The Man Who Wanted to be a Horse

In search of true merengueismo, Simon Lee visits the Dominican Republic, and finds a kind of magical realism alive and kicking in the Caribbean

Illustration by James Hackett

One day I was contemplating the mystery of Carnival in my sunny apartment in San José de Oruña, Trinidad, when the telephone rang. “Can you go to the Dominican Republic tomorrow?” asked a disembodied editor in far-off Florida.

“Send me the ticket and consider it done,” I replied, asking, as an afterthought, “Looking for anything special?”

“A full feature on merengue for next week.”

Now, for all you foodies out there, merengue is not one of those dinky little melt-on-your-tongue delicacies. Non, non, non muchacho. Merengue is the fastest music yet to come out of the Caribbean, a swirling gallop of accordion and saxophone, stabbing arpeggios and rippling Afro rhythms, guaranteed to galvanise you into pelvic-pulsating dance frenzy.

It’s also the DR’s national music, elevated to this status by the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled from 1930 until he bit an assassin’s bullet in 1961. Ironically, the death of El Jefe was celebrated with the classic merengue El Muerte del Chivo (“The Death of the Goat”).

Slipping my miniature maracas into my pocket, I headed for the airport. Landing  a few hours later, I was pleasantly surprised to be met by Don Roberto, a tall young caballero, who introduced himself as my translator.

Now for a minor confession: my Spanish is minimal, and pretty much restricted to ordering beers, but for a few moments I could have sworn it was an improvement on Roberto’s unintelligible English. Still, the most important thing was that he’d understand what everyone was saying, even if I didn’t. I could always make that up afterwards in the comfort of my hotel room.

As we drove in the afternoon blaze along the palm-fringed highway into Santo Domingo, I explained my merengue mission to Roberto, including the pressing deadline. I noticed his top lip twisting dismissively. With all the haughtiness of a young tiger brandishing its claws, Roberto made it clear that when it came to la musica, salsa was the only flavour for him.

We spent the rest of the drive into the city on an uninterruptible review of Roberto’s prowess as a salsa dancer. Leon, the driver, threw an eyes-raised there-he-goes-again look over his shoulder, while I kept a diplomatic silence I hoped Roberto would mistake for awe.

That night, as our assorted trio dined at an alfresco restaurant on the Malecon sea promenade, I heard the roll of a traditional merengue tipico tambora drum floating on the sea breeze. Roberto met my excited enquiry about the insistent drum-beat with his perfected sneer: “It’s only a Perico Ripiao,” he said, batting a hand in the direction of the drum.

Now the “Ripped Parrot” was precisely what I’d come for. No, it’s not an endangered species of tropical bird subjected to unspeakable mutilation, but the name of the Santiago bordello where traditional merengue, played by a trio on accordion, tambora and guira metal scraper, was popularised, and which subsequently became synonymous with the traditional trio.

I cut a few exploratory two-steps to the weather-beaten Perico Ripiao, who were more than happy to give me an impromptu solo concert. With some difficulty I discussed the origins of merengue with the trio, while Roberto reluctantly  “translated”.

The next night we hit Avenida San Vicente, Santo Domingo’s merengue strip: rows of neon-lit nightclubs pounding to the exuberant dancesteps of ecstatic couples. I steered our party to La Torre for a live performance by one of merengue’s living legends, the fiery accordion-playing seductress Fefita La Grande. Now I was getting somewhere with my assignment, I told myself.

Next day we headed north to the heartland of merengue, the city of Santiago de los Cabelleros. By now Roberto was suffering from professional amnesia, apparently forgetting that the cultural arm of the tourist board had assigned him to assist me, and moaning throughout the three-hour drive about spending the night away from his fiancée.

I was tempted to kick him out of the car. What stopped me was Roberto’s self pitying lament: his stalled career as a salsero, his fiancée who didn’t understand him, and his parting shot, delivered with pure Latin melodrama: “I wish I was a horse, running free.” After such poetry, who was I to play the beast?

I tolerated his waywardness when he slept in the car while I toured Santiago’s merengue joints, translatorless. I continued when we returned to Santo Domingo and he flatly refused to help me interview the 70-year-old Merengue King Joseito Mateo. But as we drove out to Las Americas for my return flight, Roberto stroked his shaven head thoughtfully and admitted with some surprise that he’d actually enjoyed my off-beat assignment. “Very different, very interesting.”

Me, I’m always pleased to meet a man who wants to be a horse.