Bachata

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Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music

Deborah Pacini Hernandez (1995)

Temple University Press

Deborah Pacini Hernandez is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Director American Studies and Latino Studies Programs at Tufts University. She edited Rockin Las Americas: The Global Politics Of Rock In Latin/o America (2004), you can read about her here.

Originally intending to live in the Dominican Republic in order to write about merengue, Pacini Hernandez became more intrigued by guitar based bachata and its association with poor, rural Dominicans, a music openly held in the same low regard by many as the people who played and listened to it. In this 296 page book, which contains 40 photographs, the place of bachata in Dominican society is contrasted sharply by that of merengue and, later, salsa music. The exploration of the origins of and attitudes toward bachata are set against the backdrop of politics, economic migration and social change.

Why you might buy it:

Quite simply one of the best books available in English about Latin music, ranking alongside Glassers My Music is My Flag in terms of breadth, depth and quality of writing, and the only one available specifically about Bachata. The writing, based on many hours of interacting with musicians, is immensely readable and avoids treating the reader is if they were an ethnomusicology PhD student. As much a book about culture and national identity as it is about music I suspect that even those of you who might not be that keen on Bachata as a form of music will find yourselves wanting to play some, or at least be more tolerant of it, after reading this book.

Why you might leave it:

Perhaps Bachata and Merengue are not ‘your thing’. Even so, this draws upon and makes connections to other forms of Latin music, such as bolero, son and salsa, and if those are more your thing then there is still plenty to recommend here. Though updated before publication, bachata has gained a significantly stronger foothold in the international music scene over the past few years (in other words after this book was published) and many of the current ‘names’ are absent as a result.

Contents:

Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Defining Bachata
2. Music and Dictatorship
3. The Birth of Bachata
4. Power, Representation, and Identity
5. Love, Sex, and Gender
6. From the Margins to the Mainstream
7. Conclusions
Notes
Bibliography
Discography
Index
Photo Galleries

Selected extracts (from):

Introduction

I was also intrigued by the diversity of opinions on bachata’s origins: some people I asked said it had always been played in the Dominican Republic, others said it came from Puerto Rico, others said from Cuba, while still others said there was no such thing as bachata, it was just the traditional Cuban bolero played by untrained rural musicians. There was consensus only in the fact that the music was associated with a particular class of people, le gente baja, that is, low-class people, who were often stereotyped as maids and watchmen, undesirable occupations held by people from the lowest strata of Dominican society. It became clear to me that bachata was popular – at least in terms of the number of listeners – as far as the more well known and universally respected merengue; nevertheless, because its low social status prevented its dissemination through the usual channels of musical distribution, an informal music economy had been developed by its practitioners to meet public demand. The bachata economy, however, was not independent of the Dominican music industry, but rather, it occupied a marginal position within that it corresponded to the marginal position its constituency occupied in the Dominican social and economic hierarchy.

1. Defining Bachata

Among Dominicans there is considerable disagreement as to when exactly the term bachata came to refer to a particular type of music. In the absence of any systematic research into the subject, there is a tendency for people to rely on their own memories, which vary according to their age, class, and where they grew up. According to bachata musicians themselves (and I prefer to accept their opinion), it was in the 1970’s that the guitar-based music they recorded became to be identified by the term bachata, which by then had lost its more neutral connotation of an informal (if rowdy) backyard party and acquired an unmistakably negative cultural value implying rural backwardness and vulgarity. For example, on hearing one of these recordings, a middle or upper-class person might say something like “Quitate esa bachata!” (“Take that bachata off!”). By using the term in this way, a style of guitar music made by poor rural musicians came to be synonymous with low quality. The condemnation fell not only upon the music and its performers, but upon its listeners as well; the term bachatero, used for anyone who like the music as well as the musicians, was equally derogatory.

2. Music and Dictatorship

Recording
Like radio broadcasting, recording began early in the Dominican Republic, but its development was similarly paralyzed by the interference of the Trujillo family. A complete and autonomous recording industry, which included all stages from recording to pressing to distribution, did not emerge within the country until the late 1950’s, far later than in other Spanish Caribbean countries.

The first recordings of Dominican musicians were made in the late 1920’s by the U.S.-based Columbia and Victor Talking Machine companies, both of which sold phonographs in the Dominican Republic and were competing for the Dominican market. In 1927 Columbia recorded the Puerto Rican Trio Borinquen, whose lead singer was the Dominican Antonio Mesa, in its New York studios. In 1928 Victor made the first recordings of Dominican musicians within the Dominican Republic itself, at the government radio station HIX in Santo Domingo (the selections included a merengue, two boleros, two criollas, and a cancion, a song form similar to the criolla and the bolero). Because of the primitive recording facilities at HIX and destructive effects of tropical heat and humidity on the wax cylinders that were used for recording at the time, these recordings were of very poor quality, so Victor abandoned the idea of recording in the country; henceforth Victor recorded Dominican artists only in their New York studios (Inchaustegui 1987).

3. The Birth of Bachata

The person most frequently associated with the emergence of bachata is Radhames Aracena, who successfully took advantage of political, economic, and social chaos characterizing the post-Trujillo transition period to become the country’s leading promoter of Dominican guitar music. Nevertheless, his influence on the genre didn’t begin until after 1965, when he started his own radio station, Radio Guarachita. Until that time, Aracena’s programs on various Santo Domingo radio stations had been based on the foreign guitar music he distributed, and he initially refused to record or promote the local versions of guitar music because of what he considered their poor quality. The first person to regularly play the Dominican guitar-based records on the air was Jose tabar Asilis, a Santo Domingo disc jockey on La Voz del Tropico, whose radio name was “Charlie Charlie”. Unlike Aracena, Charlie Charlie was willing to give rural guitar musicians like Calderon a chance by playing their records on his show. Charlie Charlie told me he initially agreed to play the records because he felt sympathy for the young musicians; Aracena, on the other hand, claims that Charlie Charlie played the songs because the musicians paid him small sums of money to play them. Nevertheless, Aracena acknowledged that Charlie Charlie was the first to play on the air music that would later be known as bachata: “Eso es el origen de la bachata aqui” (That’s the origin of the bachata here) (Radhames Aracena, interview).

4. Power, Representation, and Identity

Furthermore, issues of race never entered discussions about bachata, in spite of the fact that the people who made and listened to bachata were not only the poorest Dominicans, but generally the darkest ones as well: public discourse about bachata, its musicians, or its audience revolved around indicators of class, not race. For example, the music was called crude, the musicians uneducated, its fans country bumpkins, but possible African musical influences were simply not an issue. Most likely this was because bacahta’s origins in romantic guitar music traditions seemed to point so clearly to Spanish rather than African antecedents, and because of the subordination of its percussion to melody and lyrics: the bongos and maracas or guiro marking the basic four-four time never displayed the sort of rhythmic complexity and virtuosity most people associated with African music. It was not until the 1990s – after bachata was accepted as an authentic voice of the Dominican masses – that bachata was recognized as displaying African influences in its rhythmic groove and vocal style.

5. Love, Sex, and Gender

With few exceptions, work and family were seldom mentioned in bachata. Furthermore, there was little sense of place in bachata songs – rarely was a specific place name mentioned or invoked, in marked contrast to other Caribbean musical genres, particularly those associated with performers and listeners of rural origins, in which place names are constantly invoked for affective purposes. The people and events in bachata songs did not seem to have an identifiable location – except the bar, which, I suggest, was a metaphor for the urban shantytown itself. Neither was there a sense of movement, of going anywhere: there was no imagery of journey or travel, unlike other musics, such as Brazilian popular or U.S. country music, in which the road and trucks figure prominently. People were not being pulled or pushed anywhere – neither away from nor toward home or work. Life, as expressed in bachata songs, was spatially and socially rootless, fragmentary and lacking coherency – and in that sense, these songs were thoroughly modern.

6. From the Margins to the Mainstream

The informality of the bachata business made it difficult to assess bachata’s performance in the marketplace with any precision. Record vendors, for example, saw no reason to keep careful records since they bought their stock in very small quantities and turned it over quickly. I did meet one owner of a somewhat larger stall in Santo Domingo who kept a list of what he sold in a school notebook, but he reported that when the notebook filled up, he threw it out and began a new one. Producers were more likely to know or approximate how many of their records wee actually sold because they could keep track of the number of disks pressed; the smaller producers, however, did not keep such records. The pressing companies, which were formal businesses with more thorough accounting procedures, might know how many copies of a particular bachata record had been produced in their facilities; but because it was not unusual for bachata producers to take stampers to different companies for successive pressings, their figures might not reflect total sales. Complicating any efforts to arrive at exact sales figures, several stampers of the same record might be owned by different individuals, each of whom would order his own pressings. (This was the case, for example, with Luis Segura’s major hit song “Pena,” of which nobody knows for sure how many copies have been sold.)

7. Conclusions

Until 1990, bachata was undeniably the black sheep of the country’s music business. The kind of radio station that played bachata (only provincial or minor AM urban stations), the time of day bachata was aired (generally at dawn), the kind of venues open to live bachata performances (low-class bars), the kind of places bachata records could be purchased (street stalls in working-class shopping districts), the kind of places recorded bachata could be heard in public (colmados, barras), the amount of money that could be made commercializing bachata (a fraction of what merengue musicians made) – all these prevented bachata from competing in the mainstream musical marketplace and from being heard beyond the confines if the spaces inhabited by the country’s underclass.

(…snip…)

Since 1990 bachata has undergone a series of significant changes. Some innovations, such as the addition of electric guitars, were introduced by bachateros themselves. Others were developed by middle and upper-class musicians who have imprinted their class aesthetics on what was formally an underclass music. With the intrusion of these musicians and their middle-class audiences into bachata’s formerly single-class bounded domain, bachata can no longer be defined, as it had been in the 1980’s and before, by the low social status of its practitioners and patrons.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

City University of New York by Peter Manuel
“This is a profound contribution to the understanding of contemporary Latin American and Caribbean culture. Pacini uses her study of a dynamic and increasingly popular form of Dominican music to draw a remarkable portrait of a society in transition. Combining the best in modern cultural theory with an intimate familiarity with grassroots culture, Pacini’s book provides unique and richly nuanced perspectives on the vicissitudes of modernization and urbanization.”

Amazon.com by Musikid (2001)
Deborah Pacini Hernandez offers an excellently researched, intelligently written, and amazingly detailed history of the Dominican Republic’s Bachata music. Be forewarned … this is not an easy book to read; this is not a glib magazine article with a superficial history of Bachata. On the contrary, Ms. Hernandez analyzes the growth of Bachata from a socio-economic / political and cultural point of view and her discussions and overall presentation often read like a doctoral dissertation.


Despite the book’s academic tone, it is a wonderfully rich, engrossing study of Bachata and I highly recommend it. The book covers the birth of Bachata (circa the early 1960’s) and traces its growth up until the early 1990’s. I would like Ms. Hernandez to write another book that covers the explosive growth and popularity of Bachata from the mid 1990’s up to the present. Ms. Hernandez is to be commended on her extraordinary research and intelligent presentation. I rate this book: A+.

State University of New York by Charles Keil
“Deep in the shadow of the glamorous merengue, the Dominican Republic has nurtured a music called bachata whose history parallels the blues’. With consummate skill, Deborah Pacini Hernandez sorts out the many forces that have shaped this style from the bottom up. This book is an explanatory wonder that integrates music, politics, geography, history, media, global and local culture.”

Amazon.com by A Customer (2004)
I’m glad to have gotten this book, but the cover photo of Raulin Rodriguez is somewhat misleading. I’m a huge fan of Raulin and I was hoping to read more about his impact on the popularity of the Bachata in the DR. There is still a lot of stigma attached to the Bachata as music suited for bothels and shantytowns and the emergence of Raulin and Antony Santos has done much to make this form of music legit in the public view. The bachata of today is very different than the political songs described in the book. It also seems to me that most of the research took place in the Santo Domingo area rather than on the north coast where the Bachata is far more popular. Just as you wouldn’t research country music in NYC, it seems odd to research the Bachata in the DR’s largest city. A full follow-up book on the Bachata of today would be great that includes the Americanization of the form by such groups as Aventura and the current complexity of the music’s guitar form.

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One response

1 05 2010
toby

nice piece
keep writing about bachata
if you want a live bachata band in the UK contact me.
thanx guys toby

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