It started in Jamaica and Panama in the 90s, came of age in Puerto Rico, and got perfected in the Dominican Republic. Now, dembow – arguably some of the most hype music being made in Latin America right now – has become the backdrop to a teen-heavy club scene in Barcelona, where kids who call themselves “swaggers” line up by the thousands to vibrar las chapas at afternoon dembow raves.
Madrid-based website Playground Mag took a look at this scene in a short doc, a video that intrigued me not only because of the subculture it explores, but also as a case study at how adept the internet is at hurtling culture around the globe, mutating it, and often divorcing it of its context. Case in point, the Playground article describes dembow as “a musical style born in the Dominican Republic, which consists of repetitive, accelerated loops of reggaeton and hip-hop and virtually incomprehensible rhymes filled with cryptic, difficult to decipher messages.”
(for a more accurate, comprehensive history of dembow, check out Wayne Marshall’s in-depth piece on the subject).
Still, there is a sincerity captured in this 4:40 min. video, something reminiscent of 90s rave culture, but filtered through the sensibility of kids who grew up online. Like the pre-corporate raves of yore, there are no stars or headliners at the dembow parties. Just one DJ – Miguel Martinez aka Sweet Flow – who pipes new music from straight from DR through the speakers of FAMEE, a club that has become ground zero for this new nightlife scene (I use the term “nightlife” loosely, since this is all going down in broad daylight).
Word about the parties spreads online through the Whatsapp and Facebook feeds of a network of teen promoters, who group themselves according to a strict social media status hierarchy: “Popus,” (short for populares) are the most Facebook-famous of the bunch, and sit at the top of the pyramid. Then come RR.PPs, and regular promoters, all of whom are pretty up-front about their thirst for likes. Basically, if you can’t rack up two or three thousand “me gustas” on your Facebook posts, you ain’t shit, and you won’t be getting VIP treatment in the teen club. Having a Pauly D-esque ombré haircut doesn’t hurt either.
In many ways, the vibe reminds me of the cumbiatón scene that took hold a few years back among teens in parts of D.F., where DJs like Pablito Mix pack the Stratus Discoteque. But whereas cumbiatón is a fusion original to Mexico – a splicing of reggaeton sounds with cumbia – the Barcelona “swaggers” are simply doing their best impersonations of Dominican urban culture. Their interest seems sincere – just listen to one of the Popu promoters rattle off artists like La Materialista or trying to describe the distinctions between twerking and perreo – if not always on the mark.
But it’s also interesting to note that almost no one at these parties, including the DJ, seem to actually be Dominican – despite a growing population of Dominicans in Barcelona.
With that said, Dominican musicians have started setting up shop in Spain – perhaps the most notable being rapper Monkey Black, who was tragically murdered in Barcelona last year – and Spanish promoters like Alberto Bragado are now concentrating exclusively on booking “urban” Dominican talent in Europe.
What will come of España’s “gran locura swag” remains to be seen; but if it results in an expansion of audiences and markets for Dominican music, I’m into it.
We’ll be keeping our eyes tuned.