Music & Entertainment

What Is Merengue (Music and Dance)?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 7, 2019 • 2 min read

Merengue is a type of music that was born in the Dominican Republic, and the two are intimately associated. Merengue is to the Dominican Republic what blues, jazz, and hip-hop are to the United States—a musical style that seems to represent the spirit of an entire country.

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What Is Merengue?

Merengue is a style rooted in Africa that came to life in the Dominican Republic (particularly in the city of Santiago) and is based on a repeating five-beat rhythmic pattern called a quintillo.

Usually, merengue is performed by a group of musicians playing the following instruments:

  • A diatonic accordion, which is common in many types of traditional folk music
  • A tambora, which is a two–sided drum (was originally fashioned from old rum bottles)
  • And a güira, which is a metal scraper

These instruments are inexpensive and easily made, which is one reason merengue is now played not just in the Caribbean, but across the world.

What’s the Difference Between Merengue and Méringue?

Both merengue and méringue have Caribbean roots: the Dominican Republic produced merengue while Haiti is famous for méringue. Tempo is one of the primary differences between the two genres. While merengue is slower and more melodic, the Haitian méringue is more suited to fast-paced dancing.

Origins of Merengue Music

Early merengue songs from the mid-1800s were played only on stringed instruments. At the time, merengue had a negative reputation stemming from its use of simple instruments and popularity within rough neighborhoods. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, German traders brought the accordion to the Dominican Republic; the accordion soon became a fixture in merengue bands and opened the door for the inclusion of other instruments like the piano and brass instruments.

In the 1930s, the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo introduced a nationwide campaign promoting merengue. Trujillo’s embrace of the music, paired with its newly refined sound, transformed its reputation into a positive celebration of the Dominican Republic’s spirit.

How Merengue Achieved Global Popularity

A massive migration of Dominicans to New York City started in the 1960s. These Latin American immigrants brought their native music to American shores, injecting the world’s biggest market for music with merengue. With nearly two million Dominicans now living in the United States, Merengue has influenced—and been influenced by—other American music genres, such as rock n’ roll. Puerto Rican Merengue stars like Elvis Crespo have sprouted, turning what was once an exclusively Dominican genre into something with international appeal.

two merengue dancers

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Is Merengue a Dance?

Merengue isn’t just a music genre. Merengue dance is the Dominican Republic’s national dance, which accompanies the merengue style of music. A pair of dancing partners holds hands at chest-level, and moves in slow, sensuous semi-circles to the rhythm of the music. As with most other Latin and Caribbean dances, the secret to dancing merengue lies in the hips. Whether simply shifting, shimmying, or circling around each other, merengue dancers create an interesting vision as they keep their hands clasped during the dance.

What Are the Most Famous Merengue Songs?

Here are some of the songs that define merengue music, from artists both in the Dominican Republic and around the world:

  • “Compadre Pedro Juan", by Luis Alberti
  • "Abusadora," by Oro Solido y Raul Acosta
  • "Bailar," by Deorro ft Elvis Crespo
  • “Con La Mano en el Piso y con La"(pompi)," by Mala Fe
  • "Esa Muchacha," by Los Hermanos Rosario
  • "Guayo," by Elvis Crespo ft. Los Illegales
  • "Moviendo Las Caderas," by Oro Solido
  • "Suavemente," by Elvis Crespo
  • "Tu Me Quemas," by Chino y Nacho, ft. Gente de La Zona y Los Cadillacs
  • “Samba Merengue,“ de Harmonia do Samba
  • "Ojala Que Llueva Cafe," by Juan Luis Guerra
  • “La Deuene Del Swing,” by Los Hermanos Rosario