Got A Good Beat, You Can Dance To It…And It’s Taking Our Jobs

I was listening to an episode of the Code Switch podcast this weekend while I was out walking. The topic was about how merengue was the basis for a culture war in Puerto Rico.  What, at first on the surface seemed to be a resistance to the introduction of a new type of pop music to compete with salsa gets entangled with cultural identity.

Merengue was essentially carried to Puerto Rico by waves of immigration from the Dominican Republic. The music had a different energy and was easier to dance to than salsa. One of the hosts mentioned her mother was embarrassed by how poorly her husband danced, but that he was able to do a passable job dancing to merengue rhythms.

However, in time there were violent protests and demands that merengue be outlawed because it was putting salsa musicians out of work. One merengue musician had his car set on fire. There was a lot of suspicion that it was salsa musicians, but the owner had no proof and so never filed a complaint.

The podcast hosts admit there may have been some nationalism and classism associated with the resistance since merengue was initially being introduced and performed by immigrants who may not arrived in Puerto Rico legally. Many of them seeking to use the island as a way to continue on to the U.S.  There may have been a sense that these folks from the Dominican Republic were interlopers who were not invested in advancing the future of the island.

The most interesting element is that in time Puerto Rican musicians made merengue their own.  The merengue song, “Suavemente,” which became ubiquitous in the late nineties was performed by a Puerto Rican musician. The guy whose car was burned was invited to the home of one of the prime suspects for the arson who admitted merengue ultimately made it possible to own the house he had.

I have been trying to think if there have been similar stories with other music forms. I know there have been plenty of protests about music being obscene or diverging from standard expectations, but has there been other instances where performers of an emerging music style have been accused of robbing other musicians of their livelihood by virtue of being more popular?


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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