In a recent conversation with the Washington, D.C.-based Latin radio personality Pedro Biaggi, I asked him about the massive growth of the bachata genre. He said it was barely present in his station's format a few decades ago, but that today, it's roughly 70 percent of what he plays.
Bachata is that sweet, syncopated, lovesick music full of guitar plucks, bongos and güiras that you hear blasting from cars and Latin clubs today. But as recently as the late 1980s, it was frowned upon in its native Dominican Republic for being rustic and vulgar. But it grew anyway, and was championed by Dominican artists like Anthony Santos (one of the first bachateros to go mainstream) and Juan Luis Guerra.
By the early 2000s, a shiny, perfectly produced Dominican-American group with boy-next-door good looks (if you happen to have very good-looking Caribbean neighbors) named Aventura got its big break with a sound that fused bachata, hip-hop and R&B. Fronted by the charismatic Romeo Santos, the group's members were romantic but also bad boys, as heartbroken as they were heartbreakers, and the public lapped it up.
Bachata has come a long way, and a lot of it sounds different than it did in the dark days when it was banned from high-society Dominican venues. As someone who became musically conscious when the genre was already exploding, I found that hard to believe, because it's simply beautiful music, lyrically and sonically. I also love bachata because its mix of repression and ultimate success feels like a symbol of Latin-American identity struggles.
Joan Soriano is a reminder of that. "El Duque De La Bachata" ("The Duke Of Bachata") is an example of the earthy, unpretentious, undiluted bachata that was forced into a corner so long ago in favor of more "sophisticated" sounds. Whether he's talking about having his heart broken or about falling out of love, Soriano sounds honest and to the point, and so do his guitar licks. The seventh of 15 kids and an exceptionally talented musician whose music moved him from the countryside to Santo Domingo at 13, Soriano is an essential piece of bachata's story.
Today, we consume pretty-boy bachata: It's polished, calculated and, by mainstream standards, photogenic. But when you hear Soriano's raw interpretation of bachata, you can't help but wonder how such a beautiful sound was kept quiet for so long, and marvel at its resilience.
La Familia Soriano is Joan Soriano's upcoming album, which in addition to new material, will feature the song "Cuánto Lloré."
- "Me Decidí A Dejarte"
- "Aunque Sea A Escondidas"
- "Cuanto Lloré"
Producers: Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras; Editor and Videographer: Michael Katzif; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; photo by Cristina Fletes/NPR