In the 1950s, Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo employed merengue as political propaganda to fuel support for his regime. The genre entered elite society and reached diasporic communities in New York City later in the 20th century, eventually becoming the national style of the Dominican Republic. Artists began using the genre to highlight migration and the experiences of those living in the American metropolis.
Joseíto Mateo, Primitivo Santos, and Alberto Beltrán became the first artists to perform merengue at Madison Square Garden in 1967, a major milestone for the genre’s popularity in the United States. In the 80s, Dominican New Yorkers blasted songs by artists like La Gran Manzana on the city streets, giving voice to their new realities in Manhattan and honoring the language, sounds, and culture they brought with them from Quisqueya.
Merengue has become a medium to showcase the lives of Dominicans both on and off the island, but women have rarely enjoyed the visibility that male artists have. The male-dominated merengue industry has denied access to women and favored men in composition and production. Though merengue often deals in patriarchal stereotypes, the genre has had a small but influential crop of women who have picked up a mic or güira to challenge the status quo. With lyrics touching on themes of sexual liberation, heartbreak, and self-love, the women in these bands represent a crack in the wall of the male-dominated music industry. Here are four essential female-fronted merengue bands you should know.
Milly, Jocelyn y los Vecinos
Before Milly Quezada was known as La Reina de Merengue, she stood alongside her sister Jocelyn and two brothers in Milly, Jocelyn y los Vecinos. Many of the band’s songs embraced women’s independence and freedom of choice. Take the anthem “Tengo Derecho,” where Milly exclaims the word “equal” multiple times after telling her significant other she’d rather live alone than with his machismo.
In the band’s hit “Yo Se Que Si,” Jocelyn lets her partner know that she can live without him as well. Milly, Jocelyn y los Vecinos’ albums put the spotlight on self-love and women’s empowerment in a genre where male peers limited the sound to prioritize their stories and perspectives.
Las Chicas del Can
Las Chicas del Can’s stage presence was electrifying. The band, which was founded in 1982, welcomed fans with an orchestra led by young, multiracial women commandeering trumpets, congo drums, electric guitars, and la güira. Some critics have questioned their sense of style, claiming that the group’s decision to wear bikinis and revealing clothing onstage was self-objectifying and catered to the male gaze. But many others acknowledge how powerful it is to witness an all-female merengue ensemble.
Las Chicas del Can inspired countless young women to pick up instruments and pursue careers in music. In 1988, they became the first artists to sample “Zamina Mina (Zangaléwa),” a song by makossa group Golden Sounds. Shakira sampled the same song in her widely popular 2010 FIFA World Cup anthem “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa).” On “Que Es Lo Que Quiere El Negro,” singer Miriam Cruz sings in fang, a Central African language. Cruz, who later became known as La Diva del Merengue, rose to stardom thanks to her involvement in the band. Decades later, she continues to perform alongside merengue icons like Anthony Santos and Luis Vargas.
In 1990, Chantelle became the first all-woman trio to receive a Premio Lo Nuestro for Tropical New Artist of the Year. The Puerto Rican group included Daly Fontánez, Sandra Torres, and two-time Grammy award winner Olga Tañón. They rose to popularity with their hit “Aunque Tú No Quieras,” a sentimental ballad about leaving a lover in spite of mutual love. Chantelle transcended genre, releasing calypso remixes and hopping from merengue to pop.
The New York Band
Founded in 1986, The New York Band delivered their take on classic merengue to the world for more than 10 years. In this year’s edition of the Premios Soberano, the Dominican Republic’s annual awards ceremony, The New York Band reunited to perform their most popular tunes, including “Nadie Como Tú” and “Si Tu Eres Mi Hombre y Yo Tu Mujer.” In addition to showcasing their discography for listeners both old and new, the band received the Soberano Award of Merit. Lead singer Alexandra Taveras, one of three women vocalists in the group, once said that she uses her position in the band to “tell women we don’t have to take everything that comes to us.”