Today is the day to introduce your kids to Juan Luís Guerra and “merengue.” Kids love music, they love to dance, and music is an omnipresent cultural expression that transcends boundaries. Music is simply fun. And when we listen to global music, we’re can be entertained, energized, or relaxed as we’re exposed to new rhythms, in a new language, sometimes with new instruments.
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White sand beaches, rows of banana and palm trees, a balmy breeze and the sound of ocean waves- this classic song is from the tropical Caribbean. The songwriter and singer I’d like to present to you to, is one of the most successful Caribbean singers of all time. Juan Luis Guerra, from the Dominican Republic, is an international super-star who has won several Grammys, and has even been designated as a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Many of his songs have a merengue or bachata rhythm that will make it hard for you to not dance along.
A little bit of background before we start: as always, learn about the history yourself first, and then choose what is developmentally appropriate for your kids. Together, locate Dominican Republic on the map and you will see that it shares the island of Hispaniola, with French-speaking Haiti on the west, and Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic (DR) on the east. Talk to your kids about islands: how do you think people get things they need from other places? What would it be like to live on an island? How is the climate different from where you live? What similar activities do you think kids do in the DR?
DR is very close to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica, and has a warm, tropical climate. Kids in the DR love baseball, enjoy going to the park, playing marbles or dominoes, and spend a lot of time with their families. There are many rural farming areas, with the capital of Santo Domingo being the largest city.
There are many possible origins of merengue music and dance, and some of them are quite colorful legends. Some people say that merengue developed when an important soldier with a wounded leg was dancing with a limp that caused him to drag his straight leg while stepping to the beat of the music. In this story, merengue grew as his followers politely followed his lead.
Another theory claims that African slaves working in the fields all day carrying sugar cane caused their backs and shoulders to be stiff, and when they would return to their homes with chains on their ankles they would march to the beat of their singing.
Other stories link merengue to African dances, Puerto Rican roots, or Haitian creole folkloric music. Wherever the music and dance originated, today it is the national dance of the Dominican Republic, and an important part of Dominicans’ cultural identity.
This particular song I choose is one of my favorites, but is also Juan Luis Guerra’s favorite— Ojalá que llueva café (I hope it rains coffee). The video is a little old, but the song is a classic merengue song with poetic lyrics that I cannot listen to without starting to dance in my chair. The song is about a beautiful wish that it would rain fortune on the farmers in Dominican Republic. The singer wishes for “a downpour of yucca and tea,” “a mountain of greens and honey,” and “instead of dried leave this fall, a crop of cured bacon…” “strawberries and sweet potatoes.” Juan Luis Guerra sings the refrain over and over “I hope it rains coffee in the fields…” and later says “so the farmers don’t suffer so much, so that everyone can hear this song, and even “the children will be singing in the fields.”
Merengue is the easiest tropical dance to master: just remember to keep stepping to the rhythm of the music, and move your hips, not your shoulders. Bend your right knee, and pop your left hip up. Then bend your left knee and pop your right hip up. That’s it! Now as long as you do that to the beat, you are dancing merengue! Once you let the kids dance crazy, trying holding hands in a long chain. The front person can weave in and out and under the others’ hands while the chain follows the leader; just remember to keep marching to the beat of the merengue! I can’t sit here any longer, I need to go dance with my kids now:).
Here are some of Juan Luis Guerra’s other famous songs:
La Biliburrina: it is virtually impossible to sit while listening to this super-fast merengue song. Play it for your kids, and they will dance!
A Pedir Su Mano: another awesome merengue, this time about asking someone to get married. I love the scenes from the Dominican Republic, and Afro-Caribbean culture.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to some of our favorite music! Have you ever danced the merengue or other tropical dances? Who are your favorite musicians?