Based on a bibliographic review, especially of materials produced in Santo Domingo, we can explain the presence, throughout the colonial era and into the early 20th century, of a musical genre that was common among many peoples in the Americas, and particularly in the Caribbean: Fandango. The Diccionario de autoridades de la lengua castellana (1726) described it as a dance introduced by those who had been in the Indies and that was done to the beat of festive and happy strumming. More broadly, it meant any festive banquet or event attended by many people. Fandanguero was a “fan of dancing the fandango and attending get-togethers or celebrations.” As we can see, the fandango was a dance for fun and a pastime among many of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Brother Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra wrote that the fandango was one of the most beloved activities in Puerto Rico in the late 18th century: “and it is rarely lacking in one house or another. Hundreds of people from all over participate in these dances. They dance one on one or two by two; each man invites a woman (…). If someone wants to dance with a woman who is dancing with another, he must ask permission.”

Moreau de Saint-Méry of Martinique described the fandango, in his work Descripción de la parte española de la isla de Santo Domingo (1783), as a dance accompanied by guitar or the sound of maracas, while William Walton described it in 1810 as one of the dances of Santo Domingo, faster than the bolero and accompanied by voice and guitar. He clarified that the fandango dance, which he considered repulsive because of its obscenity, was not practiced in society, which had adopted the waltz, in addition to Spanish country dances. By the very early 19th century, the fandango dance and music were popular among rural people of Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean, but in the Dominican Republic it was also the music and dance of slaves and freed slaves, in contrast to the musical tastes of the urban slave-owning oligarchy.

In El Montero (1856), Pedro Francisco Bonó described the fandango as not a specific dance but rather “a thousand different dances that consists of a dimly lit space, two cuatros, two güiras, two singers, a tiple, a lot of racket, and when luxury permits, a drum.”

The fandango appears to have arrived in Santo Domingo early in the colonial era and became so popular that the word fandango became a synonym for party, to the point that Dominicans forgot that there was a dance called fandango. But the changes that came to Dominican society in the republican era, especially related to the rise of the sugar industry in the last quarter of the 19th century and the subsequent migration and development of trade throughout the territory, would shift that tradition to the countryside, where it was transformed into general merrymaking. Later, in the early decades of the 20th century, it is quite likely it formed part of the musical base of what is now known as bachata.

During the colonial era, in a society closely related to ranching, the fandango was the people’s party among Dominicans, in contrast to the ballroom dances of the small nucleus of landowners, slavery oligarchs and colonial officials. While this took place among the rural people who were considered descendants of Spaniards, the slaves and freed slaves of African descent tried to keep their drum celebrations. These were constrained by legislation that prohibited them and tried to uproot this important component of the ancestral roots of Dominican ethnicity from a culture that had survived not only in Santo Domingo, but also throughout the Antilles.

The fandango, a dance that was present in many countries of the Americas, was both a musical genre and a synonym for popular parties, and in the Dominican case, for a country party. Numerous references to the dance appear in books and essays. Ulises Espaillat, Eugenio María de Hostos, Pedro Francisco Bonó, José Ramón López, Francisco E. Moscoso Puello, Ramón Emilio Jiménez, Enrique Aguiar and Jaime Colson, among others, refer to this diversion, almost always in the country. Max Henríquez Ureña, in La conspiración de Los Alcarrizos (1941), a novel set during the Haitian occupation (1822-1844), includes dialogue from a party, but not the ballroom parties of the upper levels of Dominican society, but a typical country party of the first half of the 19th century:

“Wouldn’t it be better to dance in the living room of the hut?” “No way! It’s very small. And the floor is not as good as this one, although it is concrete and it is good and smooth.” … “Let’s dance, ladies and gentlemen!” a voice cried. “Bring on the music!” others shouted. The musicians settled onto one of the benches and Felipe began to sing a seguidilla. Andrés sang the accompaniment. “Do you dare dance the fandango?” Lico asked Altagracia, taking her arm. “Do you know how to dance?” “What girl doesn’t know how to dance the fandango, when it is the dance the Spanish soldiers like so much?” … “Felipe! Play the best fandango you know so I can dance with my girlfriend, or keep playing that seguidilla, because either way it’s all the same to me!” 

But the fandango was not the most popular among the aristocratic groups, who preferred other kinds of music and dances:

“Dance the tumba, dance the tumba!” cried several voices “Choose your partners!” … The guitars, accompanied by the güiro, slowly loosed into the air the melancholy notes of a tropical melody. … The tumba danced on the island got its name from the Andalusian tumba, with which it retained few similarities.

The author described what he saw as the syncretism that was taking place in Dominican music with the following explanation:

The melody had a native flavor, though it also showed, as was usually the case in the local music, an echo of musical expressions from other regions of the world, often from Spain and, through Spain, from the Arabs. But imitating is not the same as copying. And while the local music imitated, in imitating it modified and adapted the melody to local sentiments, giving it a new musical feeling. The beat of the tumba had African-style syncopated effects, and thus the beat could be precisely kept by the güiro.

Over time, imitation and adaptation, along with instrumentation, would constitute the basis of the music to which the fandango, and later the bachata, was danced.
Max Henríquez Ureña described dances popular among high society, such as, for example, “the waltz, which was in vogue at that time in America.” The fandango endured without diminution through most of the 19th century, but in the last decades of the century, the country began a process we could call technological modernization, the opening of markets and progressive immigration. These changes impacted the Dominican countryside and the fandango parties fell into decline, although they were still important in some parts of the country in the early 20th century. The popular Dominican poet Juan Antonio Alix wrote a verse in 1894 that established the importance of the fandango party: “For this reason alone/ We today make known,/ Everything to be done/ In this celebration./ Masks for some/ Through the streets we go/ And here and there/ dance in leaps,/ A fandango everywhere/ We will never go without.”

In Nisia: cuentos puertoplateños (1898), José Ramón López, in describing a fandango party, shows a certain amount of nostalgia, as by that time it had begun to change. He explained the fandango by providing basic information about the transformation that had begun. López said that the accordion, the drum and the guiro were played in the fandango, “which made up the orchestra.” It was held in space arched by an arbor and with a dirt floor, where the dark dust rose, and was lit by gas lamps. “The fandango ended with a con couplet challenge and the swirling of the people.”

The novel El general Babieca y Patricio Flaquenco (1916), written by Jaime Colson, provides interesting information about how deeply rooted the fandango still was, even in the early 20th century, as a popular country celebration — which was the same as saying it was a national celebration, as most of the population was rural — where merengue, tango and other formers of music were performed. The author relates the struggles between the political parties known as the bolos and the coludos in the early decades of the 20th century. In the novel, General Babieca, the main character, urges Patricio:

“Give it up. Turn your back forever on these fandangos.” “You look,” said Orlando, “I will never give up the dance, even if I have to do it on a loose tightrope, because in our country he who doesn’t dance doesn’t count, and he who doesn’t count isn’t worth anything, even if he works and is honest: Let’s sing the tolelá./ This world is a fandango/ and it must be danced./ Dance the merengue or tango,/ it’s better than working./ Being a patriot/ is a talent like no other./ Knowing how to strum a jota, / that’s the social skill./ Knowing how to drink brandy,/ knowing how to play baccarat,/ knowing how to kill people,/ so that you don’t have to. / Singing to the beat of the güiro;/ Taking a girl out to dance./ Firing a shot into the air./ There is nothing better, General/. Patricio did not wait for General Babieca’s response, because he could not control himself when he saw a girl dancing a zarambo to the sound of an accordion, a drum and a guiro.

As we can see, the fandango was closely related to the dance, brandy and violence. These were constants in Santo Domingo, as in Cuba and Puerto Rico, as pointed out in another part of the novel in which Colson cites the following verse and shows that the fandango continued to be an important part of Dominican musical identity:

Fandango is the life we live/ we who are going to fight/ we dance on the ruins of the country/ to the beat of God, Country and Freedom/ Wherever the flag is planted/ the nation’s sacred tricolor/ and the citizen fights like a beast/ to sing, dance and drink rum/

The word fandango, as a name for a country party, began to disappear during the first quarter of the 20th century and was replaced by jolgorio and bachata, in both the cities and the Dominican countryside. This was influenced by the economic transformations resulting from the industrialization process and the arrival of thousands of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants beginning in the late 19th century. The people in the countryside resisted, however, and the fandango held its position for a while in parts of Cibao, especially in the southern region of the Dominican Republic. After a few decades, however, the fandango music and dance ceased to exist in the Dominican Republic, even disappearing from the popular lexicon. But its presence in the bibliography calls for broader research about the music’s historical and cultural significance among the Dominican people.


Author: Alejandro Paulino Ramos
Published: December 16, 2011.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.