During the past 20 years, music from the Dominican Republic known as bachata has risen from the backcountry to take its place next to salsa in concert halls. Music critic Milo Miles reviews two new collections that trace bachata's humble beginnings and showcase its continuing appeal.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish language)

MILO MILES: A superb new collection of vintage bachata singles is titled "Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue," and indeed, the music itself was originally called amargue - bitterness - for its slow tempo laments about broken hearts and lonely nights.

First recorded at the start of the 1960s, early bachata functioned much like weepy country and western music in America, popular with Dominican truck drivers and in rural bars. But there was always a restless quality in the style, and soon it moved beyond its roots in Cuban son and bolero ballads to incorporate more dance rhythms.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish language)

MILES: The "Bachata Roja" anthology includes songs up to the '80s, but no matter the date, the selections maintain a potent simplicity and directness, reflecting the downtrodden or celebratory sound of plain lives. One advantage of this lack of clutter is that a few added elements - sweet harmony voices, extra percussion or a splash of horn - makes tracks jump out, as is the case with Ramon Cordero's "El pajarito."


RAMON CORDERO: (Singing in Spanish)

MILES: Since the '80s, bachata has blossomed in a manner not unlike salsa in the '70s. It is now a popular, established style throughout the Caribbean and in international capitals like New York. This has not been an entirely beneficial development for the music. Like country music when it went mainstream in the modern era, big-time bachata became facile and larded with glossy sounds. The hit group Aventura too often suggests the latest incarnation of a boy band with some exotic beats and Spanish lyrics.

In a return to the roots of the music, guitarist Joan Soriano has taken the next step and is establishing himself as a bachata neo-traditionalist. He plays amplified guitar and understands the sonic possibilities of the modern instrument. While his accompaniment is never looming and overblown, it's not folkie-stark, either.

Even so, until now, his virtuosity has made him sound rather slick, more studio-cat than his street-corner predecessors. With the new "La Familia Soriano," he comes halfway and ends up on the front porch with three singing siblings, brother Fernando and sisters Nelly and Griselda. The comfortable tone of "La Familia Soriano" and the rotating vocal features help Joan Soriano's skills on the six-string glisten without being flashy. He has an appealing style, at once declarative and quietly poetic.


MILES: But the unquestioned winner on the album is Joan's duet with Griselda, which delivers all the ease and warmth possible for people who grew up singing together. It turns out the tradition of playing in a musical family is good for the tradition of bachata itself.


JOAN SORIANO: (Singing in Spanish)

GRISELDA SORIANO: (Singing in Spanish)

J. SORIANO: (Singing in Spanish)

G. SORIANO: (Singing in Spanish)

MILES: Old or new, bachata is here to stay. My feeling is that the strength of the roots will outlast the big stars in the shiny suits.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. You can see a video of bachata dance moves on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr on nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.