Live Music in Santo Domingo: What to Hear & Where to Find it

When you hear “the Dominican Republic” the first thought that pops in your mind is likely merengue. All right, maybe after “Punta Cana” for those who’ve never been here or who’ve never engaged with Dominicans. Music—particularly live music—and dance are indeed synonymous with the DR and dominicanidad or the essence of being Dominican. In Santo Domingo, the capital, you’ll realize this as soon as you step foot outside and hear all the live music that’s echoing from different corners of the city.

As the country’s cultural hub, easy access to live music in Santo Domingo is undoubtedly one of its biggest draws. It’s one of the main reasons I chose it as my base over Puerto Plata city. Santo Domingo has a palpable energy unlike any other capital in the Caribbean. Much of it is due to its love for creating music and to Dominicans’ passion for dancing.

When the UNESCO announced last week that Santo Domingo has been added to UNESCO’s Creative Cities network this year, primarily for its musical heritage, I wasn’t surprised. It’s befitting of a cosmopolitan city that’s home to a long and diverse history, even if it’s not obvious to the naked eye. A city that is improving and evolving every day under the guidance of a young, dynamic mayor.

As the city continues to grow, live music and the Dominican Republic’s many musical genres remain prominent in and around Santo Domingo. Beyond merengue are genres and sounds that are firmly rooted in Dominican culture, if not as widely promoted.

Centuries-old Afro-Dominican drumming, for one, remains alive in a few of Santo Domingo’s neighborhoods while Afro-Dominican fusion beats and artists are rising on the urban scene. Music has been used as a tool for social change, awareness and transformation.

From the Latin to the African and the urban, Santo Domingo is a fascinating destination if you’re a music and dance aficionado.

Here’s the live music you can expect to hear in Santo Domingo and where you can find it—Monday through Sunday—across UNESCO’s newest Creative City.

I. Palo

“They say merengue is officially the national music of Dominicans, but before there was merengue, there was the palo,” Dario Solano, a respected Afro-Dominican historian and activist, explains while pointing at a traditional palo—a slim and hollow four-foot tall wooden, carved trunk turned drum. I’d never seen drums in that particular shape in the Caribbean before I came to the DR and I’d asked about the origin.

These instruments—known as palos or atabales—can be traced back directly to Congo, Central Africa. The area of Villa Mella, a neighborhood north of Santo Domingo, under an hour’s drive away, is known to have preserved palos and this unique African musical heritage brought to the Dominican Republic with enslaved Africans. Villa Mella remains home to several “cofradias” or brotherhoods with drum-centric music passed on from generation to generation, family to family.

Live performances of palos takes place to celebrate saints, as well as for religious ceremonies and funerals. As such, it’s a deeply spiritual kind of music, with deep cultural significance.

The Ministry of Culture’s online glossary defines palos as “the most widespread music and dance in the Dominican territory. It is played with instruments of the same name, drums built from trunks three to four feet high. Its practice is associated with the celebrations of virgins and saints.” It doesn’t mention its direct African descent, but that is its origin.

Los Morenos de Villa Mella is a brotherhood that has maintained its musical heritage for three centuries. There are others in Villa Mella, and in other parts of Santo Domingo’s multiple regions.

What you hear and see in the video, is palo music from Los Morenos that has been passed on from generation to generation, family to family. Each sound and beat are particular to that neighborhood and community. It’s not “folklore” as Euro-centric language puts it—it’s music in its purest form. It’s been altered to some extent because Africans were forcibly brought here without their belongings, and they recreated their heritage from the knowledge their hearts and minds preserved. Accompanying the palo drums, then, are often maracas and a guira, as well as chanting.

As you can see above, palo is also a dance—a couple moves in circles loosely and with grace, as the woman leads even though the man dominates with hand gestures. There are minimal hip movements.

Why isn’t palo the primary music genre in the DR? Historians point to the 30 year-rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo. He is said to have used merengue as a political tool during his campaign to unite the various social classes, because it was once the music of the “lower class.” Trujillo was also known for suppressing Afro-Dominican cultural expressions of any kind—an irony that isn’t lost on anyone, since the merengue beat is at its very essence African.

Where to hear and watch palo

I wish I could tell you it’s easy to access live palo in prominent areas of Santo Domingo, in the same way live bomba and plena are in San Juan, Puerto Rico where there’s a weekly concert in Santurce.

*You can glimpse a bit of live palo drumming every Saturday evening during the “Santo Domingo de Fiesta” free weekly outdoor live show on Plaza Espana, in the Colonial City, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. The Ballet Folklorico performs an interesting musical and dance historical trajectory of the DR across the decades (the MC speaks in Spanish I’m afraid).

*To see the real thing, meaning a palo brotherhood performing, drive directly to Villa Mella, north of Santo Domingo. Ask for directions to Los Morenos’ neighbhorhood once you enter Villa Mella by asking for directions “donde La Dolorita” which is a small rustic church where the group performs.

*Lastly, there are occasional live palo performances on occasion at La Espiral in the Colonial Zone.

During Carnival month, February, you’ll also likely hear drumming around the Colonial Zone or on Plaza Espana but that has been less frequent these days.

Stay tuned to my DR Instagram page and you can get a heads up of events as they come up; I post them in Stories. If there’s sufficient demand, I can plan a day trip to these areas led by a local guide.

II. Los Congos

Like the brotherhoods who’ve maintained the palo tradition in the Villa Mella area, the Congos are another, three-centuries old brotherhood from Los Indios sector in Villa Mella. Los Congos has been recognized and proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Formally, they’re known as Los Congos del Espiritu Santo de Villa Mella and it is believed that their ancestors also came from the Congo (Zaire) and that many of them became Maroons.

Where to hear the Congos

I had the good fortune of first watching the Congos of Villa Mella live a couple of years ago when the city hosted an annual “Dominican Folklore” festival, featuring Afro-Dominican musical groups from around the country. Unfortunately, that festival vanished thereafter. Keep an eye out for events I share on my Instagram Stories.

III. Merengue

Merengue is recognized officially as the national music of the Dominican Republic and as we know, it has reached well beyond the corners of this country. The first time I heard and danced to it was not even in the DR—it was in Washington DC.

In December 2016, UNESCO recognized merengue as an intangible heritage of humanity.

Dominicans today believe that merengue represents their essence because it’s a mix of their three roots: indigenous Taino, African and Spanish. The instruments include a two- sided drum (African) placed on one’s lap, an accordion (European) and a güira (Taíno), a metal cylinder with holes, with a brush you run up and down across its surface. The accordion was brought over by the Spanish and later retuned by Dominicans in rural areas of Puerto Plata to play merengue notes. 

Los Hermanos Rosario – one of the most popular, emblematic and long lasting merengue bands in Dominican history.

Ironically, merengue was initially rejected by the upper classes, as it was considered music of the masses with vulgar movements (the same was considered of bachata when it emerged). But dictator Rafael Trujillo realized it would be a useful tool to connect with the people, and decided to elevate it, putting merengue on center stage at many of his events and parties. an interesting fact: before merengue, was a national dance called la tumba; it was displaced by merengue despite protests, and eventually disappeared. 

Today everyone knows Juan Luis Guerra, one of the greatest Grammy-winning and world-renowned Latin artists, and the biggest merengue figure of the 1980s and 1990s. He took the genre and mixed it with the modern sounds of pop and jazz, making it popular overseas.

Where to hear and watch live merengue

The question is where can’t you watch live merengue music in Santo Domingo? It’s easy to hear and follow the echo of merengue in the capital, from the corner bars or colmados to the live performances at various venues around the city, indoors and outdoors. Here’s a curated list:

*In the Colonial Zone, Jalao hosts a steady live merengue and bachata artist roster all week long for the enjoyment of its restaurant and bar customers. You can find their weekly schedule on social media.

*Nearby, Lucia 203 is the place to dance on Thursday to a live band inside a stunning courtyard. They occasionally host big name Dominican stars.

*On Sundays in the Colonial City, Grupo Bonye performs a free live merengue, son and salsa concert outdoors on the ruins of the San Francisco Monastery. Locals and tourists flock here to dance outdoors. It’s an iconic SDQ activity.

*There are merengue bands that perform at hotel bars and casinos on the Malecon, such as the Merengue Bar at the Jaragua Hotel with regular performances in the evening.

*In the center of town, Bar de Alexis on Saturdays and Friends Restaurant and Lounge host live music acts.

*Formal venues like the Hard Rock Live Santo Domingo and JetSet Club host merengue artists live, especially the latter every Monday.

When all else fails, enjoy the merengue artists in Parque Colon in the Colonial City; tip them nicely and dance al fresco, as Dominicans do.

IV. Bachata

Who on earth hasn’t heard of Romeo Santos? He’s the most recognized bachata sensation, a “Dominican-York” who was raised in New York and is half Dominican and half Puerto Rican, yet shouts out his Dominican side at every single major concert he hosts around the world. For sure, Dominican bachata completely changed his life and shaped his musical career.

Before Romeo, however, came Juan Luis Guerra who is credited for taking bachata and Dominican music to the international stage with his album Bachata Rosa. Another massive master of bachata is Anthony Santos. My personal favorite is Raulín Rodríguez, and of course there are so many others, including Frank Reyes and Luis Vargas. 

There’s not a place in the Caribbean or Latin America, Europe or Lusophone Africa that you won’t hear sultry bachata tunes echoing in the street.

Bachata is officially recognized a national patrimony of the DR; the genre was born in the DR in the 1980s. Like merengue, it was long popular among the working class before it received fuller recognition as the elite considered it the music of bars and brothels, with lyrics about romance, sex, and poverty. Bachata songs are laced in double entendre (doble sentido) and sexual connotations are some of its hallmarks.

Where to hear live bachata music

*You can hear live bachata in the same places you’ll see live merengue artists perform, from the Grupo Bonye Sunday concerts to the bars and venues I’ve listed above under the merengue section.

*For steady bachata artist performances, JetSet nightclub every Monday is a hit.

During the week, Jalao is another safe bet; they occasionally host bachata dance classes as well.

Bachata is also a favorite blasting from speakers at the neighborhood colmados in Santo Domingo, or the bodegas as they call them in NY except here, some are large enough to triple as bars and late night dance spots. They’re almost on every other corner of each neighborhood in the capital.

V. Fusion music or “Musica raiz”

A handful of talented and established Afro-Dominican artists have created their own path and become popular for creating an Afro-Caribbean fusion or “musica raiz” genre over the years. Their audience is smaller and their niche less commercialized, yet their music that more meaningful and powerful.

Artists and songwriters such as Xiomara Fortuna, the “Queen of fusion,” have doubled as activists and have been producing original music for 40 years.

They’ve had an incredible influence in promoting the DR’s heritage and African ancestry, and celebrating more of their Afro-Dominican roots through original music. At times, this fusion and soulful music blends merengue and jazz beats, but it’s primarily inspired by African heritage with lyrics surrounding every day circumstances.

Look for live music performances from Xiomara Fortuna or others, such as Diomary La Mala, in venues such as Casa de Teatro, bars in the Colonial City, and downtown spaces. Following the artists’ IG account is the best way to find out the latest.

VI. Salsa and Son

These two musical genres, inherited from neighboring Cuba, are particularly popular in Santo Domingo, more so than other parts of the country.

Where to hear live salsa and son

You’ll find live salsa and son live every Sunday with Grupo Bonye’s outdoor concert in the Colonial City.

*El Sarten on Calle Hostos is a popular spot for live son and salsa in a small, cozy bar; just beware of tourist-priced drinks.

*You can also check JetSet and Hard Rock Live for concerts year round.

Every year, thousands flock to Festival Presidente, a massive three day concert series held inside Santo Domingo’s Olympic Stadium every September, featuring for the most part local and international Latin artists—check the line up ahead of time.

VII. Dominican Jazz

While less often touted than merengue and bachata, live Dominican jazz is well alive and you can hear it at select venues year round in Santo Domingo.

Where to hear live jazz

The most constant jazz shows used to be held at the Dominican Fiesta Hotel and during the outdoor jazz nights in the Colonial City. Neither of these run at the moment.

So where to go?

*Casa de Teatro in the Colonial City is know for its jazz penchant.

*Also in the Colonial City, La Espiral hosts jazz nights. Check social media pages for more information.

*Arturo Fuente Cigar Club occasionally hosts jazz nights.

*Every summer, Casa de Teatro in the Colonial City hosts the annual Santo Domingo Jazz Festival, which is a weekly series of jazz performances featuring Dominican and foreign jazz artists. Tickets are affordable and the auditorium intimately-sized.

VIII. Ali Baba Music

As I wrote in a previous post on Instagram, there’s no Santo Domingo carnival without Ali Babá. Also known as Ali-Bandas, these musical groups were born in the barrios of Santo Domingo in 1970s and are the most urban representation of Dominican carnival music. The creativity is incredible; a mix of Afro-Dominican beats–including the guloya and gagá–and dance, with Arabian Nights costumes inspired from the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Over the years they’ve added on masks, sequins, feathers, and high boots, among other details. The costume isn’t so much what distinguishes them now, but their form of Afro-Dominican music and dance and their origin: the deep barrios or low income neighborhoods of the capital.

It’s grown so much in popularity over the years, and in creativity, that you’ll find various Ali Baba bands, particularly from Santo Domingo Este (the capital’s eastern district).

Where to hear Ali Baba

You’ll find live Ali Baba band performances in Santo Domingo during Carnival season in the Dominican Republic. Carnival runs from the first Sunday of February and every Sunday thereafter until the first weekend of March, when there’s a final, massive national carnival parade. That’s the one you really don’t want to miss — you’ll get to see just how varied and incredibly rich the DR’s cultural scene is and by default, its music scene.

Santo Domingo Este’s carnival is also a great spot to see Ali Baba youth in action, as well as other types of Afro-influenced beats such as the Gaga. Be sure to have your own transport if you’re heading east of the capital.

IX. Dembow

Older or “upper class” Dominicans reading this might roll their eyes because many associate dembow with “delincuentes.” Heck, I avoid the type of clubs that play it because it’s not my thing, but one can’t deny that it’s a massive part of Santo Domingo’s urban culture.

Dembow, like Jamaica’s dancehall and Puerto Rico’s reggaeton, has spread well beyond the DR and its catchy beats, dance moves and often vulgar lyrics earn it many young fans (heck there are dembow concerts in LA, NY, and Latin American cities). Dembow artists are collaborating with Puerto Rico’s reggaeton artists as well. There’s an entire culture that revolves around dembow that I won’t even get into in this post. But you’re likely to hear it at some point in the capital—unless you’re only hanging in stoosh spots.

Popular Dembow artists include El Mayor, El Alfa El Jefe (he has almost 5 million IG followers, if anyone doubts how popular dembow has become), Mozart La Para, Quimico, Bulin 47 and Musicologo, among others.

Where to catch live dembow

Artists occasionally perform in nightclubs and at “parties” often in areas that are less than desirable for the average tourist. Go at your own risk, preferably in groups and with a driver. And ladies never head there solo (I’m stating the obvious here to be safe).

X. Traveler Tips

It goes without saying that if you’re going to a specific venue for a live music show in Santo Domingo, you should dress nicely. Here in Santo Domingo, capitalenos love to clean up when they go out to dance, just as in any Latin destination, especially in nightclubs, hotels and indoor venues.

Now, if you’re attending an outdoor concert in the Colonial City, it’s different. This is a more casual and relaxed area of the city, and more touristed, with outdoor events that are laid back.

Getting around the capital is easy with Uber. Rides usually don’t cost more than RD$250 from point A to B or US$5 and less, unless you’re going longer distances. It’s still a bargain and with a saturated Uber market, you’re bound to find cars available at any hour of the day and night.

There are numerous restaurants and bars with no cover for local live music acts. Many outdoor performances in the Colonial City are also free. Larger events and nightclubs do have specific ticket costs or covers. Check websites and social media for details.

X. A musical city

Whether it’s merengue, Ali Baba, dembow or palos, one thing is certain: Santo Domingo’s musical scene never stops evolving, with its rich Afro-Caribbean heritage more visible than ever. Bookmark this page and don’t forget to pack your dancing shoes.

Did you know about Santo Domingo’s rich live music scene?

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