Is Dominican Music Facing Threat of Appropriation?

Just recently, one of my friends from Yale sent me an article from La Galeria Magazine by Amanda Alcantara titled: "Are We Next? The Appropriation of Dominican Culture."

After reading the article, I came away with a complete new definition of the word "appropriate." According to the Oxford Dictionary, to appropriate something means to "take for one's own use without the owner's permission."

Without even reading the article, one must come to the conclusion that "Dominican culture" is something that belongs to a specific person/group, and that it is currently being stolen by an outside entity. Though the title of Ms. Alcantara's article seems to imply that she will delve into exactly just how Dominican culture is being stolen, she largely concentrates on merengue and bachata, the two music genres most commonly associated with the Dominican Republic. 

Ms. Alcantara opened her article with: "The first time I saw merengue being performed on American television was in 2010 when Shakira performed her single 'Loca' on the David Letterman Show. I remember watching this performance and feeling annoyed by it. I’ve been a Shakira fan since her Pies Descalzos days, so I couldn’t figure out why I was hating on her so hard when she performed this hit song. 'I should be happy! El merengue se va a volver famoso [merengue will now be famous,]' I remember thinking. Now, years later, I understand why I was so irritated." 
[bold used for emphasis by me]

Upon reading the first paragraph, I was already experiencing emotional distress and concern. When a Dominican person talks about a foreigner in terms of annoyance and hate and irritation, it usually involves our darker-skinned brothers in Haiti, so I was quite shocked that Ms. Alcantara was attacking a Colombian person. She further went on to add: "The reason why I felt upset over Shakira’s rendition of merengue was because she appropriated the rhythm that is so important to Dominicans." 

To Ms. Alcantara, seeing a "white-passing" Latina who dyes her hair and is part of "mainstream American culture" gravely upsets her because she believes that female Dominican artists are being marginalized. She says merengue is being "whitewashed," writing: "Until recently, bachata was stigmatized for being popular among lower-class Dominicans, but I guess now it’s popular among everyone right? It only took a lot of gringo recognition for the Dominican government to finally recognize it."

In Ms. Alcanta's analysis, the main driver of the appropriation of Dominican culture is the current wave of gentrification overtaking many formerly Dominican areas of New York City. In perhaps her most shocking sentence, she states: "And I don’t even wanna talk about people being like 'Oh, I’ve been to the Dominican,' when I mention my ethnicity. These are the folks that suddenly pretend to know everything because they happened to have spent a weekend on a resort and maybe even go on a bus tour to visit the 'rural areas.'"

Well, Ms. Alcantara, please allow me to tell you that you yourself may be in need of a week-long visit to the Dominican Republic, perhaps to spend it reading about the history of music. Ms. Alcantara, merengue is not a Dominican music genre! Yes, that may be shocking to hear from a Dominican, but this is a historical fact which I have firmly concluded after extensive research. 

Paul Austerlitz in his masterpiece -- "The History of Merengue: 1854-1961" -- writes: "While best known as a Dominican music genre, merengue was a pan-Caribbean genre already in the nineteenth century. Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, and Puerto Rico each developed local forms of the music; with the exception of the Puerto Rican version, all are still played today. Like another pan-Caribbean form, the danza, the Caribbean merengues fused the European contredanse with local, African-derived elements; they are thus aptly called Afro-Caribbean contredanse transformations."

Paul Austerlitz
Alejo Carpentier, one of our foremost Latin American scholars, recorded: "The Saint-Domingue [currently knows as Haiti] influence on the Cuban contradanza bore the distinct mark of Afro-Haitian music." In fact, the very root of the word merengue [formerly mereng] derives from its French cognate, méringue (Corominas 1954: 351.)

Further, Venezuelan ethnomusicologist Luis Ramon y Rivera stated that merengue developed in Venezuela from the danza, while at the same time a form of merengue "developed in a Caribbean coastal region of Colombia, but its early history lies in obscurity." In the expert analysis of Paul Austerlitz, drawing from sources throughout the Caribbean, no particular nation can claim merengue fully evolved within its own borders.

So, merengue isn't Dominican, but bachata without a doubt is 100% Dominican. Ms. Alcantara states in her article that the only reason bachata was recognized is because of American pressure, and that this is proof that our music is being stolen from its rural, marginalized groups. This statement is patently laughable; if we were to argue about the recognition of merengue as a Dominican music genre, we'll have to go back to the dictatorship of merengue-aficionado Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo and his brother Petán.

Archivo General de la Nacion
Before Trujillo, merengue was not just marginalized, it was borderline illegal. The reason why merengue died out in Puerto Rico was because Governor Juan de la Pezuela Cevallos dictated in 1849 that anyone who "tolerated merengue in their homes would be fined 50 pesos; and a sentence of 10 days in prison for those who danced it."

In the Dominican Republic, Manuel  de Jesús Galván -- the foremost Dominican writer in the late-1800s -- decried merengue as "lewd and contemptible." The music was marginalized to the countryside up until the rise of Trujillo, who with help of Luis Alberti and his Orquesta Santa Cecilia uplifted merengue from a rustic, countryside and brothel music played with German accordions into ballroom music played with the saxophone and heavy US jazz influence. 

So, I'm curious, Ms. Alcantara: "How can someone appropriate something which did not conclusively emerge in our country, something which was only popularized with the help of a dictator who excised the German accordion and replaced it with an American jazz saxophone?"

Merengue was aptly utilized by the dictatorship of Trujillo to promote a warped reality, one in which merengue was a Dominican music apt for the jazz halls of the United States, far from its Haitian roots.