Diasporal Dimensions of Dominican Folk Religion and Music

By Davis, Martha Ellen | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Diasporal Dimensions of Dominican Folk Religion and Music


Davis, Martha Ellen, Black Music Research Journal


The island of Hispaniola--the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo and first colony in the New World--was the inifial diasporal crucible and cultural bridge of the Americas. Santo Domingo has since become the contemporary Dominican Republic on a divided island in which the later French colony of Saint Domingue became Haiti (Figure 1). On this island, culture has been forged from over five hundred years of cultural contacts, acculturation, and adaptive responses to local circumstance.

The early demise of the native Taino (Arawak) inhabitants and Spain's abandonment of the island for mainland mineral wealth led to a degree of neglect and depopulation that required master and African slave to cooperate for mutual survival. In addition, in Santo Domingo there was a lack of critical masses of specific African ethnic groups, in contrast with Havana or Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, for example--indeed in contrast with neighboring Haiti, which was intensively developed with African labor in the eighteenth century.

So, taken as a whole, Dominican culture and society can be characterized as a hybrid whose nature is expressed in various domains. For example, folk or popular Catholicism, the religion of some 90 percent of the national population, is in summary a cultural amalgamation. But deconstructed, it can be seen to retain elements of the various contributors to its eclectic configuration: Spanish of different regions, classes, Catholic religious orders, and even religions with regard to Judaic and Islamic features retained in Spanish folk Catholicism; West and Central African of various ethnic origins; continuities of native Taino beliefs and practices; and other origins, such as the possible East Indian origin of the vodu deity of the "black" (2) Guede family, Santa Marta la Dominadora.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In the domain of music, the well-known merengue social dance is emblematic of the hybridity of Dominican national culture (Davis 2002, 2006). But today's merengue is actually two subgenres: the orchestrated, commercially known merengue and the folk merengue tipico. Likewise, in the music of the folk-Catholic religious context, the Salve is also comprised of two subgenres: the liturgical Salve Regina ("Hail, Holy Queen"), popularly called the Salve de la Virgen,--a cappella, melismatic, and antiphonal or responsorial--and the nonliturgical Salve, an Africanized evolution of its progenitor, which is polyrhythmic, instrumentally accompanied, and in call-and-response form. These two subgenres of the Salve--the one Spanish and conservative, the other creole and constantly changing--coexist in the saint's festival, indeed in a single event. Furthermore, together they co-occur in a saint's festival with the African-derived semisacred long drums (palos) and other musical genres, as well.

In addition, this configuration is not static. The input and articulation of component religions and musical elements have been constantly changing throughout the history of Hispaniola. For example, in the Southwest, south of the Neyba mountain range, the saint's festival used to be comprised solely of the sacred Salve Regina, sung all night to an infinite number of melodies, as it would be in the Hispanic northern region (the Cibao). Then, some forty years ago, long drums were introduced from the Valley of San Juan in the north. However, today's widespread use of palos in the San Juan Valley might also be a rather new phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. Folklorist Edna Garrido Boggs (1913-2009), a native of the principal town of San Juan de la Maguana, attested that, in her youth (observation up to 1950), rural communities around the town were white and the palos were known only in the black community of Los Bancos (south of town). (3) So what one observes today is but a snapshot of customs in continual evolution.

Returning to a global perspective, international Dominican emigration has created new diasporal dimensions of Dominican folk religion and music. …

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