A fascinating examination of the social history of merengue dance music and its importance as a social and cultural symbol
Dominican Music and Dominican Identity
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Paul Austerlitz, foreword by Robert Farris Thompson
Merenguethe quintessential Dominican dance musichas a long and complex history, both on the island and in the large immigrant community in New York City. In this ambitious work, Paul Austerlitz unravels the African and Iberian roots of merengue and traces its growth under dictator Rafael Trujillo and its renewed popularity as an international music.
Using extensive interviews as well as written commentaries, Austerlitz examines the historical and contemporary contexts in which merengue is performed and danced, its symbolic significance, its social functions, and its musical and choreographic structures. He tells the tale of merengue's political functions, and of its class and racial significance. He not only explores the various ethnic origins of this Ibero-African art form, but points out how some Dominicans have tried to deny its African roots.
In today's global society, mass culture often marks ethnic identity. Found throughout Dominican society, both at home and abroad, merengue is the prime marker of Dominican identity. By telling the story of this dance music, the author captures the meaning of mass and folk expression in contemporary ethnicity as well as the relationship between regional, national, and migrant culture and between rural/regional and urban/mass culture. Austerlitz also traces the impact of migration and global culture on the native music, itself already a vibrant intermixture of home-grown merengue forms.
From rural folk idiom to transnational mass music, merengue has had a long and colorful career. Its well-deserved popularity will make this book a must read for anyone interested in contemporary music; its complex history will make the book equally indispensable to anyone interested in cultural studies.
"In a well written and organized narrative that avoids academic jargon, the book invites all kinds of readers to the world of 'euphoric sounds' that initially drew the author to this music....One of the most significant contributions of this study lies in its analysis of merengues's stylistic continuities and transformations. A jazz and merengue saxophonist himself since the 1980s, Austerlitz demonstrates a profound knowledge of how merengue 'works' musically, and a sharp ear in identifying significant stylistic characteristics and changes. His familiarity with the medium also gives him access to perceptions and value judgments of other musicians thereby enriching his analysis....The reader will be delighted with the sounds of all these voices integrated into a coherent historical account. Austerlitz also has an experienced voice. He has a riff that we want to go on hearing."
"Austerlitz presents an engrossing ethnography of Dominican music, mostly based on the testimony of well-known bandleaders, composers, arrangers, singers, and performers."
Foreword Robert Farris Thompson
Part I: The History of Merengue, 1854-1961
Paul Austerlitz is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Miami.