Latin music is one of the most popular and influential music categories on the planet. Latin music’s upbeat tempo and sensual feel make it an irresistible music variant for experimentation and artistic expression. According to the Encyclopedia of Latin Popular Music, one of the most popular vocal and dance music genres came from the Dominican Republic known among music enthusiasts as the bachata (Torres 19). Just like the salsa and other well-known Latin music genres, bachata music is recognized outside Latin America. However, one can argue that there is a better way to appreciate bachata music and it is through a deeper understanding of its less glamorous history. To unleash a bachateros’ creativity, it is best not to suppress the music genre’s unsavory reputation, learn from its unglamorous beginnings to create better music and artistic expressions.
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Before going any further, it is important to understand the historical context of bachata music, especially its origin and early development. As mentioned earlier, this popular music genre originated from the Dominican Republic (Reagan 373). Bachata music is the byproduct of different musical influences that emanated from the Latin American world (Akombo 45). In the beginning, this art form was limited to a sub-category of guitar ballads (Akombo 46). With time, more instruments were added to create the bachata ensemble (Akombo 46). Thus, at the onset, this genre was only limited to acoustic music and romantic guitar music. However, as bongos, maracas, and claves were added to the ensemble it was possible to make merry at the sound of bachata music.
From the start, this particular music genre has been associated with the poor and downtrodden members of society (Reagan 373). Those who performed this kind of music either through the use of musical instruments or dancing are referred to as bachateros (Reagan 390). It has been said that the first documented instance of bachata music occurred in the 1960s (Gregory 25). Its emergence as a music genre became more prominent after the death Raphael Leonida Trujillo Molina, the country’s notorious dictator (Gregory 25). In the decade of the 60s and 70s, people from the poor countryside started to gather into social groups to express the pain and sorrow brought about by their hardscrabble existence (Gregory 25). In the said gatherings they perform music that forms the early variant of bachata music (Brill 76). It did not take long before the art form was associated with vulgar music, and it was deemed accessible only to blue-collar workers and the illiterate masses.
In the said gatherings music was a powerful source that bound people together. The lyrics given to the bachata songs echoed with words of melancholy and unrequited love. Bachata music was punctuated with elements of bolero and other Latin American music genres that are popular within the Dominican Republic (Hernandez 58). Aside from originating from the lower rungs of the country’s socio-economic classes, it can also be said that bachata music took root in a nation that did not have a long history of technical refinement when it comes to music composition (Hernandez 58). As a result, this music genre sounded crude and coarse for those who are used to sophisticated music outputs from cultural centers of Latin music like music Cuba and Mexico. Also, due to its popularity among blue-collar workers, illiterate masses, and rebels, these bachelors were stereotyped as unrefined and did not deserve any type of serious consideration from refined music connoisseurs (Stavans 77). As a consequence, local radio stations refused to play this type of music (Hernandez 58). Nevertheless, the diffusion within the grassroots level ensured the music’s enduring popularity.
Two decades after it first emerged as a viable music genre, the vanguards of the Dominican Republic’s culture and arts started to reconsider the value of bachata music. Luis Diaz was one of the first artists who popularized the said music form, and he utilized this genre to make folk songs, endearing his musical output to countless local fans (Hernandez 59). However, it was Juan Luis Guerra who became the most popular musician linked to bachata music (Hernandez 59). Guerra popularized the use of bachata songs to express revolutionary ideas.
It was pointed out earlier that Luis Diaz was a pioneer when it came to spreading the good news about bachata music. Nonetheless, his influence went beyond the borders of his homeland. Diaz also exported bachata music to foreign shores (Hernandez 59). When bachata music was adopted in other countries, this phenomenon did not only enhanced the popularity of the music genre, but it also started the process of musical refinement as was the normal route for imports that needed to penetrate the host country’s mainstream culture. It can be argued that this is the normal route for all artistic influences that became popular not only in America but also in other parts of the world.
Upon its inception, Bachata music was rejected by the Dominican Republic’s elites. At least three major reasons are explaining the negative treatment of this particular category of Latin music. First, bachata music was considered vulgar or ghetto music (Akombo 45). Lyrics were suggestive, and the music was linked to acts of debauchery (Sowell 28). Second, the said music genre was associated with the revolution and made popular by establishments of ill-repute like bars and brothels (Akombo 45). Third, the music style that was created did not only cater to musicians playing musical instruments, the said music genre also produced a dance form unique to the bachata tradition (Sowell 28). The said dance form was viewed offensive because of the suggestive dance movements.
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Once recordings of bachata music were made available to foreign markets, there was a stark difference in the way people from all walks of life immediately appreciated the impact of the said music genre. For example, in the United States, bachata music was embraced by educated and affluent Americans (Stavans 77). It is interesting to note that this type of music created a different effect in the hearts and minds of its original recipients. Bachata’s unglamorous past still lingers in certain social strata of the Dominican Republic. One can argue that it is not easy for some members of the upper-middle-class or the national elites to forget the unsavory history of the said music genre. For example in a music festival that was held on August 27, 2010, in Santo Domingo, a city in the Dominican Republic, bachateros were not invited to take part in the festivities (Reagan 390). According to the festival organizers, the voice of the ordinary people overwhelmed the initial prejudice against bachata music (Reagan 390). Nevertheless, some of the popular artists associated with the said music genre refused to perform in protest to the original plan to exclude bachata music.
Embracing its Unsavory Past to Unleash Greater Creativity
Refining an art form and making compromises to experience greater acceptance from media moguls and influential artists can have unintended consequences on the development and evolution of the said music genre. The refining process may cause the disappearance of certain elements that are unique to bachata music. For example, the earliest criticism against this musical form was the way it made people extremely happy, and the type of energy it created paved the way for the commission of immoral activities that were frowned upon by the upper classes (Akombo 45).
Thus, toning down or removing certain elements to conform to acceptable social standards can rob the next generation of musicians of the opportunity to study a music variant that is different from those celebrated in other parts of Latin America. There is not much difference when comparing a cannibalized object that has been stripped of its critical and valuable parts. In other words, the editing process that is necessary to modify bachata music may obliterate certain aspects of the music that can probably generate insights into how to enhance bachata music to reach the next level of sophistication.
Suppressing the unsavory and unglamorous history of the development of bachata music may also stifle creativity. Consider for instance the dance form that came out as a result of bachata music. In the original version, the male and female dance partners were engaged in a close and passionate embrace. To make it more acceptable, dance instructors made modifications so that there is a considerable distance separating the dance partners (Sowell 28). One can just imagine the unintended consequences when future generations of Latin American dancers seek to find inspiration from a folkloric dance form only to be introduced to highly modified dance steps that probably resemble the dance routines of other countries. One can use the analogy of studying an original recipe. It is easier to make modifications or find inspiration in studying traditional cooking techniques compared to modern versions that were byproducts of experimentations and the combinations of different influences from different parts of the world.
It is imperative not to forget the unglamorous and unsavory history of the evolution of the music celebrated by these bachelors. It is prudent to allow continuous access to the original music forms and dance forms that paved the way for the creation of the modern version of the said music genre. It is only through the examination of the so-called vulgar and profane that one can find the original elements. It is important to have access to this information because an undiluted source can arguably create more inspiration and unleash a greater level of creativity compared to studying the modified versions that have been made more palatable for a large group of people. In other words, the refinement process may have compromised the integrity of the original art form making it more difficult to determine the original music that emanated from the Dominican Republic. As a result, the cannibalized art form, heavily edited and heavily modified may no longer inspire others to bring bachata music to the next level of sophistication and worldwide acclaim.
Akombo, David. The Unity of Music and Dance in World Cultures. McFarland & Company, 2016.
Brill, Mark. Music of Latin America and the Caribbean. Routledge, 2016.
Gregory, Steven. The Devil Behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic. University of California Press, 2014.
Hernandez, Deborah Pacini. Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music. Temple University Press, 1995.
Reagan, Patricia. “Insolent Origins and Contemporary Dilemmas: The Bachata.” Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism, edited by Eunice Rojas and Lindsay Michie, ABC-CLIO, 2013, pp. 373-396.
Sowell, Gary. Afro Latin Rhythm Romance Dance. Author House, 2014.
Stavans, Ilan, editor. Latin Music: Musicians, Genres, and Themes. Greenwood, 2014.
Torres, George. editor. Encyclopedia of Latin American Popular Music. ABC-CLIO, 2013.