¡Ay Mami! Bring on Bachata

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 01.09.12 in Spotlights

Anyone into Caribbean and/or Latin music is almost certainly familiar with merengue, the barreling accordion-based national sound of the Dominican Republic. But I’m guessing that few non-Dominicans are as acquainted with the ruggedly suave sounds of bachata, merengue’s once-shunned younger sibling.

Bachata took a while to grow on me, frankly. At best, early bachata sounded like diluted Cuban son or rinky-tink, overly melodramatic boleros. At worst, electrified tecno bachata and bachata-merengue — the sort of thing you can hear on countless collections like Bachata Hits 2011 — merely resembled overcooked, Westernized dance pop.

It took a pair of excellent 2011 compilations to set me straight.

After releasing the 2007 collection Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata From the Cabaret Era, a heavy handful of the style’s biggest stars of the ’60s and ’70s hit the road together and then returned to the studio. The results of those New York sessions, The Bachata Legends, is sort of a Bachata Vista Social Club, minus the kibitzing and marketing assistance of a Ry Cooder. Now in their 60s, singers Ramón Cordero, Augustos Santos, Leonardo Paniagua, El Chivo Sin Ley (Ramon Isidro Cabrera), and once-ubiquitous lead guitarist Edilio Paredes sound stronger and more seasoned than during their heyday.

Back then, a bachata group typically consisted of lead and rhythm guitars, bongos, a maracas-shaking or güira-scraping percussionist, and a singer (often one of the guitarists). Beginning in the 1920s, bachata signified a social gathering with a guitar band. Bachata the music style emerged during the ’60s as the ghetto version of the guitar-bongos-maracas configurations poor and newly urbanized Dominicans partied to back on the farm. As Deborah Pacini Hernandez recounts in Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music, bachata was marginalized and derided in the DR until the nineties. As Leonardo Paniagua put it, “What they are looking for with the word bachata is to…keep the guitar beneath the saxophone,” i.e., beneath the more glamorous glimmer of urban merengue.

Listening to The Bachata Legends, however, you may well wonder what the big whoop was all about. What in Ramón Cordero’s or El Chivo’s passionate vocals, or in Edilio Paredes’s sinuous single-note guitar lines, so threatened the bourgeoisie? The answer was racism and class prejudice. Bachata fans were for the most part poor, dark-skinned, and perceived as hickishly backward. Radio stations wouldn’t play bachata records and major record stores wouldn’t sell them.

Bachata lyrics were considered crude and confounding, with hidden meanings and national colloquialisms like the term of endearment “Ay mami!” I wish my Spanish was more comprehensive, so I could appreciate the finer points of songs like “Calzoncillo Largo” (Long Underwear), wherein Cordero compares women to sardines and oranges, and men to butchers.

There’s a bluesy quality to many bachata lyrics and vocals, along with some of the loss, bitterness, and nostalgia associated with Spanish flamenco’s duende or the concept of saudade that lies at the heart of Portuguese fado. In fact, by the ’80s even some bachata musicians began distinguishing fast-tempo songs from more romantic tunes, or canciones de amargue: songs of bitterness.

Which brings us to Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue, the other fine compilation that completed my bachata conversion experience. These tracks from the ’70s and ’80s, many by the aforementioned Bachata Legends, contain some of the weepiest crying-in-your-cerveza sounds this side of George Jones. Augusto Santos’s “Con El Amor No Se Juega” (Don’t Play With Love) evokes the throbbing pulse of pre-Revolutionary Cuban son, with both his vocals and lead guitar saturated in melancholy. Compare and contrast with Emilio Paredes’s emotionally fractured solo on the smaller requinto guitar in “Por Mi Madre Yo No Fui” (By My Mother It Wasn’t Me), an amargue take on the “Billie Jean” dilemma.

Bachata Roja isn’t all doom and gloom and deception. The popularity of “El Chivo Sin Ley” (The Outlaw Goat), a song full of barnyard metaphors for love and betrayal, gave Ramón Isidro Cabrera his nickname. Rumor had it that the song referred to a particular Dominican military officer, who took umbrage and somehow forced Cabrera to re-record the tune as the more benign “Bendita Nena” (Blessed Baby), on The Bachata Legends.

Bachata was by no means as backward — or as unsophisticated — as its critics claim. Like the best American country music, it combined deft songwriting with understated yet highly accomplished musicianship. After a brief burst of popularity after merengue star Juan Luis Guerra recorded Bachata Rosa in 1983, bachata once again disappeared from the mainstream, although it still has a healthy presence on the margins of Dominican dance-pop. Here’s hoping these and other collections spark the re-hearing old-school bachata warrants.