Haitian Merengue-in-Motion

Grade Level
4–6, 7–9, 10–12, C–U


Audio file
Instrumental Merengue — Surprise Jazz

Activity #1: Getting Merengue into the Ears
1. Listen to "Instrumental Merengue". Direct students’ attention to sonic and contextual components of the selection through the following questions (offered prior to their listening in order to focus their attention).

Q: What instruments do you hear?
A: Wind (clarinet, saxophone), brass (trumpet), and percussion instruments (tanbou-hand drums, and timbales). Note that, while barely audible, the ensemble also includes banjo and double bass.
Q: Given the audio quality of the recording, as well as the instrumentation, what might be the approximate date of this recording?
A: 1936, when audio recordings were made on big and bulky tape recording equipment, a 'turntable unit’, and when dance band music like this was popular in Port-au-Prince.

2. Listen again to the selection, and find repeated melodic phrases (including the familiar d-r-m which even young children will know) played by clarinet, saxophone, trumpet. Challenge students to sing some of them. (Note that all d (do) - except the italicized pattern - are at the tonic d (do) one octave above; this is indicated as d’.) 

(m-)m-m-d-r-m (extensively repeated) 

3. Listen to the selection, and find some of the rhythms that stimulate themerengue dance.  Tap, pat, or clap any of the following rhythms:

(1) / / / / (a steady beat)
(2) / / / / / / / / (eight eighth-notes)
(3) //////////////// (sixteen sixteenth-notes)
(4) // / //// /. (eighth-note upbeat, two eighths, four sixteenths, one dotted quarter)

4. Play these rhythms on a drum (conga, djembe, hand-drum) or on a flat surface such as a table-top, desk, large book, pot or pan, box. Try these rhythms out with and without the music, and invent others that 'fit’ the character of the selection.

Suggested Activity #2: Merengue Music for Dancing
1. Listen to "Instrumental Merengue" (Volume 1: #5), and recall the melodic and rhythmic components discovered earlier. Hum along to the melodic patterns while tapping, patting, clapping, or playing some of the rhythms. 
2. Investigate the dance form known as merengue, noting its popularity in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic (the two countries that share the same island of Hispanola). Locate the 'lands of the merengue’ on a map.
3. Listen again to the selection, and contemplate these points:

(1)Imagine the recording of this selection by Alan Lomax at a bal (ball, or formal dance) given on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1936, in honor of Haitian President Stenio Vincent at an exclusive social club.
(2)The merengue is a fast dance in 2/4 meter, possibly named after the quick movement of bodies on the dance floor that is reminiscent of the dessert made of the whipped egg whites and sugar.
(3)In his visit to Haiti for the purpose of seeking out and recording music for generations of listeners onward, Alan Lomax wrote of his fascination with the dance: 'The meringue, the popular dance of polite society here, is quite unknown in America and has its roots in the intermingling of the Spanish and French folk-traditions... .The orchestras of the peasants play marches, bals, blues, and meringues.’
(4)The merengue has become widely known in Latin America, and can be heard in clubs and dance halls throughout the Caribbean, in Central American countries, Venezuela, and across South America.

4. Read about the merengue in Gage Averill’s A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti (especially p. 78)
5. Find contemporary recordings of merengue music by Milly Quezada (the Queen of Merengue), Omega y su Mambo Violento, El Jeffrey, Aguakate, and Aybar. 
6. Learn to dance the merengue.

(1)Stand straight, with feet facing front and separated by six inches.
(2)Say (and think) '1-2’, 'step-close’, 'marching’, 'sideways’.
(3)With weight on left foot, step right foot sideways to the right.
(4)With right foot down, step left foot sideways to the left, so that it stands parallel to the right foot in a 'closed position’.
(5)Repeat: Step right foot sideways, then step left foot to 'close’.
(6)Say (and do) '1-2’, 'step-close’, 'marching’, 'sideways’.
(7)While the sideways step is very easy, it is the movement of the hips, following the steps, that make the dance so high-styled and intriguing.

7. See a video-guide to dancing the basic merengue dance steps: 

Designed by Patricia Shehan Campbell