Bachata culture is a study in yin and yang. For legions of fans around the world, bachata is simply a form of entertainment, recreation or escapism – enchantingly exotic music and intimate dancing to lyrics most fans can’t understand. One might think of bachata as a sort of romantic bubble.
Salsa is similar, though there are many veterans who still recall its roots in the political battles of the 1960s and 70s, when salsa was born in New York City. Unfortunately, that story is largely lost to salser@s who were born after that exciting period.
Bachata’s roots are even more obscure. Born on a Caribbean island whose name most people would’t even recognize, languishing under a bloody U.S.-backed dictator whose name few U.S. citizens would recognize – including myself, until I began researching this article.
Don’t worry, I have plenty to say about bachata etiquette, fashion and events in this section. But I want to focus on the dark side of bachata culture as well.
First, let’s divide bachata culture into that which we can clearly see – the contemporary mainstream bachata scene, which has mushroomed into a global phenomenon – and the largely invisible behind-the-scenes story that has been all but buried in bachata’s native Dominican republic.
I refer to the former as Pop Bachata (short for popular bachata) and the latter as Political Bachata (though socio-political bachata might be a better term).
Pop(ular) Bachata ˆ
Bachata is no fad! It’s been around for over half a century and is fluorishing as never before.
Nevertheless, the music and dance styles that are most popular outside the Dominican Republic are quite new and sometimes seem somewhat faddish. Who knows? Maybe certain bachata styles or elements will turn out to be fads after all.
Thus, the name pop bachata, suggesting something new and cool but perhaps not as deep as traditional Dominican bachata.
Who dances bachata? ˆ
I know very little about the demographics of bachata dancers, but I’ll venture a few guesses.
Obviously, bachata is a popular dance in the Dominican Republic. It has also become popular in much of Latin America, the United States, Europe, Australia and probably a few other places.
It would appear that salsa and bachata are practically joined at the hip. Salsa clubs increasingly play an occasional bachata song, and many of them have special bachata events.
Thus, it’s a safe bet that bachateros are pretty similar to salseros. More precisely, most bachata dancers are salseros. Like salsa, bachata attracts people of all ages, though it tends to be youth oriented.
I suspect the average bachatero is a little younger than the average salsero. I further suspect that people enrolled in bachata classes are more likely to include couples, since bachata is a more intimate dance.
But those are just guesses. It will be interesting to hear what bachata instructors have to say about it.
Etiquette & Conventions ˆ
Because bachata is such an intimate dance, bachateros tend to be a little pickier about their partners than salsa dancers. For example, some women may dance salsa with strangers but bachata only with their boyfriends or husbands.
Bachata’s intimacy also demands that men, in particular, pay closer attention to their dress. Front pockets should be empty, as you don’t want to grind your wallet or pen into your partner’s pelvis. Men should also wear briefs, not boxer shorts.
Of course, not all bachata dances are intimate; dancing bachata in open position can be less intimate than salsa. Overall, the rules are pretty much the same as for salsa.
Bachata promoter Rodney Aquino (aka Rodchata) says the major salsa and bachata events have become more snobbish (Snobs, Inc – The Elitists And Their Influence In The Dance World, Rodchata.com, Oct. 24, 2010). In fact, competition and rivalry – between dancers, instsructors or cliques – is a fact of life. But dancers are ultimately individuals, and if you find yourself stuck in a dreary Latin dance scene or a bummer of an event, don’t give up; there are nice people out there somewhere, some of them remarkably like you.
Castes & Cliques ˆ
Since most bachateros are also salseros, it’s reasonable to expect a similar situation in regard to cliques and castes – hierarchies based on dance experience and skills (see Salsa > Cliques, Castes ∓ Etiquette). However, I suspect castes are less prominent in bachata, partly because its a newer dance with more beginners – including many salsa instructors – and partly because the bachata crowd is a lot smaller than the salsa crowd.
From salsa to samba to tango, Latin music and dance in general is renowned for its sexiness. But bachata takes it to a new level.
Its long association with prostitution and sexual innuendo, combined with the intimacy of the dance, made bachata taboo in its own homeland. and what’s one to make of the steamy posters and album covers that hype bachata even today?
Many people would be surprised at how clean bachata really is overall. The lyrics have changed perhaps even more than the sound, and people now typically listen and dance to bachata in wholesome clubs rather than brothels. As if searching for bachata’s roots, some bachata festivals feature outdoor dancing.
Taking it one step further, some people dance bachata only with significant others, reserving stranger dances for salsa, merengue, etc. Another strategy is to tone down the dance. After all, the dance is only as intimate as a dancer wants it to be; it’s quite innocuous when danced in open position.
But even people who turn bachata into a bump’n grind fest may not be as oversexed as a casual observer might think. That’s just how some people dance bachata.
Like salsa, bachata can be thought of as a fantasy, a tropical bubble wherein people can shamelessly flirt and act sexy without even learning each other’s names.
Bachata Fashion ˆ
Does bachata have an official color? I can’t think about bachata without seeing the color pink – hot pink. but is that some sort of instinct, or has bachata caliente simply used too much subliminal suggestion on me?
Of course, fans can always wear shirts advertising their favorite bachata school or festival.
However, bachata fashion appears to be pretty similar to salsa fashion overall. That only makes sense, since salsa and bachata are now frequently played side by side in venues around the world.
But do people who attend bachata festivals dress different than salsa congress attendees? I’d guess that sandals may be fairly popular bachataware, as bachateros are more likely to dance outside than salseros, and there usually isn’t as much focus on multiple turns and fancy shines as there is in salsa.
Otherwise, I haven’t been able to detect a distinct bachata fashion in photos I’ve perused. However, it would be interesting to hear from salsa/bachata fans with an eye for fashion.
Bachata Events ˆ
Salsa congresses now have a counterpart in bachata festivals (along with a few bachata congresses). They’re widespread, ranging from Finland to Hawaii, with new bachata festivals popping up all the time.
There’s little point in attempting to list them all when others have already made the attempt. check out the following links, among others:
The big difference is that bachata festivals are a much newer phenomenon than their salsa counterparts. Communities that hosted their first International Bachata Festival in 2009 include San Francisco; Gothenburg, Sweden; Warsaw, Poland and Vilnius, Lithuania. International bachata festivals were apparently held in Finland (Tampere and Helsinki) and Australia (Sydney) in 2008. Surprisingly, the first Los Angeles Bachata Festival wasn’t held until 2010.
International bachata competitions similarly resemble their salsa counterparts. There’s no single organization with jurisdiction over bachata competitions and thus no official international competition. There’s also an inherent bias in that would be contenders from, say, Argentina may not be inclined to fly to Los Angeles to participate in a “world championship” event. Therefore, one might argue that there’s really no such thing as a world champion bachater@, when three different couples could win three different “international” competitions.
As near as I can determine, the first Mayan Bachata Competition and the first Reno International Bachata Competition/Convention/Festival were both held in 2009.
It’s amazingly hard to find detailed information about world salsa/bachata championships – including lists of past winners – online. I have learned that approximately 400 bachateros attended the first Reno bachata event (Jan. 9-11, 2009). (You can find more information in the article First Reno International Bachata Convention – Event Review, Juan Ruiz, Bachateros Online Magazine.) But I’m not even sure who won. Cristian Oviedo and Alien Ramirez – both world salsa champions – won the Mayan Bachata Competition that year.
At any rate, there are lots of bachata events out there. And if you don’t win a world bachata championship, you can always wait a month or two and enter another one.
Club Scene ˆ
In spite of its popularity, bachata is largely a ward of salsa. One simply can’t expect exclusive bachata clubs to pop up all over the place when existing salsa clubs are struggling to survive in a ravaged economy.
For most people (in the U.S., at least) dancing bachata means visiting a local salsa club and keeping your ears perked for the occasional bachata song. However, some clubs have special bachata events.
Of course, there are special bachata events outside the club scene, including a growing number of bachata festivals and bachata socials sponsored by dance schools.
Political Bachata ˆ
“The history of bachata is the history of the Dominican Republic. The pervasive heartache at the core of the genre was born out of the brutality of the decades-long dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, known pejoratively as ‘The Goat.’ His reign over the Republic was one of the most brutal of the twentieth century, wherein torture and kidnapping were common everyday events for citizens. So pervasive was his control, that all forms of non-state approved music were banned under threat of imprisonment and torture. Upon Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, bachata burst onto the scene, pioneered by the intrepid José Manuel Calderón, the de facto ‘Father of Bachata.’” — About Bachata, eHow
Latin music and dance mean different things to different people. Of course, the most obvious attraction is the fact that it is – or at least can be – fun. But it seems sad to me that so many fans have so little interest in the culture. Even sadder is the raw anger and contempt many display at the mere mention of politics in association with Latin music and dance. Saddest of all is the ignorance displayed by those who insist there is no political connection, period.
To be brutally blunt, they’re delusional. It doesn’t take much research to learn about the role politics played in salsa, from slavery to the Cuban Revolution and embargo to the social upheavals in the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s.
But what about bachata? It was born in a sleepy island nation whose name most Americans wouldn’t even recognize. bachata is a cool dance, but the story behind its origin has to be hopelessly boring, right?
Yankee Imperialism ˆ
In fact, bachata’s story is very political. It’s also very sleazy, tragic and infinitely sad. Yet it’s hard to ignore, for it’s intriguing and maybe even inspirational. Some people might even consider it a story of some importance.
To put this story in perspective, everyone with a clue about politics or current events knows that the U.S. establishment hates Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who’s unflinchingly portrayed as a cruel dictator. But have you ever heard of Rafael Trujillo? Ruling the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s second largest country after Cuba, he was one of the twentieth century’s bloodiest dictators – and he was supported by the U.s.
Or consider the nation the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with, Haiti. Its story is perhaps even more tragic, and it doesn’t put the U.S. in a favorable light, either. But let me get back on topic…
In 1916, the U.S. military forces occupied the Dominican Republic due to threats of defaulting on foreign debts. When U.S. troops left in 1924, they left Trujillo in charge.
Trujillo won a 1930 presidential election by a whopping 95%. In fact, the number of votes he received outnumbered the country’s population. A judge who declared the election fraudulent was forced to flee.
When the general took office on August 16, he wore a sash with the motto, “Dios y Trujillo” (God & Trujillo). Trujillo immediately assumed dictatorial powers. He made the Dominican Party the sole legal political party – and not joining it could be fatal. The capital city of Santo Domingo was renamed Ciudad trujillo.
The U.S. supported Trujillo through three decades of torture and mass murder. Trujillo returned the favor by doing the United States’ bidding. During World War II, he even declared war against Germany and Japan, though the Dominican Republic was never involved in any fighting.
As greedy as Bill Gates, Trujillo eventually controlled about three-fifths of the Dominican economy, making him one of the richest people in the world. In other news, Trujillo didn’t like bachata; under his reign of terror, the genre was virtually banned.
Like other tyrants supported by the U.S. (e.g. Saddam Hussein), Trujillo eventually fell out of favor, probably because he was becoming too powerful and/or he embarrassed the U.S. with an assassination attempt that injured Venezuela’s President Rómulo betancourt.
The CIA’s efforts to assassinate Trujillo finally paid off in May 1961. Probably no other event is more important in bachata history, as bachata artists immediately began recording their previously suppressed music. But the story doesn’t end there.
A physician named Juan Bosch was elected to replace Trujillo in 1962. He was anti-communist and pro-business – just the kind of puppet the U.S. establishment likes. Unfortuately, Bosch was bent on establishing a “decent democratic regime” through land reform, low-rent housing and public works projects. So he was deposed by a CIA-backed coup after less than a year in office.
After months of military rule, a pro-Bosch revolt broke out. U.S. president Lyndon Johnson responded by launching yet another military invasion of the Dominican Republic. The occupying forces left after supervising elections in 1966 won by Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo’s last puppet-president. Balaguer’s twelve-year tenure was marked by repression of human rights and civil liberties under the guise of warding off communism.
This was the era when cabaret bachata was in vogue, and there was no bigger cabaret bachata star than Marino Perez. In his article Marino Perez, David Wayne writes, “With candid feeling and dark humor, Perez sang the story of bars and barrios where jealous lovers quarrel, men and women betray one another, insults are traded, and the ubiquitous bottle of rum is always present.”
Perez lived the debauchery he sang about, allegedly dying when he vomited up his liver (though I don’t think that’s really possible). And if you haven’t read this series introductory article yet, I should point out that, in the Dominican Republic, cabaret is a euphemism for brothel.
Racism & Sexism ˆ
The Dominican Republic’s Independence Day – Feb. 27 – celebrates the end of its 22-year occupation from neighboring Haiti, rather than the end of Spanish colonialism, which lasted for centuries (Deborah Pacini Hernandez, p 130). Though Trujillo didn’t invent racism, he cruelly exploited it, even ordering the military to kill all Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, an event remembered as the Parsley massacre.
Even in the mid-1990s, Deborah Pacini Hernandez reported that dark-skinned residents of the Dominican Republic are referred to (and refer to themselves) as Indians, even though the native peoples were exterminated by the Spanish long ago. The term negros is reserved for Haitians (p 131).
Similarly, the Dominican Republic remains a major player in the international sex trade.
Thus, bachata isn’t really the story of shattered romance so much as a battered people.
The Two Bachatas ˆ
The post-Trujillo intrigue and corruption largely coincided with the period during which bachata was, figuratively speaking, in the gutter. It was the music of the underclass, and that underclass was arguably the legacy of political corruption and persecution, with the United States’ stamp of approval.
Though things have improved, corruption and various social ills still plague the Dominican Republic. Unemployment, government corruption, and inconsistent electric service remain major Dominican problems. The country also has marked income inequality.
Not surprisingly, living conditions in the Dominican Republic fuel an ongoing diaspora; one tenth of the Dominican Republic’s GDP comes from emigrants.
Thus, we have two bachatas: The rock-star icons of urban bachata and their legions of yuppie fans and traditional Dominican bachata, which is still confronted with a painful reality.* I was intrigued by what Benjamin de Ménil had to say about his “discovery” of bachata star Joan Soriano (Joan Soriano Stays Loyal to His Bachata Roots in the Dominican Republic)…
“‘On my first trip to the Dominican Republic, on the afternoon of my arrival I went to see a band play at a car wash,’ he says. ‘Carwashes often have bars and live music there. Joan was playing – it was the first time I saw him play. I remember there was a man there with a silver revolver stuffed under his belt buckle, and he was dancing close to his girlfriend with the gun pressed between them. It felt like the wild west.’
“That extended beyond the car wash/saloon.
“‘While we were recording, I stayed in Joan’s house,’ de Ménil says. ‘There is no running water and electricity for only a few hours a day. There is an outhouse, but going out to it at night can be dangerous. The studio had a generator, running water and a bathroom – much appreciated amenities. Even if the walls were covered with termites.’”
Though commercialization has cleaned up bachata’s lyrics, it hasn’t really cleaned up its native environment. Thus, uran bachata arguably isn’t really an example of art imitating life – unless you interpret its painful lyrics as a continuation of doble sentido, with unrequited love representing life in general.
Rather, it appears that bachata music and dance both may have forked into two primary branches – traditional Dominican bachata (aka the Dominican blues) and pop bachata.
I listen mostly to popular bachata, but I’m intrigued by classic bachata and hope to one day see representatives of either style embrace politics. Imagine a bachater@ like Hector Lavoe or Rubén Blades – salsa superstars known for their hard-hitting political themes – composing and singing bachata, with an occasional song condeming Yankee imperialism or corporate corruption or even commemorating the Mirabal sisters.
Sorry, am I rambling and getting ahead of myself? While I was working on this article, I learned about a new movie – Trópico de Sangre – starring Michelle Rodriquez, who plays one of the “butterflies” (Mirabal sisters).
No stranger to political drama, Rodriguez played an anti-WTO protester in Battle in Seattle, a movie that was unfortunately manipulated – pretty much butchered – presumably with the help of a bribe or threat by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Her most familiar role is probably as the intergalactic helicopter pilot who turns her guns on her fellow marines in Avatar.
But her role in Trópico de Sangre hits closer to home, for Rodriguez spent part of her youth in the Dominican Republic, where her mother was born. Several salsa movies have been released. wouldn’t it be cool if michelle rodriguez starred in a movie about bachata, one that explored the music’s roots?
At any rate, Trópico de Sangre will be released with English subtitles in December (2010), just a few weeks after this article was published. It sounds like a movie every bachata fan should see, even though it probably doesn’t even mention bachata.
Please excuse my rambling; Latin music can excite the mind as much as the body. 🙂
My primary reference for this article – or at least for the portions focusing on politics – is Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music (Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Temple University Press, 1995). Listed below are some additional resources.
- Popular Bachata
- Bachata – The Music of Bitterness (Tijana Ilich, about.com)
- Bachata Rosa (wikipedia)
- Snobs, Inc – The Elitists And Their Influence In The Dance World (Rodney Aquino, Rodchata.com, oct. 24, 2010)
- Latin dance etiquette (SeaLatin)
- Latin dance customs, icons & symbols (SeaLatin)
- Political Bachata
- Marino Perez (David Wayne, IASO Records)
- Joan Soriano Stays Loyal to His Bachata Roots in the Dominican Republic (Steve Hochman, Spinner, sept. 28, 2010)
- dominican republic (mark zepezauer, the CIA’s greatest hits)
- Rafael Trujillo (Wikipedia)
- Mirabal sisters (wikipedia)
- Trópico de Sangre