Today, November 30, 2016, UNESCO announced that Dominican merengue music and dance was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The merengue is considered part of the national identity of the Dominican Republic. It is present in people’s daily lives – from their education to social gatherings and celebrations, and even political campaigning.
In 2005, merengue was recognized by presidential decree with November 26 declared National Merengue Day. Merengue festivals are held in cities in the Dominican Republic like Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata every year.
Danced in couples, flirtatious gestures are used as participants move in circles to the rhythm of music played on instruments such as the accordion, drum and saxophone. It is a dance that is usually introduced to learners at an early age.
Knowledge and skills on the practice are transmitted through observation, participation and imitation. The merengue attracts people of different social classes, which helps to promote respect and coexistence among individuals, groups and communities.
The north of the country is considered to be the cradle of merengue with the area of influence extending to Puerto Rico, the United States of America and the Caribbean region.
The merengue is also popular in other Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Colombia where variations have emerged, and countries in Central America.
Yoham Ortiz’s voice gently weaves in and out of his acoustic guitar notes. His vocal is warm, expressive and works well with his intricate guitar playing. He recalls that “everyone always danced” in Quisqueya (a Taino word encompassing Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the island he spent his formative years in. That island’s music ranging from the Carabine to the Merengue has stayed with him and finds its way into much of his music. But his inspiration is also jazz, West African, and Brazilian music. At times, Yoham’s music is earnest and sad reminiscent of Joan Armatrading’s wistful songs, yet it can as easily become upbeat, even playful. Versatility is part of his gift as a songwriter. He writes for television, film, and other musicians.
Now he is based in New York, he has chosen to perform alone. His guitar is his only accompaniment. To perform solo acoustic guitar is a bold statement in a time when audiences expect big, multi-dimensional sounds. Yet Yoham’s talent as a musician is to create a very spare, heartfelt ambiance that makes an immediate and intimate connection with his listeners. Sound is vital to him and he enjoys sharing his love of it with others as I quickly found out in this telephone interview.
DJL: It is good to finally catch up with you.
YO: Yes, on Wednesdays I have started a music program at a local Presbyterian school with children aged 2, 3 and 4. I designed the program to introduce young children to music by focusing on the 3 basic steps that lead to creativity: Inspiration-Thought-Communication. In class we explore the idea that musical instruments are tools with which to express the music that comes from within you. In other words: you are the instrument. Also, this concept teaches them that sounds come with information. It helps children better communicate their inspirations and thoughts – not only in music but in anything they are doing. It also makes them better listeners.
DJL: Yes, because you could argue that people don’t listen to music as deeply as they used to.
YO: I think people are not compelled to listen to music in the same way they once did. For example, most cartoons now do not use real instruments in their scores. The older cartoons of Hanna-Barbera did not use synthesizers, they used real instruments to play the effects and music. The Flintstones used real bongos when Fred took off running. The practicality of synthesized instruments is great, but it is missing the magic of live musicians collaborating and performing together.
DJL: Do you enjoy teaching music?
YO: Yes, I do enjoy sharing and teaching. This school asked me to start a music program, so I began in January of this year. But I explained to them that I was not going to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or any lullaby. Children are exposed to ‘children’s music’ everywhere they go – I feel it is patronizing for them at times. Children can appreciate all music. Young children do not have any preconceived notions about music, so I wanted to expose them to a variety of sounds from the Griot music of West Africa to the elephant horns of Tibet and Mongolia. This program would allow them to tap into sounds that perhaps they would not hear at home.
DJL: Is this music program connected to your project about sound?
YO: Yes, in some ways. “Listening to the Language of the City: Understanding How Communities of Sound Inform the Soundscape of New York City” was my thesis at New York University while I was doing a Master’s there in Music and Behavioral Science. I am developing it into a book. In this work I investigate the information that sounds emanating from urban environments convey to people living and traveling around cities. I study how people hear sound and how they navigate through the city in relation to sounds. The project makes the case that cities could be designed in a better way with more balance and awareness of sound.
DJL: Were your family musical?
YO: My family is mostly involved in the medical field. Although my father, who is a Gastroenterologist, did play trumpet as a young man. I came from a family of ten children. One of my elder sisters started learning to play piano when I was about seven. Every day she would come home and share something she had learned with me. One day my parents heard me playing, I was about ten, they signed me up for classical piano lessons.
DJL: When did you come to the guitar?
YO: I was about 12 years old. I was first inspired by Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. I started playing rock guitar. When I got to college, I listened to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, the jazz guitarists.
DJL: When I listen to your music, I also hear Spanish flamenco guitar. Does that resonate with you?
YO: Yes, absolutely, Paco De Lucia, the great flamenco guitarist. I love flamenco music, also the music of Brazil, such as the Chorinho, the Baiao. Sounds I grew up listening to in New York include the subway, congas played in the summer streets, artists from the 70’s record label Fania, Juan Morel Campos (Puerto Rican Danzas), Santana, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Ventura, Bernard Hermann (Twilight Zone). My older brother and I grew up listening to the music my parents and my two older sisters were listening to and that covered a very wide range of genres.
DJL: Speaking of the Baiao music of Brazil, your recent song, Baiao Blues, has a slow, spare feeling to it. Your humming is a deep, nice compliment to the bluesy feel of the music. There is no real vocal, yet it swings. And I love how out of nowhere the guitar breaks into an elaborate solo.
YO: Baiao Blues is a lament for displaced and marginalized refugees. For example, many indigenous peoples of Brazil, where the Baiao comes from, have been driven out of their homes by major corporations looking to exploit their land. A lot of the people from the Delta area in the United States, where the blues exists have also been marginalized for the same reasons.
DJL: The song Carabine del Emigrante is upbeat and more forceful. The song is based on the Carabine, a folkloric genre of the island Quisqueya, can you speak about that?
YO: Carabine is one of the folkloric sounds of the North of my island, mostly the Samana province. Carabine del Emigrante is a song about leaving something you love because it no longer can give you what it once gave you. This may apply to someone leaving their homeland or someone deciding to leave a person. And we see this happening all over the world from Palestine to Syria: everyone wants their kids to be safe.
DJL: Your voice has a strength to it, it has a beautiful tone that works well with the acoustic guitar. Your vocals are honest and sincere, so as a listener I trust what you are expressing.
YO: I’ve always sung but I never thought of myself as a singer. I’ve always thought of myself as a composer, producer and musician. As a record producer, I’ve had to sing many vocal references in the studio to help artists understand how the melody fits in the musical arrangement. That helped me to find my voice as a singer. I have been fortunate to work as a producer with many great singers from whom I’ve learned a great deal. And I have also studied with vocal trainers to better understand my voice as an instrument. Now, it is just my voice and the guitar. I am keeping the sound minimal, not overproduced, not too much technology. I come alone; I trust the elements. I use the acoustics of the room where I am performing as an instrument. It is as raw as it gets.
DJL: What do you mean when you say raw?
YO: By raw I mean, you get what you see and hear. No gimmicks or tricks; just the sounds that are naturally happening as I play my guitar and sing in a room. There is a direct connection to the soul like this – a spiritual conversation between the music, the audience and myself.
DJL: Well I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and I am sure your fans are ready for more conversation.