Per usual I’ve been keeping super busy lately. Much of this busy-ness during the last weeks revolved around my favorite activity – dancing! I managed to learn the basics of bachata, tango, African dance and samba all in 5 days. There are more dance-related stories to come, but for now I´ll just stick to bachata. My life seems to unfold in many lovely, unexpected ways in Bucaramanga. Two Tuesdays ago I stopped by the local hostel to leave some money owed to a friend and ended up staying for a bachata class with my friend Angelicka.
What is bachata? Let´s begin with the buttery voice of “the king of modern Bachata” Romeo Santos…
Bachata is, in one word, super-romantic. It’s like the Latin version of smooth R & B. It comes from the Dominican Republic and has a history tied to the politics of the country. Rafael Trujillo was a Dominican dictator who took power in 1930 and continued his reign until 1961 when he was assassinated. His rule over the country marked a terrible period in its history. In 1937 he ordered the racially charged massacre of 20,000 Haitians over a period of 5 days. During the entirety of his time in power it’s estimated that he was responsible for 50,000 deaths in total. He also heavily censored the media of the Dominican Republic and made merengue the country’s official music. So when his rule ended in 1961 there was an explosion of new music. The first bachata single is often thought to have been recorded by José Manuel Calderón in this same year.
The first female bachata artist to record was Melida Rodriguez. She wrote her own songs and “La Sufrida” is the most well-known. The chorus goes, “Yo soy mala y seguire siendo mala” – “I am bad and I’ll keep being bad.” She refers to the fact that she is going to be unfaithful because nobody has been faithful to here – a bold statement of female sexual freedom in the 60s!
This type of music didn’t have a name at first, it was thought of simply as a variation on bolero – bolero campesino. It was born from rural musicians combining boleros with traditional Latin/Carribean rhythms. Bachata was a word that already existed in spanish to describe a wild party. It became attached to this type of music in the 1970s as an insult by the elite who wanted to denigrate this “uncouth music made by the upstarts from the countryside” [Deborah Pacini Hernandez].
There are many reasons bachata had acquired a bad reputation. First of all, the guitar – what differentiated bachata from salsa and accordion-based merengue – was generally associated with the lower classes. The merengue industry had vilified bachata as well in the interest of its own business. Furthermore, rural musicians who were playing bachata were not allowed to play in the classy, mainstream venues of the city so they were forced to play in brothels or cabarets. As a result the music started to take on the themes of its surroundings – sex, crime, drinking and prostitution. Bachata was rarely heard on the radio or mentioned in the newspaper or TV even though it was outselling orchestral merengue records. Marino Perez is one artist who most defined this era of cabaret bachata.
Bachata was becoming faster and more danceable. As well, in the 1980s doble sentido or double entendre bachata became super popular, beginning with Julio Angel’s “El Salon”. This song about using a comb to arrange the curls of his lady clients indeed has a second meaning…. Bachata was becoming really popular, but this double entendre bachata kept it at a distance from the mainstream until the late 1980s.
In 1987 Blas Duran recorded the first bachata song using an electric guitar. At this point bachata was so popular that the radio could no longer keep from playing it.
And that brings is up to bachata of today. This song highlights the cheesy way they mix Spanish and English in bachata songs, something I love. “She’s so beautiful, se lo digo everyday.”
And another popular bachata group, Xtreme.
As I suggested earlier, bachata has its own dance. Here is the basic step:
And here are some pros dancing bachata:
Since I came to Colombia I’ve learned to appreciate many things about the United States that I never realized were so special. One of these things is the fact that you can so easily find things from so many cultures in the U.S. Here in Bucaramanga there are zero places to go out and here bachata, but a quick google search revealed all sorts of places in Denver where you can hear bachata and take bachata lessons. It’s funny sometimes to me how much more accessible certain aspects of Latin culture are in Denver than in Bucaramanga.
Three websites with lots of information about the history of bachata: