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Dominican Bachata Music

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The music that today is called bachata emerged from and belongs to a long-standing Pan-Latin American tradition of guitar music, música de guitarra, which was typically played by trios or quartets comprised of one or two guitars (or other related stringed instrument such as the smaller requito), 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 guitar music, romantic guitar music - as distinguished from guitar music intended primarily for dancing such as the Cuban son or guaracha- although in later decades, 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 música de guitarra that accomplished guitarists would be familiar with, including Mexican rancheros and corridos, Cuban son, guaracha and guajira, Puerto Rican plena and jibaro 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 an 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 accordio-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 word bachata also had certain associations, upper-class parties would never be called bachatas. In his book Al amor del bohío (1927), Ramón Emilio Jiménez, a distinguished Dominican "man of letters" and "writer of manners," described a bachata in terms that reflect how such gatherings were associated by the elite with low-class debauchery and dissipation:

The "bachata" is a center of attraction for all the men, where the social classes of those who attend them are leveled and where the coarsest and libertarian forms of democracy predominate. The most elegant figures of the barrio are there, daring and audacious. The setting of these dissolute pleasures is a small living room impregnated by odors that seem conjured to challenge decency....In an adjoining room a guitarist plucks and unleashes into the contaminated air of the house (a) blazing street-level couplet, to which a singer with a well-established reputation as a "second" makes a duo, provisioned with a pair of spoons which he strikes to accompany the melody.

Among Dominicans there is considerable disagreement as to exactly when the term bachata come 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, 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 bachat!" (Take that bachata off!). By using the term in this way, a style of guitar music made by poor rural musicians come 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 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 intrumentation 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.

Untill recently, bachata was a musical pariah in its country of origin, the Dominican Republic. Since its emergence in the early 1960s, bachata, closely associated with poor rural migrants residing in urban shantytowns, was considered too crude, too vulgar, and too musically rustic to be allowed entrance into the mainstream musical landscape. As recently as 1988, no matter how many copies a bachata record may have sold - and some bachata hits sold far more than most records by socially acceptable merengue orquestas - no bachata record ever appeared on a published hit parade list, received airplay on FM radio stations in the country's capital Santo Domingo, or were sold in the principal record stores. Bachata musicians appeared only rarely on television, and they performed only in working-class clubs in the capital. In contrast, even second rate merengue orquestas were given lavish publicity and promotion, and they entertained at posh private clubs and nightclubs.

To read more about Bachata, check out the book "Bachata, A social history of a Dominican popular music", published by Temple University Press in 1995, written by Deborah Pacini Hernandez, from which the above synopsis is taken.

Jaula de Oro - Anthony Santos

Mi Hermosa Canahuate - Raulin R.

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