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«Prepared for Caribbean Export Development Agency Barbados April 2001 CHAPTER ONE INTRODUCTION The rapid growth of an intellectual property and ...»

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Like several other Caribbean territories, the Dominican Republic has a large diasporic community, particularly in US cities such as New York and Miami, but also in Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The diasporic community plays an important role as a market in two ways: the first as an extension of the home market and secondly as a wedge into the mainstream and pan-Latin markets. The diasporic community also acts as a production centre because of the ease of access to new technologies as well as larger markets. It is also the context where the island sound is mixed with contemporary sounds to form new sub-genres.


The most well known sound coming out of the Dominican Republic is merengue.

However, there are other genres of music such as bachata, gaga, nueva canción and son, which are indigenous or pan-Latin. Dominican son is similar to the Cuban version and is thus regional. The Nueva Canción sound, often associated with the intellectual class, is part of a pan-Latin regional movement that is premised on social protest and commentary. Gaga is the Afro-Dominican version of Haitian rara, which has been marginalized for ethnic and political reasons.

Bachatas are referred to as “songs of bitterness” as they often relate stories of heartbreak and unrequited love. Bachata, which is very popular with the working classes and out-sells merengue in some quarters, was shunned by the upper classes and the media until the early 1990s when internationally acclaimed Dominican artist, Juan Luis Guerra, sang “Bachata Rosa” and legitimized the genre (Manuel 1995).

Studies suggest that merengue emerged in the mid-19th century after the Haitian occupation (1822-1844) and the establishment of the independent state in 1844.

Indeed, it is noted that merengue has long been invoked as a symbol of national identity in the face of external threats. For example, during the first US Occupation (1916 – 1922) merengue was given preference in the dancehalls over foreign genres as a mode of resistance and an act of nationalism. In the 1970s merengue experienced a resurgence largely in response to the inroads made by US rock ‘n’ roll as well as salsa (Davis 1994: 137).

Dominican merengue is viewed as a creole variant of syncopated couple dances called contradanza or danza. Ethnomusicologists also suggest a relation to the Haitian meringue and the merengue that emerged in places like Puerto Rico and Cuba. Within the Dominican Republic a national style emerged around the early 20th century. The style of the densely populated Cibao region, which uses the standard ensemble of guitar or accordion, güira scraper, tambora drum and marimba bass, has become known as traditional merengue, merengue típico or perico ripiao (Manuel 1995).

Over the years there have been several innovations in the sound. The 1870s saw the replacement of the guitar with the accordion, which was brought by German immigrants. The African derived bass instrument the marimba (called marimbula in Puerto Rico and Cuba) was imported from Cuba in the 1930s. The 1930s also saw the introduction of orquestas with trumpets and saxophones very much in line with the American big-band concept. Orquestas performed in ballrooms and salons. The elite of the society, which had in the past denounced and censured the merengue as being too vulgar, began to identify with the indigenous music. Nationalism and anti-Yankee sentiment gave an additional fillip to the local music industry as Dominicans of all classes came to resent the American occupation from 1916 to 1924.

The dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, which lasted from 1930 until Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, represents another important milestone in the Dominican music industry. The period of the dictatorship saw the repression of AfroDominican religion and culture and the revival of anti-Haitian phobias, which culminated in the massacre of some twenty thousand Haitians in the border region. Foreign investment and foreign music were discouraged under the guise of nationalism. Large-scale urbanization was prohibited. As a consequence 70% of the population lived in rural areas until the 1960s (Manuel 1995: 102).

Trujillo’s reign impacted on the music industry in some positive ways, although the aim was essentially self-serving and premised on constructing a Hispanic identity while denying an Afro-Dominican heritage. Trujillo promoted merengue through several mechanisms. Folk merengue or perico ripiao and the big-band orquestado were positioned as symbols of Dominican national identity.

President Trujillo established his own personal merengue dance bands and many merengues were sung in his honor. He also founded municipal bands (bandas de música) and public music schools (academias de música) in the 1940s and 1950s throughout the whole island (1994: 136-7). Trujillo’s brother, Petán, established the country’s first government-owned radio station in 1942, La Voz Dominicana (formerly La Voz del Yuna), which featured local merengue ensembles that played Argentinean music, mariachi music, the danzon and calypso. The introduction of radio also allowed the local population to listen to recorded

music from the US, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Colombia (Austerlitz 1997:


The Trujillo period established merengue as national identity and the national dance. It also raised the level of music literacy throughout the country.

Restrictions on foreign music ensured dominance of local repertoire on the airwaves. On the other hand, state control of the local music industry crowded out local and foreign investment in the recording industry. Prior to and during the Trujillo era the record industry remained largely underdeveloped.


The first instance of Dominican music being recorded occurred in the early 1920s in New York City by the Victor Talking Machine Company when they made recordings of five danzones and three danza-like merengues, which were composed by Dominican Juan Espínola. The first recordings in Dominican Republic did not happen until 1928 when six recordings were done at a local radio station. These recordings were abandoned because of the negative effects of the tropical heat on the wax cylinder. Instead, Victor recorded a group of Dominican artists in New York City (Austerlitz 1997: 48).

The second attempt at recording in the Dominican Republic occurs in 1936 at the radio station La Voz del Partido. The recording equipment was rudimentary and designed primarily to record advertisements. Several merengues by La Orquesta Benefactor were recorded. The third instance of recordings happened in 1941 at sea aboard the boat of Leopold Stokowski who was visiting the Dominican Republic. Twenty recordings were done by Alberti’s Orquesta Presidente, of which five were merengue. The records were pressed in New York City and distributed under the Columbia Records label, then later on RCA Victor and Alberti’s own label, Alberti Records (Austerlitz 1997: 72).

Trujillo's brother, Petán, established the Dominican Recording Company and Caracol Records in 1947. Trujillo immediately imposed a ban on the importation of foreign recordings to protect the new company from foreign competition.

However, Caracol Records made only two recordings and never really got going.

An investment in modern recording equipment by Frank Hatton occurred in the early 1950s. However, Hatton’s main interest was that of recording radio commercials and novelas (soap operas). Artists like Luis Alberti and Antonio Morel rented Hatton's recording equipment to do merengue recordings. The records from these ventures were pressed in the US and distributed on various labels (Austerlitz 1997: 72).

The removal of Trujillo, in 1961, ushered in a new era for the music and recording industry. Trujillo’s right-hand man, Joaquín Balaguer, became the next president after the US invasion in 1965. Balaguer opened the market to foreign investment and urbanization and migration grew rapidly. The opening of the market to foreign music left the local music industry at a disadvantage in that the industry was largely underdeveloped and ill prepared to meet the competition.

North American pop, Latin baladas and New York salsa music came to dominate the airwaves (Manuel 1995: 105).

The Dominican music industry began to respond to the external threat. In the late 1960s orquestas were trimmed to smaller ensembles. New sounds emerged, which incorporated rhythms from the big bands and the perico ripiao styles of merengue and combined them with foreign influences such as New York based salsa and American disco. The dance styles of African American rhythm and blues was also brought into the stage performances. Johnny Ventura and his band are widely accepted as the key innovator in this regard. Ventura and his partner/manager also pioneered in terms of tapping into the domestic market through developing an island-wide concert circuit.

The Dominican music and recording industry got an additional fillip with the arrival of Fania Records in the 1970s. Fania Records, an independent record label, had almost single-handedly developed the market for salsa music. It is estimated that Fania accounted for over 80% of salsa record sales in the US and Puerto Rico in 1975 (Negus 1999: 135). Fania’s move to the Dominican Republic largely involved the promotion of salsa artists like Celia Cruz and Willie Colón as well as the purchase of local radio stations. Fania appointed Dominican impresario, Bienvenido Rodríguez, as its exclusive distributor. In 1975, Rodríguez began recording and promoting Wilfrido Vargas and was able to sell as much as twenty thousand records. The sales for another band, Los Hijos del Rey, reached sixty thousand units. By the mid-1980s Rodríguez started to record and promote leader of the band 4:40, Juan Luis Guerra, the most successful artist in the history of the Dominican music industry. Fania’s fortunes waned considerably by the early 1980s because of the aesthetic and commercial decline of salsa and because of the slump in Latin American economies like Venezuela, which was a critical market. In contrast, Rodríguez position in the Dominican Republic soared. He became the most powerful player in the music industry in the 1980s. By 1988 he owned a radio station, a record factory, a record distributorship and the most successful record company, Karen Records (Austerlitz 1997: 97).

The 1970s saw the emergence of a few local and foreign record producers.

Besides Fania and Karen the main competitor was Kubaney Records. Kubaney Records, owned by Mateo San Martin, a Cuban entrepreneur, entered the Dominican Republic in 1963 and signed artists like José Manuel Calderon and Aníbal de Pena y Los Diplomáticos. In 1967, Kubaney signed Johnny Ventura who had several hit records and did much to internationalize merengue. Over the years Kubaney acquired as many as 40 artists specializing in merengue such as Fernandito Villalona, Cuco Valoy, Pochy y su Cocoband, Leonardo Paniagua, and Aníbal Bravo y su Típica Dominicana. Kubaney has a large catalog of Salsa, Merengue, Bachatas, Boleros and Instrumental Music. Kubaney’s record company and publishing agency are based in Miami. Kubaney also has a large Latin music distribution center in New York called Manhattan Latin Music, which boasts of an inventory of more than 500,000 CDs and cassettes. A similar wholesale and retail operation called, CD Warehouse, was recently established in Miami. Kubaney also has offices in the Dominican Republic.

On the local market there were several record shops and companies such as Discomundo, Discos Bello and Discos Fabiola operating out of El Conde (the shopping promenade in La Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo). CBS also had a distribution office. It closed its office in 1987 when CBS was bought over by Sony. Fabiola established a recording studio and a vinyl pressing plant with stamper in 1975. Fabiola also attracted artists from other islands as it was considered the most advanced record factory in the region at the time. The owner of Fabiola, Fabio Inoa, grew tired of the business by the mid-1980s and sold it to EMCA, the recording studio branch of the advertising agency Young and Rubicam, which was looking for new premises to outfit its expanding interest in the recording industry. EMCA upgraded its recording equipment and became the studio of choice for local as well as foreign artists from territories such as Puerto Rico, New York, Colombia and Curacao. EMCA ran three shifts at the studio to accommodate the demand. It is estimated that 80% of all merengue albums produced during the 1980s came out of EMCA (Steward 1999: 115). In 1997, EMCA sold the studio to the Juan & Nelson recording company which has remodeled the premises and brought in new recording equipment for the two recording studios and the mixing studio.

There are a small number of fully equipped and modern recording studios with qualified sound engineers. Studios like Enkiu, Aljibe, Midilab, Audiproceso, EMCA, Sterling Audio and Juan & Nelson offer their services to the top local artists as well as a few non-Dominican artists from territories like Puerto Rico, Venezuela and New York. There is also a large number of digital mini-studios that cater to the lower end of the market in terms of price and quality. For example, many of the merengue and most of the bachata songs are produced in these studios. Most of this product is for local consumption where the dominant music format is the cassette. This market is very large in that the best songs and albums can sell in the hundred of thousands, especially bachata. This contrasts with the much smaller sales level for CDs. Industry estimates are that CDs account for no more than 20% of the market. This is because the latter format is far more expensive and the market penetration of CD players is relatively small.

The larger studios, on the other hand, have to produce work at international quality standards because the artists and labels that they work for are focussed on exporting. Several studios have done work for the multinational recording companies like Sony, UMG and WMG.

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