It happens time and time again: if a style of Latin music starts out rugged, raw, and rural, there is a very good chance that it will eventually be seriously commercialized and become a lot more polished. That has happened with everything from Colombian cumbia to Cuban son (a primary ingredient in what is now called salsa) to Brazilian samba, and Dominican bachata is no exception. The bachata boom of the '90s and 2000s found bachata becoming increasingly commercialized and enjoying as much exposure as salsa, merengue, and cumbia in the tropical market, which is truly ironic when one considers that back in the '60s and '70s, bachata was often dismissed as low-class by the more affluent people in the Dominican Republic. Many bachata converts of the '90s and 2000s have had little, if any, exposure to old-school bachata, and this excellent compilation takes a look at what bachata sounded like before that commercialization occurred. Bachata Roja: Acoustic Bachata from the Cabaret Era opens with Rafael Encarnación's doo wop-flavored "Muero Contigo" from 1962 and closes with Juan Bautista's 1990 hit "Asesina," which uses an electric guitar (old-school bachata was totally acoustic) and has one foot in classic bachata and the other in modern bachata. Many of the tracks are from the '60s and '70s, and those who associate bachata with the commercial hits of Aventura or Monchy & Alexandra will be surprised to hear how much rawer bachata sounded in the hands of old-school bachateros like Felix Quintana, Augusto Santos, Julio Angel, and the late Marino Pérez (who sadly, drank himself to death). Bachata Roja is enthusiastically recommended to anyone who wants to hear what bachata sound like before it became so commercialized.
Alex Henderson, Rovi
Upon its original issue in 2007, the compilation Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue on iASO Records touched off an international sensation, resulting in a North American tour of musicians Edilio Paredes, Augusto Santos, Ramon Cordero, Ramon Cabrera (aka El Chivo Sin Ley), and Leonardo Paniagua with a backing band from the Dominican Republic. These five names were the performance collective known as Lunes de Amargue, who moved bachata music from the margins of Dominican society to its mainstream. Renowned musicologist and author Ned Sublette defines "the essential quality of bachata to be 'amargue,' literally, bitterness." Sublette continues: "But it can be a nostalgic, melancholic pain that makes you feel better, like the blues, or what in Portuguese is called 'saudade.' Thus the literal translation here is "Red Bachata: Love and Bitterness"." This selection of 16 tracks recorded between the early '60s and the early '80s -- often recorded live in a room with a single microphone on very primitive gear -- captures that essence perfectly. Everything here is almost unbearably romantic, and the poetry of the lyrics is illustrated beautifully by astonishing guitar playing, guira and bongo accompaniment, and entrancing basslines. At the heart of almost every song here is either Paredes' or Santos' guitar playing, underscoring, punctuating, accenting, and challenging the lyrics and drums. The singing is emotionally expressive -- particularly from Paniagua, Ramón Torres, Marino Pérez, and Juan Batista. Album standouts are many, and "Con el Amor No Se Jegua," Santos' excellent first single as a vocalist and bandleader, is an entry point. The dancelike intensity of songs such as "Yo Soy Puro Amor" by Cordero and Santos is infectious, despite melancholic subject matter. Daniel Morillo's big dance hit "La Puerta Romperé" is here, as is the gloriously sad "La Cruz de Olvidado" by Paniagua and the achingly beautiful ballad "A Donde Andará" by Antonio Gomez Salcedo. Compellingly, the set closes with a famous merengue in "El Pajarito," by Cordero and Paredes. Carlos Santana has quoted from its guitar part in various solos. While the sound quality in some of these tunes -- taken from vinyl copies since masters were not readily available -- is not pristine, it doesn't get in the way of completely enjoying the music. This is an essential, if not "the" essential, introduction to modern bachata.
Thom Jurek, Rovi