Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Dominican Bachata

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Dominican Bachata

Article excerpt

ASK KIDS IN ANY U.S. URBAN MIDDLE SCHOOL if they know who Romeo is. They'll likely respond with an enthusiastic yes, but their answer will not refer to the Romeo in Shakespeare's classic play about star-crossed lovers, but rather, to the Dominican/Puerto Rican bachata singer Romeo Santos. Like his Shakespearean namesake, Romeo is known for his romantic passion, but not in the context of an ill-fated love affair. This contemporary Romeo's silky and seductive voice has made him a heartthrob to Latino kids (especially girls) since the early 2000s, when he was lead singer of the bachata group Aventura. In 2010 he began attracting attention from the mainstream media when Aventura sold out four shows in Madison Square Garden-triple the number of tickets sold for a Lady Gaga concert opening at the same time. In 2014, by then a solo act, Romeo made the national news again when he sold out two shows in Yankee Stadium within hours, a feat achieved only by superstars such as Madonna and Paul McCartney. Today Romeo's popularity has spread to encompass Latino youth beyond his original Dominican-American fan base. Through his savvy practice of recording duets with hip hop and R&B stars such as Usher, Lil Wayne, Pitbull and Drake, his fans now include African Americans, other ethnic minorities and Anglo-Americans. By now, Romeo and other New York- based groups who have followed in his and Aventura's footsteps have introduced bachata to audiences around the globe.

So who is this wildly popular singer most non-Latino adults have never heard about? And where did his signature musical genre, the romantic bachata, come from? The explanations take us back to the musical genres circulating in Dominican countryside in the era of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who controlled every aspect of Dominican society for more than thirty years until he was assassinated in 1961. Under Trujilllo's iron grip, the Dominican Republic was largely closed off to direct musical exchanges with the outside world, although recordings of then-popular music-Cuban boleros and guarachas, Mexican rancheras, Puerto Rican jíbaro music-could be heard on the radio and jukeboxes throughout the country. Rural Dominican musicians could perform these guitar-based genres, so over time, they became core features of rural musicians' repertoires, alongside local styles such as merengue and música criolla.

After Trujillo's death, thousands of rural folk migrated to Santo Domingo in search of work, settling in the shantytowns springing up around the margins of the city. Among them were musicians who aspired to record in the country's fledgling music industry, which had only recently been liberated from the suffocating fear of meddling by the Trujillo family. The guitar-based romantic music they played was known generically as música popular. Singers such as Bernardo Ortiz, Rafael Encarnación and Mélida Rodríguez-are today recognized as the forefathers of the genre later to be known as bachata.

The term bachata originally referred to an informal gathering in a backyard or patio, enlivened by food, drink, music and dance. Eventually, the sounds of humble rural musicians playing guitarbased music began to filter into Santo Domingo's working class neighborhoods, urbanites aspiring to a more cosmopolitan identity perceived the music as worthless and its practitioners as country bumpkins. They began referring to the music as bachata-a coded way of calling the music vulgar and uncouth. Initially the musicians resisted the term, which they knew was intended to be disparaging, but by the 1980s bachata had become the common way of referring to what was audibly coalescing as a distinct style of Dominican music. The influence of its guitar-based antecedent genres from Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico could still be heard, but the new sound, unambiguously Dominican, was marked by prominent lead guitar arpeggios, rhythms provided by bongos and maracas, and highly melodramatic singing about romantic and sexual relationships. …

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