A Look into the World of Bachata
Straight from the campos of the Dominican Republic, comes one of the most definitive genres in Latin America…Bachata. And that’s exactly what it was then, campo music. Until the death of the DR’s notorious dictator, Trujillo, in 1961, most of the music in the radio airways consisted of Merengue and the Cuban Bolero; Cuban music was primarily at the forefront. Immediately after his death, Bachata pioneer Jose Manuel Calderon recorded “Que sera de mi“ in May 30, 1962 and the rest was history.
Following a series of other songs recorded by Calderon on that date, a path for the young genre was made to prosper in the future. With influences derived from the Bolero in Cuba, Bachateros like Jose Manuel and Rafael Encarnacion defined the 60’s as not only the starting point of Bachata, but also the starting point of the music industry in the Dominican Republic. With its rise in popularity in the 70’s (due to artists like Marino Perez, Leonardo Paniagua, and the iconic Luis Segura) the music found its way to a commercial audience, especially due to the help of a radio station called Radio Guarachita.
Although exposure was present , Bachata was regarded as a genre and lifestyle associated with the lower class. The high brow would often demean the content of the music and everything else associated with it. Only the campesinos would be found listening to it and also playing it. Gathering friends and jamming at these country areas is showcasing method that is still being done to this day, similar to cyphers in Hip Hop.
This changed, however, once the early 90’s came into the picture. This all changed when 3 Bachata phenoms burst into the music scene; three phenoms by the names of Raulin Rodriguez, Luis Vargas, and Anthony Santos. Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra (who already beared international exposure at that time) also helped propel the genre to new heights with the 1992 release of the critically acclaimed and Grammy award winning album “Bachata Rosa”. The early 90’s also gave light to artists from the late 90’s/earl 20’s (like Teodoro Reyes, Kiko Rodriguez, El Chaval, Frank Reyes the list goes on). These attributes led the country to define Bachata as its most prestigious and nationalistic genre.
Bachata, however, reached a level that exceed many people’s expectations, when the group by the name of Aventura broke the rules, as they would proudly say. The self-proclaimed “Kings of Bachata” where constant hit makers, making them loved all over Latin America and even some other areas around the world. They helped paved the way for young Dominican artist like Prince Royce, Xtreme, and of course the solo career of Aventura’s front-man Romeo Santos. All of these acclaimed and recognized artists broke into the mainstream music world, collaborating with musicians such as Usher, Lil Wayne, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, etc.
Here is one of the most memorable collaborations that was adored by listeners worldwide and the mainstream media. To say the least, this song was played EVERYWHERE.
As expected in any other genre, the thematic context of Bachata music revolves around love. What makes the music so different from other genres is the depressing twist to the music; something that was commonly found in the early days rather than the current Bachata music. I’ve said many times before that Bachata is the Dominican version of the Blues. Many of its early songs consisted of drinking your pain away, crying about your lost lover, life not worth living, etc. Because of these themes and the high pitch whiny vocals (that were sometimes done intentionally), many people would label the music as “la musica de los ñoños” (whining/wimpy music).
Unlike the blues however, one thing that stands out is the dancing component. I’ve always found it odd when I heard somber lyrics played through the speakers at Dominican parties and see a crowd of people sweating from the constant dancing. Whether it’s wallowing in heartbreak or being infatuated over your lover, the dancing aspects of Bachata has definitely helped the genre surpass its expectations of fame.
Your typical Bachata band is made up of 5 major instrumentalists. This versatility made it easier to assemble a group, in comparison to other Latin American genres that needed as many instruments as symphony orchestras.
1. Lead Guitar
A regular acoustic and/or electric guitar. The guitar player almost-always wears a thumb-pick and relies on an abundance of repetitive down-strokes. It’s urgent for the lead guitar to contain a cutaway for the high notes that are usually hit a little before/after the 12th fret. The acoustic guitars also need a pickup, giving their instrument that distinctive thin sound so frequently heard in the music.
2. Rhythm Guitar
Usually does not have a cutaway and sometimes smaller that the lead guitar. It’s mostly played at the upper register of the guitar
3. Bass Guitar
The concept of introducing the güira to Bachata was introduced by Jose Manuel Calderon. As mentioned before, Bachata was influenced mainly by Bolero. Calderon thought it was best to replace the commonly-used maracas for the güira. Since then, the güira has been a vital instrument in Bachata (and also other forms of Dominican music).
WARNING: This section goes out to all the music nerds out there...
1. Rhythm: Bachata is played in 4/4 time (The original Bolero music in Spain is mostly played in 3/4, while the Cuban Bolero is mostly 2/4)
The Bongos are where we hear the prime example of African influence. The rhythm and stylistic approaches taken are very similar to the tribal and syncopated beats played by traditional African drummers. The güira plays the 4 beats in the measure, most of the times. Some players might add some syncopation (There’s a lot of room for improv in güira playing).
The lead guitar, especially in its early days, pays homage to the Spanish/Cuban Bolero by playing various riffs throughout the entire song. In the 90’s-present, however, they have decreased in the riff-like solos and added an arpeggiation of chords.
The rhythm guitar, however, plays two eighth notes per beat in the 4 beat sequence.
2. Chord Progression: As mentioned before, early Bachata was centered on sad themes. With that being said, both guitars (and bass) do something musically interesting. As the artist sings about bringing himself down to a depression, the chords in most of these songs decrease in a chromatic fashion (furthermore reestablishing the sadness in the music). The songs start with the root chord, usually in a minor, and ends with the perfect 5th.
Here goes an excerpt of the rhythm section, played by yours truly. Since it starts in A minor, it ends in E major. This chord progression could be heard in the smash-hit “Nereyda” by Raulin Rodriguez and the classic tune “Pena” by Luis Segura.
Notice how the root note of each chord is played once followed by the picking of the chord three times (Remember these are eighth notes so this makes up the first two beats). The last two beats of the measure starts with the third of each chord played once followed by the chord played once (one beat). The same method repeats; except instead of the third, the fifth of each note is played first followed by the chord (2nd beat). Hence, the song is in 4/4.
The lead guitar, also played by yours truly, is played on top of the rhythm section. Notice how my hands are chromatically going down the scale.
Since the early days of Bachata, most things have changed because of the emergence of Aventura. Their use of English lyrics, hip/hop and r&b influences, different chord progressions, etc have taken the genre out of the Dominican Republic (and New York) and out onto the rest of the world. Bachata music now seems like it's at it's highest point. Artists are selling-out around the world and crowds of different ethnicities are now dancing to the music. One could only hope that the creativity and exposure of Bachata would keep escalating for the sake of my motherland, the Dominican Republic.