The Humble Roots Of Old-School Bachata Before it took over Latin dance halls worldwide, bachata arose from Dominican shantytowns as a kind of lower-class party music. Now, a recent CD and a series of concerts are bringing the genre's early acoustic tradition back into the spotlight.

The Humble Roots Of Old-School Bachata

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Tomorrow in New York City, four legends of Dominican bachata music will take the stage as part of the Chase Latino Cultural Festival.

(Soundbite of bachata music)

NORRIS: What you're hearing is a style of bachata from the late 1960s that's little known outside of the Dominican Republic. It was most often heard in bars, bordellos and at beach front parties. Its tales of heartbreak and strife provide a window into the lives of poor Dominicans. And because of its rough edges, the music was despised by many in upper-crust society.

Bachata music from that era is having a small revisal, thanks in part to a CD released last year called "Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era." Deborah Pacini Hernandez is a professor at Tufts University. She wrote the liner notes for "Bachata Roja" and she says one hallmark of the music is the instrumentation.

Professor DEBORAH PACINI HERNANDEZ (Anthropology, Tufts University): It was all guitar-based. That's one of the things that distinguishes it from other music. And it's a particular style of playing the guitar. It's sort of arpeggiated picking rather than strumming.

(Soundbite of bachata music)

Prof. HERNANDEZ: It's always got lyrics. And the earlier ones tended to be quite romantic, singing of love - you know, usually it's love lost, love desired.

NORRIS: Almost like the blues?

Prof. HERNANDEZ: It's been compared to the blues in the past. It absolutely has. I think in terms of, you know, structurally, the kind of folks who were making it, people on the margins of society, this was the blues in some way. It's a little more cheerful, though, than the blues. Even songs where they're singing about, you know, the treachery of a woman, some of them can still be -if you just listen to them, musically they still sound kind of sweet.

(Soundbite of bachata music)

NORRIS: The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, he absolutely despised this kind of music. Why did he have such strong feelings about it?

Prof. HERNANDEZ: Well, he wanted music to be - public - to be very high quality. So, in fact, musicians had to pass a test that was - they had to get, like, a license. And unschooled musicians, who were clearly country folk, they did not reflect the modern regime that Rafael Trujillo was trying to represent so they didn't have a chance.

(Soundbite of bachata music)

People with middle-class aspiration just ignored it, stayed away from it, and worse than that, gave it names, you know, called it names because it initially — the word bachata — meant just a backyard party. But in the 1970s, they started using it as an insult. You know, (Spanish spoken), you know, sort of just to say that's just - it's worthless. And of course, by now, it has become the term that everybody knows this music by. It's been accepted.

NORRIS: Do people still listen to it? Would I still - if I went to an area in this country where there's a large Dominican population, right here in Washington, D.C., would I still hear this kind of music?

Prof. HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. You would hear the more modern versions most likely here in the States because there's, you know, have been two, three generations after them, younger people who don't resemble these old ones as much. They dress with hip, urban clothing. They've changed the instrumentation a little.

Now, back in the Dominican Republic, you probably would find that more contemporary bachata, the well-produced bachata. But I'll bet that in the countryside, you still have the little, you know, trios, neighborhood trios, you know, playing their music on weekends in a little country store or a little bar. I think that's sort of more grassroots bachata. I'm pretty sure it's still going on.

NORRIS: That was Professor Deborah Pacini Hernandez. She's a professor of anthropology at Tufts University. Thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. HERNANDEZ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of bachata music)

NORRIS: You can listen to examples of early acoustic bachata at the Music section of our Web site at

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