This Sunday a galaxy of merengue stars will bring to Miami a music rich in history and noisy in sound. The problem is that to catch them all, you'd have to be cloned, because with the Dominican Community Association's Festival del Merengue, and with Radio El Zol's counteroffer, Merengue Zol, we'll be torn between simultaneous musical extravaganzas.
Admittedly, this weekend's shows will be a world or two apart, sharing only merengue as a main theme and controversy as a backdrop. The duplicated efforts, presented by separate and unequal institutions, have sparked a fight to rival the Colombian clash of July 20, when two music festivals celebrating that nation's independence went head to head, splitting the potential audience. This weekend's competing events have also created a local chasm and patriotic dilemma.
Both bashes will offer a day dedicated to the Dominican Republic's musical pride: el merengue. But the similarities end there. One is a $30,000 nonprofit community effort with lots of local talent and a few big-draw Dominican acts. The community association's Festival del Merengue (at Comstock Park in Allapattah) will serve up some folklore (Broward's Dominicano Folkloric Ballet and Fefita la Grande with her furious accordion-based perico ripiao sound) in addition to merengue bands Tono Rosario, La Gran Union, Conjunto Pambiche, Orquesta la Familia, and others. The Radio El Zol festival (at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre) is a $150,000 mega-starred production. On hand will be a dozen of the biggest (that is, most commercially successful) merengue orquestas around, most from the Dominican Republic, many of them with current radio hits, all in one place. On that bill are Los Hermanos Rosarios, Coco-Band, Bonny Cepeda, La Patrulla 15, and a half-dozen others.
While putting together their fifth annual merengue festival and independence celebration, members of the Dominican Community Association were shocked to discover Radio El Zol (98.3-FM) had planned a big-bucks merengue bash on the exact same day. What had become a Miami-Dominican tradition in the heart of the 'hood was now threatened by an insensitive newcomer. Incensed, members of the association met a month ago with Zol's director, Carlos Lopez. After he rejected suggestions that Radio El Zol change its date and/or help sponsor the association's festival, the issue became a hot debate on local radio talk shows.
The next salvo was launched by the community association via bright-yellow flyers denouncing Zol's "deliberate and treacherous bad intentions" and accusing the station of attempting to "boycott and step on" the other festival. The flyers, extensively distributed in Miami's Dominican neighborhoods, read "like a letter from a hurt fifteen-year-old boy to his girlfriend," said Lopez. He claims the identical date was pure coincidence, and that it was too late to be changed, what with a year and a half in planning and contracts aimed at the August 18 staging. El Zol was also criticized for not having the Dominican community in mind, to which Lopez answered, "I don't have to have anyone in mind," and "I don't do community events" - attitudes that further fed the fire.
Radio El Zol fired back at the broken-hearted on July 29 with a threatening cease-and-desist-or-we'll-sue-you lawyer letter, accusing the association of impugning El Zol and promoting a boycott of the station. "It wasn't fair to use my name the way they did," Lopez complained. "I don't hate Dominican people. I'm bringing more than 100 musicians from Santo Domingo for this event."
Undaunted by the legalese, and eager to get on with things, the community association decided to set aside the controversy and concentrate on final planning details. Though it wasn't the original intent, the debate spawned contention, inspired patriotism, and most importantly, provided lots of free publicity. "I feel supported by the Dominican community," said Nelson Villaverde, a member of the Dominican Community Association and an organizer of the event. One of the main goals of the group is to fund a resource center for local Dominicans (a population estimated to be around 80,000), but so far nonprofit has meant just that, and the dreams linger.
El Zol's event, on the other hand, is intended to promote the international appeal of Santo Domingo's "merengue for the world," and of course to hype the station, which plays 60 to 70 per cent merengue.
All this fuss over the only form of Latin music I ever had to force-feed myself. Despite its glorious pelvic popularity, breathless urgency, and pumping brass, the stuff can really get on my nerves. Which is too bad because these days it's everywhere: parties, bars, streets, dances, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Santo Domingo, Miami.
A prime example of musica criolla, the original Afro-European mixture is far from today's music madness. The merengue once played in the countryside had a three-part structure: the slow "paseo" intro, the central "merengue," and the fast "jaleo." Around the turn of the century, when it became popular in urban areas and needed a louder sound, the diatonic accordion was added. Later came the marimbula, sax, and big-band brass.
Occasional hybrids have developed (Milly Jocelyn y los Vecinos's cumbia-merengue), and some so-called innovations have been trotted out (the many mediocre "chica" girl-group acts), but contemporary merengue bands generally follow a highly predictable formula: Get a bunch of men (some seasoned musicians, some hunks, and some virile young boys) who, with lots of energy and pizzazz, play a pounding and incessant beat, sing about male desire and prowess, dress really slick, and dance even slicker. (Notable exception: the totally hip and classy Juan Luis Guerra y Grupo 440.)
Today's version is a "merengue" plus "jaleo," with nary a "paseo" to be heard. Kind of like hard-core sex without the foreplay. If time and progress had stopped - say around the Fifties - I'd probably love merengue and sing its praises daily. But the reality is a music that is soooo fast, brassy, and sexist, it's obnoxious.
For the serious seeker of musical merengue purity, I suggest tuning in WDNA-FM (88.9) and listening to DJ Hector Gutierrez on Wednesday's Fusion Latina (8:00 p.m. to midnight). During his show, he will also honor requests for a gamut of other Dominican sounds, like bachata, musica de monte adentro, and mangulina.
You could also ask for the current local hit "La Morena Chula" by Tony Tatis, although WDNA might find that too commercial. Or you could go see Tatis at El Zol's festival this Sunday. Or you could go see him at the Dominican Community Association's festival this Sunday. He's not been cloned, but somehow he'll be playing at both. The conflict of events, Tatis says, "is not a controversy. We're in the U.S., everyone does their business. Big one eats little one. Each festival is letting me work with the other. I play for everyone.
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