Dominican Merengue Star Johnny Ventura Dies At 81 The musician rose to fame in the 1960s and '70s, bringing global attention to his hip-shaking style of music.

Dominican Merengue Star Johnny Ventura Dies At 81

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Friends, family and scores of fans are mourning the Dominican vocalist and bandleader Johnny Ventura. He was 81, and he died yesterday in Santo Domingo of an apparent heart attack. His son later confirmed the death on social media. Ventura was largely responsible for elevating an Afro-Caribbean folk style from its rustic roots to stages and dance floors throughout Latin America and beyond. NPR's Felix Contreras fills us in on his legacy.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: If you live anywhere in the Northeast, you have probably heard Johnny Ventura's music and didn't even know it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FILETE")

JOHNNY VENTURA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Ventura's husky vocals were a very popular addition to merengue, the fast-paced, hip-swing-inducing music that often blares from bodegas, cars and house parties. Juan de Dios Ventura Soriano's career took off in earnest once he shortened his name, then started his own band in the mid-1960s. He modernized the music Afro-Caribbean roots with complex horn arrangements, and he even added elements of early rock 'n' roll to the music's traditional instrumentation of an accordion, a customized gourd known as a guira, and the double-headed drum called tambora, which he paid tribute to in his song, "Merenguero Hasta La Tambora."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERENGUERO HASTA LA TAMBORA")

VENTURA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Ventura's career coincided with a renewed interest in Afro-Caribbean music as the New York-based record label Fania Records was reviving interest in music from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s. Johnny Ventura also had a political career, as he served as vice mayor and then mayor of Santo Domingo from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PITASTE")

VENTURA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: After Spanish language media reported Ventura had tested positive for the coronavirus and was briefly hospitalized in March of 2020, he received an outpouring of support and affection from his fans around the world. And just a few hours before his death, he had tweeted a video of himself surrounded by a small gathering of his fans, and he wrote he was looking forward to being back on stage after the long pandemic lockdown. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PITASTE")

VENTURA: (Singing in Spanish).

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