In the Dominican Republic, the air pulses with energetic beats, tunes blasting from open car windows and drifting into the streets from neighborhood bars. Even public plazas serve as convenient dance floors: people glide across the pavement as buskers play slow, romantic melodies or local radios bump with the newest hits.

The birthplace of merengue and bachata and an active champion of other popular genres such as salsa and reggaetón, this country moves to a rhythm all its own.

A group practices the guitar outside the Convento de los Dominicos in Santo Domingo © Jane Sweeny / Getty Images
A group practices the guitar outside the Convento de los Dominicos in Santo Domingo © Jane Sweeny / Getty Images

The merengue: a national legacy

The merengue is the national music of the Dominican Republic, and you are hard-pressed to find a part of the country where people don’t enthusiastically embrace it as a cultural touchstone. It originated in the Dominican countryside in a form known today as merengue típico, and it incorporated three traditional instruments: the tambora (a two-sided drum), the accordion and the güira, a local percussion instrument.

Prior to the 1930s, the merengue was considered a rather uncouth, low-class activity; however, when the dictator Rafael Trujillo entered office, he introduced the merengue into the salons and parties of aristocratic Dominican society, solidifying its place as the country’s national music and dance. Trujillo commissioned many songs extolling his leadership talents, the virtues of his political party and his own personal attractiveness, and he often mandated that merengue be included in the musical repertoires of any state-sponsored event. After his death in 1961, merengue took a contemporary turn, with many of the biggest names in the business ditching the dictator’s rather traditional style for more showy, sensual alternatives. Today, three main types of merengue dominate the airwaves: merengue típico (also known as ‘perico ripiao’, or ‘ripped parrot’), big band merengue and guitar merengue.

A student learns how to play merengue típico in Rio San Juan © Margie Politzer / Getty Images
A student learns how to play merengue típico in Rio San Juan © Margie Politzer / Getty Images

The bachata: merengue’s younger cousin

While merengue is an old favorite, the hopelessly romantic bachata is rising fast in popularity and is commonly heard around the country. Bachata came about in the years following Trujillo’s death, a victim of his strong censorship policies, emerging from some of the poorest Dominican neighborhoods. In fact, the name bachata was actually imposed as a slight, referring to the humble origins of the music and its perceived lack of respectability. Despite its slow start, the four step beat is now one of the most popular styles of music in all of Latin America.

Make it happen

Sure, you’ll find music in the clubs and bars of Santo Domingo or Santiago, but for a more uniquely Dominican flavor, try the local convenience store, or better yet, the car wash; the Dominicans have perfected the art of turning mundane errands into a great night on the town. If you’re looking to add a twist of history to the experience, you can even dance it out at an old colonial monastery.

Colmados

All over the Dominican Republic, you will find small bars/convenience stores dotting neighborhood streets – this is the famous Dominican colmado, the center of the nation’s social life. Patrons spill onto the sidewalk, playing dominoes and tipping back rum-based beverages, all while a television shows the day’s most important baseball game. These unassuming stores often take it up a notch at night, blasting merengue and bachata from heavy-duty speakers, and, inevitably, where there is music, there will be dancing. Stop by and shake your tail feather in a true Dominican fashion (and pick up some goods for the pantry while you are at it).

A woman dances outside a colmado in the Dominican Republic © Hans Neleman / Getty Images
A woman dances outside a colmado in the Dominican Republic © Hans Neleman / Getty Images

Work it at the car wash

During the day, the car wash is a popular place to relax with a cold Presidente beer and chat with friends, but at night the lights go down, the music gets loud, and it’s time to show off those dancing skills. Try the Terraza Olimpica in Santo Domingo, a popular spot that features a live band specializing in merengue and bachata, but there are plenty of car washes to choose from across the country. As a note, these spots are pretty far off the beaten track and often require a taxi to get to; chat with some locals at the colmados or at your hotel to get the skinny on where the party is happening.

Grupo Bonye at the San Francisco Ruins

If you happen to be in Santo Domingo on a Sunday night, follow the music to the Grupo Bonye performance at the San Francisco ruins in the Zona Colonial. People come from all over the city to drink and dance to merengue, bachata, salsa, and Cuban son, and many even bring their own instruments to contribute to the fun. The stage sits at the foot of the crumbling monastery, originally built in 1508, that serves as a dramatic backdrop to the festivities. The party starts at 5pm and continues until about 10, and it’s free for all attending; be sure to come early if you want to grab a seat. Local vendors are on site selling cold beer and hot street food, should you need a little refreshment after cutting the rug on the dance floor.

The crowd goes wild when a merengue song comes on at the Grupo Bonye performance © Bailey Johnson / Lonely Planet
The crowd rushes to the dance floor when a merengue song comes on at the Grupo Bonye performance © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Merengue and Caribbean Rhythms Festival

A tradition starting back in 1967, Santo Domingo’s annual Merengue & Caribbean Rhythms Festival is a blow-out celebration of the country’s national dance, offering one of the best opportunities to learn about Dominican music history and see it in action. The party takes place on the city’s malecón, an esplanade that backs up to the Caribbean sea, but it often carries into the neighboring streets of the Zona Colonial and the bars and clubs of central Santo Domingo. The event is normally scheduled in August or September and is quite popular; be sure to book your hotel in advance. If you miss your chance to try out your moves in Santo Domingo, the DR also hosts a sister festival in Puerto Plata.

Bailey Freeman traveled to the Dominican Republic with support from the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism (godominicanrepublic.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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