When asked what she misses most about the DR, my mother brings up mangú breakfasts, the kindship her family built with their neighbor Dorka, and after-school beach culture. She pauses, smiles, and closes her eyes – a familiar sound begins to trill in her head. The tambura sets the beats, the accordion adds the tone, the trumpet pierces through the high notes, and the bright voice sings with passion; then, there is the luring guira – welcome home, old soul.
Every end of July in the Dominican Republic, a festival known as the Merengue Festival enlivens the streets with music, dance, and art. Outdoor stages are set up along the city’s waterfront, where bands play merengue music while couples swirl and shake to the fast-paced, pulsating rhythms. Beyond this holiday, merengue is fundamental to DR culture.
While most hear merengue and visualize Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie music video, what makes merengue merengue, what energizes the dance floor with a backbone eight-count, is the music. The usual performing group of folk merengue includes a diatonic accordion, a two–sided drum, called a tambora, held on the lap, and a güira. A güira is a percussion instrument that produces a sound likened to a maraca.
My mom’s prom mixed American music and Merengue – “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, followed by Wilfrido Vargas’s “Porque No Te Tengo”. They sang on top their lungs to “I Love Rock ’N Roll”; then jived to Johnny Ventura’s “Yo Soy El Merengue”, an almost national anthem to the Dominicans.
Merengue brought back the backdrop of her everyday life in DR. While she was studying US History, merengue would be playing in her neighbor’s backyard; when mom’s family was strolling on the broad walk by the beach, merengue was playing on every corner; when she and her friends bought yaniqueques (sound familiar? It’s DR’s version of Johnny cakes) from street vendors, with––you guessed––merengue playing from a tiny radio. When mom’s family brought Chinese food to a potluck dinner at Dorka’s mom that started at 10:30 p.m., what welcomed them? Hugs and kisses and merengue played from their boombox.
What was once ubiquitous is now desperately missed. My mother indulges on 10 AM Saturday mornings during her Zumba Toning classes.
Here I attached my mom’s favorite song as my tribute to what has woven her memory and our love for DR together – merengue.
Yo Soy el Merenque by Johnny Ventura
Porque No Te Tengo by Wilfrido Vargas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUXJzcWw-Yc