Merengue and bachata are the soundtrack to everyday life in the Dominican Republic . But unlike the music in a movie, which fades into the background setting the mood, this music takes over the scene. A merengue band greets you at the airport the moment you get off the plane, music blasts from the stereo of your taxi, and your driver shouts over it. Bachata issues from the radios at the colmados that you pass on the highways. Music is everywhere in the Dominican Republic, and Dominicans know a lot about it. They are quick to tell you who the singers or musicians are.
The happy sounds of these forms are what hook you, but both merengue and bachata are tightly connected to the Dominicans’ national identity. Lyrics have deep social meaning and encompass love, humor, and politics. Dominicans take great pride in both merengue and bachata while claiming affinity for one or the other, but it is safe to say that these soundtracks have deeply impacted the collective imagination of the nation and have affected each and every artist at some point in their artistic endeavors.
Merengue is usually composed in 2/4 time, and there are three different styles: perico ripiao, more commonly called merengue típico; merengue de orquesta; and merengue de guitarra. They are rhythmically similar, but what makes them different are their instruments and repertoire.
Perico ripiao literally means “ripped parrot.” The term has been linked to the name of a brothel in Santiago  in the 1930s. The suggestive name became connected to the style of music played there. While originally starting in the Cibao region, merengue típico is often considered the “country music” of the merengue genre. Instruments began with only a Spanish guitar and a marímbulla (“thumb piano”) and evolved into merengue típico, which replaced the guitar with the accordion (brought to the Dominican Republic  by Germans in the 19th century) and incorporated the güira (a long cylindrical metal scraper believed to be of Taíno origins) and the tambora (a two-headed drum of African origins). As típico evolved over the 1900s, merengueros began adding instruments like the saxophone, the electric bass, and the bass drum (played by the güirero, keeping the band at five men. One of the most famous musicians of the típico style is Luis Kalaff, who was honored in 2008 by the governor of New York with the prestigious Bobby Capo Lifetime Achievement Award for the annual Hispanic Heritage Month. However labeled, merengue típico plays an important role in Dominican music history and modern social culture. Today you can find perico ripiao bands at family functions, roaming neighborhoods on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and playing for tourists in many of the popular hot spots.
Merengue orquesta developed in the 1930s and is the “big band” of the merengue genre. It was derived for the ballrooms and dancehalls of the social elite as well as the middle class. While típico’s strength is improvisation and pushes the accordion into the forefront of the arrangements, the orquesta relies heavily on horns, replacing the accordion altogether. Johnny Ventura and Wilfrido Vargas were two highly stylized musicians of the 1960s who brought a flashy new sound and look to merengue. Think Motown meets merengue.
With the arrival of Juan Luis Guerra onto the musical scene in the 1980s and 1990s, the sound of merengue changed to mix with more modern arrangements influenced by jazz and pop and with a return to some típico styling. Merengue crossed into other genres as the new century arrived. New fusions surfaced like merenhouse, merenhiphop, and merenrap. Fulanito (a Dominican-American group), Sandy y Papo, and the group Sancocho are just a few examples of these bands who thought outside of the box.
Bachata is a guitar-based form of music that comes from the Cuban bolero. Dominican radio stations didn’t start playing it until the 1960s, and even then its rotation was very limited because it was born of the lower class neighborhoods and the countryside and was therefore associated with backwardness by the upper class of society. As it was relegated to the barrios and the brothels, the themes began to tell the stories of the prostitutes and the poor. The songs were packed with jilted lovers, workers ripped off by the government, and the troubles of the barrio residents—all told in colorful language and with sexual double entendre.
Its instruments are a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, electric bass guitar, bongos (or instead sometimes the tambora drum), and the güira (or maracas). The influence of merengue can be heard in the rhythm and guitar lines, and many artists cross over between the two genres, like Juan Luis Guerra. While many music critics dispute whether Guerra fits into this category of music or not, it is undeniable that his widely sold album, named Bachata Rose, increased awareness of bachata on a world music stage. This crossover made bachata a more accepted form of music not only throughout the country, but all around the world.
A few bachata giants are José Manuel Calderón (the first recorded bachata song), Raulín Rodríguez, Joe Veras and Antony Santos, Aventura, Frank Reyes, Yoskar Sarante, Monchy & Alexandra, and Luis Vargas.
Even though merengue and bachata are the national music genres, other forms exist. There is salsa aplenty and reggaeton, too; everything from alternative and pop to jazz and classical can be heard in cafés and cars rolling down the street. There are festivals for merengue and even a successful annual Dominican Republic Jazz Festival held in Cabarete .
But dancing is a must for Dominicans. When it comes to rhythm, there is an old saying that Dominican children can dance before they can walk. The danceable music is their birthright. At any gathering you will find the intoxicating music; there is no defense, you will eventually find yourself tapping your feet and getting up to dance. The “Cuban motion” (figure eight hip motion) and fast foot action necessary to execute both bachata and merengue dances seems to be an innate motion for a Dominican. If you are not a dancer, they will be very puzzled by this. Dancing is directly equal to enjoying life to its fullest.