I originally wrote this article in 2011 and thought I would share it today.
Words are carriers of MEANING and have tremendous power to trigger ideas, emotions, thoughts and actions. The meaning of words can also change across time and place and this is certainly the case when we look at the word "Bachata."
Most of those familiar with the word "bachata" know it as a popular musical genre and dance form native to the Dominican Republic(DR). However, before it came to be used to refer to a genre of music it meant a "fiesta del patio" or an informal gathering of friends and neighbors where music was played and drink was often served. It was not until the early 1970's in the Dominican Republic that bachata came to describe a musical genre. It was first used as an insult, a disparaging term that impliee that the music and the people that listened to it were from a "lower" class, uneducated, crude, vulgar, and immoral. Today, to a great extent, the word has been "reclaimed" and currently has a much more positive connotation in the DR and internationally. It is still used to describe a musical genre and dance but does not have the same level of discrimination attached to it as before. The discrimination against bachata, although greatly diminished, still exists in the DR however.
Although there has not been a great deal of study done on the word bachata prior to it being a musical genre we can find written evidence of it's use to signify a distinct kind of party as early as the 1920's. Back then it didn't mean simply a fiesta, Baile, party, concert or dance but rather it was a distinct type of party. It was a "fiesta del patio" and gathering of friends and neighbors where music was played, and fun and drink were had. It could take place on a patio, in a house, on a corner, under a tree or a variety of other sites. The music played was often guitar music such as boleros. Elements of class distinction tinged the word even back then. A bachata would not be the type of gathering one of the "upper" class would have, and to them it meant a party for the "lower" class where too much rum was drunk, roosters were fought, and people were involved in immoral and socially non-constructive behavior. However, to those participating in the bachata's they were times of friends, neighbors, music, dance, drink and good times.
One evening after a concert in Houston I was invited to someone's house with Joan Soriano, El Chivo Sin Ley, Edilio and Samuel Paredes. After some good food and a few drinks the guitars came out and Joan, Edilio and the rest began to play and sing. I remember Edilio saying to Samuel his son, "Esto es una bachata!" "This is a "bachata!" Meaning this is a gathering of friends where guitar music is played, some drink is had and a good time takes place. Edilio has been involved in Dominican music since the 50's and has seen it through it's history.(More than that his musical style has shaped its sound greatly!) He remembers when the word bachata meant a "fiesta del patio."
Somewhere along the way, probably sometime in the early 70's the word "bachata" came to be used to describe a genre of music, that at the time in the DR was referred to as bolero or musica de guitarra. It is not completely clear how and why this happened, more research is needed, but we can gain much insight from those like Edilio Paredes who were a part of the history and saw it transpire. Edilio Paredes recounts to me the time when he saw a prominent musician and media personality get on TV and refer to bolero or musica de guitarra as "bachata," He was using the term as an insult to say it was a music of the lower classes. Because of his tremendous influence and the socio-economic beliefs within the country this use of bachata caught on. This was the first time Edilio remembers the word being used to describe dominican bolero as a musical genre and in a negative way. At that time, although not in the main stream media bachata was selling widely and very popular and some think that there were those that believed bachata was a threat to traditional merengue and that the merengue industry retaliated. Others believe that it has more to do with class discrimination against the marginalized poor where much of the guitar music was being played and enjoyed. It is clear we need more research and interviews in this area and subject. Regardless, we can say that as the term came to describe a genre of music it had a negative connotation. Bachata musicians were not given the respect they deserved. Many of the early bolero musicians did not at first accept this classification as bachatero and many today still describe their early bachatas played on requinto as bolero. In those days bachata lovers often listened to it in secret so that their neighbors would not hear it and gossip about them later. This discrimination persisted a long time a still persists to a degree. Joan Soriano tells a story, (and this must have been in the 90's) when someone asked him what he did for a living. He said he was a musician and played bachata. The man replied "oh man, I thought you said you were a musician!" Insulting him. When I was in the DR in 2004 and 2005 many clubs in Santiago would not play bacahta even upon my request. Many people I met from the upper or middle classes, college age into their 70's did not like bachata and looked down upon it. Some of this we can understand as differences in musical taste but for many it was because of negative associations they had with the word and music.
During the early 70's bachata was also know as "musica del guardia" or "soldier music." This is because it was associated with brothels and prostitution, and soldiers often frequent those places. So in addition to being associated with the lower economic classes bachata also came to be associated with brothels, prostitution, drinking, and vulgar lyrics. There are good reason for these associations but the reputation bachata got seems to be disproportionate to what it deserved. Although there was truth to these observations much of it was over generalizations. Most bachata musicians did play at places where prostitution was common and many still do today. But we must also keep in mind that bachata was not widely accepted in main stream venues so it had to seek out venues to be heard. It was not played on main stream media until Radio Guarachita played it in the 1970's. Also, drinking alcohol does not only accompany bachata music but also other music genres, merengue, salsa, rock, pop on and on. In addition double meaning and sexual innuendo's are by no means unique to bachata.
The Discrimination against bachata was mainly taking place within its country of origin, The Dominnican Republic and those that loved bachata around the world remained largely oblivious that bachata had this bad reputation in its home country. Thankfully for all of us that love bachata today there were musicians and fans that fought through the discrimination to bring us the bachata.
It has taken decades to take the word bachata with all its negative associations, to today, where the word has been largely reclaimed and now has a positive meaning. 'Reappropriation is a cultural process by which a group reclaims terms that were previously used in a way disparaging to that group.' -Wiki. Today musicians are proud to say that they record bachata. merengue and other latin singers record it also. There is a lot of money in it now and this has played a big part in it being more widely accepted. It is much more common to see people of all classes listen to it now. Again the discrimination still exists but it is less. It has gained international appeal and most that listen to or dance it outside of the DR are unaware that the word had a negative meaning.
How was it reclaimed? Some significant events that influenced this change include When Edilio Paredes, Ramon Cordero, El Chivo Sin Ley and others started a monday bachata night in the capital Santo Domingo called "Lunes de Amargue." Although it started slow soon it was full of a variety of people of all classes including lawyers, doctors etc. According to Edilio this played a huge role in reducing the discrimination and it was possible that bachata would have died out without that night because many musicians had stopped recording during this tough time for bachata. Another reason for the change has to do with the internationalization of bachata and its acceptance worldwide. This began with musicians such as Leonardo Paniagua who toured widely and spread the music. Later, Juan Luis Guerra, A Dominican born, Berklee educated musician made bachata widely know and accepted with his album "Bachata Rosa." Juan Luis Guerra is a master of music although he is not regarded among bachata musicians as a true bachatero. He did however play an important part in internationalizing the word and music because of his wide appeal and great songs and lyrics. Others such as Monchy and Alexandra, Blas Duran, Antony Santos and of course Aventura and Xtreme played huge roles in introducing the music to the world. Dominican Migration around the world also spread the music as did the increase of tourism to the DR in the 80's. In recent years some of the original musicians have done world tours such as the "Bachata Roja"tour and have exposed audiences to what the original Bolero/bachata sounded like.
I remember a story a Dominican Priest told me while I was visiting the island. He traveled to El Salvador to work at a church there and when he arrived in the country he began to hear bachata being played on the radio. He felt a surprising surge of national and cultural pride when he heard this music native to is home island, and while in El Salvador he claimed the music as his own. I used the word "surprising surge" because he was a catholic priest and bachata would not be something he could publicly associate with or take pride in within his own society. But as he found himself far from home, in a different social context he was able to claim it. It are small personal experiences such as these magnified across time and space that has allowed the word bachata to be reclaimed.
What does bachata mean today? Another difficult question! Appropriate for another post perhaps. It means different things to different people and its meanings continue to evolve. But very basically Bachata is a music and dance genre that was born in the DR. It's essential instruments include the first Guitar, 2nd guitar, bass, bongo and guira. It evolved from Bolero and was influenced by many other musics such and son, ranchera, and merengue. It is danced mainly in partners and involves a 4 step pattern that repeats with a "pause" or "touch" coming on the 4th step. I would love to hear comments and posts on how others in the Dominican Republic and around the world would define bachata today.
There are many execellent resources you can pursue if you want to find more out about the word bachata. The book Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music by Deborah Pacini Hernandez is great and a must read for bachata lovers. The book by Dario Tejada "La Pasión Danzaria: Musica y baile en el caribe a través del merengue y la bachata" is important and very interesting. A wonder article by David Wayne appears on the iASO Records website Also, my sincere thanks to el Maestro Edilio Paredes who has taught me so much about the music and genre. He has truely lived the music and seen it's changes over the years.