Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu January 17, 2008, 06:55 AM CST
The story behind Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era is filled with pistol shots, barroom brawls, and the assassination of a dictator. The sentimental accordion ballads that nurtured a generation of Dominicans disappeared from the radio along with Rafael Trujillo’s iron-fisted regime. The void they left was filled by the raucous, drunken whorehouse songs of the bachateros. Full of risqué double-entendres and ecstatic singing, these acoustic guitar gems dominated the Dominican charts from the 1960s through the 1980s, but they haven’t been heard by many outside of the country, until now. The new compilation Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era is a big-hearted, soulful, and exuberant celebration of this neglected genre of guitar music.
Trujillo hated the guitar. To him, it sounded low class. It was country music, and by his estimation the Dominican Republic needed to become a modern nation. The best way for him to achieve this was to get rid of the guitarists. For this and many other reasons, Trujillo’s life and dreams were cut short by a bullet in 1961. Before his corpse had a chance to get cold, guitarists, who had been forced to hide their instruments in their basements during Trujillo’s reign, dusted off their 6-strings, and a steady stream of bachata hits began to be heard in the nightclubs of the island’s biggest cities.
Bachata was made by migrants from the rural areas of the Dominican Republic who had come to the city in search of work. Banned from playing in upper class cabarets, musicians from the countryside had to earn their living elsewhere — usually in the nation’s cheaper drinking establishments and brothels. Regardless of its origins and no matter where one had to go to hear it, bachata became the popular soundtrack to working people’s lives.
Still, even after the death of Trujillo, it was hard for the bachateros to make ends meet. Traces of the old regime endured, and military police often physically restrained the musicians from performing their music. Crackdowns led to bar fights, gun fire, and jail time for anyone who was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These experiences made their way into the songs as the bachateros created ballads about the workers, drinkers, and prostitutes who composed their audience.
Radio Guarachita attempted to close the cultural gap between people living in the city and those who remained in the countryside, but it was the only station that would play bachata records. Consequently, the musicians had to rely upon on word-of-mouth advertising and live performances to survive. The big media companies in the Dominican Republic resisted the commercial appeal of this music, which forced its greatest proponents — Eladio Romero Santos, Leonardo Paniagua, and Juan Bautista, among them — to have to struggle to earn a living. Eventually, small labels began to appear, and the musicians — mostly a tightly knit group of friends and relatives — began to collaborate with each other on albums that were distributed by the shops located in the island’s poorest communities. The media elites lost out, and these cottage-industry pursuits became wildly lucrative and popular.
Over the next 20 years, bachata evolved to become more of a presence in the Dominican Republic’s mainstream culture. Its rough edges were smoothed, and the music became more romantic in its orientation. Electric guitars were introduced, and the style moved closer to merengue, sol, and salsa, which, in turn, opened the door for bachata to be heard throughout Latin America.
The history and concerns of the Dominican Republic are worlds away from the experiences of most people in North America, but the songs on Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era need no introduction or carefully contrived context to be enjoyed. Every track on the disc is a real gem that can be appreciated completely on its own terms. With its fluid and earthy instrumental passages, the album is an acoustic guitar lover’s dream. Without understanding a word of Spanish, one can hear the exuberance, struggle, and hard-earned victory that are embodied in each of the effort’s compositions. As the seasons change and the weather gets colder, Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era provides a window into a tropical world of times gone by. It is the perfect accompaniment for a solstice party spent wistfully gazing at the snow, dreaming of warmer days and mango- and papaya-strewn beaches.
Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box