What is "Bachata"?
I Bachata as Music Genre
In the last years up to 2017, a wide discussion broke out what "Bachata" is and/or how it should be defined. Here, I want to explain some structural basics to this question and give a proposition how I would define criteria for what this nomination is all about nowadays. I think as me being a German, this is an interesting neutral out-of-plane view since I do not have connection to any historic positions of the Dominican Republic, Latin America nor Spain. As a scientist, I always try to have an as-realistic view as possible.
Historically, "Bachata" evolved out of the Caribbean Bolero in the first half of the 20th century which is a slow, romantic style of music and is related to its more energetic brother "Merengue" in many ways. After 30 years of banishment by the local dictator Rafael Trujillo as music of the poor and after the assassination of the latter, many Bachateros and Bachateras started to finally record their music in the 60s. This is why it is seen as an "official" starting point of Bachata. Apart from romantic and heart-breaking stories, Bachata has always been under a change and modification driven by political conditions, acceptance by the population as well as the free will of interprets that had different perception of this genre. With the time, Bachata ran through countless minor musical changes - not only with instrumental and compositoral orientation but also with the content and mood of this style of music.
Nevertheless, the main instruments stayed the same for a long period of time up to now. Ordered after their necessity to exist in Bachata music, these are:
Singer, Rhythm Guitar, Lead Guitar, Bongos, Güira and Bass Guitar.
The strongest change between traditional Bachata folk music and -so to say- modern Bachata music could be seen in early 21st century when a group named Aventura once more modified Bachata in a more radical way. The interpretation of Bachata with their Western Lifestyle was meant to fit a broad young Latin American audience in the U.S.. They started to mix this traditional set of instruments with a modern Pop production touch. This inspired other new American artists with latin roots like Prince Royce and Toby Love to mix the genre with other popular genres of their country like Hip Hop and Pop by adding stronger bass beats, effects and various other instruments.
For most Dominicans, this is the line between what is defined as Bachata and what is not Bachata. Where the half-Dominican U.S. artist Romeo Santos (as the former lead singer of Aventura and a following solo carreer) is still accepted using all genuine Bachata instruments and techniques as a foundation of his music, other artists of this NYC school and all that evolved out of these are not regarded as genuine "Bachata". This is because after the perception of Dominicans, Bachata can only come from the Dominican Republic itself. This was my impression while visiting the Dominican Republic.
For more information visit iASO Records' article:
II Bachata as Culture in the Dominican Republic
As each style of music has got an origin that is more than just a harmonic and rhythmic concept but belongs to the local culture (e.g. compare Jazz), so does Bachata. Long time it was composed and enjoyed by the lower classes between regular farmers as well as obscure backyard brothels - which was one reasons why it was initially banned. With time up to now, Bachata grew and also reached the dominican middle class until it was widely accepted and loved but never developed a connection to the upper class.
Bachata (and also Merengue) is strongly connected to the lifestyle of the Dominican people. When you walk around the streets in the Dominican Republic, you will hear Bachata at each corner. On the fair, in the bar, on the streets, in the car,.... for me it was just amazing to see how people can love a style of music so strongly. Still, oftenly, strong positive feelings are preceded by strong negative feelings. That is the natural law of energy conservation ;).
I especially perceive this strong connection to Bachata as a result of identification as a nation. Genetically, the Dominican people mainly originates from Spanish conquistadors and African slaves (after domestic tribes died though war or diseases brought by Columbus in the 15th century). In the neighbouring state Haiti on the same island Hispaniola - which was the only state where African slaves successfully overcame slavery by their (French) masters - people were proud of being black. In the Dominican republic, however, the Spaniard / slave ratio was about 1:2 due to growing of lifestock and trading in Santo Domingo where only few slaves were necessary. Thus, the "emotional distance" between "Dominican" slaves and masters was considerable smaller than in Haiti where the ratio was 1:9. In Haiti, slaves suffered from brutally hard work in the sugar industry. When they finally disposed themselves of their masters, slavery was banished and the free Haitian slaves (temporarly) conquered the Spanish-Dominican part of the island Hispanola, "Dominican" masters and former slaves fought on the same side in the Dominican region to drive out the Haitian enemy. This seems like a proud "joint and unified national action" of the Dominican people but in reality, amongst many other events, all those military actions clearly show how troublesome life for people on Hispanola was for a very long time in the 20th century - and still is today in many aspects.
From a musical point of view, Bachata instrumentation consists of a mixture between Spanish guitar influences and African rhythms which in the end forms a combination that is, separately viewed, very traditional. In combination, it brings together the best of both worlds to form something excitingly new and also resembled the identification of Dominican people "in contrast" to Haitian people. That is why, in my opinion, racism is still a big topic even today in the Dominican Republic where a Dominican person could not decide "what he or she is" and tended to be "as white as possible" compared to their Haitian neighbour (and former rival). That is why their national genres Bachata (and also Merenge) are so precious to them. Nowadays, Dominican people identify themselves -in best case- not as black or white but as cultural nation without racial rivalries. For instance, Dominican artists like Joan Soriano started Bachata productions with Haitian artists like Toni Tomas to overcome this separation.
When I once worked with a Salsa DJ and I told him "I am a Bachata DJ", he told me "I hate Bachata" with an impish and a bit ironic smile. Back then, I could not understand why someone would hate Bachata. Later, I realized that he was from Haiti.
During my visit in the Dominican Republic in 2017, I also asked Dominicans what they thought of Bachata from Spain. They looked irritated and didn't even seem to know that Bachata exists there, too. In fact, almost all non-Dominican Bachata artists originated from the NYC school and only recently, Spanish Bachata music was even a thing. When they listened to Bachata music from Spain, they answered that this soft music is for the girls, not for men like them. Truth spoken, I think the first part of that sentence is not so far from the truth since Spanish Bachata is mainly influenced by U.S. artists like Romeo Santos and Daniel Santacruz. And it is also not far from the roots of Bachata itself.
III Bachata as new Culture in Europe
After the New York School of Bachata created these new types of modified songs for a mixed-race latin U.S. culture to enjoy, the traditional Bachata dance itself (which mostly relies on a square danced bolero) was modified by dance schools in the Western world - be it intentionally or by chance - and was henceforth understood as "Bachata". This can be seen as starting point of what is known as "Authentic" or "Dominican" Bachata in Europe - even though it is already a commercialized version.
Real "traditional" Bachata has already been in Europe for a long time: As descents of former Caribbean colonies of the Netherlands, they brought their culture with them. That is why nowadays, the Netherlands are the hot spot for "Dominican" Bachata in Europe. However, the style of Bachata music played on many parties in the Netherlands is strongly Merengue-familiar (high-energetic and simple-structured music) and tries not to aim at dance expression but at cultural get-together to drink, talk and literally get into touch. This traditional concept of Bachata is exactly the same as the word "Bachata" was defined for the first time in 1922 in Santo Domingo by José Medina. Therefore, the cultural concept is totally legit as it is used - but it is also the reason why "dance-school dancers" coming from many other (non-Latin) European countries misinterpret the function of those parties with an "academic/aesthetic/athletic" view on a dance party rather than a social view. The best popular equivalent cultural concept of (non-Latin) European countries are club parties with English Pop music. Yet, there, no couple dancing is involved. A similar concept of "Bachata" (as understood by Dominicans) in Europe can be found in Spain with (couple)-dance parties that mainly play a mixture of different Latin music genres like Salsa/Reggaeton/Bachata.
New types of dance styles were generated in different ways. On the one hand, many dance teachers are generally educated in different styles of dancing which is connected to different styles of music. The most obvious merge in genres happened "internally" with Latin dances in the U.S.: Salsa schools that also offered Bachata classes and therefore transfered Salsa figures into Bachata which was similarly received by European dance schools. On the other hand, at the south-western edge of Europe (Andalusia/Spain), the unemployment rate of young people is the highest of whole Europe with every second young person being affected. This even led to an own expression: the "ni-ni" generation. With plenty of time, many dance parties and little money, people started to become creative and invented other dance expressions on Modern Bachata songs without the influence of dance concepts of Dominican Bachata. In any case, given the rapid evolution of variation in Bachata music styles in the U.S., it was only a matter of time until people started to experiment with the influencing dance styles of Western Bachata like Dance Hall, Hip Hop and Zouk in the 10's of 2000. This again acted as a catalyst for "Bachata" remixes that were meant to fit the influencing music styles of urban Bachata rather than the original Bachata music style. Unfortunately and luckily, these new forms of Bachata in music and dance only had little-to-none in common with Dominican Bachata and unwittingly enriched the concept of social couple dancing in Bachata.
Dance culture in Europe is -as in any other corner in the world - connected to the songs that people grow up with, love and know by heart. That explains the evolution of remixes for a European audience with songs from Western culture - since, naturally, almost no European can feel the feelings that a Dominican feels while dancing to a Dominican Bachata song of his/her homeland. In addition, as already described, there was a lack of couple dances that allowed a combination of social get-together for young people and, at the same time, creative interpretation of music in a couple-dance.
(a) At the beginning of the 10's, inspired by Urban Bachata productions of the N.Y.C. school, American and European DJs produced a vast amount of so-called "Bachata Remixes" while this trend is still going on. The only purpose of those Remixes is to put some virtual "easy-to-use" (not easy to play!) Bachata instruments Bongo and Güira on top of well-known Pop-songs and let people dance on their beloved songs with a "Bachata"-label. Fast global access and redistribution via media platforms such as SoundCloud, YouTube, e.t.c. make promotion of those "Bachata Remixes" of Pop songs prominent and extremely popular. Suddenly, Bachata parties across whole Europe were dominated by non-Bachata music with random Güira&Bongo loops. One can still feel how DJs try to outnumber each other with more prominent songs in less publication time to gain visibility, fame and purchasing power. This overhasty process was further promoted by half-illegal (and more recently legal) purchasing platforms that are a classical example of the "liberation" of digital media. Strictly spoken, even though the pristine intention is honourable, the outcome with first tries of remixes in masses insulted original Pop-song writers as well as real Bachata musicians alike in compositoral and cultural ways. Furthermore, dance teachers of "real" (Dominican) Bachata feared and still fear for their income while the dance scene is overrun by new "Bachata" music and dance styles that created a huge demand. Obviously, this was the time when the discussion of the definition of "Bachata" came up around the world. Even the most well-known remixers of the Bachata scene failed producing at a quality standard because they did not have the proper education nor technical means. For most DJs, the major problem does not even lie in the financial investment of proper programs (because most of them can rather easily be accessed on illegal ways) but rather the awareness and ear to understand that those productions are not worthy of a Bachata remix. Ironically, dancers did (and still do) not care about the quality as long as a beloved Pop song is played on their Bachata party because they simply did not notice. Actually, they do not hear the problems either. Even if people knew that they strongly violated rules of composition, online education about Bachata was (and still is) scarce because obviously, Bachata Remixes have never been a topic in the Dominican Republic. Consequently, the low quality of Remixes would for sure prevent a dance enviroment of attractive quality and repel any educated person.
(b) In the last years of the 10's, driven by a lot of hot discussions in social networks, a fraction of European Remixers became aware of the rhythmical and instrumental problems. They were (partially) improved to a level that respects the basic principles of composition of Bachata. Technically, some songs could now be called Bachata Remix. What those DJs do not yet realize is that this step is the easiest and the one that is not important at all. Now, we have to talk about what is a good and valuable Bachata Remix.
IV The Extended Notion "Bachata"
Based on facts and my interpretation, I hoped to be able to explain my point of view.
For me, Bachata music is a genre in the 100-160 BPM range with very variable emotional setting and well composed polyrhythmic structure (that can vary the energy of the song!). Connected to its pristine romantic character, the dance fits the concept of a couple's dance and is perfect to practice intermediate musicality (even though most dancers in this world do not even handle basic musicality).
Historically, Bachata is also a symbol of merging cultures and races to form something new and exciting.
Dominican Bachata dance is sensitive to all its classical instruments used where leading, following and footwork fit best rhythm, voice and guitar.
"European" Bachata tries to continue this good thought of Dominican Bachata dancing and mood with songs of European culture (with other types of genres) but still has troubles to:
- make a Remix that adds any additional value to the plain original Pop song
- use hand-made time-consuming genuine (virtual) instruments.
Everything else is canned food and does not belong on any party.
IV Bottom Line
Understanding and applying the rules of compositoral structures does not make any remix worthy to be played. The same rule applies to "real" Bachata where not any Bachata is a good song. In fact, only few songs are worthy of being played in an extremely over-saturated production and composition environment.
Some discussions even led to the belief that each Bachata Remix always has to contain the exact instrumental ensemble and rhythms of Bachata. From a purist point of view, this may theoretically be true but misses the important point:
The question is not anymore: What is Bachata?
We have two way more important questions:
What is Good and Important Bachata?
What is the common ground of Bachata and Bachata Fusion?
Some argue, the common rhythmic structure is the basis. Some people produce Urban productions in the framework of Bachata compositions, some produce Bachata surrogates made of other Pop songs, some play NYC school Bachata, some play Dominican Bachata, .... Each style does have its own natural movements on the dance floor that often even contradict each other. For instance, nowadays, sensual dance moves are the most popular dance elements that hardly allow to interpret energetic and fast music.
The only answer that I can give is:
Love for Couple Dance and Empathy for High Quality Music
In 2019, the Bachata scene stands at the beginning of what musicality really means.
Even though basic principles of Remixing are understood, it does not automatically mean that any of those Remixes are relevant for the common ground.
Time will tell if the Bachata scene understands its incredible potential of creative improvization or if it will now stay on a level like any other social dance scene.
Following my article, I hoped to make clear that "Bachata" in Europe is very many things today at the same time (if you like it or not): many music styles, dance styles, cultural roots, symbol of love and musicality but also symbol of irritating pseudosexiness (instead of playful sexiness) and arrogant extroversion. The notion as it is used today causes great confusion between people and cultures where more precise expressions and discussions become necessary.
As an open-minded person, I promote all styles if their quality is maintained.
Thus, sticking to authentic music styles in general is very recommendable
and remixing a very delicate matter.
"evolution is always progress"
- it can be both, progress and regress, depending on how well evolution fits a purpose.
compare your fingers with your toes ;)
The Essence of Bachata
Fernando Joan Soriano & Joan Soriano
/ iASO Records, modern Dominican Folk Music
Landscape of Hispanola
Caribbean Islands and the Merge
of two Races from other Continents
Jose Manuel Calderon/ iASO Records
traditional Dominican Folk Music
Aventura - the NYC "School" of Bachata
Dictator of the Dominican Republic
Dominican War of Independence 1844 /
La carretera en Cabarete
Dance Couple competing
in a "Dominican Bachata"
part in Madrid / Spain
Dance Course of a popular
Bachata Dance Style called "Bachata Sensual"
Bachata Romantica Party in Aachen / Germany
Couple dancing Bachata
in the Dominican Republic
Economy's Driving Force
Playing with Music instead of
playing Music - Remixing, Desire
of many DJs until they should
realize it is no Child's Game in Bachata.
Relative (estimated) Bachata Activity in Central Europe
Remixing / Composing
Hip Hop "Style"- optical as well as movements
Romantic Dance Couple
Extrovert Salsa Show Dancing
Merge of Rhythm, Melody and Technology