Gagá, Sibelius, and Dancers on the Ceiling: Santo Domingo’s Music Scene

Palabra del día: Hormigas
Translation: Ants

Explanation: After much frustration, I finally got rid of all of the ants in my kitchen! Well, maybe not all the ants, but at least 90 percent. The trick? Boric acid and sugar dissolved in water, left out as a trap overnight. Worked like a charm.

Comida del día: Empanadas
I walk by two empanada stands on my way to work, but for some reason I waited three months to try one. I finally stopped at one today, and it turns out that deep fried dough enveloping an egg and covered in ketchup is seriously tasty. Perhaps Dominican food is growing on me?

Foto del día:

Cabarete beach
An impending storm over Cabarete beach. Hopefully the rain will stay away for the jazz festival there this weekend!


I recently spent a week in Santo Domingo immersing myself in the vibrant (albeit small) jazz scene there. In that single week, I saw five live music performances and four rehearsals, recorded six interviews, took a Latin jazz piano lesson, and attended a Santeria party (more on that later!) After all of that, I still wasn’t done, so I returned two weeks later to log another interview, another concert, and supposedly to finish things up. But of course I didn’t finish anything up, and I’m planning to spend more time in Santo Domingo to connect with the many interesting people I’ve met who make unique contributions to the jazz scene.

Each of the musicians that I’ve interviewed combines jazz with Dominican music in some way. Though my research focuses on the contemporary jazz scene, these combinations exist as far back as the 1930s, when the leaders of big bands such as Orquesta Bohemia and Jazz Band-Alberti began to include elements of merengue, as well as merengue instruments such as the tambora and guira, in their arrangements.1

Nowadays, I’ve noticed an interest among many of the musicians that I’ve talked to in combining jazz with what they call “roots rhythms,” or the wide variety of rhythms that are found in communities across the DR that have origins in Africa and are frequently played during Santeria religious ceremonies.

Santeria ritual
A man performs a ritual at a Santeria celebration outside of Santo Domingo that I attended recently.

Among these musicians is Toné Vicioso, a talented guitarist and director of the group Aumbata, which combines roots rhythms with modern sounds by using electronic instruments and jazz-influenced harmonies. I had the opportunity to meet with Toné for an interview, and then to attend (and play in!) an Aumbata rehearsal. As part of the interview, Toné demonstrated a rhythm called gagá:

Toné and his group study these rhythms by participating in the religious ceremonies in which they are played. It just so happened that they were going to one such Santeria celebration the day after the rehearsal that I went to, so of course I tagged along. It was quite the party! It lasted the entire day as people ate (rice and beans), drank (rum and beer), danced, performed religious rituals, and most importantly, jammed on all sorts of traditional percussion instruments. Here’s some more gagá, but this time with a full ensemble:

The party took place at a batey on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. A batey is a community where historically Haitian migrants made a living from working on sugar cane plantations. Though the sugar industry has declined, the communities remain as some of the most impoverished areas of the country.

How to make rice for the masses? Outside over flames, of course.

I was in for quite a shock when I decided to use the bathroom. Some guys caught me taking a photo and had quite the laugh, at my expense…

Kids have fun with all sorts of percussion instruments.

Another musician I talked to who focuses on fusions of contemporary music and roots rhythms is Gioel Martin. I met him in his attic recording studio above a hip bar in the Colonial Zone, which hosts jam sessions most Sunday nights. His music combines traditional sounds with reggae, rock, electronic music, and some jazz, creating a huge variety and a very unique sound.

Check out one of his productions, “Que Chulería,” and even more of his music on soundcloud

In my interview with Toné, he discussed how many people don’t appreciate the beauty and richness of these rhythms, for a variety of reasons. Santeria was banned by fascist dictator Trujillo during his rule from 1930-1961. It is associated with poor black communities, and the rhythms are played by people with no formal music education. After spending a day experiencing these rhythms for myself, however, I am beginning to understand the beauty and complexity, as well as the appeal to a subset of contemporary musicians who are returning to their cultural roots to explore how these rhythms can contribute to a modern sound.

I’m looking forward to researching more about roots rhythms and Santeria over the next few months. At the moment, my head is spinning with a ton of new experiences and lots and lots of questions!

Some other Santo Domingo highlights include:
• An eventful evening attending three bachata and merengue típico shows with a bachata teacher from DREAM who lives in Santo Domingo. It was a great thing to do with a local, because I never would have found the shows on my own. One was located in a bar disguised as a “car wash” and the other was in a pico pollo (fried chicken) stand – apparently when bars here claim that they are things other than bars, they don’t have to pay as many taxes!

I managed to snatch a goofy photo with the musicians.

Check out this video of a crazy dancer jumping up on the beams. Also notice that the female dancer is wearing a hot pink body suit…they were certainly an entertaining group!

• A Wednesday night concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, in which they played a moving rendition of Sibelius’ Second Symphony and had a guest violin soloist wow the audience with a Nielson violin concerto. Classical, jazz, roots rhythms, merengue…Santo Domingo has it all!

• A few more fascinating interviews with:

-Joe Nicolas, a legendary merengue bassist who has played with Juan Luis Guerra, among others, and who demonstrated his merengue bass technique during the interview.

-Eddy Sanchez, a Dominican folklore professor at the conservatory.

-Javier Vargas, director of the big band at the conservatory.

• The chance to perform with all-female jazz group, EJazzSon. Unfortunately, the guy doing the sound was a complete disaster. The concert started late, ended even later, and had more mic problems than I’ve ever seen in my life. But it was still fun to get to know those awesome chicas and to have the chance to play with them!

• A piano lesson with talented Dominican jazz pianist Gustavo Rodriguez.

• A Friday night latin jazz concert by a group called Sly and the Latin Bars

• A visit to the conservatory in which I interviewed some students and observed rehearsals, including a big band that played some unique Dominican jazz arrangements which they will perform at the DR Jazz Fest, this week in Cabarete!

Whew, what a month. And the fun continues this week with the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival – the one time of year when the jazz scene comes to the North Coast for a five day celebration of live music, including local as well as international artists This year, the headliner is US bassist John Pattituci. I’m looking forward to some of the Dominican musicians, including pianist Josean Jacobo and a group called Pengbian Sang and Retro Jazz. I’m currently charging my camera batteries to gear up for an exciting musical week!

1For more information check out Paul Austerlitz’ book Merengue: Dominican Music and National Identity (p. 48)

7 thoughts on “Gagá, Sibelius, and Dancers on the Ceiling: Santo Domingo’s Music Scene

  1. Great photos and musical videos! I had no idea there was so much fusion in the music and dance of DR. I learned the merengue from my parents who traveled to Haiti in 1956, before I knew about Haitians who emigrated to the DR.
    I also had a similar “WC” experience in Thailand and almost walked out, but when nature calls….
    Thanks for expanding my cultural knowledge!


  2. In a short time you have discovered such rich variety in Dominican music and culture. It’s exciting and I expect there is much more to come.


  3. I keep thinking you’ve heard all possible DR music by now, but you keep finding more and more amazing DR music to listen to, learn from and take part in performing. What a unique experience, Sarah — thank you for sharing it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s