"Cañonera music", a musical genre born in Caracas in the early twentieth century and that includes rhythms such as the Venezuelan merengue, waltz, joropo and the Caracas pasodoble; has been ignored by most musicologists and researchers of the musical tradition in Venezuela.
The correct pronunciation of “cañonera” is something like “cagnonera”, saying the “ñ” like the french sound in “cognac”.
Due to the fact that I have been 35 years leading one of the few groups dedicated to this genre and the only one that does it exclusively (Los Cañoneros), I've accumulated a lot of information and have been the beneficiary of many knowledge, that for the reason that I don't master the research techniques and I don't know the methodology used in musicology, I have not been able to organize and systematize.
However, every time I can, I make public all the information I know, hoping that someone who masters the methodologies used in history and scientific research decide to give shape to all that knowledge and someday publishes the "History of the Cañonera Music".
Today I want to refer to the favorite son of the cañonera music, the rhythm that most identifies the city of Caracas, one of the favorites among the Venezuelan musicians and the most controversial when we talk about the "true" way of playing and writing it. I mean the "merengue" or "Venezuelan merengue" or "Caracas merengue" or "Rucaneao merengue" (musical point of view, not historic).
Although Wikipedia has a specific page for Venezuelan Merengue, among the nationals it is known simply as "merengue". Of course, with the great popularity that Dominican merengue has acquired, it is important to make it clear that this is something else.
And, contrary to what the Wikipedia says, there is no element that links this Venezuelan musical genre with the Dominican one. The only common element is the name and nevertheless in Venezuela it has had different denominations, since in other times it has received the appellative of "Tango merengue" and "Guasa".
Ay, mamita que sabroso este tango merengue…
No hay quien baile el tango merengue
Como baila el negro Tomás
This denomination is also shared by Aldemaro Romero, who said that the old cañonero musicians who played this musical genre and who used to meet at the corner of La Torre, referred to this music as "tango-merengue" or "tanguito" and that in the view of this musician the merengue is the son of the Cadiz tango, musical form coming from Cádiz, Spain.
However, it is a mystery how the word "merengue" became part of this music. One of the theories associates it with the dessert made with beaten egg and sugar (meringue), but it's contradictory that in Venezuela that dessert is popularly called "Suspiro"(sigh) and not "meringue." The other theory says that the word comes from the African words "muserengue" or "tamtam mouringue", which were used to refer to dances or one of the African cultures that came to these lands.
These statements come mainly from research done in relation to the Dominican merengue and Vallenato merengue in Colombia, but presumably the case of Venezuela is not very different.
Some researchers, such as Luis Felipe Ramón and Rivera considered "merengue" and "guasa" to be different manifestations, but most of the musicians, including Eduardo Serrano and me, have unified all the guasas under the same name of merengue.
One of the main characteristics of merengue (and other Venezuelan musical forms) is the combination of binary and ternary times.
While the high sounds plays two beats per measure, the basses play three beats. Which in a drum can be the rim hitting 2 while the drum skin plays 3.
This superposition of rhythms must be adjusted to fit the following examples, where we will show the writing in 2/4, 5/8 and 6/8. I’m using here as example the notation for the snare drum, that is the basis for Venezuelan merengue.
This is the notation that was most used in the past. The one used by Vicente Emilio Sojo, who was one of the main compilers of this genre. Using computer reproduction, this is the time signature that less reflects the rhythm, but it is the one that facilitates the most when writing the sixteenth notes, so common in this rhythm.
I have always thought that this is the most ideal way to write the Venezuelan merengue and I think it is the one that expresses the character of the original rhythm. This is also the one Aldemaro Romero considered, based on his explanation of its origin in the Cadiz tango.
This is the preferred notation by new generations of musicians and musical ensembles. Venezuelan musicians have shown a great ability to play in this complicated time signature.
Between 5 and 6
Assuming that the merengue is dance music, it is very hard to think that originally it was 5/8, since it is a very difficult beat to dance (although it's possible and actually we dance it).
Personally I think the fact that the last two eighth notes of the compass are linked (a quarter note), makes the "impatient" musician get ahead. If we add to that the syncopation so common in these rhythms, we would have that each compass moves forward a little bit in time, as we shall see below.
I believe that those two elements together created the "illusion" of a rhythm shorter than normal. But that would explain just the origin of this rhythm, however, reality today tells us that there are "also" merengues on 5/8.
Although merengue has lost its presence in dance halls, nowadays it is one of the most appreciated rhythms by musicians.
“El Porfiao” – Ensamble Crescendo - 5/8
“La negra Atilia” – Ensamble Gurrufío – 5/8
“Mosaico Criollo” – Billos Caracas Boys – 2/4
“Brujería, Pica Pica, Negra mala” – Los Antaños del Stadium
“El norte es una quimera” – Los Cañoneros (That's me, many, many years ago) 6/8
"Merengue con cadencia Bachiana" by Aldemaro Romero
- http://prof.usb.ve/emendoza/emilio/articulos/Merengue_venezolano.pdf (English)
All images made by me