Brotherly Beats

When considering the Caribbean's greatest dance bands, Cuba's Los Van Van and Puerto Rico's El Gran Combo usually are among the first to roll off the lips of Latin-music aficionados. But a table in that VIP section also should be reserved for the Dominican Republic's incomparable merengue crew, Los Hermanos Rosario.

With its earthy style, this band of brothers from the Dominican hinterland embodies that nation's lusty exuberance for life better than any of its cohorts. Lead singer Rafa Rosario handles the vocal chores like an amorous werewolf, howling or barking when polysyllabic expression fails to capture his emotions, and is backed up by the tightest troop of crack musicians this side of Hispaniola. Had enough with candy-coated lyrics? You'll enjoy the Rosarios' paeans about coping with an irrepressible erection ("El Palo" -- "The Stick"), going to work with a hangover ("Ya Viene el Lunes" -- "The Night Is Almost Here"), or finding out your girlfriend is turning tricks ("Ingrata" -- "Ingrate").

Countryman Juan Luis Guerra, leader of the Grammy-winning act 440, is the undisputed prince of the genre, set apart by his poetic compositions and sophisticated productions. But unlike Guerra, who honed his musicianship at Boston's renowned Berklee College of Music, the Hermanos Rosario emerged from the underbelly of Dominican society. "When you hear people talk about the Dominican Republic, it's usually about people in boats trying to escape poverty, and you might think it's a depressing place to live," Rafa Rosario says. "But it's not a depressing place at all." And while Dominican material wealth might be concentrated in the hands of a few elite families, the scions of sugar barons and media moguls, this Caribbean nation's most coveted spiritual asset, its music, is widely held.

Indeed music was one of the few comforts afforded Rafa and his thirteen siblings, the children of a shoemaker and his wife. (The couple's reproductive prowess was attributed by one family friend to the absence of a television set and other modern diversions in the Rosario household.) Because even musical instruments were beyond the family's means, the brothers learned the trade that would catapult them to international acclaim playing with sticks, bottles, cans, and whatever else they could scavenge for percussive effect.

"Mom and Dad were musicians," Rosario recalls, explaining that his parents were singers at Afro-Dominican religious processions known as fiestas de palo that at times turned rowdy. "They would let us sing along or play instruments at the wakes and other sacred festivities. When somebody dies in the countryside where I come from, we make music and celebrate for nine days."

The Rosarios' hometown of Higüay sits at the crossroads of Dominican religious life. Its ornate church attracts worshippers from near and far every January 21 to pay homage to the country's patron saint, the Virgin of Altagracía. A letter published recently in a Dominican newspaper criticized the shadow celebrations held the night before by devotees of palo, which is derived from the same traditions as Santería and vodou. "On the grounds of this most sacred structure, human temptations run wild, forgetful of the true reason for the gathering and turning it into a carnival," the writer groused. Similarly the Hermanos Rosario's music -- at times brassy, at times burlesque, always primal -- has been breeding hysteria at Latin dance halls and street festivals for more than twenty years.

There also is nothing cosmetic about the Rosarios' enduring appeal; they are hardly a handsome brood by Dominican standards. Suffice it to say that one of the six brothers who participates in the act is nicknamed el Cuco, the bogeyman. Their only gimmick, as such, came courtesy of sister Francis, who became famous for her unique erotic wiggle (inspiring a dance known as the rompecintura, or "hip-breaker") but she converted to evangelicalism and left the group for more sober displays of fervor.

"What sets them apart is their music, period," says Rafel "Cholo" Brenes, a Santo Domingo-based veteran producer. "It's not their looks, it's not their voices, it's not their lyrics. They play music for people who want to dance, and their 'swing' is in a class by itself. I'd say the secret lies in their rhythm."

The Hermanos Rosario's legacy is indeed their innovative rhythm, a permutation of a traditional merengue beat that has been baptized "merengue-bomba." An executive at the world's dominant Latin-music label, Miami-based Sony Discos, estimates merengue-bomba acts account for 70 percent of tropical music sales, outselling their salsa counterparts 2-1. Among the Rosario's musical disciples is Elvis Crespo, who shocked the industry not long ago by ringing up U.S. sales in excess of one million on his debut album Suavemente, cracking the playlists at several Anglo-oriented radio stations along the way. Unlike his more publicized counterparts in the Latin crossover movement (Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez), Crespo electrified stateside audiences with an authentic Latin sound, in this case merengue-bomba. It should be noted that Crespo used to sing backup in the band of Toño Rosario, one of the original Hermanos Rosario who spun off a successful solo career. Asked about his days in the chorus, Crespo proudly admits Toño taught him "how to attack the rhythm" and "how to sing with swing."

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.

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Karl Ross