Afro-Dominican Jazz – A Conference and a Concert

Para leer en Español, haz click aquí.

At the end of March I wrapped things up with the DREAM Project in Cabarete and moved to Santo Domingo as a way to immerse myself in the active music scene of la capital. It turned out to be a great decision, because these past few weeks in Santo Domingo have been more productive, informative, and fun than I ever could have hoped for. I’ve continued my investigation of combinations of Dominican music with jazz, but I’ve changed my angle, learning as much as possible about traditional music so that I can better understand fusions with other genres.


A performance of Sarandunga, a form of traditional music from the region of Baní.

Last week, I had the opportunity to present my research at a conference/ concert that I organized with National Director of Folklore, Edis Sánchez. Edis has become my mentor and friend, generously inviting me to every traditional music event he happens to go to and letting me participate in his classes at the conservatory. While waiting out a typical Santo Domingo traffic jam on the way to one of these classes, Edis suggested that we organize a concert for me to present my research.

Two hectic weeks later, we had put together not only a conference but also a concert for an enthusiastic audience of about 150 people. In case you weren’t in Santo Domingo the evening of the event (or in case you were one of the many people who didn’t fit into the 80-person capacity conference room), I will do my best to summarize it for you, with plenty of music to listen to along the way.


Presenting my research at the Afro-Dominican Jazz Conference.

For videos of the conference and the concert, click here.

The evening started with a presentation by Edis in which he explained traditional Dominican music. This music is rich with interesting rhythms, talented musicians, beautiful handmade instruments, and a long history of grandparents teaching their grandchildren how to play. It is derived from the music that arrived in the Dominican Republic when slaves were brought from Africa, and is oftentimes associated with religious activities. Some styles, especially gagá, have influences from African-influenced Haitian music as well. Despite its richness, this music has historically been ignored or outlawed due to a history of politics that promote Euro-centrism rather than celebrate the African heritage that the vast majority of Dominicans possess.

A folkloric music group performs a style of music called salve at the Afro-Dominican Jazz Conference.

There are various styles of Dominican traditional music, all of which are specific to locations throughout the country and have distinct sounds, purposes, and instrumentation.

To get an idea of Dominican traditional music, check out this Youtube playlist from various events I’ve been to over the past few months.

After Edis’ presentation, I managed to get over my nerves of speaking in front of an audience in my second language to give a presentation about Afro-Dominican jazz. The best way to understand this type of music (and all types of music) is by listening to it, so I’ll start by sharing my playlist of musical examples.

 Your Afro-Dominican Jazz Playlist

 Afro-Dominican jazz is a recent phenomenon, developing over the last 10 years as a subset of musicians have taken an interest in merging jazz with traditional music. However, Dominican music follows a long tradition of fusion. Before Afro-Dominican jazz, there were fusions of merengue with jazz, and also fusions of traditional music with other genres, such as rock. In the conference, we listened to two examples:

  1. Tavito Vasquez’ “Caña Brava”

Saxaphonist Tavito Vazquez’ version of a famous merengue, combined with bebop. He plays an impressive improvised solo over a well-known Dominican melody.

  1. Xiomara Fortuna’s “Leyenda Congo” (from her album Kumbajei)

This tune is an example of fusion with the traditional style called Congos de Villa Mella. She recorded the track with traditional musicians and instruments, while also incorporating influences and instruments from jazz and rock.

After discussing these precursors, we listened to five examples of Afro-Dominican jazz from some of the musicians who I’ve spoken to over the past few months.

  1. “Spirits” by the Isaac Hernandez Quintet

This tune also uses influences from the congos de Villa Mella, especially through rhythms played on the drum set. However, the rhythms are played more slowly and there are more influences from jazz than from traditional music.

  1. “Balsie” by Josean Jacobo y Tumbao

A homage to the Dominican instrument balsié. When I spoke with Josean, he told me he loves this instrument because it produces three distinct sounds. See if you can pick them out in the solo at the beginning of the video.

  1. “Pambiche Guerrero” by Proyecto Piña Duluc

The saxophone melody includes influences from the repetitive arpeggios in merengue, the piano plays blues lines, and the snare drum sounds like a war drum.

  1. “Te Toca a Ti” by The Dominican Jazz Project

This group of musicians from both the DR and the US uses elements of Dominican traditional music to complement a virtuosic modern jazz sound. This tune contains rhythms from gagá, played mainly on the drum set.

  1. “From Across the Street” by Sócrates García

Jazz for big band and a distinct sound from the other examples. The vocal melody is influenced from the style of traditional music called palos, the tambourine rhythm is from salve, and the rhythmic base is from gagá.

In case you can’t get enough Afro-Dominican jazz, here is a list of even more recommendations that I handed out at the conference. You may have to search a bit but they are all available on YouTube, Spotify, soundcloud, or albums. Enjoy and let me know which is your favorite!



Analysis and Conclusions

For each musician that I interviewed, I asked why they mix Dominican music with other styles. The answers vary, relating to history, social situations, and the market. Composer and percussionist, José Duluc, explained to me that since African music arrived on the island, it was mixed with styles from other African countries, and has since then always followed this process of fusion. Javier Vargas, the director of the jazz program at the conservatory, explained that for his students, understanding the music of their own country helps them to differentiate themselves in a competitive and global music market. And perhaps the most common answer among musicians that I spoke with was that learning about their country’s traditions is a way for them to connect to their cultural roots.

Another important theme of my research is the learning process, and how jazz musicians learn about traditional music. There is a concept in anthropology called cultural appropriation, which is when someone uses an aspect of another culture for their own artistic, commercial or personal purposes. The way to avoid cultural appropriation is through respect and deep understanding. As composer Sócrates García said to me, “If you’re going to mix Dominican music with jazz, you have to understand both of them really well.”

“If you’re going to mix Dominican music with jazz, you have to understand both of them really well.”

-Sócrates García

Jazz musicians in the Dominican Republic are generally urban and middle or upper class, while traditional musicians are generally poor and live outside of cities. The fact that traditional music is still commonly played in the DR is a great resource for jazz musicians who want to learn more about it, but in order to deeply understand the rich and beautiful traditions, they have to cross social barriers, which can be difficult.

The Concert

After the presentation, I survived a question and answer session and then switched to the piano for live performances of jazz, traditional music, and combinations of both. Among others, we played a tune called “Yayaom” by José Duluc, which is another example of fusion with the Congos of Villa Mella.

The conference/concert was a perfect way to wrap up my research and share it with the local community. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience, venue, or sponsors, and I had a great time playing with so many talented musicians.

Thanks to Edis Sánchez and the National Direction of Folklore for organizing the conference, the US Embassy in Santo Domingo for sponsoring the concert, and CentroCultural BanReservas for contributing a beautiful venue.

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