Both Merengue and Trujillo have shaped the landscape of the Domincan Republic today, but what is not commonly known is how each influenced the other. Rafael Trujillo was a ruthless dictator of the Dominican Republic who killed thousands during his thirty-one years of rule. It is often overlooked, however, that he also reorganized the country, left a lasting infrastructure after his death, and made merengue the national song and dance of the Dominican Republic. Merengue is a type of folk song and dance of the Domincan Republic popularized during the Trujillo era, which can be immediately recognized by its noticeable instrumentation.
Through library research, movie analysis, and a brief interview with Paul Austerlitz the topics of merengue and Trujillo will be deeply examined. Although merengue was not created by Trujillo, the culture surrounding this music was indeed created by Trujillo and without his dictatorship, this style of music and dance would never have developed through its different styles and caught fire across the globe. Merengue, performed on the accordion, the tambora, the marimba, the guira, as well as the occasional alto saxophone, broke sound barriers as the dominant style in the early twentieth century in the Dominican Republic.
The accordion is a box-shaped musical instrument of the aerophone family. It is used by expanding or compressing a bellows while pressing keys, causing pallets, to open, which allow air to flow across strips of brass or steel, called reeds, which then vibrate to produce sound inside the box. The tambora is a short two-headed cylindrical drum played with a stick on the right head and a palm on the left head. The heads are made out of goat skin. The marimba is a wooden box with between four and eight metal tongs fixed across an opening in the front. This instrument is then plucked by one’s thumbs.
The guira is the metal version of the guiro, which is a wooden scraper. It is played with the metal wires attached. In the early 1930s musicians combined it with North American jazz for performance in elite ballrooms. Merengue’s style features simple diatonic harmonies ensconced in African influenced ostinatos that interlock with dance steps (Austerlitz). The combining of cibaeno– jaleos with jazz elements gave the music its spicy danceablity along with the national link between tipico and modern culture (Austerlitz 1997: 56). Merengue dancing utilizes the ballroom dance osition, a sideways step in one direction, and an all-important undulating motion of the hips. North American influences encouraged couples to abandon the ballroom position to dance without touching each other, disco-style, beginning in the 1970s, but the traditional choreography by no means fell into disuse (Austerlitz 1997: ). In 1936 the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo embraced this new, big-band, jazz-tinged merengue, going so far as to elevate it to the status of a national symbol. Trujillo implemented an isolationist foreign policy; international travel and contact with the outside world were closely regulated.
This isolationism, combined with a lack of recording opportunities in the Republic, caused Dominican merengue to develop differently abroad than it did at home. Merengue has achieved international appeal in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States. What once was forced upon the poor and elite has now become each Dominicans identity. Merengue has been used to build the Dominican Republic as a nation and as an identity, unlike any other music of the Caribbean (Sellers 2004: 14). As Julie Seller’s mentions, one can travel to the Dominican Republic and never forget it.
She notes how there is a festive atmosphere, where merengue is being blasted out of speakers and danced in the streets as well as there being a relentless pulse of merengue everywhere she traveled. Dominican’s of all shapes and sizes recognize merengue as their national dance. One of Trujillo’s finest accomplishments besides building the Dominican Republic’s infrastructure, was the crowning of merengue as the national song and dance. In 1936, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo embraced this new style of music known as merengue, going so far as to change its status to the Dominican national symbol (Austerlitz 2002).
Trujillo came from a modest background and resented the elites, who didn’t allow him into their social clubs (Manuel 2006: 122 ). Trujillo used the music and dance as a populist symbol. Merengue accompanied Trujillo through campaigns and tours often praising his policies and activities. Rafael Trujillo appropriated the music to maintain power, but also to create a national identity which encompassed the dance from the whitest regions of the Dominican Republic. Merengues often noted Trujillo’s characteristics and roles, portraying the general above all the citizens.
Trujillo had used this propaganda to mold the citizens minds and stress the military culture of obedience and duty (Peguero :159). “Merengue has become such a strong symbol of Dominican national identity partly because of its syncretism and flexibility. These elements allow it to represent not only the reality of the Dominican identity but the perceived and preferred elements that constitute it. Just as language is never static but constantly changing while still being the same language, merengue remains the same music while at the same time being subtly altered. ” (Sellers 2004: 6).
Trujillo was regarded as a fine dancer and it was often said he would have merengue played at parties until the early hours of the day. Merengue was Trujillo’s power source. Whenever anything of significance had occurred merengue had been there to commemorate it (Sellers 2004: 12). For instance, when monuments were built or the border agreement between the Dominican Republic and Haiti had been signed, merengue and a chipper Trujillo were there to witness the event. The most influential piece of history, regarding merengue, was how Trujillo manipulated the merengue so the poor masses could identify with the leader.
Merengue was Trujillo’s most powerful source of propaganda. Verses of the merengue would refer to the achievements of the government, how weak Trujillo’s enemies were, the beauty of the country, and the importance of the Domincan Republic’s military (Peguero : 158). Urban jazz bands were forced to incorporate merengue elements into their music during the Trujillo era. One band, Luis Alberti had been requested to play at the capital. They were so well-liked that Trujillo turned them into a state ensemble and renamed the band, Orquesta Presidente Trujillo (Manuel 2006: 122).
These orquesta’s highlighted the play of saxophones and trumpets and were influenced through jazz and mambo. Thinking back to when Eddie Palmieri had played at the Majestic Theatre, he had highlighted the trumpeter and saxophonist by incorporating solo pieces and by positioning them in the front center of the band. It can be noted how similar orquesta’s, jazz, and latin jazz groups played and displayed their music. Alberti’s group emphasized jazz elements on top of traditional cibaeno elements. A new style of merengue then became the craze over Alberti’s band.
A band sponsored by Rafael’s brother by the name of Super Orquesta San Josebecame the country’s top merengue. So popular that their vocalist, Joseito Molino, was donned the king of merengue. The bands takeover of merengue was attributed to its faster, even more upbeat style of play. This band also used different instrumentation. They abandoned the accordion and rather included congo drums and bass (Austerlitz 1997: 56). A Third merengue band remained supreme in the Domincan Republic during the Trujillo era, Antonio Morel y su Orquesta.
This band had not been sponsored by the Trujillo family so they had more independence than the other bands in playing when and where they pleased (Austerlitz 1997: 56). While Alberti’s group performed in front of Trujillo and his company and Molino’s group played in radio broadcast and night clubs, Antonio Morel y su Orquesta played at social events and private events (del Castillo and Garcia Arevalo 1989:37). Trujillo’s regime encouraged the lovefest surrounding him . Whether it was through renaming streets, redefining education, or through the lyrics in a merengue it was issued that Trujillo was a god walking amongst men.
Merengue composers were expected to write jovial songs referring to how great a leader Trujillo was. The merengue artists were either offered cash incentives or threatened through violence for their cooperation and loyalty (Austerlitz 1997, 60). During the Trujillo era creativity was kept to a minimum, but opportunities in music skyrocketed. Lyrics that put Trujillo in a negative light were not accepted by the regime, so artists would have to research and learn more about their dictator just to get lyrics on paper and food on their tables.
The creation of the municipal bands provided the citizens with free entertainment and the founding of music schools provided education geared towards rhythm and Trujillo’s greatness (Austerlitz 1997: 61). Dissimilar to national music, rural Dominican music was categorized with African-influenced religious practices. There were two racial differences between the northern (cibaeno) merengue and southern (palo echao) merengue. The makeup of the north was primarily white, while the south’s makeup was mainly black (Austerlitz 1997: 64).
Trujillo had favored the northern merengue because it was influenced by the Cibao. Trujillo developed an anti-Haitian view through merengue and Dominican national identity. It is thought that Trujillo had come into contact with the merengue cibaeno while in the military. As a child living in the south he wasn’t accustomed to this type of music, instead he knew the palo echao. He didn’t come from the wealthiest background and due to his wealth and Haitian descent he was barred from entering elite social clubs (Austerlitz 1997: 67).
Trujillo, when in reign, placed merengue in the salons where elites would go to chide them. The elites disliked Trujillo tremendously, but they couldn’t argue with the economic stability that he brought to the country. Luckily for the elites, they could give off the vibe that they were supporting Trujillo through dancing the merengue. On the other hand, the poor enjoyed Trujillo because he was known as a great dancer, offered many musical opportunities, and made the elites dance to rural music (Austerlitz 1997: 69). It was through the merengue in which Trujillo propagandized togetherness between class lines.
He not only propagandized Dominicans, but nations felt that the Domincan Republic came together as one regardless of class or race; however what outsiders didn’t realize was the true oppression and violence Dominicans were under. Rafeal had a brother named Petan Trujillo whose heart always laid in the music industry. While Petan did not have the same aspirations of political power as his brother, he helped his brother tremendously in getting various messages out through merengue. In the early 1940’s Petan had began a radio station aside from his brother’s government funded radio station.
Petan helped his brother by issuing propaganda over his radio station, on top of the propaganda issued through the government radio station. Petan viewed his radio station as more of a hobby than a business. While the business was very lucrative, the decisions were not made for profit, but rather however Rafael or Petan Trujillo wanted to use the air time (Hernandez 1995: 47). Rafael Trujillo’s regimes strictness along with the inopportunity of recording in the Dominican Republic had the merengue slowly develop as opposed to merengue in the outside world’s rapid growth.
One famous artist, Angel Viloria perfectly portrays the difference between the musical enjoyment in his homeland and outside the Dominican Republic. Angel Viloria, a piano accordionist, had established his own band and became very popular across the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Haiti (Austerlitz 1997: 75). If you had remembered though, the piano accordionists were being phased out of merengue as time went on. The reader can only assume this was why Viloria was so popular in other parts of the Caribbean, but not in his homeland of the Dominican Republic.
Through international recognition, the merengue became a weaker symbol of Dominican Identity and unity. When Rafael Trujillo was murdered in 1961 a civil war erupted. Between the civil war in their homeland and the appeal of the United States, thousands of Dominicans fled to the United States. Trujillo’s family then left the country, each taking an integral part of his successful dictatorship (Brown : 145). After Trujillo’s death merengues were being sung every which way depicting the goat as dead, until in 1962 all pro-Trujillo merengues were put to a halt (Hernanadez 1989: 146).
Merengues would go on though, becoming stylishly different and allowing more bands the opportunity. Luis Perez in 1962 wanted to develop a merengue, but without the political restrictions. He then incorporated the saxophone to the instrumentation of merengue. Perez and his band then went on make music which was no longer restricted through text, performance, or dancing styles (Austerlitz 1997:85). During the Trujillo era there were only three large bands, but with his death came a new sense of creativity through lyrics, performance styles, and instrumentation.
While it can be stated that Trujilloist merengues influenced artists such as Luis Perez and Johnny Ventura, the message of the old merengues would cease to exist. Moving out of the Trujillo era, Perez and Ventura made sure merengue would remain an international sensation through charisma and an even faster tempo. Trujillo had never accepted artistic or intellectual practices outside of his country influence his culture, so when the Dominican Republic ended the restrictions on foreign travel and trade the country accepted outsiders styles and advice pertaining to music (Austerlitz, interview).
Salsa had inspired Dominican artists to alter the instrumentation while incorporating the same format. New additions to merengue orquesta’s were saxophones, trumpets, and trombones. These instruments were used as substitutes for the accordion (Austerlitz 1997: 84). Through incorporating aspects of jazz and rock & roll merengue had developed into a faster-paced rhythm (Austerlitz 1997: 85). What had once been used as propaganda became the most popular dance music in New York in the 1970’s amongst Latin Americans (Austerlitz 2002).
Trujillo’s influence on merengue is still witnessed today and will continue to be for future generations as long as this music style and dance persist. Trujillo and merengue had a relationship unlike any other dictator and propaganda. Where other leaders used the media for their own praises, Trujillo used the media to make merengue an instrument of nationalistic propaganda. There is no doubt that Trujillo was a ruthless dictator, but to overlook his contributions to the Dominican Republic and his lasting influence on merengue would be unwise to those lives he has touched through his rule.