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Aventura broke the rules of bachata
Aventura is perhaps the most recognizable name in bachata music worldwide and is also the first major bachata band to have come out of the Dominican diaspora rather than from the island itself. The Bronx-based group’s eclectic mix of bachata with US R&B and other non-Dominican styles has helped make the group enormously popular among young Latinos in the United States and with audiences across Europe and in Latin America. Despite Aventura’s international success they have received lukewarm reception from bachata’s traditional listeners, and the band’s impact on the sound of bachata remains limited. Other young bachateros attempting to follow Aventura’s bachata-hybrid approach have so far not attained any significant success.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the growing Dominican population in the United States became an important fan base for bachata. Many Dominican immigrants came from a social milieu that didn’t stigmatize bachata in the way the mainstream in their native country had. As they made economic progress and continued to patronize their music of choice, they provided an impetus for bachata’s rise to acceptance and popularity. First Blas Durán, and later Antony Santos, Luis Vargas and Raulín Rodríguez were the chief beneficiaries of the increased purchasing power of these “Dominican Yorks,” who bought CDs and flocked to concerts in American cities like New York, Miami and Providence, Rhode Island. As a result, the children of these Dominican immigrants grew up listening to bachata, creating a generation of American-born bachateros.
The new generation didn’t only grow up with bachata, however, but also with other types of music prevalent in large American cities (e.g., rap, R&B, and rock). In multicultural New York, they were also influenced by other cultural values and lifestyles. Growing up in the United States also afforded them opportunities beyond those available even to bachateros like Santos and Vargas. New guitars, computers and recording equipment were luxuries that earlier generations didn’t have access to. It was little wonder that they found themselves frustrated by the limits which they felt bachata’s position in the Dominican community imposed on them.
The members of Aventura are typical of this generation, combining the influence of traditional bachata with the artistic and cultural diversity of life in New York. The group’s lead singer and songwriter, named (ironically) Anthony Santos, was born in the Bronx to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother. His cousin, who also sings and writes songs for the band, Henry Santos Jeter, is the only member of Aventura who was born in the Dominican Republic; he moved to New York at the age of 14. Lenny Santos, the group’s lead guitarist and arranger, and his brother Mikey, who plays bass, were both Bronx natives of Dominican origin. All of them grew up listening to the most popular bachateros of the era—singers like Blas Durán, Raulín Rodríguez, Teodoro Reyes, and Joe Veras—but the biggest influence on the group was Antony Santos. The first member of Aventura to try his hand at music was Lenny Santos, who produced and arranged the first two albums for bachatero Elvis Martínez, who would later be known as “El Camarón.” At the same time, Santos started his own band with his brother Mikey. When they needed a singer, a friend told them about a kid from the neighborhood who sang, and Anthony joined the group, followed by his cousin Henry.
At the time, the bachata scene in New York was mostly made up of groups that had come to the US with musicians’ visas from the Dominican Republic and later stayed on. Bars were prohibited from hosting live music without a nearly impossible to obtain cabaret license, and so bachata groups generally played in restaurants—at least, restaurants in name. While these establishments served food during the day, they transformed at night into small night clubs similar to the places in the Dominican Republic where bachata had always been performed. The patrons were not very different in culture or attitude from the typical bachata audience of the Dominican Republic, and the groups generally played covers of popular songs rather than original material. This first generation of New York based bachata musicians aspired more to making a subsistence living than to any hope of greater fame and success.
Such an environment was hardly comparable to that of the members of Aventura when they began as “Los Teenagers.” Rather than operate in the world of other bachata groups of the day, Aventura began their career playing for a specialized fan base of their friends and other local young people. This public was made up of the children of immigrants who, like the members of the group, had grown up in the US, spoke English as much or more than Spanish and shared a broader Latino-American culture rather than a strictly Dominican one. The group’s local success caught the attention of producer Julio Cesar of Premium Latin and he signed them to a long-term record deal and changed their name to Aventura. The debut CD they recorded with Julio Cesar in 1999, “Generation Next,” was their first clear artistic statement.
“Generation Next,” while in no way constituting the kind of stylistic break with traditional bachata that the group’s subsequent work would, shows signs of the band’s disquiet with the genre’s conventional limits. The numbers performed by Henry Santos might be confused with those of any young singer trying to make a name for himself in the style of Antony Santos and Joe Veras. His cousin Anthony, however, had already begun to experiment in his singing, finding a sort of middle ground between bachata and R&B which while reviled by traditional bachateros was celebrated by his young fans. The best known song from ”Generation Next”, “Cuando volverás”, is sung by Anthony in this style. Lenny Santos also experimented with guitar effects like a wah-wah pedal, and his brother Mikey filled the bass lines with slaps and other funk effects. On the whole, though, the album sounds much like the main current of bachata popular at the time of its release.
“Generation Next” was moderately successful, but the group remained unknown to the vast majority of bachata listeners. They began to consolidate their nascent following playing in festivals and night clubs in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, making as much of an impression through their youth and their dress as through their music. Indeed, members of the band openly criticized traditional bachateros for the way they dressed and presented themselves, a criticism one might expect of young urbanites toward their provincial colleagues. Well before it could be justified in any way by the group’s commercial success, Aventura appeared on stage in extravagant and expensive outfits more evocative of pop icons like Enrique Iglesias or Chayanne than bachateros like Antony Santos. The investment in image paid off as the group built up a dedicated audience of mostly young Latina admirers. Expectations were high when Aventura began recording their second CD in 2001, yet to their outrage four tracks were pirated from the studio and appeared on the internet before the album was complete. This turned out, however, to be the band’s big break. The songs were passed at such a fast rate among Aventura’s internet generation fan base that one of them, “Obsesión,” quickly became the biggest hit in New York. Soon afterward, even “La Mega,” New York’s largest Latin radio station, was forced to begin playing the song despite the station’s traditional links to large record labels that had made it almost inaccessible to musical newcomers. “Obsesión” went on to become possibly the best known bachata ever recorded, eventually appearing on pop music charts across Latin America and Europe.
“Obsesión” represents a definitive break from the more traditional bachata Aventura displayed in “Generation Next.” To begin with, the structure of “Obsesión” departs radically from the formulaic Intro-Verse-Chorus-Interlude-Verse-Chorus that had come to define bachata. The song is composed almost entirely of a rambling soliloquy sung by Anthony about a girl who spurns his advances. Secondly, the group included a female voice in the chorus singing in an unequivocally R&B style. Between the story, with its teenage setting in New York, and the chorus, the song seemed almost crafted to be a success among the group’s young urban fan base.
So different was the song from the bachata that had come before that the group has claimed to have “revolutionized” the genre; many members of bachata’s traditional constituency, on the other hand, have denied that Aventura’s music is even bachata at all. In spite of its unconventional format, “Obsesión” is firmly grounded in the bachata tradition in several structural elements. First, it begins with a spoken introduction, which sets up the dramatic development of the song—a device used by bachateros from the times of Marino Pérez and Augusto Santos, and made eternally famous by Blas Durán in his groundbreaking “Mujeres hembras”. The thematic material in “Obsesión” is patently bachata—a man gone out of his mind for his love of a woman—even though the context is new. And finally, although the structural formula of the song differs from the norm, it is still played over a fast bolero beat, with two guitars and a bass accompanying the bongo and the güira.
By the time the group finally released the anxiously awaited production “We Broke the Rules” (2002) almost a year after “Obsesión” had first made its way over the internet, the distance between their music and that of other bachateros had become much more pronounced. Synthesized violins and sampled R&B rhythms made their appearances on some of the tracks, and the guitar lines included phrases and effects extremely alien to the genre. The CD broke sales records for a bachata album, and its placement on pop music charts in the United States and Europe took the group into territory where no other bachatero had ever trod with the exception of the duo Monchy y Alexandra. “We Broke the Rules” received considerable airplay, and the songs on it became hymns for the younger generation of Latinos in New York and other US cities. Songs like “Amor de madre” (“A Mother’s Love”), the story of a young mother choosing a career in prostitution for the sake of her child, were well within the thematic framework of the bachata tradition, but bachata’s core audience continued to hold the group at arm’s length, complaining that the songs were difficult to dance to and that Anthony’s voice drove them to distraction.
The year 2002 marked a watershed in bachata’s rising popularity. Productions by traditional bachateros like Joe Veras, Frank Reyes and Raulín Rodríguez sold in significant numbers, and the music seemed to have entrenched itself in the younger generation. A year later, however, one of New York’s two major Spanish-speaking radio stations changed its format and began playing mostly reggaetón. At the time, reggaetón promoters launched a determined campaign for the hearts and minds of young listeners, significantly changing the perception of bachata among young, non-Dominican Latinos, (young Dominicans continued to embrace bachata as their own music, even while listening to reggaetón). Reggaetón had a natural attraction for young Latinos: it dealt with the experiences of young people in urban settings, it belonged exclusively to the younger generation, as opposed to bachata and merengue which their parents also listened to, and while bachateros had to be able to sing or play the guitar, reggaetón, which relied on sampled beats, could be made by anybody with a computer and the ability to rhyme. Reggaetón artists like Don Omar capitalized on the popularity of the rival genre by adopting stylistic elements of bachata into songs like “Pobre diabla.” The word “bachata” was even at times divorced from the actual music to evoke a feeling or a state of being, as when reggaetón artists would ask each other on their recordings, “¿Quién más bachatero que nosotros?” (Who’s more of a bachatero than we are?), while their record labels worked feverishly to establish hegemony over the Latin market.
As a result, bachata, which had been the music of choice for young Latinos in New York, was began in that audience’s eyes to reassume the same status it had had before going mainstream—the music of an older, backward generation associated with the countryside of the Dominican Republic. Aventura, with their own roots in R&B and rock, have so far been the only bachateros to escape this new stigma. Indeed, their continuing innovations on albums like “Love and Hate” (2003) and “God’s Project” (2005) have taken them farther and farther from mainstream bachata and ever closer to international pop. Anthony went so far as to record a reggaetón song with Don Omar, and award shows like Univisión’s “Premios lo nuestro”- marked by the predominance of reggaetón - have been generous to Aventura.
Aventura’s relationship with bachata’s original listeners and performers has been complex; even as Aventura’s stardom rises on the international market, the group has remained almost a footnote among bachata’s traditional listeners and artists. With the exception of “Obsesión,” the plethora of local cover bands in New York have made almost no attempt to learn and perform the group’s songs. Additionally, the members of the group have had acrimonious on-stage conflicts with such traditional icons as Luis Vargas and Frank Reyes. While bachata’s other “breakthrough” group, Monchy y Alexandra, is in good standing with bachata musicians, Aventura, despite having recorded songs with stalwarts like Antony Santos and Leonardo Paniagua, seem to belong to another world. This can be due in part to the band’s fashion statement; from the beginning, they have cultivated a cosmopolitan image, intentionally distancing themselves from the rural, humble, and nationalistic image of the traditional music. While their own young audience has identified strongly with this, many longtime bachata listeners criticize the band’s style as extravagant, denying furthermore that its music is really bachata. Another factor isolating the group has been the failure of any other group emulating Aventura’s sound to achieve and maintain commercial success. As such, Aventura has not become, as they originally imagined themselves, the precursors of a new style of bachata; rather, they have thus far been an idiosyncratic, if enormously successful, exception to the “Rules” that they claim to have broken.