Despite its relatively small population, the Dominican Republic has a rich cultural tradition, with unique and distinctive artistic expressions that has enriched the lives of people not just within the country but internationally, too. Here are some outstanding examples of Dominican music, dance, film, literature fashion and the visual arts.
Music and Dance
Some people may not know that merengue originated in the Dominican Republic. This style of music, featuring accordion, sax, tambora, güira, and bass guitar, is lively, fast-paced and rhythmic, and usually accompanied by dancing. The merengue dance, performed by couples holding close to each other, is characterized by sensual hip swaying and graceful body turns, and can be widely seen in the country’s streets and bars as well as around the world as a form of ballroom dancing. Dominican merengue singers and bands such as Sergio Vargas and Los Hermanos Rosario have gained popularity not just in their native country, but throughout Latin America, United States and Europe.
Bachata music and dance, which fuses Latin and African elements into a unique form, originated in the countryside of the Dominican Republic. Previously looked down upon as being low class and vulgar, there was a time when Bachata was not allowed to be played on radio and television. However, this style of music remained popular among the masses, and finally achieved respectability and acclaim in recent years, particularly since the release of Juan Luis Guerra’s album Bachata Rosa in 1992, which won a Grammy Award and went on to become an international hit. Nowadays, Bachata music can be heard throughout Latin America and the United States.
Few people may have seen films from the Dominican Republic (yet), but the country’s budding film scene has been steadily gaining recognition. Within the past several years, Dominican films have been accepted into various A-list international film festivals. For example, Carpinteros, directed by Jose Maria Cabral, was shown at Sundance Film Festival, while Samba, directed by Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas, competed at Tribeca Film Festival. Local audiences have also taken a liking to indigenous films, with Dominican films sometimes out-grossing Hollywood blockbusters at the box office.
The Dominican Film Market is the first film market in the Caribbean Region. This annual event provides a venue for Dominican films to reach the rest of the world, and buyers from as far away as Taiwan, Russia and Kazakhstan have attended the market.
Recognizing the importance of the film industry, the Dominican government has offered generous tax incentives to encourage local and foreign film productions, and the country now produces some 20 home-grown films a year, a respectable number for a country of this size. One of them may soon be shown at a cinema near you!
Dominican literature can be traced to Felix Maria del Monte, whom many regard as the father of Dominican literature. Born in Santo Domingo in around 1810, del Monte was a lawyer and politician as well as poet and playwright, and his works documented important historical events on the island of Hispaniola, such as the Haitian invasion and the Dominican struggle for independence.
Hilma Contreras Castillo has a reputation as one of the finest short story writers of her age. Much of her writing was produced during the rule of Trujillo (1930-1961) and presents a subtle critique of dictatorship from a feminine perspective.
Author Junot Diaz, photo by Christopher Peterson
A more recent Dominican writer of note is Junot Diaz (born in 1968), who moved from his native Dominican Republic to the United States at a young age. His first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the saga of an immigrant family in America, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 as well as a slew of literary awards, proving that Dominicans are a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
Born in Santo Domingo in 1932, Oscar de la Renta is probably the most well-known fashion designers from the Dominican Republic. He first rose to fame after having dressed Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s, and de la Renta went on to become an internationally renowned fashion designer whose elegant creations were worn by celebrities and stars from Oprah Winfrey to Taylor Swift. Despite his international fame, de la Renta maintained close ties with his native country and built houses in Casa de Campo and Punta Cana. After his death in 2014, the fashion house bearing his name continued to flourish, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year.
Oscar de la Renta’s success did not happen in a vacuum. Dominicans have always been known for their sense of style, and both men and women are smartly dressed for work and social events. Those hoping to discover the next top Dominican designer may check out the Dominican Republic Fashion Week, held in the capitol in late April/early May every year, which features both indigenous and international designers.
Those who wish to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Dominican visual artists may visit the modern art museum, the Galaria de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo. Here, you can find the works of many well-known Dominican painters and sculptors, such as Cándido Bidó, the first Dominican artist to hold an exhibition in France; Celeste Woss y Gil, whose portraits and female nudes were well-known; and Darío Suro, considered one of the founders of Dominican Modernist school of painting.
Jose Vela Zanetti, Untitled
The Dominican Republic had always maintained close ties to Spain, even after it became independent in the 19th century. At the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, many Spanish artists were exiled to the Dominican Republic, bringing with them knowledge and expertise of then current European art trends. This had a galvanizing effect on Dominican artists and art students and gave birth to a style of art that fuses European influences of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism with African and Latin styles. Many artists also turned to political and social subjects to reflect life under the dictator Rafael Trujillo through their art. The impact of these European exiles and their Dominican students can be felt to this day.
Art and culture is the way a people express their hope, dreams and way of life, and appreciating their artistic expressions is the highest compliment one can pay to a country. So next time you are in the Dominican Republic, make sure you take the time to explore their music, literature, film, fashion and visual arts!
Written by Simon Chung
Simon Chung is a digital nomad based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He specializes in research and writing for companies, organizations and academic institutions. He can be contacted here.