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.”
Upon construction of the United Palace venue in 1930, Washington Heights was home to mostly Irish and eastern European Jewish immigrants. There were no Dominican restaurants, bachata melodies seeping from bodegas, or waves of pulsating Spanish-Caribbean rhythms with every passing car. Today, the neighborhood has morphed into a cultural heartbeat for Dominican-Americans, playing a pivotal role in the explosion of dembow beyond Caribbean borders.
Chimbala, who produced a few of El Alfa’s early singles, recalls the turning point for dembow soon after his entrance into the genre: “[It] was in style to sing a verse and then repeat the same line over 20 times. It made [people] want to move their bodies. So the clubs began playing it.” In the following years, the genre continually spread by way of the Dominican diaspora, gaining traction in New York and other Latin American countries. In the last year, Chimbala’s Spotify monthly listener count has more than doubled, jumping to 6.7 million.
“Dembow transmits joy because of its rhythm, its tempo, its emotion,” says burgeoning dembow artist Tokischa, rapidly snapping her fingers with every word. “Even if you don’t understand the language, you hear the rhythm, the color, the voices. Dembow transmits a sense of fun — and people want to have fun.”
Even local airwaves have since shifted in the genre’s favor. “If you turn on the radio today in the Dominican Republic, the stations are all killing themselves to get the latest dembow tracks first,” says El Alfa, the most globally recognized name in dembow, with a triumphant grin. “If things keep going how they’re going, dembow will become one of the most listened to genres in the world.”
Another, and newer, factor in the genre’s worldwide spread? TikTok, with listeners across the globe busting a move to dembow tunes on the app. Songs like El Alfa’s “Fulanito” alongside Becky G have been tagged to over one million videos. El Alfa — who has collaborated with everyone from Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee to Major Lazer and Busta Rhymes — emphasizes the importance of the social app on the genre’s expansion, and has benefitted from such social fandom translating to more tangible success.
“When Madison Square Garden happened, I said ‘There’s no way,’” recalls El Alfa, who moved 8,000 tickets on the first day of sales and went on to perform at 12 more U.S. arenas. His historic MSG concert became his biggest show to date, though will soon be outdone by an upcoming show in the Dominican Republic at Félix Sánchez Olympic Stadiums, which holds 60,000 fans.
Not long ago, El Alfa, like Chimbala, faced Dominican media’s dismissal of dembow amid his growing popularity in the early 2000s. At 18, he had his first local hit, 2009’s “Coche Bomba,” a 107 beats-per-minute DIY dembow track that permeated his native island. “When I’d go to the television and radio stations, they’d say, ‘No, we can’t play that.’ But you step in the streets, and all you could hear was dembow.”
Tokischa — who has been featured on J Balvin’s JOSE and Rosalia’s MOTOMAMI and is currently on her first U.S. tour — entered the genre much later, but still recalls growing up in Santo Domingo having to hide her love of the genre from older, less open-minded family members. “I had to do my chores every day, and when my aunt would leave, I would play dembow,” the rapper recalls. “Before she got back, I would put her CD back in to hide the evidence.”
Today, she stresses the importance of the genre’s roots, saying, “Dembow carries the Dominican culture throughout the world, but it represents the barrio [hood]. The barrio is part of the story [of dembow]. The barrio makes society function because we are the workers. We are the ones struggling.”
As eager fans filled the seats of United Palace, some with Dominican flags in hand, a video montage filmed in Santo Domingo began, showing aerial scenes from Chimbala’s own barrio, including footage of children playing basketball, women barbecuing street food and men doing tricks on their motorcycles, paying homage to the Guaricano native’s beginnings.
“I didn’t jump from one to 10,” he told Billboard days before the show. “I went through the hardships and lessons that brought me to where I am. [Now], a lot of kids that were in the streets began to sing because they saw the way we changed our lives.”
This summer, Chimbala will embark on a tour in Europe, another current hotspot for the dembow genre. “Fame doesn’t last forever,” he adds, “but at least we can enjoy our moment.”