When we talk about bachata, we often think of sensual moves, parties, and even an offensive way of referring to women.
However, the danceable musical genre born in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s has much more in its baggage than our imagination can offer. Influenced by rhythms such as Bolero, son Cubano, or Mexican and Puerto Rican trios, bachata was generally accompanied by nostalgic lyrics that spoke of the love and heartbreak of its interpreters.
And its history does not end there.
The origin of this musical genre is related to the end of a dictatorship, a deep-rooted class conflict, U.S. interventionism, and the diaspora.
A sudden death opens up a range of opportunities
Bachata music was born in the 1960s in the Dominican Republic as a slightly more “rhythmic” bolero. Some sources point to a rural origin, and others to an origin in the poorer neighborhoods of Santo Domingo, the capital. One way or another, both versions agree that bachata was considered at the time a type of “minor music.”
The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, was assassinated on May 30, 1961. The social crisis of the tumultuous years following his death allowed bachata to reach a wider audience as part of the cultural response to the situation.
As Deborah Pacini Hernández explains in her article “La lucha sonora”: Dominican Popular Music in the Post-Trujillo Era, during the years before 1961, both Rafael Trujillo and his brother, José Arismendi Trujillo, had strong control over the country’s music industry. Rafael owned the best merengue orchestra in the Dominican Republic and José the country’s best recording facilities — which he didn’t make available for commercial recording.
Consequently, Pacini explains, the domestic music industry didn’t grow in the way it could have. Once they left the scene, musicians and entrepreneurs finally began exploiting the country’s musical traditions.
Back then, bachata was simply called “guitar music” or “música de amargue” (music for being bitter or blue), referring to its frequent heart-broken lyrics. Luis Segura “El Añoñaito” — also remembered as the Father of Bachata — gave the genre its characteristic guitar sound when bachata was still frowned upon.
The richness of influences
The fact that the Trujillos lost their monopoly over the country’s music opened the doors for other musical genres to come into the island, such as British rock or salsa — the Fania Records was founded in 1964 as Dominican Johnny Pacheco continued cultivating his musical revolution in New York City — and impulsed local entrepreneurs to invest more in the broadcast of local music in order to compete.
As Pacini recalls, the merengue orchestra was the best-suited format for that race, as Trujillo had made sure it was recognized as the preferred music by the urban middle and upper classes and had access to media coverage and capital investment. This was not the case for bachata since its poor origins and frequent mentions of drinking and love adventures added to the social prejudice.
The first radio to broadcast bachata — and, for a long time, the only one — was Radio Guarachita. Founded in 1964, it opened an era of a radio that offered social services as it reached the entire republic, worked 24 hours and was used by the audience to communicate with their loved ones in times where cellphones didn’t exist.
All of this coincides with a spike in Dominican migration to the US after Trujillo’s murder, which ended a strict control on emigration. This phenomenon only grew when the American government intervened in 1965 after the break of the Dominican civil war.
The then US president, Lyndon B. Johnson, argued the Marines’ intervention was to rescue Americans stuck on the island. Still, the National Security Archives show his main interest was preventing the Dominican Republic from becoming “another Cuba.”
And so, the genre has a name
By the early ’70s, radio stations stopped referring to “guitar music” and began using the word “bachata.” Meanwhile, Dominican migration continued growing until it peaked in 1999.
Migration is an essential part of bachata’s development, as rural migrants to the US brought the sounds with them — as bachata singer Teodoro Reyes points out in Luis Vargas’ documentary Santo Domingo Blues — and boosted the commercial success of the genre in the States.
As bachata musicians could travel, make good profits, and return home enriched, it changed the genre’s image and the stigma against it.
The influence of migration in bachata’s history is exponential from here on. On one side, bachata became one of the Dominican’s ways of expressing themselves in the face of a country scattered all over the world to survive.
What bachata did to Dominican culture, families, future, and how it created beauty despite the distance is, as Dominican writer Junot Díaz said to NPR’s Alt Latino in 2016, the biggest piece of art that came out of that diaspora.
On the other side, the sons of immigrants to the US are writing the next chapter of bachata’s history. Romeo Santos is the most prominent exponent of this generation of Americans with Dominican roots pushing bachata’s commercial success and Dominican-American history.