Chapter 12 No ma’ se oye el fuinfuán: The Noisy Accordion in the Dominican Republic Sydney
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12 No ma’ se oye el fuinfuán The Noisy Accordion in the Dominican Republic sydney hutchinson Merengue is widely recognized as the national music of the Dominican Republic, itsmostpopularandbest-knownexport.Originallyarepresentativeofthecountry ’snorthernCibaoregion,thismusicanddancebecameanationalsymbol,first inreactiontotheUnitedStates’soccupationofthecountryin1916–24,andthen, more permanently, under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930–61). Because of its symbolic centrality, merengue has been the subject of much debate in the public sphere, a debate that seems to grow in intensity whenever migration and/ oreconomiccrisesthreatentraditionalurbanclasshierarchiesorunderstandings of Dominicanness. This debate is complicated by the fact that in the twentieth century merengue split into different genres, catering to different social groups: the orquesta merengue, centered around wind and brass instruments, and the accordion-based merengue típico. Byrereadingthishistoryandanalyzingthediscoursesurroundingtípicoinstruments ,onecanseethatinstrumentsliketheaccordionrepresentmuchmorethan “things” or even music. They are bearers of cultural meanings and as such often takethebruntofsocialcriticism.Thediscourseaboutmerengueinstrumentsand the sounds they make is related to social processes such as urbanization, migration , class transformations, and gender construction. In this essay, I examine howtheaccordionisplayedinDominican merenguetípico,andIoutlinehistorical and contemporary meanings of the accordion as related to class, ethnicity, and gender, suggesting that the instrument often embodies Dominicans’ changing 250 sydney hutchinson ideas about themselves. To construct this argument, I rely on newspaper articles, scholarly and lay histories, the visual arts, interviews with practitioners, and my own fieldwork conducted among típico musicians in New York City and Santiago, theDominicanRepublic’ssecond-largestcityandcenteroftheCibao,since2001 and 2004, respectively. The Social Accordion Class conflict has long been a factor in the production of merengue. It has even beensaidthatTrujilloforcedtheupperclasstodancemerengueasakindofpunishment for their earlier rejection of him. Classist views of merengue típico are often manifested in descriptions of the accordion’s sound as noise rather than music, which date back to the instrument’s first appearance on the island in the early 1870s. At that time, journalistic invectives against the accordion included one by a former Dominican president, Ulises Espaillat, who compared the “insipid and hair-raising [horripilante]” accordion to stringed instruments like the cuatro, “melancholy and so full of majestic harmony.”1 Such opinions helped to pushmerengueandtheaccordionoutofthecitiesfornearlyfiftyyears,initiating their conversion into symbols of the rural peasantry. UnderTrujillo,merenguereenteredthecitybyforce—butthistimewithoutthe traditional accordion. In the urban big band or orquesta of the 1930s, the button accordion was either replaced by a piano accordion or removed entirely, while the güira, similarly considered an instrument of noise rather than music, was reduced to a tangential role. While this new urban style catered to the middle and upper classes in the city centers, rural merengue típico remained on the outside. This position is still visible today in Santiago, where most important típico sites arelocatedontheoutskirtsofthecity.Yet,perhapsironically,oncethesoundhad been removed from the button accordion and its “noise” was no longer heard, it seemed to become an acceptable national symbol. Although the instrument was removedfromtheorquestaandbarelyappearedinfolklorescholarshipofthetime, itappearedcentrallyinmanynationalistpaintingsandeveninnationalistpoetry. Isuggestthatmiddle-andupper-classDominicansrejectedtheaccordioneven as merengue rose to the status of national music because the instrument representedathreat .Eliteslikelyperceivedthelowerclassestobeusurpingtheirpower and invading city centers. If so, it makes sense that in the wake of the massive urbanizationandmigrationthatoccurredfollowingTrujillo ’sdeathin1961,polemics resurfaced over the noisy accordion and, implicitly, over those who play it. In the 1970s, rural migrants brought their accordion music with them to the cities,anddebateaboutthemusicandtheinstrumentresurfacedonalargescale, often expressed in newspaper columns. Típico musicians themselves were not 251 No ma’ se oye el fuinfuán given the chance to speak in these public fora, and their music was generally ignored by the press. Journalists and other commentators, often orquesta musicians , referred to the accordion in irate newspaper editorials as a “limited” instrument that “impoverishes,” “strangles,”2 and otherwise does violence to Dominican music and, by extension, to Dominican culture as a whole. Similarly, the migrants who play and support it were later described, rather overdramatically , as “cultural terrorists.”3 Today,Santiago’slong-standinganddeeplyentrenchedtwo-classstructurehas beenfurtherdisruptedbythereturnoftransnationalmigrants,whoseaccumulation of wealth puts them on an economic, if not a social, par with the traditional elite. Since the 1990s, some of these retornados or “Dominican Yorks” have invested great sums of money in merengue típico moderno, acting in the traditional roleofpatrontothiscontroversial“modern”styledefinedbyitsfocusoninventive arrangements,expandedinstrumentation,tightbackingvocals,preciserhythmic breaks,influencesfromforeignstyleslikehip-hopandreggaetón,andasectional form organized around riffs called mambos. Others work to ensure merengue típico ’s passage to the next generation by purchasing accordions for relatives back on the island. Many Santiagueros consider both retornados and their music to be tacky, even as they also recognize the music’s power as a symbol of Cibaeño and Dominican identity. These migrants are the “cultural terrorists” who spark elite fears over the complications...


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