Bachata music has lately threatened to take over Latin pop radio. Turn on your local station for a half-hour and you’ll hear the romantic fibs and bereft longings of some bachata singer, like Prince Royce or Romeo Santos, handing you his still-beating heart over guitar arpeggios and ticky-ticky percussion. (Women sing this stuff, too, though most conspicuously in duets with men.) Back in the ‘90s, Santos and his band Aventura innovated traditional bachata by mixing it with R&B chord changes and vocal mannerisms. This proved a winning combination, since R&B singers also truck in romantic fibs and bereft longings, and Aventura achieved crossover success and began printing money.
Integral to bachata’s sound are its guitars. If you count modern bachata as an R&B subgenre — and you really should — it’s the most guitar-centric of any R&B that currently charts. When contemporary R&B highlights a guitar, it strums a ballad or throws in a novelty solo. (Think Lil’ Wayne’s “How To Love” or Beyoncé’s “1+1”.) The sound of bachata, though, is unimaginable without the guitars: bright rhythm and lead lines interlocking with the percussion, creating clockwork structures whose regularity and precision provide secure frames of reference for all the vocal emoting. The guitar solos can be pretty impressive, too; bachata still prizes virtuosity.
It’s always done so, on the evidence of these two recent albums of traditional bachata. Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue compiles Dominican recordings from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, and The Bachata Legends gathers many of the same players, Buena Vista Social Club-style, to recreate old songs live in a modern studio. This traditional music resembles Aventura and friends in its abundant guitars, steady 8th-note rhythms, and bittersweet vocalizing. But Bachata Roja also betrays unexpected variety, both in beats and lyrics. It showcases a genre still in the process of being codified, and therefore looser and wider-ranging than its modern incarnation lets on. Listening to Roja is sort of like hearing about the wild early lives of your grandparents, before they settled into the predictable grandparentness you know and love.
The wildest guy on Roja is Eladio Romero Santos, who celebrates girls and knife fights in “Las tres muchachas” and wanders through a drunken haze in “A los 15 o 20 tragos” (“At 15 or 20 drinks”), which Eric Church should totally cover. Santos’s music is irresistible and closer to merengue; his guitar work is less intricate but more danceable than most bachata, and his percussion parts have more space and variety. For straight up bachata heartache, there’s Augusto Santos (no relation), who implores “Con el amor no se juega” (“Do not play with love”) and claims “Yo soy puro amor” (“I am pure love”). His voice floats like a feather while his guitar picking and background singers elaborate his anguish. “What springs from my chest is pure love”, he sobs. Eek.
Most of Roja’s songs fall somewhere between those two extremes. Indeed, most tracks are in major keys, and while very few evoke the most disgusting scene from the movie Alien, they do get their love and their pain all tangled together. The music gets tangled, too. Like lots of genres in the process of being formed, this early bachata borrowed songs and styles from other places: Ramón Cordero adapted Mexican rancheros; Ramón Isidro Cabrera drew from Spanish décima poetry, and so on. Cordero sings with a wonderful smoky tenor, a bit like Harry Belafonte. Cabrera, meanwhile, uses his braying timbre to appropriate a Spanish persona called “El Chivo sin ley” (aka “the lawless Goat”); he’d run with it the rest of his career. The hard-living Marino Perez laments never taking his mother’s advice over adventurous chord changes that try to escape their own song. (He’s rumored to have vomited up his own liver, but that can’t be true, can it?) And along with Augusto Santos, the great guitarist Edilio Paredes livens up many of these tunes with virtuosic lines that astonish and delight.
I have a theory, rejected by Science, that tone color is the strongest musical memory trigger — stronger than melody, harmony, or rhythm, and comparable to smell in its power to conjure forgotten places and feelings. Roja bursts with memorable tone colors in guitars and voices, the odd saxophone, and instrumental variety from song to song. It’s an expert compilation. Less successful is the newly recorded Legends, which features our friends Paredes, Cordero, El Chivo, and Augusto Santos, among others. Paredes remains a guitar hero — the warring rhythms of “Calzoncillo largo” dropped my jaw — but the men’s voices have lost some distinction and the overall sound is too homogeneous to maintain excitement. Still, when the Lawless Goat honks out the quick “Tirale bajito” with accordion and merengue rhythms, he proves that traditional bachata has some surprises left in it.