Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bachata: Generations Apart and Together

My daily trip to the mailbox reveals coveted surprises. Most often there is a pile of puffy brown envelopes containing any number of new albums, alongside the consistent spam (how do these people get my address…and when are they going to stop calling me “Mrs.” or “ Or Current Resident”) and bills, plenty of those. On Thursday, however, I received two packages that are so distinct yet so related I had to dive deeper.

In his excellent book The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music, from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond , journalist Ed Morales writes, “The tradition of storytelling remains strong in Latin American music, and the simple presence of a musician performing with just a guitar and a well-crafted song is something that seems essential to the Latin American soul.” When one listens to the classic sound of Dominican Republic bachata, one understands why its no surprise this is the style Morales used to introduce that sentiment.

Today, bachata is mostly known through the efforts of Latin pop outfits, notably Aventura, a Bronx-based outfit that sounds like an electronic Gypsy Kings jamming with the Conga Kings. Get behind the sheen and glossy production that often pervades their music, and heartfelt lyricisms are going on. It makes sense, as the bachata style — one that borrowed from the Spanish bolero in size and scope — is romantic by nature.

Another way to put it is romanticized. Bachata grew up in the barrio. The style’s story plays out like other oppressed musics of oppressed peoples: the fadistas of Lisbon, tango players in Buenos Aires, bluesmen in Mali and Mississippi. Servants would turn trashcans and fences into instruments in their nighttime escapades, and the words would tune hearts into a frequency unfed during daytime hours. This melancholic beauty (the style was originally dubbed amargue, which means “bitterness”) is the calling card of Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata From The Cabaret Era (Iaso).

Not all songs are sad; in fact, the reverse. There is something universal and consistent in yearning, and that economic and social quests often define the culture that creates it. So these troubadours celebrated the ‘60s and ‘70s with songs of drinking and women, of love lost and found (in a bottle, of course). As a certified sound, bachata did not come to national fame until the ‘80s, when drum machines and electric guitars infiltrated the studios and stage, and on an international level, even later, as in this current decade.

Bachata Roja takes a step back to explore the three decades prior to that wave of popularity, when it was considered the rowdy music of the lower class. What that means in terms of production is a stripped down, raw, stunningly gorgeous and soulful selection of songs recorded by musicians who knew nothing of fame and everything of passion. Which, of course, makes for the best music.

The quiver in his voice defines Felix Quintana’s heartbreaking “Ladrona”, a perfect example of what acoustic bachata stands for. The ballad is inquisitive and disdaining: in it he asks his lover to despise him, for his heart has been stolen. The guitar playing, so reminiscent of Mexican corrido and the itinerant reach of fado and flamenco, adds perfect accompaniment to Quintana’s broken voice.

While that sort of balladry exists all over this compilation, more upbeat tracks emerge. Juan Bautista’s guitarist is similar to the last mentioned, but the shaking roll of bongos and bass keeps things upbeat. Still, that quiver: Bautista’s lyrics, also about lost love, are equally heart wrenching. By the time you’re through with these 45 powerful minutes, heart and head have been spun through a washing machine numerous times. You emerge clean, and thankful.

A friend of mine had a similar story after leaving ALMA at New York’s Sullivan Room last Friday — that, essentially, she had been wrung out on the dance floor with sweat and smiles. This is a normal occurrence at this popular residency, which began over two years ago. I’ve gone through those twisting, aerobic dances myself, led by the knowing ears and fingers of DJ True and Miller Cruz. In celebration of this constantly growing and evolving headnod to South American dance, and dance music, comes ALMA: The Soul of Brazil in New York (Wave).

Whereas bachata began acoustic and turned electric, this party was always about digital beats. You will certainly hear the occasional capoeira cut led by berimbau, atabaque and pandeiro, but then again True is never shy about dropping Fela Kuti into the mix. Brazil is their jump-off point to exploring amazing global and house rhythms. For this first release they stick to some of the top electro-Brazil songs to keep the dance floor moving.

While this disc is a sonic lifetime from Bachata Roja, there is a common thread I know well from dancing in New York City for the past dozen years. As the ’90s wound down, more and more venues tailored for dancing dissipated, and more and more tailored for the scene associated with dancing, which is an entirely different thing altogether. The dance was never lost — it just became relegated to apartment and loft parties. During that time a few remained true to the dance, most notably Turntables on the Hudson, yet even they were pushed to the precipice of the island, on an old boat floating in murky waters. In response to this situation, quite a few parties have emerged over the past half-decade.

Joann Jimenez, one of the creators of ALMA, was involved in Body & Soul, a unique experience onto itself in the ‘90s. The party would take place on Sunday afternoon, with no drinking or drugs allowed. It was purely for the dance, and it was always packed to the brim. The ALMA disc is on Wave Music, the label founded by Francois K, who currently runs one of the most successful weekly parties in the city — and on Monday nights, no less. Deep Space has taken one of the more dreaded evenings and turned it into a haven of house and dub at Cielo.

The producers and DJs that created the tracks on the ALMA disc borrow from the folk traditions of Brazil: choro, forro, samba, capoeira and MPB. It layers the instruments and vocals into 120 bpm cuts that keep clubs and iPod buds bouncing for hours. This disc is a genuine reflection of the party, and we’ve already mentioned the commendable integrity involved with that. Thirteen tracks and nearly 80 minutes of percussion-driven and guitar-strummed hits provide a great introduction to the six hours of Friday you experience live.

Much like the nature of other Wave releases, this chooses more atmospheric clubs tracks, songs that ride on for seven or nine minutes with tasteful breaks of congas and plenty of blaring saxophones. My personal favorites come nearer to the beginning: a deep drum track by Ramiro Musotto, “Ijexa”, and the excellent remix of Cabruêra’s “Zabê Sabe” by Electrococo. These two are certain to become staples for my own dance floor selections.

Both of these compilations are reminders that the dance always and persistently continues, and by hearing so many artists in such little time, a reminder of the community intent of music pervades. People seek out the dance, and when they stumble upon it, support it lovingly. ALMA has had a devoted crowd of dancers for their two-plus years, as I’m sure the bachata crooners had acquired their own following of lovesick patrons. This is what we do as humans: find what hits us in the heartspace, and do everything to keep it alive. We have to. It defines who we are as people, and as communities. When I need a piece of nostalgia, I know where to turn, but when I need to dance, that, too, is at my fingertips.