You'll be dancing in the streets on this island

There's more to the Dominican Republic than its beach resorts. Ben Lerwill heads to the capital, a city with a footloose soundtrack
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

My dancing instructor, Laysa, is telling me about a local saying: "Quien baila, nunca esta triste. It means 'those who dance are never sad'." On a point of communal well-being, this can only be good news for the residents of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, a city with a permanently footloose soundtrack.

Peace and quiet isn't its strong point. Merengue rhythms rattle out of taxis; grocery stores twang with bachata hits; even barber shops shake to a rumble of drums and horns. Picture off-licences with nightclub speakers and an all-ages clientele that knocks back rum then pairs off to cut a rug by the counter: Tesco Express, so much to learn.

This, Laysa explains, is a city of music. And she's not exaggerating. It's also the oldest city in the New World, having been founded by Bartholomew – "brother of" Columbus – back in 1496; the first cathedral built on this side of the Atlantic still stands in its centre.

Today, the coastal metropolis sits between two modern extremes. Over the mountain ranges to the west is benighted neighbour Haiti. To the east are the wristband all-inclusives of Punta Cana, where palm-clustered beaches and economical package deals – recently augmented by the arrival of more direct flights from the UK with British Airways – not to mention some celeb-friendly boutique hotels, have ushered it in as one of the Caribbean's new it-spots.

The distance from the resort zone to Santo Domingo is only 200km (I had arrived into the country at Punta Cana and took the bus, a kind of mobile disco chugging past sugar-cane fields), but it could as well be 10 times that. The capital is a world of belching traffic, patchy baseball fields and crumbly colonial architecture – no tour reps offering morning aerobics here. What the city lacks in immediate aesthetic charm, though, it makes up for in character. Dominicans have a passion for drink and a passion for music, and there's no better place to evidence this than Santo Domingo.

The sound heard most commonly is that of merengue, a home-brewed salsa-like genre that has infiltrated club scenes around the world, from New York to Barcelona. It's a fuelled-up, joyous form of music, a tempest of anything-goes percussion buttered up with horns and vocals. Ironically, given the local enthusiasm it generates, it owes its popularity to reviled dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had a stranglehold over the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Merengue had previously been seen as a crass product of the rural underclass, but Trujillo, keen to capitalise on his peasant roots, insisted that it be given its place in mainstream culture, where it has resided, volubly, ever since.

The music is also a neat emblem of the Dominican Republic's multicultural DNA. In its very simplest form – as illustrated by the bands that wander among the chess players and coconut barrows on main drag El Conde, along which cruise ship groups are herded to points of historical interest – traditional merengue involves just three contrasting instruments: the conga, an African drum providing slapped beats; the accordion, imported from Europe and a mainstay of old-time Dominican music; and the Caribbean's own güira, a perforated metal cylinder the size of a cheese-grater, scraped to produce an insistent rhythm.

These days, in keeping with the mish-mash of different components, more modern interpretations of merengue involve tunes being thundered out by up to 15 musicians, different brass notes ripping through the air.

Back to Laysa. We're in her teaching studio. I'm no dancer, and when I try to move she looks at my dos pies izquierdos with something like sympathy. It's all about the hips, she says. And the feet. I find it quite easy to focus on these two pieces of advice, but not at the same time. When I leave the studio, though, I honestly feel more attuned to the city. Not because I'm vastly improved as a dancer – chuckle at the thought – but because I can make some sort of sense of its different beats. When the music starts up, it's all about the ears for me, in truth, and there's certainly plenty to keep them occupied.

On a hot Friday night, Avenida Venezuela is drenched with noise. Along a 200m stretch, there are nightclubs and strip-lit colmadones (the aforementioned corner shops) at every pace. Couples dance on pavements; chicken grills furl smoke; competing tunes meld into one. There's copious merengue being played, as well as loud helpings of bachata, its poppier, R'n'B-laced cousin. Rum and -coke and £1 bottles of Presidente beer (so cold they're served wrapped in napkins) are the lubricants of choice.

Back in the centre of town, action homes in on the Malecon, the obelisk-studded ocean boardwalk once dubbed the world's largest disco by the Guinness World Records book. Here there's more open-air carousing, more live bands, more people. Some head to five-star hotel dancefloors; others gather around car stereos; others party on at late-night food courts.

Friday and Saturday nights are when Santo Domingo's music scene finds fullest expression, but it's there week-round. I watch elderly couples dancing to Cuban Son on the Sunday afternoon, a mesmeric, Buena Vista-style spectacle. I see a frenzied merengue band tear up Jetset, a highfalutin' nightclub, on the Monday night and witness a car wash, of all things, transform into an after-work hoedown on the Tuesday.

The oldest city in the region it might be, but those cranked-up radios and shuffling hips attest that it's only getting more vigorous with age.

Compact Facts

How to get there

British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/dominicanrepublic) offers seven nights at the five-star Dreams Palm Beach, Punta Cana, from £960 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick and all-inclusive accommodation.

Further information

The Aprenda A Bailaren dance school (aprendaabailaren21horas.com) offers hour-long merengue lessons from 570 pesos (£10.60), as well as a range of other dance classes.

Comments