Chimbala stands center stage at New York City’s United Palace, gingerly lifting his blackout shades to wipe tears from his eyes. In front of him, a stage-wide mega screen plays a video of his mother, who is back home in the Dominican Republic, tenderly congratulating her son on his decade-plus run as a dembow artist and producer. Behind him, more than 3,000 fans chant his name in unison.
It is a historic moment not only for Chimbala, but the genre of dembow — a Dominican style of music identified by its playful, rapid drum pattern and carefree energy, which has endured a slow rise to prominence. The sold-out concert, titled Chimbala y el Movimiento, took place on March 26 and featured performances from Justin Quiles, dembow newcomer Chucky73, El Alfa and bachata legend Frank Reyes, among others. It was a stateside homecoming for the underdog genre, as ticketless fans outside of the venue blasted old-school dembow tracks while others pushed against the barricades hoping to steal a glance of the hometown heroes.
A decade ago, things looked quite different for a then-22-year-old Chimbala as he stood atop a makeshift stage performing for a few hundred fans at a men’s prison on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. At that time, dembow music — born out of a sample of Jamaican dancehall artist Shabba Ranks’ anti-imperialist single “Dem Bow” — faced relentless criticism and resistance, with an unofficial TV and radio ban on the genre due to what one Dominican Republic government official recently referred to as “sexual and obscene content” (not too dissimilar to what reggaetón acts faced early on in Puerto Rico).
But in the last year alone, Latin stars across the board, including J Balvin, Rosalía, Camilo, Natti Natasha, Daddy Yankee and Justin Quiles, have tapped into the genre, collaborating with dembow mainstays Chimbala and El Alfa, as well as the genre’s iconoclastic up-and-comer, Tokischa. “Artists love dembow, and for me, it’s a privilege,” says El Alfa. “It makes it easy to collaborate with them.” (He does acknowledge the lack of women in the genre, naming La Insuperable as an artist he aspires to work with.)
Dembow has since achieved mainstream success — a catalyst for a greater awards show presence (Tokischa and Rosalía live-debuted “Linda” at the 2021 Billboard Latin Music Awards), as well as Billboard chart highs (El Alfa’s “La Mama de la Mama” reached No. 9 on Hot Latin Songs last May, while his collaboration with Chimbala and Natti Natasha is currently climbing the chart). And, as exemplified Saturday night, its biggest stars are now transcending local nightclubs and even performing in packed arenas (El Alfa played a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden in 2021). As Spotify head of artists and label partnerships for U.S. Latin & Latin America Maykol Sanchez says: “There’s more consumption happening in more places — not only in Latin America, but in the U.S. and Europe. It has been an incredible expansion.” Click here to read full blog.