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Dominicans Musicians Making a Change
The music scene
At the moment, the Dominican music scene is defined by the big three: Merengue, Bachata and Salsa, with a variety of other prominent musical genres developing strong followings on the periphery. Most popular music styles in the DR have some reference to African or indigenous roots but most Dominicans don’t recognize these roots when they listen to the music and will attribute the music to Europe, and hardly ever to Africa or neighboring Haiti. Even though these sounds expose traces of these indigenous or African cultural roots, it is the profitability and a need to define an image that has made it difficult for alternative musical styles that owe so much to those cultural roots, to develop a legitimate and mainstream following. Artists like Tulile, Omega, Krisppy and others have begun to incorporate these sounds into their mainstream style, but still hide the music within the Merengues they sing.

A challenge for these alternative musical styles is that they represent everything that Dominicans have been taught they aren’t. From the time of Columbus, through the various independence movements, to the “whitening” of the race by Trujillo, to the propaganda of Joaquin Balaguer, Dominicans have been exposed to only a limited version of their heritage. According to Dr. Miguel Anibal Perdomo, professor of Dominican Identity and Literature at Hunter College in New York City, "There was a sense of 'deculturación' among the African slaves of Hispaniola. There was an attempt to erase any vestiges of African culture from the Dominican Republic. We were, in some way, brainwashed and we've become westernized." It is only now, in the 21st century, that there are Dominicans who are willing to grasp the full version of their heritage and accept it as their own.

The Bands
Cigua, lead vocalist of Batey, understands the challenge that he as a musician faces in reshaping Dominican culture, but he seems unfazed by the scope of the challenge. With his dreadlocks a permanent calling card of his political and social views, Cigua speaks of the discrimination that he faces just because he chooses to identify himself with an alternative culture. But he adds that the harassment he experiences from the police and others is just fuel for his hope to bring cultural unity. The music that he sings speaks about the current distrust in the political system, the economic situation and the fact that there is an identity issue that no one is willing to recognize. Through the music he relays the struggles in accepting his cultural heritage and adds that, “when you have a certain image a cop stops you and harasses you, its not just color, its hair. It’s bothersome to be different and I’ve been to jail 9-10 times just for looking different. The idea is that gays, druggies and artists are the only ones who wear deadlocks or are into alternative cultures and the hair and its African symbolism is contrary to everything that has been taught to Dominicans since the era of Trujillo. But music is the tool, the vehicle to change this.”

The music that Batey plays is a mix of African beats, with Haitian rara, Dominican gaga, American rock, the Palos from Villa Mella, all in one blend that Cigua refers to as a “sancocho.” Listening to the music is like taking a tour through Dominican history, but as Jose Carlos, one of Batey’s other members, explains, what Batey is doing isn’t something new - they are just exposing it more. “A lot of the typical Dominican musical styles have these indigenous roots, but since they don’t fit in with the image of what the DR is, it isn’t identified as such, and listeners remain unaware that the music they enjoy, is originally from somewhere else. Unlike their Cuban or Puerto Rican musical counterparts, Dominican performers have shied away from outwardly exemplifying the African roots in their music. Musicians will use the sounds but won’t overly rely on them.” Batey doesn’t know if they will be the group to make the change, and have Dominicans outwardly defining themselves as African or indigenous, but they feel they will have influenced the group that makes the change. In mixing musical sounds, Batey is aware that they are stepping into somewhat uncharted territory, but the support has been positive. Cigua says that at shows things start slow, but once the crowd hears the sounds, Dominicans just get up and identify with it. “It something in the blood, that when you hear the sounds of the Palo or Congos, as a Dominican, you want to get up and dance and move. You don’t know why, but it’s in you. We are just bringing that music out and letting you know where it comes from.”

SonAbril is another musical fusion band that is trying to bring together musical styles and cultural heritage in one place. The members of SonAbril are mindful of the challenge that they face, but at the same time are willing to play their part in disseminating the beauty of Dominican culture to everyone who is willing to listen. It’s an educational process through entertainment, and as Jose Carlos, who also plays with Batey, explains, the goal is to bring cultural unity. “For people to understand that this is one island and that Haitians are our brothers. This is a mission to educate people about the heritage, because the music isn’t in the schools and you have to go find it, so we are trying to bring it to people and connect them to their folkloric and African roots.” Most of SonAbril’s members are in their late teens and early twenties and consider themselves to be some of the voices of the Dominican youth culture. Willian says that he wants “people to see that you can do something else with music, and that there is something else out there to be discovered. There is a lack of education and self awareness and the system is a part of the reason for that so if we can change that and help bring some positive influences about Haiti, we’ll do that.” Joel Martin, another member of SonAbril, explains that it’s not about money, but more of a mission to get the message out there. “To entertain, but at the same time educate, creating something. To open peoples minds”.

The future
Other music groups like Pa’lomonte and the Haitian group Yisra’el are building the same bridges as Batey and SonAbril, and are bringing light to the beauty of Dominican culture and the diaspora. These artists are providing a contribution to the culture at large, but the positive thing is that kids are accepting it, accepting the music, embracing the ideas and in a sense recognizing their roots.

One of the strengths of rediscovering the heritage is the influence that the Dominican community abroad will have on the matter. Previous DR1 articles have documented how rap, once considered a Black-only music, is now a popular genre in the DR, and it was the migration of Dominicans that made this possible. This could be the trend, migration of people and ideas, that helps bring cultural roots to the forefront. Angelina Tallaj, a concert pianist, explains that, “a big influence has been a kind of Afro-diasporic identity that Dominicans in New York develop. After being in New York for a while, or second generation Dominicans who share schools and neighborhoods with African-Americans have no stigma attached to being black.

“I think all Dominicans who come to NYC, including me, no matter how light or dark-skinned, always think of themselves as white, because we are taught in the DR that we are European, that only Haitians are black. But I think that when we arrive here, where we are seen as black, I think there's a moment of trauma, and a moment of just really having to re-examine who we are. And I think all these groups from New York… have probably all gone through some sort of similar trauma, and first kind of neglecting all the African stuff, but then really embracing it, and learning to just accept it as part of who they are”.

Cigua from Batey said it best when he said, “the heritage is there and it’s just a matter of bringing it out. Four hundred years of history and it’s still here. Trujillo tried to whiten the country and couldn’t do it. Africa is still here after 400 years.”
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