Charo Oquet wants you to know there is more to Dominican music than the beeper dance, no matter how much fun the rump-shaking rhythm of merengue might be. For five years now, Oquet has organized the annual Dominican Youth Arts Festival to make Miamians aware of the cultural wealth of the land indigenous people once called Quisqueya. “The Dominican community in Miami is a very small one and a very silent one,” she says, “and we felt there needed to be more said.”
Over the years the festival has grown from local artists giving presentations in the schools to public concerts featuring prominent visitors from the island, such as this year's Celebration of America's Tribal Spirit. The highlight of the fifth Dominican Youth Arts Festival, the concert also kicks off the Miami Beach Botanical Garden's monthly concert series held in conjunction with a new event, Miami Beach Second Thursdays.
Oquet selects visiting artists according to their interest in promoting the island's African heritage. “Most Dominicans who live here live in Allapattah or other black areas,” she explains. “We thought that by identifying the African roots, we could find links with the other groups that are here: African Americans, Haitians, Bahamians.” Bringing Afro-Dominican artists to Miami also helps those artists earn prestige back home. “Coming to the United States, these groups gain respect they often don't get otherwise,” Oquet points out.
Roldan Marmol, coordinator of the Bayahonda cultural foundation, agrees. Speaking by phone from Santo Domingo, Marmol says the Trujillo dictatorship that ruled the nation for nearly four decades prohibited the preservation of ethnic music and dance. Trujillo sponsored merengue musicians who sang his praises, but “instituted the rejection of everything from Africa,” claims Marmol. “That ended only twenty years ago. There is still a kind of double Dominican identity: the public European identity and the more popular, less visible African identity.” In the past two decades, Marmol has been part of an artistic movement to recoup ethnic traditions.
Through Bayahonda, whose name refers to a medicinal plant that can cleanse souls and fertilize the soil, Marmol has joined colleagues such as Xiomara Fortuna and David Almengod (all of whom will participate in the show at the botanical garden) in producing a series of CDs featuring never-before-recorded rhythms. Música Raiz Volume One (Root Music) highlights four ethnic rhythms: palo, salve, gagá, and congo. The recording showcases community artists who perform using only traditional instruments as well as musicians who fuse the ancestral sounds with contemporary jazz and reggae.
Played at celebrations, religious ceremonies, rituals, and funerals, the music is “incredibly rich at the rhythmic level,” Marmol notes, adding that the fusion musicians bring a “new perspective” by incorporating more contemporary elements, such as guitar, bass, and the language of love. “There is a very enriching harmony,” he says, “as well as a spiritual wealth, because this is the music of our ancestors. It expresses much of the energy that we carry coming from the Caribbean.”