Música de la Isla

Album Edis SánchezSydney Hutchinson

If politics divide the island, music still has the power to unite it. The album “Música de la Isla” is a sonic tour through the island neighbors, Dominican Republic and Haiti and all the sounds they share.

It’s Holy Week and time for gagá. The sun beats down, machetes flash in the air, colorful handkerchiefs fan out from the majo jon’s hips as he spins and leaps, catching the blade as it falls. His silver whistle calls to the drummers, past them to the crowds of dancing onlookers, and to the long tin cornetas responding in kind. Underneath them all and at the very center, the fututos weave melodies in their deep, dark timbres, each note made from the breath of a different man’s lungs. They are made of PVC pipe, not bamboo like in the past, but in spite of the mundane material there’s still something mystical in them. That’s gagá.

Música de la Isla / Whole Island Music

by Edis Sánchez curated by Sydney Hutchinson

There are not many countries on earth that share a single island between them. This is the case of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. They share the Caribbean island that their native population called Quisqueya or Ayiti, an island that Columbus renamed Hispaniola in 1492. Before the division of the territory into two different nations, a majority population of the indigenous Taino ethnic group occupied practically the entire island, and their music, the whole island’s music, was played with wind and percussion instruments described by the chroniclers of the Indies such as Fray Ramón Pané or discovered later through archaeology. If it hadn’t been for the Conquest, this would surely still be the whole island’s music. It is with replicas of these instruments that this album’s last piece was recorded.


With the passing of the years and the forced arrival of enslaved Africans on the island, other diverse music and cultural elements came to form a part of both country’s cultures. This is the case of gagá, a ritual musical expression featuring in several tracks on this album, recorded by Edis Sánchez and his guests from Haiti.

If one were to believe everything one reads today, one would think that Dominicans and Haitians have never gotten along. Different languages, different cultures and heritages. Dominicans speak Spanish; Haitians speak Kreyol or French. Dominican culture is Hispanic, African and Taino; Haitian culture is African, French and Taino. Dominicans are officially Catholic with a strong presence of syncretic popular religion; Haitians practice Vodou and a similarly syncretic Catholicism. Yet these differences have not entirely prevented coexistence and peaceful understanding, as shown not only in this recording but also in the daily life of both peoples in the border area and urban neighborhoods where Dominicans and Haitians live as friends and neighbors without major problems.


Intellectuals and politically powerful groups in both countries manipulate history and attempt to create a reality different from the one that Haitians and Dominicans have shared and can share. Shared aspects of culture, beliefs, families, etc. make peace possible between two nations that will coexist forever as neighbors. The rapprochement shown in some of the songs on this recording can serve as a good example and even be replicated in other important areas of human development.

Many musicians know that this is possible. Edis Sánchez is one of those musicians.


Edis is part of a community of several generations of Dominican folklorists and musicians who have been actively engaged in exploring the African basis of Dominican music and recognizing the relationship of Dominican culture to Haitian and Caribbean culture. They hear and feel the common rhythms that unite the two parts of the island. When I say that he has been “actively” engaged in this exploration, I mean that Edis puts his scholarship into practice: he travels the entire island to study musical traditions, teaches them to young people, and explores them creatively with others.

The music on this album comes mainly from the Dominican tradition but was specially chosen by Edis to showcase the shared culture of his island. He invited fellow Haitians to join him to explore these rhythms and experience in a visceral way how close the two cultures are. The fact that this diverse group was able to go from rehearsal to recording in a matter of days demonstrates once again how closely knit the island’s traditional musics really are.


On both sides of the border, people practice rituals and play music that blend African, European and indigenous beliefs and sounds. And since each of these roots was already mixed, it makes little sense to raise questions of “origins” or “authenticity”. Spanish and French settlers brought with them a Middle Eastern religion adapted to European contexts, while enslaved Africans blended the belief systems of the Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, Bantu and many other peoples. Even the indigenous Quisqueyanos were not monocultural: when Columbus arrived in 1492 the island was inhabited by Tainos, Ciguayos and Macorix, who apparently shared some beliefs, although their languages were not mutually intelligible. And over the five centuries since then, rhythms, dances, instruments and beliefs have repeatedly and continuously crossed the Haitian-Dominican border, as well as the waters between the islands.

All this is not to say that there are no distinct Dominican or Haitian musical and other cultural practices. There certainly are. No one plays merengue, bachata, or palos like Dominicans, just as no one plays kompa or the rhythms of petwo like Haitians. However, there is a common substratum that underlies it all. This foundation of Quisqueyano cultural expression has been covered up for a long time, buried under new layers of history and, sometimes, under blood and bones. Whole Island Music – Música de la Isla – unearths it for the whole world to see, or rather, to hear.

The instruments

Die Songs



Ban ban

¿Muchacho que quieren?

La mangué

Habichuela con dulce

Pa’ come’

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O… o… e… e…

Yo vengo preguntando, vengo yo

Yo vengo preguntando quien murió

Bendito sean lo’ Santo’ bendito Dio’

O..y… señore’

Ese muchacho yo lo llamo y lo llamé


Bendita y alabada sea la ley de Dio’

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Suite Palos

San Pedro que me ayudó a montar esta velada

A Dios se lo debo todo y a San Pedro le debo el alma


San Pedro tiene la llave

San Pedro tiene la llave

San Pedro tiene la llave

De abrir la puerta del cielo

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Salve Bakini

Angelito vete pal’ cielo

Como lo’ Santo ae…

Angelito vete ya

A rogá’ por tus hermanito’

A rogá’ por tu madresita


Angelito eh…

Como lo’ Santo ae…

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Guedé Nibó

Guedé Nibó bèl gaçon,

Guedé Nibó bèl gaçon,

Abiye tout an blan pou alé

Al monte o palè.

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Suite Gagá (Loá Saó + Dantoe)

Loá Saó nan ginen ou ye

Loá Saó nan ginen sa bèl o

Oh me Loá Saó

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Oshan (Saint Pierre)

Saint pierre ouvre la porte

Saint pierre ouvre la porte

Saint pierre ouvre la porte

La porte du paradise

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Suite Sarandunga


Buena capitana

Buena tololela


Yo toco bebiendo

También sin beber

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Tuntupá y contratiempo

This recreation of pre-Columbian musical sounds is an attempt to imagine the music that existed on the island before the arrival of the Spaniards. It is played on replicas of the original instruments used at that time, according to the chroniclers of the Indies.

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