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What is Bachata?
Bachata is a popular guitar music from the Dominican Republic. While bachata is based on the bolero rhythm, bachateros have traditionally included other kinds of music like son, merengue, vals and ranchera in their repertoires. The influence of all of these styles, and particularly that of merengue, can be felt in the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of bachata proper.
Guitar music has always been a part of the Dominican musical landscape, but the first bachata recognized as such was recorded in 1961 by José Manuel Calderón. The bachata of Calderón and his contemporaries was virtually identical to the bolero of other Latin American countries like Puerto Rico and Ecuador. In fact many of the songs which these bachateros recorded were covers of earlier boleros, and the music was viewed by society at large in the same way that bolero was viewed throughout Latin America — a romantic music popular with lovers and serenaders.
In time, however, bachata began to be associated with another world, that of prostitution, poverty and delincuency. The reasons for this are many and complex and involve the conflicts within Dominican society around poverty and wealth, tradition and modernity, as well as genuine bad faith on the part of other elements in the music industry. So strong was the stigma against bachata that only one national radio station would play it. While this situation was deplorable and difficult for the musicians involved, it also helped to consolidate the genre. Relegated to the brothel and the barrio, bachata began to tell the stories of that world, the experiences of the lover of a prostitute, the poor country boy who gets to the city and gets ripped off, the plight of the barrio dweller without light or water—all replete with slang and sexual double entendre. From about 1970 to about 1990, bachata was thoroughly unique among Latin American musical genres in its free expression of the underground life of a nation. This free expression naturally provoked even more fiercely the contempt of the Dominican mainstream. Ironically, it was the most despised of these cabaret bachateros, Blas Durán, the master of sexual double entendre, whose music marked the end of bachata’s isolation when he began to record with an electric guitar in 1987.
After Durán’s innovation bachata’s popularity began to soar, as Antony Santos and other bachateros used the new style to record more acceptable, romantic songs. The influence of merengue became marked in the rhythm and the guitar lines of the music, and in fact modern bachata was first made popular by the bachateros’ merengues rather than by their bachatas. Musicians who were popular among Dominican elites, notably Juan Luis Guerra, also experimented with the form, and were so successful that the music began to be accepted by all sectors of society.
The 1980s and 90s saw a wave of emigration from the Dominican Republic to the Unites States. The emigrants carried music with them, establishing bachata in the major cities of Eastern USA, especially in New York. Latin Americans of other diasporas shared the streets with the Dominican arrivees, and took interest in their music. By the late 1990s, bachata had became hugely popular across Latinos in the US North East, and these new fans in turn brought the music back to their countries of origin. Large record labels took interest, and invested in slick new bachata productions. Monchy y Alexandra scored bachata's biggest international success to date with their 1999 release "Hoja en Blanco", which owes some of its popularity to its combining of bachata with vallenato, a style already hugely popular across Latin America.
Meanwhile, young Dominican-Americans formed bachata bands that catered to the local audience, and began to incorporate local musical styles, like R&B, into their music. The most notable of these was Aventura, whose smashing success with "Obsesion" in 2002, catapulted bachata to the top of global pop charts, and in France and Italy even reached #1. A scant 15 years earlier, bachata had been a marginalized music, banned from most radio play in the Dominican Republic.
Bachata dance has spread hand in hand with the music, and has been an important factor in bachata's success. Bachata is a social dance, meaning that it is danced usually by couples rather than singly. Just as the music has transformed as it has traveled outside of the Dominican republic, so too has the dance, picking up elements of ballroom and modern dance. Bachata dance schools and dance clubs exist in virtually every large city in the world, and youtube videos of dancers are as popular as official music videos.
Bachata's star continues to climb, and today it is probably the most popular Latin American musical style. But while bachata's success has created opportunities for new New York based artists, few new artists have emerged in the Dominican Republic since the late 1990s. The era of digital sharing has transformed the Dominican music industry,making it increasingly difficult for aspiring young Dominicans to build careers in bachata. Responding to this problem, iASO Records established the Bachata Academy @ DREAM, an intensive bachata music training program, and the only one in the world. The Bachata Academy is based in Cabarete, on the North coast of the Dominican Republic, and is free for the barrio children who are enrolled.
-- David C. Wayne and Benjamin de Menil