By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Crespo's former bandmates at Grupomanía, the top-selling U.S.-based merengue band, make no secret that they too have patterned themselves after the Rosarios. "We're big fans of the Hermanos Rosario," says lead singer Oscar Serrano. "The rhythm we play is only called merengue-bomba because 'bomba' is the Rosarios' slogan; it's what they shout onstage and on their records. It's really merengue 'Hermanos Rosario-style.'"
Since Grupomanía began selling hundreds of thousands of records in the mid-1990s with its Rosarios-inspired sound, dozens of copycat acts have followed suit, including a female performer who calls herself the Chica Bomba. Today the tropical market is overrun with merengue-bomba groups, many of which are indistinguishable from each other but continue to make music at the cash registers. "Without a doubt Los Hermanos Rosario are the most imitated group in the business," says the band's manager, Rene Solis. "Nobody can deny their paternity of the merengue-bomba sound."
Solis credits brother Pepe Rosario, the band's first musical director, with putting a patent on the bomba rhythm. With the palo rituals of his youth reverberating through his being, Pepe exhorted his drummer to spice up the beat with a musical condiment he called guaychipa. The drummer, playing a two-headed drum unique to merengue called a tambora, obliged by removing one of the drum strokes, pausing for syncopation and capping the beat with a sharp slap with the palm of his hand. The beat became less like a horse's gait and more akin to a game of leapfrog, a feeling alluded to in one of the rhythm's nicknames: lo maco -- "froggie style."
But the band's sound was not always in vogue. One of Latin music's leading songsmiths, Raldy Vazquez, recalls the Dominican club scene of the 1980s. "It used to be that if you played bomba-style merengue, people in the audience would start to boo; nobody wanted to hear it," says Vazquez, whose lengthy résumé includes penning hits for Crespo, Olga Tañon, and Domingo Quiñones. "But they stood by it. Nowadays it's gone to the extreme where you can't play anything else."
Sadly for the brothers, Pepe Rosario never got a chance to see the fruits of his inspiration. During a 1981 road trip, three years after the band's formation, Pepe was stabbed to death by a female acquaintance. Without its lead singer, keyboard player, and band leader, the Hermanos Rosario were dumped by their first label, Kubany. They regrouped a year later, after their parents sold the family home to raise money for the comeback. The brothers carted their own sound systems across the Dominican Republic in the family car, going from town to town until they had rebuilt their following.
The band's eventual triumph and lasting success stands as a tribute to Pepe, the fallen brother. At times you can hear the anguish in Rafa's voice manifest as a languorous howl. You get the sense he and brothers Luis and Tony (the three who remain with the act) are still mourning Pepe's demise. But as with the fiestas de palo, the rollicking ceremonies of their youth that marked the passing of a friend or neighbor and stretched on for days, the Hermanos Rosario continue to celebrate life amid hardship and loss the way so many other Dominicans do: through their music.