Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Last week of July
For one week every summer since 1967, the three-million-plus denizens of Santo Domingo have converged on the Malecon, a seven- kilometre strand of palm-lined Caribbean boulevard that runs along the southern side of the Zona Colonial, for the Dominican Republic’s biggest event of the year. The Fiesta de Merengue is the ultimate rum-drenched tropical blast-out, with twenty different bandstands belting out live music from Dominican stars past, present and future – including the city’s former mayor, hip- swivelling singing legend Johnny Ventura. The atmosphere and location are unbeatable – an expansive ribbon of turquoise sea stretches out into the distance, and headline acts such as Juan Luis Guerra, Tono Rosario and Los Toros Band play under the spectacular limestone palace of Christopher Columbus and the ruins of the walled city he built five centuries ago.
Banned during the nineteenth century as “a cause of depravity among the people of this island who perform it, and a scandalous sight to all who view it”, the Fiesta de Merengue has matured into a Dominican national obsession, and the music has lost none of its essential raunchiness – a hard-driving, hyped-up dance music whose signature rhythmic pattern is a relentless on-the-beat thump. The standard merengue rhythm section is made up of a lap drum called the tambora, a metal scraper, and a thrumming metal box known as the African thumb piano, and produces a music that’s as rhythmically nuanced as the most complex Latin pop but extremely easy to dance to. All the indications are that merengue itself grew out of religious music that originated in west and southern Africa, and was brought over by the hundreds of thousands of slaves that worked the sugar plantations both here and on the other side of the island, in what is now Haiti. If you head out into the far northern suburbs during one of the country’s many religious festivals, you can still hear the traditional music of vodu dominicana, called palos. Even in its original religious context of call-and- response choruses backed up by a series of enormous drums carved whole from hollowed-out tree trunks, this is serious party music. Over the centuries, the music of merengue has moved away from its religious roots. However, it was still regarded as suspect by the Europe-leaning elite in Santo Domingo, at least until the era of notorious Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who really loved merengue, and had a top-notch band following him around on campaign stops and state-radio stations blasting out favourite tunes between edicts. Trujillo was also partially responsible for the development of a more stately form of the dance, called “ballroom merengue”.
The Fiesta de Merengue is a time for street dancing, swinging in hotel ballrooms and terraces, and partying on the beaches throughout balmy Caribbean summer nights. It’s an overwhelming experience travelling the length of the Malecon, at Avenida Maximo Gomez, a never-ending labyrinth of jam-packed venues blaring high-octane Latin hits that stretches from one end of the city’s coast to the other, leading the Guinness Book of World Records to dub it the “world’s largest disco”. Another main area of activity is at the atmospheric colonial-era Puerta San Diego, at the far eastern end of the same seaside boardwalk, where bands gather, competing for the partygoers’ attention. All along the seafront, though, you’ll find amateur DJs setting up sound systems, and the major beer and rum companies selling their wares beneath. The dance fever is intense: the thumb piano has been ditched in favour of electric bass, synthesizers and strong, salsa-influenced horn sections stuttering pyrotechnic riffs, as the singers engage in wickedly quick dance routines, and scantily clad back-up vocalists strut their stuff as the wall-to-wall crowds go berserk. As always at such events, the crowd is more than half the fun. Phalanxes of drunken youths bump up against white-haired old folks cutting quick, graceful moves across the asphalt; beaming teenage girls in formal, powder-pink dresses converge at the fringes and giggle in rhythm as they bob up and down; candy-striped vendors weave through the masses hawking everything from sugar cane and boiled corn to condoms and Clorets; former Mayor Johnny Ventura – a legendary merengue singer himself – ploughs across the promenade at midnight in a horse-drawn carriage, shaking his thing in a tailored three-piece suit as he waves to his fans. Local politicians get in on the act, too, as pickup trucks driven by blatantly tipsy party members slowly cruise the major city streets, blaring out merengue jingos full of political slogans as they go.