Cheat Sheet: Rise of Bachata
by Rachel Devitt | January 13, 2011
If you're a new or casual fan of bachata, it may come as a surprise to learn that this massively popular genre (which can be heard streaming out of countless car windows and clubs across Latin America and the United States) was little known outside the Dominican Republic countryside just a few short years ago. And the fact that it was not only heavily stigmatized (and, at times, even persecuted) as, at best, embarrassingly backwoods and, at worst, the sound of depravity may be downright shocking. Truly, the slow, romantic, seemingly innocuous shuffling slide of the Caribbean style that today gives even reggaeton a run for its money belies its complicated, even tumultuous history. But it's that same struggle that gives the swaying rhythm of the bachata its substance.
The bachata began life as a kind of Dominican take on the Cuban bolero, a soft, romantic style of guitar music that grew and gained popularity across the countryside for years before it was even known by the name bachata (in fact, its early permutations were called bolero campesino). That naming and the codification of the style as a uniquely Dominican sound came about in the 1960s, its title taken from the gatherings that occurred around the music (bachata more or less translates as "party"). The sweet and at times almost mournful songs focused on themes of love, but they also often candidly addressed the plight of the impoverished, rural lower classes. It was a bold move that did not sit well with the ruling classes, who looked down upon the genre's frank sexuality and bold political stance. They denigrated it as a music of prostitution and crime and promoted the more middle-class merengue as the Dominican music. Bachateros, relegated to barrios and limited to just one national radio station, embraced their genre's "bad" rep, taking the opportunity to sing the little-heard stories of the difficulties of life in the country's underground.
That scrappiness ultimately paid off. At some point in the 1980s, the genre's undeniable (and ever-increasing) popularity won out over its bad rap. Electric guitars were introduced, merengue stars and other middle-class artists began experimenting with the style and bachateros began to become massive, international stars. Of course, in the process, a good deal of the revolutionary zeal was watered down or at least drowned out by the slicker, sexier, more urban sounds of modern bachata (which often include elements of hip-hop, R&B and reggaeton). But you don't have to dig very deep to discover the "secret," radical, underground history, which continues to influence the now very mainstream genre of bachata.
Take a tour of bachata's rise from the underground and the countryside to international prominence with our guide to its key albums and artists.