Double Dose of Half an Island

The Rough Guide to Merengue
The Rough Guide to Merengue (World Music Network RGNET 1171 CD, 2006)

The Rough Guide to Bachata (World Music Network RGNET 1164 CD, 2006)

My oldest brother recently became the owner of a small hotel in the Dominican Republic, so I may well find myself journeying there one day. Already knowing the location of the place (it shares the island of
Hispaniola with Haiti) and a thing or two about its music, I was glad of the chance to bone up further with this pair of Rough Guides.

Merengue is certainly the best known D.R.-originated music. It’s been romanticized, politicized, commercialized and modernized but still retains a degree of the folkloric charm it had when it was played by simple accordion-and-percussion trios. Likewise intact are the rhythmic bounce it shares with related musics of Cuba and Haiti and the foot-dragging accompanying dance that’s meant to mimic either shackled slaves or wounded freedom fighters, depending on which theory you ascribe to.

The tracks on The Rough Guide to Merengue are all quite modern-sounding, so the general feel is one of contemporary adaptability rather than roots origins. Not a bad thing here, since even the artists who most conspicuously mix in urban attitude (Chichi Peralta, Eddy Herrera, Los Ocho de Colombia) have the good sense to let the natural underlying rhythms cook. Highlights include a couple hot offerings by Cana Brava, Los Tupamaros’ merengue/cumbia fusion and the NYC dancefloor flash of Victor Rogue. Could have ranged further, but a lively and exciting collection regardless.

The Rough Guide to Bachata
Those seeking a different musical side of the Dominican Republic can check out The Rough Guide to Bachata, which features a style based around dual traditions of Spanish and African guitar, popping percussion and lyrics ranging from sweet to bawdy.

Bachata was long dismissed as unsophisticated and lower class compared to merengue and thus didn’t catch on to the same extent beyond its homeland. As the passionately performed pieces on this Rough Guide show, however, there’s a similar degree of sizzle involved.

A tight wind of guitars echo with a feel somewhere between Spanish bolero and African highlife, locked up by the simple but spot-on percussion that punctuates below. Such minimal backing gives the lyrics added potency, and the various singers’ commitments to such concerns as love, lust, loss and the simple pleasure of making music are clear and potent. Not a lot of frills here, just music that’s raw, soulful, edgy and infectious.

Buy The Rough Guide to Merengue and The Rough Guide to Bachata

Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.