I first discovered Dominican dembow by chance in the summer of 2014 in Paris. I was in a club and as I approached the dance floor I heard the song “La Chapa Que Vibran” by La Materialista. I first thought that the DJ must have applied some sort of effect and sped a reggaeton track, but when the trumpets came in I realised my mistake. All around me the dancers were being nourished by an electronic trance and were dancing feverishly to the Caribbean rhythms going at around 120 BPM – and they seemed to love it! This love has been reconfirmed to me many times whilst I’ve DJed at parties and strangers have come up to ask me for “Subete” by Lary Over & Lírico En la Casa, or “Suave (Remix)” by El Alfa.
Dominican dembow was born in the working class neighbourhoods of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s. The first track, produced in 1991, was “Mujeres Andadoras” by DJ Boyo. This musical trend in Latin American urban culture has its origins in Jamaican dembow riddim, but in the case of Dominican dembow the rhythms have been accelerated to a feverish pace. The use of trumpets, flutes, and horns is frequent. The beats are sharp and the voice is treated as one more instrument as repetitive lyrics are looped, such as on “Prende (Remix)” by Bulova.
Dominican dembow was first showcased to the world by Bad Bunny at the end of 2018 on his crossover piece which fused bachata and dembow sounds, “La Romana”. Later, Major Lazer and El Alfa brought the style to an even wider audience with the song “Que Calor”, which samples flutes from a cumbia classic.
Despite recent forays into the mainstream, the genre is still in its infancy and is seeing the emergence of a lot of new talent who are all experimenting with different kinds of mixes and fusions. Dominican dembow likes to pick and choose from other styles to create new mixes. Fusions have emerged from combinations of merengue, bachata, Brazilian funk, cumbia, afro-beats and hip-hop. Chimbala is a perfect example of this. On his track “Con Chapa” he integrates stringed instruments and güira – characteristic of merengue, another musical style born in the Dominican Republic. Listening to “El Boom”, by the same artist, we find guitar chords characteristic of the traditional bolero style as well as elements of son cubano, a style whose origins are found in bachata.
This thirst for innovation comes from the style’s relative youth as well as from a deeply ingrained philosophy of DIY. The pioneers of the movement had to create sounds with relatively few resources and tinker around without having much of a blueprint to follow. This mindset is evident in the genre’s most recent productions such as “Mueve la Cadera” by Kiko el Crazy. Dominican dembow and its authentic approach to production will almost certainly continue surprising us in the years to come.