture of African and European cultures and of course, the Caribbean flavor the Dominicans put on it.
This likable, easy-to-dance rhythm has its origins in the mid-19th century. When became popular in the most populated cities of the Dominican Republic, replacing the European contradanza.
Origins of the Word Merengue
There are many theories about the name and beginnings of this tropical music. According to Flérida de Nolasco, Dominican musicologist, the denomination “Merengue” originates from the fudge known by the same name. The short and precise rhythms of this dance seem like the beating of the egg whites, similar to when the fudge is prepared.
Other writers attributed the name to the French word “Meringue” a European dessert introduced to Haiti. This legendary dessert is made with a mixture of egg whites and sugar. Haitians began to use this word to refer to a danceable musical genre.
The renowned Dominican historian Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi says that merengue emerged as a form of dance between 1844 and 1855 in the nascent Dominican Republic. Years later it became an emblematic symbol of that country and a piece of popular music in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Perico Ripiao and Merengue Orchestras
Like other danceable musical genres, merengue has its variants. The oldest style is the typical merengue or “Perico Ripiao” played with accordion, güira, and Tambora. The name of “Perico Ripiao” appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, when merengue found its way into the most popular social strata of the city of Santiago known as El Cibao. They say this name is associated with a brothel called “Perico Ripiao.”
At that time in the Dominican Republic, “ripping the parakeet” referred to the sexual act. As merengue was the music that was heard the most in that place, people began to associate the genre with the name of the place. The phrase “we are going to dance a Perico Ripiao” became popular.
As it was considered an ordinary rhythm, the merengue was rejected by the highest social class in that country. As the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo wanted to increase his popularity among the masses, he drove the arrival of this irresistible rhythm to all classes making it a Dominican symbol.
Starting in 1950, several merengue orchestras were formed. Instruments such as the trumpet, the saxophone, the double bass were added and thus the so-called orchestral merengue was born. In the 1960s, the migration of Dominicans to New York brought merengue out of the Dominican Republic.
It was at that time that renowned figures such as Francis Santana, Frank Cruz, Alberto Beltrán, Joseíto Mateo (known as the king of merengue), and Tatico Henriquez, emerged. Among the merengue classic songs of that time are: “El negrito del Batey”, “Caña brava” and “Compadre Pedro Juan”.
The 70s and the golden age
The 70s represent the consolidation of “The Merengue” in the broad Hispanic spectrum. This irresistible rhythm was popularized on a large scale, ideal to enliven the parties of Latin American families. In those years, Johnny Ventura, † 2021 known as El Caballo Mayor, stood out. Ventura with his orchestra, the Combo Show, put humor to the lyrics of his songs giving an innovative touch to the genre. Such is the case of one of his greatest hits “Un poquito para atrás por favor”. (A little bit back please).
Another merengue great figure was Wilfrido Vargas. With Los Beduinos Orchestra, Wilfrido revolutionized merengue by showing the public a more accelerated style. His name will remain as one of the most important and recognized artists in the history of Caribbean music. He also promoted too many singers and musicians who are currently widely recognized.
Figures driven by Wilfrido Vargas
From Los Beduinos orchestra, emerged talented singers such as Sandy Reyes, Mickey Taveras, Eddy Herrera, and Jorge Gómez, whom Wilfrido included in his group, because of his incredible high-pitched voice. The voice of this singer becomes confused with that of a woman due to its ability to raise the tone. Some songs that Gómez sang in the orchestra were “El jardinero” and “El loco y la luna” among others.
Rubby Pérez also deserves a particular mention. This unique interpreter took his first professional steps in the group “Los Hijos del Rey”, a creation of Wilfrido. He achieved the final consecration when he became a member of Los Beduinos.
In the Dominican Republic and New York, numerous orchestras emerged. Years later, the new generations fused merengue with other Caribbean rhythms and even with rock and roll.
One of the first groups created was “Los Hijos del Rey”. Referring to Wilfrido Vargas as King of the merengue as he began to identify him. In that group, Bony Cepeda, Raulín Rosendo and Fernandito Villalona participated as the main voice. All of them gained enormous popularity that led them to become professionally independent and build the reputation they have today.
Another group that reached a great impact with the support of Wilfrido, although it was not his creation, was “Las Chicas del Can”. From this orchestra, whose main characteristic is that it was made up of women, many others later emerged. The interpreters Mirian Cruz and Eunice Bentances stood out among others no less important than were part of the “Las Chicas del Can”.
Among Wilfrido’s other creations, the so-called “Altamira Banda Show” and the “New York Band” represent the extent of Vargas’ influence among the populous and renowned community of Dominicans and the Latin Caribbean in the upper Manhattan of New York.
Johnny Ventura vs Wilfrido Vargas
Everything seems to indicate that those rivalries between reggaeton artists and rappers are not new. In the years of The Merengue boom, there was a strong media rivalry between the greats Johnny Ventura “El Caballo Mayor” and Wilfrido Vargas. The impact of this rivalry in the Dominican Republic divided the Caribbean country in two: “the Wilfridists” and “the Johnny Venturists”.
On the one hand, was Johnny Ventura with his Combo Show, with a more traditional but humorous merengue. On the other Wilfrido Vargas with The Beduinos orchestra, who increases the speed creating a faster merengue. Both proposals had their public and their detractors.
The false attack
It is said that the rivalry was so strong that a whole media show was created between the two artists. One of the most remembered rumors of that situation was the supposed placement of a bomb on an airplane where Wilfrido and his orchestra would travel. Ventura’s group was accused of plotting that attack. However, the information was later found to be false.
It is also commented that the creation of the orchestra Los Hijos del Rey by Wilfrido Vargas was intended to compete with the Combo Show of Johnny Ventura. Everything indicates that the operation did not work, since the group began to stand out in such a way, that at a certain moment, Los Hijos del Rey began to be more in demand than Wilfrido’s orchestra. This generated discontent among the members of Los Beduinos. That was the reason why Bonny Cepeda and Fernandito Villalona decided to consolidate their solo careers.
At present, Wilfrido Vargas and Johnny Ventura assure that there never was such a rivalry between them, but that it was something that was generated between the fans and the media. However, something must have happened. On one occasion they appeared on a television program, denying any dispute between them and even recorded together, to calm those who believed in that rivalry.
What is true, is that both are two of the greatest exponents of merengue. Each one has given it their personal touch while remaining in the collective memory of Latin American and Caribbean families.
Some of Johnny Ventura’s musical hits are “Patacón pisao”, “El tabaco” and “Capullo y Sorullo”. On the part of Wilfrido Vargas, “The African”, “Soy un hombre divertido” (I am a funny man) and “El baile del perrito” (doggy´s dance) stand out among many others.
Other Outstanding Merengue Figures
Other figures also emerged from the populous New York community. Such is the case of the prominent Milly Quezada, who emigrated to the Big Apple at an early age, where she graduated with honors in communication and media. At the same time, she built a musical career with the group formed with her brothers. Milly is one of the most reputable merengueras today.
Other figures and groups from the Dominican Republic also deserve a special mention. Among these, we can highlight Sergio Vargas, whose only affinity with Wilfrido is the Dominican nationality. Sergio is a singer who had a hard time achieving success. He usually says that was because of his physical appearance. However, the humble “Negrito de Villa”, as he is also known, is one of the singers with a respectable number of internationally popularized hits. We can mention: “Los diseñadores”, “Al ritmo de la noche”, “Si algún día la vez”; his version of the super hit “La quiero a morir” and “Marola”, among others.
Other highly successful groups are Cuco Valoy and his son Ramón Orlando Valoy; El conjunto Quisqueya; The Rosario brothers, Josie Esteban and his patrol 15, among many others no less important.
Merengueros from Puerto Rico
This irresistible rhythm also has its representatives in Puerto Rico. From there, stand out the unique Olga Tañón and Elvis Crespo among others.
The 90s and Actual Times
At the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, new merengue figures appeared. Such is the case of the renowned musician and singer Juan Luis Guerra. With his group called “Juan Luis Guerra and 440”, he creates more stylized merengue.
It is known that Juan Luis studied at the prestigious Berklee College in Boston. Initially, he had the idea of making a jazz version of the Dominican merengue, and he did it in his first production entitled “Soplando” (Blowing). After its commercial failure, he began to reformulate his project.
Later his next record productions came out with a more stylized Merengue and with poetic lyrics that adjusted very well to the generation close to the end of the century. His album “Mientras más lo pienso, tú”, includes songs like “Tú” and “Me enamoro de ella”. (I fall in love with her).
He achieves enormous popularity with his albums “Bachata Rosa” and “Ojala, que llueva café” (I hope it rains coffee). The most liked songs on this one are “Woman del Callao”, “Visa para un sueño” and the one with the same name as the album. Since then he has become an ambassador of merengue in the world.
The new merengue trends
In the 1990s, the children of Dominican immigrants in New York began to fuse the urban American rhythm of rap and hip hop, with the irresistible Dominican rhythm. This was how The Merengue house or Merengue hip hop aroused.
The first groups to achieve recognition are Proyecto Uno, Illegales and the unforgettable Sandy and Papo. Later, many others groups became known, being Fulanito one of the most popular.
Since then the business and the taste of the new generations in music changed and from those movements, the urban rhythm and its aspects came out. However, the irresistible merengue does not stop dancing.
Today, merengue continues to be one of the most listened to dance genres in family celebrations, friends’ gatherings, and festive events. Its interpreters have spread all over the world, mainly captivating the Hispanic public with that joy that characterizes this irresistible tropical rhythm.
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