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Luis Kalaff Pérez (October 11, 1916 – July 2, 2010) was a Dominican composer, guitarist and singer, born in Pimentel, Duarte Province, in 1916. Known as one of the “godfathers” of the merengue, Luis was the son of a merchant of Lebanese origin, Juan Kalaff, and Bernavelina Pérez, who was Dominican. At fourteen, while working as a carpenter’s apprentice, he happened upon a broken guitar in the street, and after patching it up, he began to play it. Soon he was adept at many different styles and began his artistic career in 1939, joining Pablo Molina and Bienvenido Brens to form the famous Trio Los Alegres Dominicanos. The trio moved to the capitol city (then called Ciudad Trujillo) and dedicated themselves to rescuing and disseminating the folkloric music of their country in the 1940s and 1950s, first performing on radio station H.I.Z. and recording numerous 78 RPM singles backed by various conjuntos, often with reeds, percussion and accordion.


Los Alegres Dominicanos became popular by performing on programs hosted by the radio station run by José “Petán” Trujillo, the brother of the country’s then dictator, Rafael Trujillo, called La Voz del Yuna, which was based in the city of Bonao in the northern region of El Cibao, where the típico Dominican merengue is said to originate. In 1950 the radio broadcaster was moved to the capital Santo Domingo and became La Voz Dominicana, the official propaganda organ of the dictatorship. With Trujillo in full control of La Voz Dominicana and the country, Trio Alegres Dominicanos, who were signed as exclusive artists of the station in 1946, enjoyed even greater diffusion and fame, though they were jokingly referred to as “Los Sabios” (The Wise Ones), which was a dig at their provincial, lower class backgrounds, as opposed to the supposedly high society status of the big band leaders supported by Trujillo like Luis Alberti. They also participated in the cultural activities promoted by the poet Héctor J. Díaz of Trujillo’s El Partido Dominicano. During this time, the composer Armando Cabrera became a sort of intellectual mentor for the group, and was seen as an unofficial fourth member who sometimes used the trio to back him with his own compositions. Octavio “Tavito” Peguero would sometimes sing with the trio as well, and famous radio host and producer Radhames Aracena joined the trio on a humorous guaracha 78 RPM recording.

He was a successful and prolific songwriter who composed more than 2000 songs and ventured not only into diverse Dominican genres such as merengue, mangulina, salve and carabiné but also bolero, cumbia, plena, guaracha and boogaloo. Many important national and international artists have interpreted songs by Kalaff over the years with great success, for example Alberto Beltrán, Celia Cruz, Oscar D’León, Julio Iglesias, Ismael Miranda, Charlie Palmieri, Adalberto Santiago, Johnny Ventura, and a host of others. Kalaff’s most famous and popular tunes were “Aunque Me Cueste La Vida” (a bolero first interpreted by Alberto Beltrán with La Sonora Matancera in 1954), several merengues (“La Empalizá” and “Si Tú No, La Otra”) and the guaracha “Juancito Trucupey,” first popularized by Celia Cruz with La Sonora Matancera in 1954. Among his many awards Kalaff won the prestigious Bobby Capó Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. Just before the venerable Kalaff died at the age of 94, equally long-lived vocalist and composer Joseíto Mateo recalled in an interview the the two were close friends who were “the only ones still standing of the first generation of original merengueros,” adding that his amigo Luis was deservedly “the most famous composer of the Dominican Republic.”

-Pablo Yglesias

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