The Dominican Republic's best known export may be the numerous baseball players it has sent to the majors, some of whom are among the biggest names in the game. There's also designer Oscar de la Renta (betcha didn't know that one, huh?) and actress Zoë Saldaña. But up until recently, its major musical export was merengue and Juan Luis Guerra its biggest star, both home and abroad.
However, the 21st century has not been kind to merengue and its purveyors; overtaken in popularity by bachata--which JLG hepled popularize on a wider scale--as well as reggaeton and other urban musical manifestations, we're now a a few decades removed from the genre's classic era, which was arguably the '80s. And no one was bigger in that timeframe than Fernando Villalona.
A charismatic and engaging vocalist who initially rose to prominence in the early '70s at the ripe old age of 16, Villalona later joined the seminal Hijos del Rey, but left shortly thereafter when his popularity began eclipsing that of the group. He subsequently embarked on a solo career which yielded a string of enduring hits and in El Mayimbe--which features future star Alex Bueno on background vocals and über arranger Andres de Jesus on alto sax--released one of the greatest albums in merengue history. It's not hyperbole to state few albums represent merengue at its modern day apex as well as El Mayimbe does.
The living, breathing embodiment of a rock star, Villalona's meteoric rise and immense popularity was often overshadowed by a seemingly unrelentless drug addiction that threatened to derail his career and may have achieved that effect to a certain extent. But this 1983 classic is a reminder of not only his boundless talent and influence on a generation of merengueros, but is also a snapshot of an era in which modern merengue reached its greatest creative and popular heights.
Highlights: "Tabaco y Ron", "Los Saxofones", "Dejame Volver", "Mi Pueblo", "El Gusto".