Music censorship and restrictions in Dominican Republic
From the mid-1980’s the dictatorships were gradually replaced by freely elected, civilian governments. But did censorship and restrictions on the freedom of expression also disappear? Do musicians have the freedom to create, publish and present their music? Officially yes, but has this been the real situation during these last 15-20 years?
A general view
Officially no country in Latin America has political censorship. All countries have signed and ratified The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Convention of Human Rights, also known as The Pact of San José de Costa Rica from 1969.
Article 13, par. 1 in the latter says:
All governments sustain that there is freedom of expression in their respective countries. But the range of interpretations is wide and apparently arbitrary. Which means that censorship is a fact in most Latin American countries, though rarely as explicit political censorship, but most often disguised as charges of “immorality” and “violation of public decency”, etc.
Unlike Cuba, the situation in the second biggest country in the Caribbean does not draw much attention, despite the importance of the music and the apparent extent of the censorship against music and musicians. The reasons are obvious. The Dominican Republic is not part of an old and intense international conflict with the world’s biggest and richest country.
There is an old tradition for restricting or forbidding music in the Dominican Republic back to the colonial times and the years under Haitian rule (1822-44), not to talk about the years as independent country under changing dictators, many of them installed and deposed by the USA, and the periods of North American occupation, specially 1916-24, which lead to the creation of an army and the creation of one of the continent’s most cruel dictatorships under Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who liked to call himself “the Benefactor of the Fatherland”.
Under Trujillo, who was finally murdered by CIA in 1961, a tight censorship was impossed on the media and on all kinds of cultural expressions. Nevertheless, popular music, specially merengue, was given a room to express and develop, because Trujillo, who came from a modest family, loved this most popular kind of music, considered the “typical” Dominican music.
After the Trujillo years merengue suffered a decay, until new generations in the 1970’s retook the old tradition in merengue of commenting actual events and trends in the Dominican society, often with plenty of humour and acidity. That contributed to make merengue one of the targets of censorship, either for political or “moral” reasons.
Dominican music is created and performed in two, very different main areas: the Dominican Republic and New York, where maybe at least 500,000 Dominicans live. In the Dominican Republic there is a systematic censorship against music to such an extent that many groups have preferred to emigrate to New York where there is much more room for the traditional creativity in Dominican music.
In the Dominican Republic a special commission, Comisión de Espectáculos Públicos (Commission of Public Performances) has the task of controlling that “public morality” and “good taste” are not offended. According to local newspapers numerous merengues have been banned during the last few years, mainly merengues composed and written by musicians in New York, where they have become successes.
The Commission’s argument for banning these merengues is that they “offend public morality”, accuses them of using double meanings, and even of the supposedly low quality of merengue. It is mainly New York merengue bands like Mala Fe, Raúl Acosta’s Oro Sólido and La Banda Soberbia that are censored in theb Dominican Republic.
In 2001 the Commission decided that Oro Sólido’s ‘El gallito’ could not be played in radio and tv. La Banda Soberbia’s ‘El bembé’ and ‘El moñoñón’ and Grupo Mala Fé’s ‘La vaca’ and ‘A lo oscuro’ were also forbidden.
Also local big stars like Johnny Ventura have felt the official censorship.
The Commission does also ban foreign musicians, like Spanish Manu Chao, whose song “Me gustas tú” was banned because it, according to the commission, includes phrases that promote the use of drugs.
On the other hand, in New York there is a rich and lively environment where the musicians develop new trends and genres mixing the original Dominican music forms, which originally come mainly from the countryside, as is the case of the merengue, with music from other parts of the Caribbean and the urban forms from the big metropolis, creating new patterns to a Latin American audience in the big Apple of several million people. The lack of censorship in New York is a contrast to the Dominican Republic, and means that most musical creativity in Dominican music (including the biggest name during the last decades, Juan Luis Guerra) is found abroad, not in the Island.
One feature which could be useful to research is the difference between the situation of the Dominican musicians in their country and in New York, i.e. the difference between living, creating and performing in a restricted environment and a permissive environment.
Sources are very spread, mainly local newspapers, which must be read carefully, as most information is found in the sections about entertainment and in the gossip columns, often with little or no documentation.
The best sources will be the musicians themselves (they seem to be rather willing to speak), some researchers and the Comisión de Espectáculos Públicos.
This is an excerpt from ‘A Survey Of Censorship And Restrictions On Music In Spanish America’ by Jens Lohmann. Published by Freemuse. Copenhagen, 2002.
Jens Lohmann is a Danish journalist and author. He is known as one of Scandinavia’s most knowledgable experts on Latin American music. Born in 1940 and grew up in Mexico.
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