Bachata is guitar-based music born in the poor neighborhoods of the Dominican Republic. It emerged from the shadows in the 1960s, only to be derided as low-class. Today, bachata is one of the Caribbean's most popular music genres, and it has a new star in 36-year-old Joan Soriano. His debut CD is called El Duque de la Bachata, or The Duke of Bachata.
Soriano's clean, feathery guitar sound, which punches out rhythmic lines, is a bachata signature. It was guitar-playing like this that got him work as a session musician when he came to Santo Domingo from the countryside at age 13. Soriano also had a great voice, as well as charisma that threatened to upstage the stars he accompanied, so it was just a matter of time before this talented youngster seized the limelight.
Another bachata signature is the mood of longing and melancholy in these songs. Dominicans call it amargue, literally bitterness, but there's an element of cathartic sweetness there, too. Songs talk of unrequited love, the weight of poverty and the sadness of separation from loved ones, especially in "Solo Tu," where Soriano laments a lover's betrayal. But bachata is all about transcending sadness, and the rundown neighborhood of Villa Mella, where Soriano lives, is filled with hopeful bachateros and their music.
Soriano is the seventh of 15 kids. He abandoned school and the farming life his father envisioned for him to make his way as a musician. The Duke of Bachata is getting his shot at last, but he still lives in a house with no running water, and he struggles to support his wife and son.
The CD, El Duque de la Bachata, is full of playful cautionary tales that urge listeners to live wise, virtuous lives despite their circumstances. Among the bachatas and merengues here is one song that draws from old African religion. "Aye Belie" praises Belie Belcan, who corresponds to the Catholic St. Michael, and also the Voodoo deity Ogun. It's a nod to the deep history and cultural continuity that flow through this giddy, sorrowful, New World music.