Moving from el Campo to the Garden
By Deborah Pacini Hernandez
Romeo performs bachata with a silky and seductive voice. Photo by Ernie Rodriguez.
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 guitar-based 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. The countryside continued to produce musicians versatile in the emerging style, but music industry recording took place in the capital Santo Domingo, so musicians seeking a recording career necessarily migrated there.
A poster in Barcelona. Photo by Deborah Pacini Hernandez.
Over time, the music, originally characterized (indeed, stigmatized) by its rural aesthetics, was urbanized, expressing the sounds and sensibilities of shantytown life, especially the social and emotional disruptions experienced by underemployed men. Some musicians, such as Luis Segura (recognized as one of the fathers of bachata), maintained the tradition of romantic lyrics, but others began composing songs with bawdy lyrics reflecting the erotic preoccupations of men whose social worlds were centered in neighborhood bars and brothels. Women were treated harshly in these bachata lyrics, appearing as treacherous and untrustworthy beings whose uncontrolled sexual appetites threatened men’s well-being.
While poor Dominicans embraced the emerging style, the upper layers of Dominican society were scandalized by the crudeness of the music and its ribald lyrics, as well as the lack of sophistication of the barely literate musicians themselves. Scorned by mainstream society, bachata was effectively boycotted by the mainstream media: only one Santo Domingo radio station, Radio Guarachita, would play it, and in rural areas it could be heard only on programs airing in the pre-dawn hours, when campesinos were getting ready to go to work. Live performances took place only in neighborhood bars that “respectable” folk would consider disreputable.
Despite these obstacles, bachata continued to grow in popularity as it developed stylistically: electric guitars and bass drum were added to the original lineup of two acoustic guitars, bongo, and maracas, and the Dominican guira scraper substituted for the traditional maracas. Groups also began incorporating more songs in merengue rhythm, long the country’s most popular dance. Dozens of bachata musicians became locally successful among consumers who, like the performers themselves, were at the bottom of the Dominican Republic’s social hierarchy, although their economic success was limited by their exclusion from the mainstream music industry.
At the turn of the millennium, bachata’s low social status began to improve. In 1990, sensing a cultural phenomenon at a grass roots level, Juan Luis Guerra, a Berklee College of Music-trained jazz and merengue musician of middle-class origins, released a recording entitled Bachata Rosa, which won a Latin Grammy and brought the Dominican genre to the attention of international audiences. Despite its title, the recording contained only three highly stylized, elegant bachatas, but the stamp of approval given to bachata by one of the country’s most well-respected musicians began opening doors to the mainstream media. Through these doors stepped a younger generation of bachata singers such as Luis Vargas and Raulín Rodríguez, whose careers, now supported by the resources of the country’s mainstream entertainment industries, began taking off. Many Dominicans, especially those who had always associated bachata with vulgarity and poverty, continued to avoid the style, but it had moved out of its former confines.
As bachata evolved in Santo Domingo, thousands of working-class Dominicans were migrating to New York and other northeastern cities: numbering only 11,883 in 1960, people of Dominican descent in the U.S. increased to over 537,000 by 1993, and by 2006 the numbers had risen to over 1,217,000. If the first generation of Dominican migrants preferred the familiar sounds of merengue and bachata to connect them to home, their U.S.-born or raised children were eagerly absorbing the hip hop and R&B permeating New York’s soundscape. Inevitably, these urban African-American sounds made their way into the musical preferences and practices of young “Dominican Yorks” and other Dominican-Americans.
Aventura, the first U.S.-based bachata group to achieve success, retained the traditional guitar and bongo-based sounds of Dominican bachata, but in their 2000 debut recording Generation Next, they constructed a New York rather than an island-based identity in their cover art, in which the group posed in front of an unmistakably New York apartment building. They also included a song, “Cuando Volverás,” whose lyrics switched seamlessly between Spanish and English—the first time English had been heard in bachata. In subsequent recordings, Aventura continued to weave hip hop and R&B aesthetics into bachata, articulating the bicultural experiences of their Dominican-American peers and other similarly bilingual and bicultural Latino youth.
In the wake of the successes of Aventura and Romeo—after he went on to become a soloist—interest in bachata spread throughout Latin America and then to Europe and Asia, encouraged by the emergence of other New York-based bilingual and bicultural bachata groups such as Bachata Heightz, Xtreme and Prince Royce. Increasing its reach even further, bachata dancing has also gone global. As an Internet search will quickly reveal, bachata dance congresses and festivals are take place worldwide, with the preferred dance music recorded by young U.S.-based bachateros, who are considered more cosmopolitan than their more traditional Dominican counterparts.
Today, bachata, once considered an artless music created by poor campesinos who didn’t know any better, has travelled and triumphed beyond anyone’s expectations. Its trajectory, however, is much more than a simple story of stylistic evolution leading to economic success. The globally interconnected social contexts in which bachata is being performed and consumed reflect the transnational and circular flows of people, media and ideas between home and host countries.
One example is how Dominican racial identity is being negotiated in contemporary bachata. In the Dominican Republic (as elsewhere in the Americas) poverty correlates strongly with race, but early bachata was perceived simply as poor people’s music, never as a black or diasporic music in the same way that, say, reggae or salsa’s African influences were acknowledged when they emerged within similarly impoverished and dark-skinned communities. This deflection of race is the product of Dominicans’ longstanding ways of understanding race and their nation’s racial identity: dark skinned Dominicans have historically been referred to as indios rather than black; only Haitians are considered negros. In the United States, however, with its “one-drop” rule, dark-skinned immigrants would fall into the black category, but Dominican immigrants have generally refused to accept this racial construct, insisting on identifying themselves nationally—as Dominicans.
By imbuing their music with hip hop and R&B aesthetics, and recording highly visible music and video duets with leading African-American stars, however, U.S.-based bachateros have visually and audibly located their music in close proximity to the African-American end of the U.S. popular music spectrum. It is not surprising, then, that their New York style music is being referred to as bachata urbana, which distinguishes it from the island style. In the United States, the term urban has long indexed African-American styles, from soul and funk to hip hop and R&B, so this linguistic designation might suggest a shift in the racial identities of young Dominican-American musicians and their fans. Yet, if dark-skinned Dominicans in the United States have understood that whether they like it or not, their skin color places them within the U.S.’s black category, they distinguish themselves from their African-Americans peers through their use of Spanish. Fully bilingual, these young musicians could seek to increase their audience base by singing more in English, but Romeo and his peers continue to prioritize Spanish, or Spanglish, in order to underscore their Latinidad, and to maintain themselves within the racial ambiguity of these categories. Prince Royce, for example, had a 2010 hit with his bilingual bachata version of Ben E. King’s 1961 hit “Stand By Me,” but when New York Times’ Jon Caramanica asked him for his thoughts about performing it in English, Royce responded: “It’s not as easy as it sounds. Plus it’s a very sensitive situation right now,” making it clear that his core fans, while appreciating the hip hop and R&B influences, continue to insist that bachata be sung primarily in Spanish. In short, bachata’s signature musical aesthetics—the acoustic guitar arpeggios and bongo drum rhythms—may be essential ways of displaying Dominican-ness, but even when the musical style is heavily indebted to African American aesthetics, language serves as a powerful way of constructing distinctions between Dominican and African-American racial identities.
André Veloz is a popular female bachatera. Photo by KBCRadio.
Changing Dominican understandings of gender roles can also be perceived in the music’s recent trajectory. Only a handful of female bachata singers have established a name for themselves since bachata coalesced into a genre: bachata performance has always been, and continues to be, a primarily male-dominated genre. The audiences, however, have changed dramatically as the new generation of bachata musicians eschewed the raunchier and mysogynistic lyrics characteristic of their predecessors, relying instead more on romantic songs of love and loss—sentiments likely to appeal to immigrants longing for loved ones at home, and more specifically, to women. The newer generation of singers, whose soft and pleading voices expressed their emotional vulnerabilities, attracted women who formerly might have reluctant to associate with the disreputable genre, and who appreciated an alternative to more masculine genres such as hip hop and reggaeton. Thousands of men were in the audience at Romeo’s Madison Square Garden concerts, but it was widely understood that these men were likely there to please their girlfriends.
In the early 2000s, a number of successful male-female bachata duets appeared, such as Monchy y Alexandra, but no female soloist has been able to approximate the success of male singers such as Romeo and Prince Royce. Urban bachatera Leslie Grace had a hit in 2012 with “Will U Love Me Tomorrow,” a bilingual bachata version of the Shirelles’ 1960 song, and André Veloz is seeking to build her career on the original rootsy sound of traditional bachata but with feminist lyrics. It is noteworthy, then, that within such a highly masculine domain, which reflects the Dominican Republic’s traditionally patriarchal society, the issue of homophobia is being addressed in this music. In 2007, Andy Peña, a not widely known merengue musician, released a bachata entitled “Quiero Volar,” which can be technically translated as “I want to fly,” although the verb volar is popularly used as a code word for “flighty” homosexual behavior. Peña’s video for this song features a somewhat heavy-set man in yellow, green and white tights and a bright pink top and cap, walking through the streets of Santo Domingo with mincing and exaggerated steps and gestures, and singing, in bachata’s classically melodramatic style, that he wants to “fly” but is restrained from expressing his true self by society, including his father. Not surprisingly, Peña began to be nicknamed el bachatero volador, or el bachatero gay.
The novelty of a bachatero gay led to television appearances in which Peña presented himself wearing make up, a pink head band, and singing with an exaggeratedly feminine voice and mannerisms. In interviews, however, he refused to explicitly identify as gay—or to deny that he was—insisting that it shouldn’t matter. This ambiguity increased the public’s fascination with Peña, especially since he admitted that he had a wife and three children—which led many to speculate that he was performing his gayness in order to attract attention and advance his career, or perhaps even as a piece of performance art. In 2014 Peña released a bachata entitled “Solo le pido a Dios,” presenting himself in the video as emotionally vulnerable but not conspicuously gay. So perhaps “Quiero Volar” was an act, but regardless, Peña stimulated a much-needed public dialogue about gender roles and homophobia. In 2014 Romeo continued the discussion with a song and video entitled “No tiene la culpa” (“It’s not his fault”), whose lyrics, urging tolerance for homosexuality, narrate the story of a gay teen harassed by his peers and rejected by his father. Romeo, correctly anticipating rumors that he wrote the song because he, too, is gay, sends a strong message affirming his own heterosexuality midway through the narrative with these lines, which he speaks rather than sings for greater emphasis: “100% heterosexual. I was born like this. And you?”
Other Latin America and Caribbean popular musical genres—son, salsa, merengue, reggae, reggaeton and cumbia—have similarly been born within the most dispossessed sectors of society, and gone on to achieve national and international popularity, and they have also been vehicles for lyrics addressing important social issues. But bachata’s ongoing trajectory from humble origins in the Dominican campo to the stage lights of Madison Square Garden and beyond, and its increasingly audible role as both reflection and agent of social change, make it a music well worth listening to.
Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Tufts University, is author of Oye Como Va!: Hybridity and Identity in Latin/o Popular Music; Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music; and co-editor of Reggaeton and Rockin’ Las Americas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America.