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The Humble Roots Of Old-School Bachata

Friday in New York, four legends of Dominican bachata music will take the stage as part of the Chase Latino Cultural Festival.

The musicians, all in their 60s, play a type of bachata little known outside of the Dominican Republic. It's a musical style pioneered by poor or rural Dominicans and heard most often in bars, bordellos or beachfront card parties.

The music has experienced a small revival, thanks to a CD released last year called Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era. This summer, bachata legends have played festivals across the country.

Tufts professor Deborah Pacini Hernandez wrote the liner notes to the album. She recently spoke with Michele Norris about old-school bachata.

"It was all guitar-based," she says. "That's one of the things that distinguishes it from other music. And it's a particular style of playing the guitar — it's sort of arpeggiated picking rather than strumming."

Bachata, Hernandez says, is also a lyrical music. Usually, the subject has to do with love lost or love desired — similar to its U.S. equivalent, the blues.

"It's been compared to the blues in the past," Hernandez says. "It absolutely has. I think in terms of, structurally, the kind of folks who were making it, people on the margins of society — this was the blues in some way. It's a little more cheerful, though, than the blues. Even songs where they're singing about the treachery of a woman ... if you just listen to them musically, they still sound kind of sweet."

Early bachata came with a social stigma, as well. According to Hernandez, dictator Rafael Trujillo despised bachata. He wanted all music played publicly to reflect a modern society, and bachata players — often poor, rural or uneducated — did not reflect his image of a modern regime.

The connotation lingered after Trujillo's death in 1961.

"People with middle-class aspirations just ignored it, stayed away from it," Hernandez says. "And, worse than that, gave it names — you know, called it names. Because it initially — the word 'bachata' — meant just a backyard party. But in the 1970s, they started using it as an insult."

Today, bachata is not only the term of art; it is one of the most popular styles of Latin dance music worldwide. Today's bachateros have updated the sound with electric instrumentation and contemporary urban dress. But Hernandez says the genre's acoustic roots live on.

"Now, back in the Dominican Republic, you probably would find that more contemporary bachata, the well-produced bachata," she says. "But I'll bet that in the countryside, you have the little trios — neighborhood trios playing their music on weekends in a little country store or a little bar. ... [T]hat sort of more grassroots bachata I'm pretty sure is still going on."

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