During the month of March, Cornell Cinema has run a film series called “Music Docs!” with a title that speaks for itself. Santo Domingo Blues was one of the documentaries featured, and is about bachata, a form of blues from the Dominican Republic. Its transcending appeal has crossed borders as the music of choice for many immigrants from the Dominican Republic in this country as well as newfound listeners like me who are fond of its distinct sound from inspiring artists like Joan Soriano.
Lyrically, risqué double entendres complement the sweetest sound to leave a guitar string. Bachata very much began as a man’s music, with common references to the travails of dealing with unfaithful women, booze, and being hard pressed for good luck. In its crude frankness, bachata embodied everyday common life in the Dominican Republic, and its experimental nature was a drastic departure from the mainstream merengue.
The life work of a series of bachateros is highlighted, particularly those who have brought the once marginalized style of music to prominence in recent years, as well as the classical artists who began the musical underground movement. At the center of the narrative is Luis Vargas, the proclaimed “King of Bachata” by the people who grew up with and love the music he and his comrades play. A male-dominated art, the movie also features an interview with early female bachata player Andia Ventura, who still contains a fiery spirit that easily rivals the best of her male peers. The filmmakers follow Vargas back in time from his current stardom in D.R. and in Brooklyn alike, to his childhood home in order to retrace his rocky road to becoming a viable artist. “These days it’s good to be a bachatero,” he says, “but it was not always this way.”
Like the blues in America, bachata, was the music of the every man, but as author Deborah Pacini Hernandez explains in her book, Bachata: A Social History Of A Dominican Popular Music, bachata surprisingly did not find a welcome place in the greater populace of the country, unlike reggae in Jamaica and rap in the U.S. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that bachateros became more than a countryside mainstay, when popular radio station Guarachita began to play bachata and exposed its once assumed regionalized appeal to households across the land.
“When people immigrate, they bring what’s important to them; music is one of their prized possessions.” What was formerly considered “backyard patio music” and a diversion of the underclass has now become a very profitable and lucrative industry, finding a readily accessible market in the immigrant population of New York City and world music fans. Yet even with an expanded audience, bachata remains true to its core listeners and continues to speak to their experience.
Now bachata artists sing about immigrant life and feelings of homesickness, as well as becoming more inclusive for both men and women to enjoy, and a sound for a younger generation of Dominicans has developed in the form of the more current Aventura. Dominican immigrants have taken proud ownership of Bachata, and it has come to represent a unique cultural tradition that evokes pride in one’s Dominican identity. It’s the same way I feel when I hear kompa or other forms of music from my mother’s country. Without knowing the meaning of the words or any further connection, it still feels vaguely familiar. In the music, you find a place that feels like home.