Music & Entertainment

What Is Merengue (Music and Dance)?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 7, 2019 • 3 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 and dance that seems to represent the spirit of an entire country. Distinct from mambo, salsa, bachata, cha-cha, rumba, and other Afro-Carribean Latin dance styles, merengue is both the music and dance of the Dominican Republic.

Close

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. With its African and Spanish influences, merengue is a new world musical style rooted in old-world traditions.

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. Merengue music is, of course, not limited to these musical instruments and also often includes brass instruments such as a horn or a saxophone.

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 hold hands at chest-level and move in slow, sensuous semi-circles to the rhythm of the music.

Merengue is also performed in ballroom dance competitions along with other dances of Afro-Carribean origin, such as Cuban and Puerto Rican versions of salsa.

As with most other Latin and Caribbean dances, the secret to dancing merengue lies in the hips; though the basic step may appear easy, the hips both drive and accentuate it. Whether simply shifting, shimmying, or circling around each other, merengue dancers create an interesting vision on the dance floor as they keep their hands clasped during the dance.

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.

Where Did Merengue Music Originate?

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 Did Merengue Achieve 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

Close

12 Famous Merengue Songs

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

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

Merengue music has served as inspiration for countless musicians, like Grammy Award winner Carlos Santana. Find inspiration in the rhythms and tonalities of this Afro-Caribbean style and apply them to your own songwriting, as Santana demonstrates in his MasterClass on the art and soul of guitar.

Want to become a better musician? Get the MasterClass All-Access Pass and watch exclusive videos taught by musical masters, including Carlos Santana, Christina Aguilera, Tom Morello, and more.