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Bachata History by Deborah Pacini Hernandez




Defining Bachata:

Musical and Social Antecedents

by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

Deborah Pacini Hernandez | Associate Professor

Ph.D. Cornell University, Anthropology
Comparative Latino studies, racial and ethnic identity, popular music, globalization, transnationalism, Latino community studies

Bachata History by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

The music that today is called bachata emerged from and belongs to a long-standing Pan-Latin American tradition of guitar music, which was typically played by trios or quartets comprised of one or two guitars, with percussion provided by maracas and/or other instruments such as claves (hardwood sticks used for percussion), bongo drums, or a gourd güiro scraper. Sometimes a large thumb bass called marimba or marimbula was included as well. When bachata emerged in the early 1960s, it was part of an important subcategory of romantic guitar music (distinguished from guitar music intended primarily for dancing such as the Cuban son or guaracha). As musicians began speeding up the rhythm and dancers developed a new dance step, bachata began to be considered dance music as well.

The most popular and widespread genre of romantic guitar music in this century, and the most influential for the development of bachata, was the Cuban bolero (not to be confused with the unrelated Spanish bolero). Bachata musicians, however, also drew upon other genres of musica de guitarra that accomplished guitarists would be familiar with, including Mexican rancheras and corridos, Cuban son, guaracha, and guajira, Puerto Rican plena and jíbaro music, and the Colombian-Ecuadorian vals campesino and pasillo-as well as the Dominican merengue, which was originally guitar-based.

Before the development of a Dominican recording industry and the spread of the mass media, guitar-based trios and quartets were almost indispensable for a variety of informal recreational events such as Sunday afternoon parties known as pasadías and spontaneous gatherings that took place in back yards, living rooms, or in the street that were known as bachatas. Dictionaries of Latin American Spanish define the term bachata as juerga, jolgorio, or parranda, all of which denote fun, merriment, a good time, or a spree; but in the Dominican Republic, in addition to the emotional quality of fun and enjoyment suggested by the dictionary definition, it referred specifically to get-togethers that included music, drink, and food. The musicians who played at bachatas were usually local, friends and neighbors of the host, although sometimes reputed musicians from farther away might be brought in for a special occasion. Musicians were normally recompensed only with food and drink, but a little money might be given as well. Parties were usually held on Saturday night and would go on until dawn, at which time a traditional soup, the sancocho, was served to the remaining guests. Because the music played at these gatherings was so often played on guitars (although accordion-based ensembles were also common), the guitar-based music recorded in the 1960s and 1970s by musicians of rural origins came to be known as bachata. 

The kind of music played at a bachata depended on whether the ensemble present was accordion-or guitar-based. Accordion-based ensembles-typically consisting of an accordion, güira, tambora, and sometimes a marimbula-were appropriate for certain genres of music, particularly the popular Dominican merengue and other genres such as mangulina, carabine, and priprí, all of which were dance musics; they were not, however, well suited for interpreting romantic music. In contrast, guitar ensembles could interpret not only dance musics such as merengue and the Cuban son or guaracha, but also romantic music intended for listening or singing along, such as boleros and the Dominican criolla, a music similar to the bolero, but rhythmically distinct.

In the largely oral culture of the Dominican countryside, the ability to play the guitar and sing well was highly valued, providing considerable motivation for young men to learn to play it. First, it provided a man with another tool in his array of strategies with which to court and win the attentions of young women. If he became skilled at playing, he would be called upon to play at bachatas, pasadias, and other social events at which, in addition to the appreciation and respect of the community, he would receive food and drink. A further incentive was that the guitar was accessible to persons of slender means: unlike accordions, which were imported and quite costly, almost anyone could acquire a guitar, which could be homemade using local wood. Moreover, there were plenty of people with at least minimal skills available to teach a young man the basic techniques of guitar playing. The guitar, then, became the rural musician's instrument of choice. Most rural musicians could neither write nor read music, but favorite pieces of music were handed down orally. If they had the ability, rural guitar players also composed their own songs; if not, they could learn new songs from records heard on the radio or on jukeboxes-most of which were popular recordings imported from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. Over time, these guitar-based songs, whether old favorites, new ones, or songs learned from current recordings, became part of a diverse repertoire of guitar-based music shared by rural musicians.

In the early 1960s, thousands of peasants began migrating into the cities, primarily the capital, Santo Domingo, where most of them could find work only in such unskilled, low-status, and low-paying occupations as street vendors, maids, and security guards. Unable to afford proper housing, most of them squatted on vacant lands, resulting in a proliferation of shantytowns around the edges of the city. While forced to adapt to their new urban environment, the migrants' musical and social practices remained firmly rooted in rural traditions. Thus, when rural musicians began to record their own compositions in the early 1960s, their songs were almost indistinguishable from the familiar guitar-based musics that had inspired them-especially the long-popular bolero, but also guarachas, guajiras, rancheras, jíbaro music, vals, son, and the other genres mentioned above.

The guitar music recorded by musicians of rural origins in the early 1960s did not have a distinct name: it was sometimes referred to as bolero, or bolero campesino (country-style bolero), but more commonly, simply musica popular. Their first recordings were perceived by the middle and upper classes, however, as little more than crude imitations of the stylish Cuban bolero by ignorant peasants who could not do any better. Indeed, these early recordings exhibited few of the features considered prestigious by a society that was rapidly urbanizing and modernizing, such as written arrangements, formally trained musicians, or high-status instruments such as saxophones or violins. As a result, it was nicknamed música cachivache (bauble, knickknack), a term marking the music as trivial and insignificant, and música de guardia (guard's music). The latter term had originated during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930-61) and was intended to invoke an image of low-rank soldiers in bars and brothels listening to low-quality guitar music-particularly musics like Mexican rancheras and corridos that extolled drinking, womanizing, and machismo (the glorification of male sexual prowess). Two other derogatory names were also used for the guitar-based music played by rural musicians: musica cuaba and musica de guardia cobrao, the latter being a variation on música de guardia: the term, which literally means "music of just-paid guards," elaborated on the image of policemen and guards by suggesting that on payday they were more likely to engage in vulgar and licentious behavior. These terms referred to music that was unschooled and rough in quality, however, not to a specific musical genre.

Among Dominicans there is considerable disagreement as to exactly when the term bachata came to refer to a particular kind of music. In the absence of any systematic research into the subject, there is a tendency for people to rely on their own memories, which vary according to their age, class, and where they grew up. According to bachata musicians themselves (and I prefer to accept their opinion), it was in the 1970s that the guitar-based music they recorded came to be identified by the term bachata, which by then had lost its more neutral connotation of an informal (if rowdy) backyard party and acquired an unmistakably negative cultural value implying rural backwardness and vulgarity. For example, on hearing one of these recordings, a middle-or upper-class person might say something like "Quítate esa bachata!" (Take that bachata off!). By using the term in this way, a style of guitar music made by poor rural musicians came to be synonymous with low quality. The condemnation fell not only upon the music and its performers, but upon its listeners as well; the term bachatero, used for anyone who liked the music as well as for the musicians, was equally derogatory.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the worsening social and economic conditions of bachata's urban and rural poor constituency were clearly reflected in bachata. The instrumentation remained the same, but the tempo had become noticeably faster, and the formerly ultra-romantic lyrics inspired by the bolero became more and more concerned with drinking, womanizing, and male braggadocio; and increasingly, it began to express desprecio (disparagement) toward women. As bachata's popularity with the country's poorest citizens grew, the term bachata, which earlier had suggested rural backwardness and low social status, became loaded with a more complicated set of socially unacceptable features that included illicit sex, violence, heavy alcohol use, and disreputable social contexts such as seedy bars and brothels.

When bachata was being consolidated as a style in the 1970s, in this instance the music was named not by bachata musicians or fans themselves, nor even by music industry people seeking marketing terms, but by the country's middle and upper classes, whose intentions were not to acknowledge a new style of music, but to trivialize and stigmatize it. Indeed, the naming was done quite against the will of bachata musicians themselves, who were well aware of how the name bachata was being used. Luis Segura, for example, noted: "Here people call it bachata, but I don't know what they want to imply with that. Because for me they are not bachatas, but a music that I consider is ours, what we call romantic bolero. I don't know why they give it that name here, because I never call it bachata, but romantic song". Leonardo Paniagua also believed his music was bolero, and denied that a music called bachata even existed: "Here people call the music that we play bachata. I do not acknowledge that. I haven't seen that word in any book, that this music is bachata. It doesn't exist. I would tell you not to put that word into practice".

By the 1980s, however, most bachata had increased its tempo so much and its lyrics had become so bawdy and raunchy, that it was clearly inappropriate to categorize it with the quintessentially romantic and poetic bolero, the protestations of Segura notwithstanding. Furthermore, the bolero's context had always been genteel, more traditional and refined—the salon, the informal family gathering, the serenade. Bachata's context, on the other hand—even the romantic music of Segura and Paniagua—was more likely to be bars or brothels in urban shantytowns. Bachata had clearly evolved into a distinctive style of music, and it needed a new name. Most bachateros understood this and accepted the term, if reluctantly, in the absence of anything better. Poor and working-class Dominicans also added the term bachata to their vocabulary and referred even to the widely admired Segura and Paniagua—with the greatest respect—bachateros, not as boleristas or baladistas.

In the early 1980s a few bachata musicians, especially those whose music was of the more romantic variety, made an effort to distance themselves from the negative images associated with the term bachata by coming up with a new name. They began referring to their music as música de amargue (music of bitterness), thereby emphasizing the feelings of nostalgia and suffering that characterized their music. They insisted that the term bachata applied only to the raunchier, more danceable music being made by some musicians; their own slower, romantic songs were to be called canciones de amargue (songs of bitterness). As Luis Segura asserted, "Esos son los que son bachatas, que van corriendo" (those are the bachatas, the fast ones). In contrast, Tony Santos, one of a younger generation of bachata musicians whose music was indeed faster and more sexually explicit than Segura's and Paniagua's, had no problem with the word bachata, although he did recognize the symbolic power of the words used to describe the music: 'Im not bothered if it's called bachata. But since names are always changing and making things nicer, amargue makes it more acceptable, more decent".

While the term amargue was indeed free of social stigma, it had limitations that prevented it from replacing bachata, which continued to be used by bachata' s patrons themselves. First of all, the term bachata provided Dominicans with an appealing continuity between the traditional informal family and neighborhood parties of the same name and the musical genre that grew out of them; the newer term amargue, on the other hand, had no such historical resonances and evoked an unhappy state of mind. More importantly, the term amargue would not adequately describe those songs within bachateros' repertoires that were modeled after other guitar-based genres-particularly the merengue, but others such as the son and the ranchera as well-that were not based on the bolero and that were not necessarily romantic. In contrast, the term bachata could incorporate all these musical relatives, distant as they might have been; the very ambiguity of the term bachata provided the necessary flexibility for a still-emerging genre. This inclusiveness became particularly important in the 1990s, when almost all bachata musicians began including guitar-based merengues in their live as well as recorded repertoires. Rhythmically these were clearly merengues, but they could be comfortably accommodated within the boundaries of bachata because they were guitar based.


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