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A superb new collection of vintage bachata singles is titled Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue, and indeed the music itself was originally called amargue — which means "bitterness" — for its slow-moving laments about broken hearts and lonely nights. First recorded at the start of the 1960s, early bachata functioned much like weepy country-Western music in America, popular with Dominican truck drivers and in rural bars. But there was always a restless quality in the style, and soon it moved beyond its roots in Cuban son and bolero ballads to incorporate more dance rhythms.
The Bachata Roja anthology includes songs up to the '80s, but no matter the date, the selections maintain a potent simplicity and directness, reflecting the downtrodden or celebratory sound of plain lives. One advantage of this lack of clutter is that a few added elements — sweet vocal harmonies, extra percussion or a splash of horns — makes tracks like Ramon Cordero's "El pajarito" jump out.
Since the '80s, bachata has blossomed in a manner not unlike salsa in the '70s. It is now a popular, established style throughout the Caribbean and international capitals like New York. This has not been an entirely beneficial development for the music. Like country music when it went mainstream in the modern era, big-time bachata became facile and larded with glossy sounds. The hit group Aventura too often suggests the latest incarnation of a boy band with some exotic beats and Spanish lyrics.
In a return to the roots of the music, guitarist Joan Soriano has taken the next step and is establishing himself as a bachata neo-traditionalist. He plays amplified guitar and understands the sonic possibilities of the modern instrument. While his accompaniment is never looming and overblown, it's not folkie-stark, either. Even so, until now, his virtuosity has made him sound rather slick, more studio-bound than his street-corner predecessors. With the new La Familia Soriano, he comes halfway and ends up on the front porch with three singing siblings, brother Fernando and sisters Nelly and Griselda. The comfortable tone of La Familia Soriano and the rotating vocal features help Joan Soriano's skills on the six-string glisten without being flashy. He has an appealing style, at once declarative and quietly poetic.
But the unquestioned winner on the album is Joan's duet with Griselda, which delivers all the ease and warmth possible for people who grew up singing together. It turns out the tradition of playing in a musical family is good for the tradition of bachata itself.
Old or new, bachata is here to stay. My feeling is that the strength of the roots will outlast the big stars in the shiny suits.