Music for the soul. Always live!
Juan Luis Guerra
In recent years bachata has transcended the borders of its native land, the Dominican Republic, to become an increasingly international music. Not only has the style incorporated elements of rock, R&B, and Caribbean and African guitar music; it has also begun to reach a broad audience throughout Europe, Latin America, and even the Far East. Aggressive and innovative marketing has helped make audiences around the world familiar with groups like Aventura and Monchy y Alexandra. It is ironic, then, that in spite of the genre’s growing international popularity, the name that is most closely associated with bachata outside of the Dominican Republic, and particularly among North American and European “World Music” listeners, is that of Juan Luis Guerra. Guerra used the name “bachata” in the title of his most successful album, Bachata Rosa, and certainly bachata served as an inspiration for the slick boleros he recorded for that and subsequent productions; those songs, however, bear very little resemblance to any of the phases of bachata as it has defined itself since José Manuel Calderón first recorded in 1962. In fact, in the eyes of devotees of the genre, Juan Luis Guerra is not and has never been a “bachatero”. It is a tribute to Guerra’s reputation and to the impact of his work internationally that he is still given such an important place among the pioneers of the style. However, without overlooking the importance of Bachata rosa in the general musical history of the Dominican Republic, one can argue that bachata has been more important to Juan Luis Guerra than he, in the long term, has been to bachata.
Juan Luis Guerra - Frío frío
Inspired by The Beatles and educated at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Juan Luis Guerra came from a world which was extremely remote from that of the founders of bachata, people like Augusto Santos and Edilio Paredes, who came to the capital, Santo Domingo, from the countryside after teaching themselves how to play the music of Odilio Gonzales and Julio Jaramillo. The music Juan Luis Guerra made was correspondingly worlds away from theirs, and by all indications he shared the same prejudices against bachata as did other members of his social milieu.
Before his experiment with the genre in Bachata Rosa, Juan Luis Guerra had established himself as a conscientious musician who helped to revitalize merengue over the course of the 1980s. His work was not particularly successful in a commercial sense, and he had difficulty getting gigs for his group, 4:40, even after the release of the popular single “Ojala que llueva café”. His music was innovative, however, in its use of styles like soukous and High Life from Africa, as well as Afro-Dominican folk forms like palo, and Guerra’s prestige was great, particularly among the middle and upper classes. Nothing in his career up to that time, however, had presaged the enormous economic and artistic success of his foray into bachata-inspired bolero.
Juan Luis Guerra took his cue in part from Sonia Silvestre’s recording Quiero andar, made in conjunction with guitarist and songwriter Luis Dias. For the project, Dias wrote a number of songs which told the stories of characters who lived in the bars and the streets where bachata was the music of preference. Most of the songs were in bolero time, and while it was a conscious attempt to imitate bachata it sounded quite different from the bachata which was being recorded by people like Blas Durán and Luis Vargas during the same time period. Guerra, however, appears to have found his inspiration in the work of his friends and colleagues Silvestre and Dias, members of his own social milieu, rather than in that of the actual bachateros who were contemporary with him.
“Como abeja al panal” was Juan Luis Guerra’s first attempt at writing what he was to term bachata; and again it must be noted that his work in the genre bears a stronger resemblance to bolero or balada. The song began as part of a television commercial for the Barceló rum company, and was later included as part bolero, part salsa on the Bachata rosa album. The other “bachatas” on the album were “Estrellitas y duendes”, “Bachata rosa” and “Burbujas de amor”; they were without question the most popular songs on the production. Bachata rosa established Juan Luis Guerra as the Dominican Republic’s premier recording artist throughout Latin America and the world, and is incontestably one of the most significant recordings ever made by a Dominican musician.
The album’s impact on the musical style known as bachata, and even its integral connection to that style, are on the other hand much more questionable. To begin with, the songs are far removed, musically, both from the bachata which was being recorded at the time and from the bachata which has become popular since. Indeed, if a listener unfamiliar with bachata were to be introduced to the style through Juan Luis Guerra’s recordings, he or she would be hard pressed to recognize the work of more genuine bachateros as belonging to the same genre. One only has to listen to a recording of Guerra’s side by side with a sampling of bachata as it has developed over the years to cast serious doubt upon Juan Luis Guerra’s credentials as a bachatero.
When one analyzes Juan Luis Guerra’s “bachata” tracks, it would appear that either he intended to emphasize the connection of bachata to the other Latin American guitar styles which came before it, or that he did little research into the contemporary state of the music. For example, his songs use maracas, while in genuine bachata it had been years since groups had replaced the maracas with the more versatile güira. The guitar parts on the songs are generally recorded on a twelve string guitar, and the double strings, reminiscent of a tres, give Juan Luis Guerra’s arrangements much more of an air of bolero-son than of bachata. While his boleros were danced at the time of their release, at least in the Dominican Republic, they certainly didn’t lend themselves to dancing in the way that the contemporary work of Luis Vargas or Blas Durán did (“Esa mujer”, “La quiero un millón”). And finally, as opposed to Guerra’s merengues, whose lyrics were often very specific to the situation of the Dominican Republic, the lyrics of his bachatas were rather generically romantic and belonged in the family of international styles like balada rather than that of the bachatas of Marino Perez or other songwriters whose work told the stories of life in their barrios.
Because his style was so different from his contemporaries and from that of later, “modern”, bachata, it is even more difficult to pinpoint the influence, if any, that Juan Luis Guerra’s music had on the genre as a whole. Even at the very height of Bachata rosa’s popularity, bachateros did not attempt to record in the same style as Guerra. If bachata today is more polished and more romantic than it was in 1985, the change did not come about at the time of Guerra’s greatest influence. Contemporaries of Guerra like Raulin Rodriguez and Antony Santos made their name with romantic songs, but their musical style owes much more to the bachateros who came before them, and particularly to Blas Durán and Luis Segura, than to Juan Luis Guerra. The percussive guitar sound and upbeat, danceable rhythm of songs like “Voy pa’lla” and “Medicina de amor” have very little in common, stylistically or thematically, with the music Guerra was making around the same time.
Bachata’s turn, over the last ten years, toward carefully crafted romantic songs, has been in large part the result of the introduction of vallenato into the genre, most notably by the duo Monchy y Alexandra. This trend dates from the considerable success of Luis Vargas with the vallenato “Volvió el dolor” in 1997. Vallenato lyrics by groups like El Binomio de Oro are more international and universal than the bachatas of Santos and Rodriguez, which have a distinctly Dominican flavor. As the form has grown more popular internationally, bachateros have sought ways to appeal to audiences in places like Central America and Mexico, and the recording of vallenatos as bachatas has been a key part of that effort. Juan Luis Guerra’s lyrics, while certainly as universal as those of the most popular vallenato composers, do not seem to have had a direct influence on the stylistic changes which have taken place since “Volvió el dolor”.
This is not to say that Juan Luis Guerra’s success did not indirectly influence these changes. It is no accident that the sexual double entendre and lyrics about barrio life began to lose currency at the time of Guerra’s greatest popularity. While bachateros do not appear to have been interested in replicating Juan Luis Guerra’s musical style, they were interested in replicating his commercial success. In their attempts to do this, many producers of bachata encouraged their artists to record songs which would not offend middle class values; sexual double entendre, in particular, became anathema to the fast-growing “establishment” of record companies dealing in bachata. When Monchy y Alexandra began to record and promote their music for a pan-Latin American audience, through precisely such means as adapting vallenato lyrics to bachata, it is very likely that Guerra was one of their business models.
While Juan Luis Guerra is credited with opening up the mainstream media to bachata, this is also a highly debatable point. Certainly his own songs were well accepted by the mainstream, and the middle class began to openly appreciate ‘bachata’ listening to Guerra’s music. On the one hand, Juan Luis Guerra’s listeners were no more likely than before to become followers of Luis Vargas or Blas Durán, because his music was not particularly similar to theirs. It is questionable whether Guerra opened doors for traditional bachata, as bachateros continued to struggle for acceptance for a number of years after Bachata rosa. It is also certain that, while Juan Luis Guerra was tremendously successful throughout Latin America, his success did not translate into international recognition of the genre as a whole, or presage the development of an international market for bachata. The international market began to develop much later, with the advent of groups like Aventura and Monchy y Alexandra and the increased contact between bachata’s traditional audience and other Latin American immigrant groups in New York, Miami, and other U.S. and European cities.
The Dominican Republic’s bourgeois press traces bachata’s rise to Juan Luis Guerra and Bachata rosa. The genre had already been growing in popularity, however, since Julio Angel’s song “El pajón”(1982) initiated the era of sexual double entendre; and even more significantly after Blas Durán introduced the electric guitar to bachata in 1986. The changes which bachata underwent in the years subsequent to Durán’s innovation all contributed to its rising popularity. Juan Luis Guerra can be only marginally connected to some of these changes, and to others not at all. One change was the increasing popularity of guitar merengues, which had the advantage of making bachateros’ music danceable to an audience which wasn’t familiar with the traditional bachata dance step. This innovation can be credited to Durán first and foremost, and later to Luis Vargas and Antony Santos, who were influenced by Eladio Romero Santos. Durán also helped to improve the music’s production values by introducing multi-track recording (although admittedly some producers may have set their sights even higher after the success of the exquisitely produced Bachata Rosa). With success came resources to get bachata on the radio and on television, and to promote the music outside of the Dominican Republic. A nouveaux riche class of Dominicans who were able to make money in New York but who didn’t share the values of the Dominican middle class also provided a fertile ground for bachata’s growing popularity. Indeed, the traditional middle and upper classes, while accepting Juan Luis Guerra’s music with open arms, continued to reject bachata for many years after his success. On the other hand, bachata had never had a need for a middle class audience in the Dominican Republic. A number of important merengue producers and other key figures in the Dominican music industry readily admit that bachata outsold not only merengue but also balada and pop in the domestic Dominican market. Keeping in mind the steady rise of bachata’s sales and popularity throughout the 1980s, it is easy to argue that, with the introduction of the electric guitar and the modernization of the style, it was inevitable that bachata would become a mainstream music sooner rather than later.
Juan Luis Guerra’s legacy, then, would appear to be misplaced. Certainly he is the composer of some of the most memorable love songs Latin America has ever heard1 (see footnote). Certainly, also, he has acquired as much fame and prestige as any recording artist in the history of the Dominican Republic, and deservedly so. His name, though, falls more easily on the ears when mentioned in the company of singer-songwriters like Silvio Rodriguez of Cuba, or of classic Dominican merengue composers like Luis Alberti, than alongside bachateros like Blas Durán and Julio Angel, with whom he shares so little both socially and artistically. Juan Luis Guerra’s work, which revitalized Dominican merengue and popular song, has been forever linked to a style with which he had little to do simply because of a title, Bachata rosa. The time seems to have come, however, to gently divorce Guerra’s name from its association with bachata; not out of any lack of appreciation for this great Dominican popular musician, but rather in fairness to those who, like Antony Santos, Blas Durán, Luis Segura and Edilio Paredes, were genuinely responsible for bachata’s becoming what it is today.