Words by Sassy Ross
Chances are if you tune your radio to a Spanish-language station, you’ll hear the guitar-driven rhythms of Bachata. Slower than Salsa and more relaxed than Merengue, Bachata has risen in popularity over the last decade, taking over Latin music airwaves from Santo Domingo to New York City and beyond. The band, Aventura, popularized the music internationally, adding hip-hop and pop flavors to a sound that has its roots in the poor rural communities of the Dominican Republic. Today it’s gone mainstream. Artists like Enrico Iglesias and Marc Antonio Solis release songs in the genre that not so long ago, was so stigmatized; many were too ashamed to listen to it in public.
For much of its history, Bachata was associated with people from the lowest strata of Dominican society, that is to say, peasant farmers. “We used to sing Bachata in the farms,” explains Cheito Davoice, an emerging bachatero who grew up in Tenares, a small town in the Hermanas Mirabal province. “One person would start singing and everybody would join in, singing and making noises.” They sang spontaneously about their sorrows and suffering, their pain and social situation. They sang from their soul.
Soul is a word that comes up often when describing Bachata. Veteran and venerated singer, Luis Segura, describes Bachata as “music that comes from the soul,” a phrase repeated by the late Dominican musician and composer, Luis Dias, in the documentary, “Bachata: Musica del Pueblo.” He adds that soul is what makes Bachata authentic.
For a long time the music was too authentic for some, particularly middle and upper class Dominicans who viewed the sound as crude, the lyrics backward, and the musicians untrained. Censored on the radio and shunned by mainstream society, Bachata found its way into seedy bars and brothels. Cheito recalls that the music had a really bad reputation in the decades before he was born. By the time he was growing up in the late eighties, however, the music had begun to change – lyrically, rhythmically, and commercially – changes that can be linked to two Bachata pioneers.
Lovers of Bachata usually fall into one of two camps: those who think that Luis Vargas is the greatest and those who give the crown to Antony Santos. Both artists have played vital roles in defining Bachata’s modern sound. “They changed the words and the rhythm of the music,” says Davoice. “You could dance to it. That’s what changed the whole game of Bachata. They made it danceable.”
He goes on to explain that Luis Vargas increased the tempo while Antony Santos began to sing romantic bachatas as opposed to the bawdy lyrics that had for so long characterized the genre. Like Blas Duran before them, Vargas and Santos used electric guitars in their music. Additional innovations include the use of two sticks instead of hands to play the bongos and the use of a thumb pick to play lead guitar.
iASO, a digital center for learning about Latin music, notes that both Luis Vargas and Antony Santos come from a region of the DR known as la linea, the frontier, where the Dominican Republic borders Haiti. Part of the soul of Bachata, then, is its embodiment of the often-denied African and Haitian elements of Dominican culture.
Building on the works and rhythms of veteran frontier bachateros, Romeo Santos, the former lead singer of Aventura, has taken Bachata to a whole new level. Like Antony Santos, he writes love songs and sings about women in a positive way; and like Luis Vargas, he changed the rhythm of the music, this time to a more urban sound. Romeo also brought something unique: the heartthrob element. The combination of good looks, sexy voice, and urban sound gave him crossover appeal and garnered him legions of fans, bringing Bachata to the next generation of listeners.
While Romeo has sold millions of albums across the globe, it is his passion for the music that makes him a bachatero and earns him the respect of other artists who sing for the pure love of the music.
“Nowadays it’s all about how much you’re going to make,” says Cheito. “I see that as a bad thing going around in the whole music industry. If you don’t make money, you don’t do it. I’m trying to change that and remind people it’s not about how much you make. It’s about how much love you have for the music and how much passion you put into it. I want to do Bachata for Bachata.”
Cheito got his start as a backup singer in the Bachata band, Solution, led by Manny Vega. After the band split up, he kept singing. Being an independent artist comes with many challenges, among them building an audience, recording and moving music, and securing radio airplay, yet they are all challenges that Cheito accepts and embraces. He serves as his own promoter and manager, playing nightclubs and festivals up and down the east coast. He has also released an album, Going Up, and a music video for his song, “Llegaste A Mi.”
His dream is to become a popular singer and to receive the recognition of the music industry. In the meantime, he’s having fun doing all of the groundwork. “I want to enjoy it while I’m doing it, and have people enjoy it too. It takes time, but it feels good when you see people enjoying what you’re doing, what you’re singing, and what you’re bringing them.”
Today, Bachata resonates with people all over the world, cutting across cultural and socioeconomic lines. Perhaps one day the whole of Dominican society will come to embrace its marginalized peoples, particularly Haitians, as they have come to embrace Bachata, wherein lies the country’s soul.