A Guide to the Music of the Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic, Saona Island, Palm trees on beach
The music of the Dominican Republic is lively. Stefano Stefani / Getty Images

From its discovery and subsequent colonization in 1493, the Dominican Republic's dark history of slave labor and native genocide yielded perhaps some of the most hauntingly beautiful Latin music of the last century, giving birth to such genres as merengue and bachata.

This rich history and the culture it helped establish is apparent in the works of the island nation's musicians, from Juan Luis Guerra and his band the 440 to Fernando Villalona, which have both been described as pioneers of the country's music scenes.

A Brief History

Following his sojourn to Cuba in 1492, Christopher Columbus next discovered the island that would one day become known as Hispaniola before being divided into two independent nations: The Dominican Republic and Haiti. 

The Dominican Republic occupies a little over two-thirds of the island, while the remaining third is the country of Haiti. The first permanent settlement, at Isabella, was established in 1493.

The Spaniards found the docile Taino Indians living there — as they found them in Puerto Rico — but this indigenous population soon began to die off. In 1502, the Spaniards started replacing the Taino with an African workforce, a pattern that was repeated through most of Latin America which gave rise to a unique blend of sounds and musical traditions that would one day give birth to several unique Latin genres.

Genres and Styles

There are many different genres of Dominican music which got their start from the diverse population Spanish settlers brought to the island through the slave trade and immigration. Among those that arose out of the Dominican African heritage are plena, a metered, responsorial work song; salve, an often-ceremonial style either sung acapella or accompanied by panderos and other African instruments; and gaga, a form of music tied to the Haitian-Dominican gaga societies and usually associated with individual sugarcane settlements.

However, the most popular musical genres in the Dominican Republic, the music for which the country is known, are merengue and bachata. While meringue has been part of the Dominican musical repertoire since the mid-19th century, it was in the 1930s that merengue became the dominant musical genre on the island. Under the auspices of dictator Rafael Trujillo, merengue rose from music that was considered low-brow to the music that dominated radio waves for over three decades.

On the other hand, bachata emerged significantly later but had about as much of an impact on the Dominican culture as merengue did. The word "bachata" has been part of Dominican culture for a long time, but it was only in the 1960s that it could officially be labeled a musical genre. In fact, until the last decade, bachata was virtually unknown to Latinos outside of Dominicans (and their neighbors) but that has changed. Bachata is quickly overcoming the popularity of merengue as the favorite Dominican musical genre.

Juan Luis Guerra: The Dominican Republic's Best-Known Musician

The most famous Dominican musical artist today is undoubtedly Juan Luis Guerra. In the 1980s, Guerra took the limelight with his salsa-influenced merengue sound, incorporating high-quality production in his albums. In 1984 he formed his band "Juan Luis Guerra y 440," where the 440 were his backup vocalists and the number 440 represents the number of cycles per second of the "A" note.

Guerra's 2007 album "La Llave De Mi Corazon" took the world by storm, garnering every major award and bringing a renewed awareness of the vibrant music of the Dominican Republic.