Dominican Merengue Star Johnny Ventura Dies At 81

Jul 29, 2021
Originally published on July 29, 2021 3:57 pm

The popular Dominican merengue musician Johnny Ventura has died. According to Dominican news media, the 81-year-old musician died after a sudden heart attack in his home country on Wednesday. The news was later confirmed by Ventura's son on social media.

Ventura started life as Juan de Dios Ventura Soriano, and became well-known as El Caballo Mayor, as both his husky voice and the very danceable, Afro-Caribbean style of his chosen music became popular across Latin America.

Starting in the 1960s, Ventura had a string of hits that became classics ("Patacon Pisao," "Pitaste," "Merenguero Hasta La Tumbadora") and also transformed merengue from a folk music to an international sensation. He further modernized the music by adding complex horn arrangements and even elements of rock and roll, which became a useful canvas for Ventura's elaborate stage choreography and musical arrangements.

Just before his death, Ventura had posted about how much he was looking forward to performing in front of his fans after the long pandemic lockdown.

Official music video for "La Bala" by Johnny Ventura
Radial by The Orchard / YouTube

Ventura's career coincided with a renewed interest in Afro-Caribbean music, thanks in no small part to New York-based record label Fania Records, which revived interest in work from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the late '60s and throughout the '70s. The merenguero earned the respect and admiration of salsa stars like Celia Cruz, who recorded several songs featuring the hip-swinging style. Ventura also ventured into politics, serving first as vice mayor of the Dominican Republic's capital city of Santo Domingo from 1994 to 1998, then as mayor from 1998 to 2002.

The grand dame of Cuban song, Omara Portuondo, paid tribute to Ventura on Twitter from her home in Havana: "Artista inmenso, corazón radiante y alegre 'hasta la tumbadora. Gracias, nunca te olvidaremos."

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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). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.