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Bachata History by Deborah Pacini Hernandez


Part 2 / 2


Defining Bachata:

Musical and Social Antecedents

by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

Bachata History by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

While bachata does not have any signature rhythms, it does have a defining timbre and texture that are the outgrowth of two features: its instrumentation and its vocal style. A particular configuration of instruments is essential for a bachata to be a bachata: one or two guitars, maracas or güira, and bongos. Except for the fact that recently the güira is being used more frequently than the more traditional maraca, this instrumentation is virtually identical to that used by the sort of trios and quartets that played boleros and other guitar-based music familiar to bachateros. One guitar plays lead, embellishing by picking rather than strumming, and another plays rhythm. The bongo and maraca (or güira) players mark the typical four-four time rather discretely, although sometimes in musical breaks the bongo player might add a few flourishes; he never, however, executes a descarga (an energetic improvised solo) as occurs in the montuno section in Cuban son and salsa. Traditionally, the lead guitar player also composed and sang lead, while the other musicians provided choruses, although as bachata groups have professionalized, some are now fronted by a vocalist who does not play, thereby relegating the lead guitar player to a secondary role. Old-time bachateros like Luis Segura and Jose Manuel Calderon, for example, compose, play lead guitar, and sing; singers such as Tony Santos, Blas Duran, and Leonardo Paniagua, on the other hand, do not play instruments.

Bachata is essentially a vocal genre, meant to tell stories—there is no such thing as an instrumental bachata. Besides its characteristic guitar-led instrumentation, one of bachata's defining features is its highly emotional, sometimes almost sobbing, singing style. The vocal quality of bachata singers varies to the degree that the singer wishes to emphasize the emotion being expressed: pleading, exhorting, and despairing are expressed with a tightening of the voice, giving a tremulous quality to much of the singing. Some singers take this dramatic singing style to its limits; Luis Segura, for example, fairly weeps out his songs, earning him the nickname of "el Añoñaito" (ñoño is a word used to refer to a whining, spoiled child; añoñaíto is a diminutive of this word). The vocal quality in songs that are not romantic, however (e.g., humorous double entendre songs or those which criticize women), is much more open and relaxed, and even more so when they express bravado. Bachata's vocals, like those of other rural musics (such as U.S. country and Colombian carrilera), are often sung in close harmony, usually in thirds. The backup vocal parts in bachata are often in call-and-response form; sometimes the backup singers simply repeat a phrase such as "no, no, no" between solo lines; at other times the chorus might repeat the last line of a verse, or the singer and vocalists might engage in a dialogue.

Bachata lyrics reflect the musician’s rural origins and, often, their poor educational backgrounds as well, often exhibiting what mainstream society would call grammatical and pronunciation mistakes, although sometimes the irregularities are simply regionalisms. Often, however, the texts are recorded as they were composed, leading to charges by mainstream Dominicans that bachata musicians are ignorant and that they corrupt the Spanish language.

Before proceeding further with this discussion of bachata lyrics, it is necessary to emphasize the close relationship between bachata's style and its principal social context-urban shantytowns and poor working-class neighborhoods. Bachata musicians may be of rural origins, as are many of their listeners, but most of them reside in urban areas and have become adept at interpreting musically the urban experience for both their urban and rural listeners. Popular language in particular is one of the most important markers of barrio identity, and the ability to use language creatively is a highly valued skill. Indeed, the most successful bachateros are those who best command a Dominican urban street language that offers a rich variety of words, phrases, and proverbs for expressing their thoughts and feelings, to which they add further nuances through subtle variations in intonation; in bachata, as in U.S. rap, language, spoken or sung, empowers a speaker: through the control of words, a speaker can construct alternative realities.

The tendency to manipulate language is a significant feature of bachata lyrics in general, but it is taken to its logical extreme in a widely used and popular narrative strategy, the doble sentido (double entendre), in which words and meanings are manipulated for humorous effect. These songs, like Dominican popular speech in general, are full of hidden or ambiguous meanings that subvert official meanings. Inchaustegui attributes Dominicans' use of language to simultaneously conceal and reveal information to the effects of the repression characterizing the Trujillo regime: "During the Trujillo era words didn't work properly. So the Dominican became a specialist in speaking in masked messages. It was something so ingrained in our consciousness that you couldn't say things, that it entered our genes, and when children are born, they already know how to play with words. You will have a hard time getting a Dominican to give you a straight answer". Bachata lyrics also communicate indirectly through a creative use of imagery. Food products, food preparation, and eating provide bachateros with some of their most vivid metaphors. Bachateros communicate their emotions and ideas in a way that is comprehensible to their listeners. It is often stated that bachateros compose the sort of lyrics they do because they are uneducated and ignorant and are incapable of writing any other way. In fact, bachateros write the way they do because they understand the importance of using a language shared and appreciated by their listeners, and because this language offers them a wider range of possibilities for creative expression. All bachata lyrics, whether they express erotic, romantic, or disillusioned love, or extol the pleasures of the bar, serve their listeners as a triggering device for thinking about the relationship between an individual and his or her world, whether it be the relationship between the individual and other persons, or between the individual and society. Most bachata songs are written on the basis of the composer's personal romantic experiences, which resonate with those of listeners who have had similar experiences and relate to it.

In the 1990s bachata' s musical and textual characteristics have become less predictable as new features have been added to the previously existing range of possibilities or are being used in different combinations. Many bachateros, for example, started to rely less on sexual double entendre songs in order to improve their chances of getting their records played on the radio. The most significant changes in bachata, however - other than its new social respectability - have been in terms of instrumentation. While still guitar led, bachata is increasingly being played with hollow-body electric guitars rather than acoustic guitars, which has dramatically changed its timbre. Bias Duran's 1987 hit, the electric guitar-based bachata-merengue "Consejo a las mujeres," was the first to establish the commercial potential of using the electric guitar in bachata.

Bachata' s recent livelier sound corresponds to changes in its social functions. When it first emerged in the 1960s, it was, like its predecessor the bolero, primarily romantic-as opposed to dance-oriented-music. The distinction between dance and romantic music is more than the difference between fast and slow music. Romantic music is, in fact, frequently danced to, and the lyrics of dance music are often about love. For years, bachata' s primary function was to articulate the experiences of male-female relationships. As a bachata dance has evolved, however, bachata has been moving from being an exclusively romantic music toward one that is also dance oriented. When a bachata ensemble plays a merengue, however, the dancers dance merengue. As a result, the term bolero-bachata is sometimes used to refer to those bachatas derived from the bolero or other guitar-based genres, and the term bachata-merengue (or merengue-bachata) for those danced as merengue.

Informally, some Dominicans have opined that the bachata dance style is an offshoot of the bolero dance, while others have claimed it is related to the son. The former seems a more likely explanation, given bachata' s strong connections to the bolero tradition, although it is certainly true that the lively, syncopated bachata dance step probably owes something to the dancers' familiarity with the son's highly danceable groove. The bachata dance consists of an alternating "one-two-three-kick" pattern, in which the "kick" is a toe step or a small hop. Body movement is smooth and sinuous, but relatively reserved; a few dancers, however, exaggerate their hip and arm movements, displaying their choreographic skills in a way more reminiscent of salsa or merengue dancing. This more energetic style of dancing has become more common as bachata' s tempos have sped up in recent years-although it is also possible that the dancers' preferences may have stimulated the changes in tempo rather than the other way around.

The faster bolero-based bachatas are themselves quite danceable, but younger audiences have encouraged bachata musicians to include more merengues in their repertoires; as a result, bachata-merengues now comprise as much as half of many bachata ensembles' repertoire. It was largely in order to play merengues that many ensembles replaced the traditional maracas with the güira, which can be played to sound like a maraca, and therefore can be used both for bolero-bachatas as well as merengue-bachatas. The tambora, indispensable for merengue, has been added to the bachata ensemble, although it has not replaced the bongo, which is still essential for the bolero-bachatas.

The increasing popularity of these hybrid bachata-merengues represents a truly significant turn of events in the evolution of both genres. Since the late nineteenth century, when the accordion displaced the guitar as the principal instrument for merengue production, guitar-based merengues were seldom heard outside of informal rural settings. By repopularizing the guitar-based merengues, bachateros have brought merengue back full circle to its original instrumentation—only now most of the guitars are electric. When bachateros play merengue with electric guitars, they imitate the sound of the accordion or the saxophone in merengue típico ensembles, thereby consolidating into one the Dominican Republic's two most popular rural-based music genres.

Bachata's widening popularity and new social respectability have also been changing the characteristic social contexts for listening to bachata. In terms of live performance, until the 1990s bachateros played only in small, often seedy, neighborhood bars (many of which were also brothels) located in the poorest sections of Santo Domingo, or in similar establishments in provincial towns whose patrons, like the musicians themselves, were persons of low socio-economic status. Occasionally, well-known bachateros were contracted by provincial municipalities to play at patron saints' festivals (fiestas patronales), which, because they were outdoors and free, exposed bachateros to larger and more diverse audiences-in terms of class, gender, and age-than would be possible in bar settings.

Live bachata performances were infrequent in urban areas, however, because it was difficult for most bars in poor neighborhoods to afford even the minimal cost of hiring a bachata ensemble. In addition, bachata was excluded from FM radio and from television; therefore, one of the few opportunities for publicly listening to bachata (although again only recorded) was in neighborhood colmados. Colmados are neighborhood grocery stores somewhat reminiscent of what we think of as mom-and pop grocery stores, although much smaller than their U.S. equivalents, and far more numerous in any given area than would be the case here.' In shantytowns and poor working-class barrios, colmados provided a public place for exchanging news, information, ideas-and culture: women tended to visit them several times a day to buy household necessities, while men typically visited them in the evening and on weekends to buy beer and cigarettes, and often to play dominoes on tables set up in front. In order to enhance the colmado's social functions, colmado owners typically had some sort of sound system-most commonly a record player and a small record collection-which they kept up-to-date by purchasing a few carefully chosen bachata records on a regular basis. Colmados, then, served as key loci for the dissemination of bachata in urban areas-especially to women and children, who could not frequent the barras. Middle-class people, on the other hand, had little, if any, contact with bachata.

In the aftermath of bachata' s debut into polite society in the early 1990s, however, bachata has begun transcending the boundaries of the shantytown and receiving some airplay on major urban FM radio stations, and a handful of successful bachateros started then playing on television and at more upscale venues. Most bachateros, however, continued to play in the same sort of undistinguished locations in which they played in the mid-1980s. Interestingly, although successful bachateros could then play in socially prestigious clubs and started making more money than they ever could have before, they continued to play in poor and working-class venues in order to maintain contact with their principal constituency, the poor.

Bachata performances in the 1980s were fairly informal affairs, and the spatial and social distance between performers and audience was not very great. Most small clubs or bars did not have raised stages, and in between sets the musicians sat at tables with their friends, so that patrons could approach them if they wished. The stage area was relatively uncluttered, because bachata ensembles used little sound amplification equipment-usually only a small public-address system.

In spite of their informality, bachata musicians-especially the singers-did distinguish themselves as professionals, usually through dress. Sometimes the entire band wore something that identified them as an ensemble, such as shirts of the same color; at other times only the lead singer dressed up. Because bachata musicians were poor, however, their clothing was usually inexpensive and, according to the dictates of urban fashion, unstylish-for example, polyester suits and ruffled shirts. Bachateros' lack of sophistication and elegance in dress, in fact, was yet another reason they were scorned by the fashion-conscious middle classes. In contrast, orquesta merengue musicians always appeared in coordinated outfits in the latest styles from New York, presenting a glamorous-and always corporate-image.

In summary, bachata's appeal has rested on its ability to articulate the needs and concerns of people being forced to adapt to the difficulties of the urban experience under conditions of extreme poverty. Over time, bachata has successfully expressed the cultural values, such as attitudes about sex, money, and power, that its practitioners and patrons have adopted in response to life on the margins of modem Dominican society. It has also served as a form of resistance for those excluded from Dominican mainstream culture: in expressing, in its own terms, the values and experiences of the urban shantytown, bachata has legitimized and helped to sustain a shared cultural identity for its constituency. Since its inception, bachata has consistently revealed a vitality, a sense of humor, and an affirmation of self-regardless of the singers' desperate socio-economic situation-that actively challenged the mainstream Dominican perception that bachata was a degenerate genre devoid of musical or social value. On the contrary, bachata has always been an expression of a subculture in transition, struggling to create new cultural coherences and to attain form, autonomy, and legitimacy within a hostile society.

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