A review of a previously completed essay on Bachata music highlights an idea that requires a deeper analysis. Scholarly sources providing insights on the origins of Bachata music seemed to suggest that the popularity of Bachata music was hindered due to the vulgar words in the lyrics and the sensual nature of its rhythm and melody. They supported this idea by stating that due to the crude words and the less refined sound, the elites of the Dominican Republic banned this type of music forcing it to remain in the lower levels of the country’s socio-economic strata. However, one can argue that it is more truthful to present the opposite, to say, that it is the vulgar words and the highly sensual music style that made Bachata music popular in Latin America and the rest of the world.
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Scholarly Arguments About Bachata Music
Four arguments can support the claim made earlier regarding the real reason for Bachata music’s popularity in Latin America and the rest of the world. First, the elites in any society do not have total control of everything that occurs within their area of influence. Second, the concept of popularity is linked to the masses or the people and not to the rich and powerful. Third, vulgar words or sexually suggestive musical themes may not find favor with the elites, but these terms and concepts are easily accessible to people from all walks of life. Finally, the slow emergence of bachata to become one of the most popular Latin sounds in the world has nothing to do with its crude history, but as the byproduct of a natural evolutionary process common to all forms of music. However, before going any further, it is important to review scholarly arguments concerning the failure of bachata music to gain popularity due to the use of the so-called ghetto language and unrefined music.
Multiple sources, several authors, and experts of Latin music had one thing in common when they reviewed the music of the “bachateros”, it was not the preferred sound of the Dominican Republics’ high society. In the article entitled “Insolent Origins and Contemporary Dilemmas: The Bachata” the author automatically assumed that the songs are insolent so that the musical pieces are interpreted as having little value (Reagan 373).
The same idea was suggested in David Akombo’s book The Unity of Music and Dance in World Cultures. Without going through the tedious process of reviewing the musical elements of the songs under this musical category, the authors immediately issued a verdict. It is interesting to find out if folk songs of European origin received the same type of treatment. It is difficult to accept the idea that the simple musical outputs of rural songs of pre-industrial Europe do not suffer from the same type of flaws, the inevitable imperfections of a slowly evolving music genre. The perceived bias pushed forward by the aforementioned academic sources is not the first instance of cultural gatekeepers dishing out scathing remarks about musical outputs that are not by their particular set of standards.
One must recall the indignities suffered by African American musicians when they started to develop their type of music. It does not require an expert to see the difference between classical music and jazz music. Classical music, the type of artistic output purveyed by the likes of Beethoven and Mozart has always been associated with classical learning or the education required by people of certain social statuses. This type of music subscribes to certain rules and expectations, a world of difference when compared to innovative music produced by those who did not have access to sophisticated types of learning environments, such as those reserved only for the highborn. Therefore, one of the distinct characteristics of musical outputs associated with the so-called ghetto music is the absence of structure and rules.
Some of the more popular forms of African American music suffer from incessant quibbling, not only concerning form and function but also as the result of the perceived social value of the musical pieces. However, the criticism against black culture reached unprecedented levels when African American artists created rap and hip-hop music (Akombo 46). Just like the music of the “bachateros”, rap and hip-hop attracted significant amounts of disparaging comments due to the use of profane language and the overt sexuality of the musical outputs. From this point of view, it is not difficult to make the connection between the type of lyrics incorporated into the music and how it is being assessed by music lovers. It is therefore easier to expand the discussion, and point to the simple, and uncultivated poetry behind the songs as the rational explanation for the non-acceptance of the nation’s cultural gatekeepers.
Other scholars who critiqued the genre’s long history of unimportance among the members of the nation’s higher social classes pointed to the technical aspect of the music that came out from the rural areas. In the book that examined the social history of the music’s emergence and development, the author highlighted the fact that the music of the “bachateros” came out from a community that did not have the same level of technical proficiency as other Latin American countries (Hernandez 58). Although a genre’s universal acceptance indeed requires the completion of a substantial refinement process, it does not mean that this problem is unique to bachata music. In other words, this is the typical path followed by other music genres when these musical variants started in obscurity in different parts of the world.
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There is a need for greater scrutiny before people in authority make conclusions and affect the overall perception of a musical genre. One can make the argument that the decision to downplay the importance of bachata music in terms of the role it played in enhancing the value of Latin music is rooted in the prejudicial worldview of the critics when analyzing this type of artistic expression. One can also extend the argument to say that for some critics, it is difficult to dissociate a product from its place of origin. Consider for instance how human nature reacts after being conditioned to behave a certain way. This phenomenon is easily detected in the economic realm when consumers make decisions on whether a commodity is a good purchase or not.
In a typical decision-making process, the consumer considers the price and the overall appearance of the product that he or she is about to acquire. However, along with the visual cues and the economic ramifications of spending a certain amount to buy a product, the brand or the manufacturer behind the said commodity affects the final decision. Not too long ago, products from Japan were perceived as low-quality items. The same thing can be said when Chinese-made products flooded the global market. As a result, consumers were hesitant to buy commodities coming from manufacturers that they believed are inferior compared to companies that are located in Europe or the United States. A certain level of understanding when it comes to how people behave can help evaluate the criticisms that were made against the variants of bachata music. It is important to verify the mindset of the people making disparaging remarks against the bachateros’ artistic outputs.
It is quite a surprise to find out how social elites tried to stifle the emergence of bachata music. The justification for the deliberate act of controlling the proliferation of the bachateros’ music stems from a technical and moral argument and has nothing to do with the artistic aspect of the creation process. Consider for instance the negative reaction to the lyrics that are found in hip-hop and rap music. There exists a legitimate justification for opposing this type of musical output. On the other hand, the lyrics that are found in the music were not made out of a vacuum and inserted haphazardly by musicians. It is possible that they did not think twice about the cultural and social impact of the said words. However, these are personal artistic expressions. These words found their way into the music sheets because these are the same words that people use regularly. More importantly, the choice of words and the selection of terminologies that form part of the song is a byproduct of the creative process. Critics may never respect the words that were used in a certain song, however, they must never disrespect the creative process.
Redefining The Meaning of Popular
Following the scholarly arguments, one is made to believe that to gain popularity, bachata music requires the intervention of the elites. However, after tracing the historical development of similar music genres, there seems to be an absence of irrefutable evidence suggesting that for bachata music to succeed it requires the blessing of cultural gatekeepers and established music connoisseurs. In the book entitled Music of Latin America and the Caribbean, the author described the impact of bachata music when it became relevant like other equally popular variants of Latin music (Brill 76). However, when describing the rise of the said music genre there was no mention of a need to seek the approval of cultural elites. Therefore, there is a need to dig deeper to find out how music genres reach a certain level of importance to be declared popular.
It does not require a linguist to figure out that the term popular is linked to the idea of people or groups of people sharing something in common. In other words, to be popular an object or an idea must garner the support or attract the affection and respect of the majority. In this line of reasoning, one can argue that bachata music became popular because it gained the support of the masses. Consider for instance the emergence of metal or hip-hop music. These two music genres never required the approval of high society. The proponents of these musical variants simply brought their music to the people. In Ilan Stavan’s book Latin Music: Musicians, Genres and Themes, he argued that this type of music became the favorite of the Dominican Republic’s blue-collar workers and the illiterate masses because it communicated messages about love and heartaches (77). One can find the root cause of the music’s eventual prominence in this statement. The music’s sound and lyrics are more accessible compared to the more formal music genres.
The insights made earlier regarding how cultural gatekeepers tend to belittle the artistic outputs of lesser-known composers trigger the need to re-examine the intellectual biases that were in play when they made negative pronouncements against the purveyors of bachata music. One interesting development of this discussion is the realization that those who were able to publish commentaries regarding the Dominican Republic’s music history are the same class of people that did not support the emergence of the bachateros’ musical creations. In other words, the intellectual criticisms of certain artistic forms are reserved for the highly educated. If there is a need to hear an alternative opinion or a counter-argument against the ideas presented earlier, it may not take place, because the supporters of the earliest form of bachata music cannot publish or air their thoughts regarding the said subject matter.
It is not an exaggeration to say that academicians and those belonging to a certain socio-economic class enjoy a certain advantage when defending the ideas or concepts that they believe are important for enhancing the human race. They have the education and they have access to the appropriate forum wherein influential leaders and change agents gather to discuss conceptual frameworks that are going to transform how the general public interprets the world around them. On the other extreme, creative and inventive people may push forward a great idea, however, they cannot get past cultural sentinels intent on preserving the status quo. As a consequence, one can assert that although the Dominican Republic’s social elites were powerless against the rising tide of public opinion on the importance of bachata music, their support would have catapulted the artistic outputs of the bachateros into the mainstream sooner than expected.
The Evolution of Popular Sound In the Context of Bachata Music
One can argue that the slow emergence of bachata music into the international stage is not due to its humble beginnings or the presence of vulgar lyrics, but the predictable effects of the natural process. Akimbo’s assertion that in the beginning, this genre suffered from irrelevance, because the art form was limited to a sub-category of guitar ballads must not be interpreted as a sign of weakness (46). It has to be reinterpreted as the natural evolution of a musical form in the same way that music genres were invented in one place and has to go through a series of refinements along the way. In other words, the evolutionary process follows a predictable pattern, it starts simple, only to grow into something complex. One can observe this phenomenon beyond the world of music. For example, a modern and complex society started from a single tribe and evolved into a powerful nation.
Aside from the fact that bachata music is more accessible from the masses, its unexpected popularity in the United States and other parts of the world is also attributed to the outcome of a natural development process. In Gary Sowell’s book Afro Latin Rhythm Romance Dance he pointed out that the music went through a beautiful transformation process producing a dance tradition that is unique to the bachata art form (28). Therefore, this music genre was enhanced even further attracting more music lovers along the way. The continuous improvement also encouraged more people to the said music variant. There is a need to evaluate the statements made in the past regarding the idea that bachata music did not become relevant because of the actions of the cultural elites. One can argue that the evolution of bachata music follows the same pattern as other popular music genres in other parts of the world.
One of the best ways to strengthen the arguments made earlier is to conduct comparative studies of other music genres, especially the history and development of music outside the scope of Latin music. It is interesting to find evidence supporting the assertion that all types of music started from a less sophisticated variant and evolved into its present form after going through a prolonged but steady refinement process. Consider for instance the surprising outcome of researching the origins of Europe’s classical music after realizing its humble beginnings, the outputs of farmers and shepherds crafting their musical instruments and singing to crude and unsophisticated music to while away their time and for establishing social relationships. In other words, there is not much of a difference when compared to how the first batch of bachateros found inspiration to write songs, not from Europe’s pasture lands and hills, but from the romantic rural areas that defined the beautiful Dominican Republic.
The comparison may not only provide irrefutable proof that a significant portion of the negative commentaries made against bachata music were not outcomes of intellectual rigor and perceptive analysis but the result of intellectual biases and borne out of prejudicial thinking. It is not difficult to understand the propensity of academicians to make disparaging remarks against the music of the bachateros, because the poor and humble people living in the Dominican Republic’s rural areas do not have the technical capability and the cultural sophistication to create music that is acceptable to the said country’s cultural gatekeepers. Nevertheless, the critics must also realize an important aspect of music creation, that music in any format is an example of artistic expression. Since it is an expression, no one has the right to say that it is wrong to use certain types of words. No one can tell an artist what to paint and the techniques that the artist may use to create a work of art. The same thing can be said of bachata music.
Bachata music’s slow emergence as another example of a popular Latin music form was not the direct result of the cultural elites’ low opinion of the said art form. It was made clear that the preference and blessing of cultural gatekeepers and music experts are not the requirements needed for a particular music genre to become accepted worldwide. After reviewing the ideas presented by historians and researchers in the field of music, it was discovered that its popularity is attributed to how it was easily accessible to the general public. It was ultimately the ordinary people who were responsible for popularizing the music of the bachateros. In other words, the attributes that made music experts ridicule the genre as crude and unrefined were the same characteristics that endeared it into the hearts of the masses. Also, its current status is not due to the support of the members of high society, but the outcome of a natural development process. Bachata music went through a process of refinement and evolution that enhanced its value and relevance.
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.
Hernandez, Deborah Pacini. Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music. Temple University Press, 1995.
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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.