What is bachata? The short answer is that it is a style of music and dance from the Dominican Republic. But there is much more to the history and style of bachata!
This dance is rhytmic and sensuous, and the lyrics of the music tell sad stories. But it is also a music played at gatherings of friends and family, and it is a proud element of the culture of the Dominican Republic. The music and the dance of the bachata are both gaining international popularity.
Origins and History
Originating in the early decades of the 20th century, the bachata was looked down upon as a vulgar dance for decades. The bachata can trace its origins to popular Cuban music and dance traditions. Popular among common people, the bachata was repressed by the dictatorial Trujillo regime. People looking for societal acceptance and propriety did not openly play bachata music, and it thus became associated with less desirable elements of society. However, national pride grew in the wake of the end of the Trujillo regime, and people began to accept and openly enjoy bachata music and dancing. It is growing in popularity, rivaling the better-known Dominican dance, the merengue.
Cuban Roots: The Bolero
The music and dance of the bachata has its origins in neighboring Cuba. The bachata is traced back to a Cuban dance called the bolero. (There is a Spanish bolero dance as well, but it is apparently not directly related.) Some call the bolero the Cuban “dance of love” because of its lyrics and its sensuously moving partners.
Wandering musicians, or trovadores, would travel across Cuba playing music. Pepe Sanchez lived in the late 19th century, and he was one of the first great trovadores. He is credited as the father of the bolero, and his style continues to characterize the genre. The trovadore playing a bolero should be playing his own composition, on the guitar, and singing poetic lyrics. The song is in 4/4 time and is slow but rhythmic, with light percussion. There is often an undercurrent of sadness or longing in the lyrics.
The Bachata Develops
The bolero spread to neighboring islands and regions, and it developed into the bachata in the Dominican Republic during the early 20th century. Bachata music was first dubbed amargue – or “bitterness” – for the lyrical content of heartbreak, longing, and sadness. (Think of it as the Dominican equivalent of the blues.)
Bachata shares characteristics with the Dominican merengue dance and with the Cuban and Puerto Rican favorite salsa. The three genres are often grouped together.
Merengue and Salsa
The merengue is the easiest for beginners to learn as it is in 2-4 time. That means two steps and two beats, like a simple march. You can count off “one, two, one, two” as you move. Partners face each other, moving their hips and bending their knees for the steps. Salsa and bachata are both in 4-4 time, which means more steps than there are in merengue. Bachata, however, is danced at a slower pace than salsa, albeit with similar moves.
The genres differ in terms of instrumentation for the music, too. Merengue music tends to use saxophones. Salsa is characterized by drums and horns. Bachata depends upon the guitar and the güira for its distinctive sound.
Instrumentation and Lyrics of Bachata Music
The güira is a Dominican percussion instrument. It is used in merengue and bachata to add a beat to the music without the overwhelming volume of drums. It is now typically made of sheet metal although it was traditionally made from a dried gourd. The güira is crafted as a tube of perforated metal with a handle, and it is scraped or brushed by the player to create the beat. (It looks a little like a large cheese grater!)
Lyrically, the typical bachata song is about loss, heartbreak, longing, or sadness. The lyrical content goes hand in hand with the slower tempo. The name bachata comes from a word for a raucous party. It suggest an informal party, an impromptu gathering of friends, with music, dancing, and drinking. However, this is the sort of thing that the common folk do, and it was thus looked down upon by the elites as being vulgar and even immoral. The word bachata was even viewed negatively. The use of the term bachata for the genre did not gain widespread acceptance due to these negative connotations until the 1970s and 1980s.
The music itself, given its lowly origins, was widely ignored. In fact, due to the repressive regime of the dictator, or “El Jefe,” Rafael Trujillo, bachata music was not even recorded until after his death in 1961. It had been associated with barrios and brothels, and was not considered fit for public consumption.
But bachata has now gone mainsteam. Bachata guitars turned from acoustic to electric in the 1990s, and the music gained even more popularity with this new sound. There are typically five instruments used to play bachata musc: the lead guitar, the rhythm (or segunda) guitar, the bass guitar, the bongos, and the güira.The güira is sometimes subistituted for maracas, which are more traditional but give the player less control over the beat.
Dancing the Bachata
The partners can dance the bachata in either an open (just touching at the hands) or closed (bodies held closer together) position. There are no set dance steps as the movement of one’s feet depends upon the rhythms of the music. One partner must lead the other, communicating through hand and arm movements how the other dancer is to move.
The bachata is counted off in sequences of eight beats; the dancers essentially do their steps in a square. A dancer takes three steps forward, for instance, and a fourth step is just a toe-touching tap – then three steps back, a fourth tap again – which brings the total to eight counts. The tap step is typically accompanied by a pop of the hips.
The basic elements of the bachata have been mixed now with some of the flashier moves of salsa dancing. More foot movement, turns, syncopation, and alternation between open and closed positions are all new developments in dancing bachata.
Bachata is definitely a genre of music and dance that is growing in popularity among people everywhere. Bachata came from humble origins in the Dominican Republic but now enjoys worldwide prominence. With Bachata, you can just enjoy the music, or you can put on your dancing shoes and pick up the steps.