Self-proclaimed “Duke of Bachata” Joan Soriano built his first guitar as a child from a tossed aside metal box and some fishing line, and along with it, a path to international acclaim as one of a few contemporary artists dedicated to preserving the cultural roots of the music he first fell in love with as a listener. For the seventh child of fifteen, living in rural La Luisa, Dominican Republic, it would be easier, perhaps, to envision a muted life. Soriano dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help his father work the family’s land; he received no musical training beyond that which he manifested for himself. From the treasured early radio songs, Soriano recognized a spiritual resonance in the music’s longing, and he responded quickly. By thirteen, he had formed a band with his siblings and apprenticed himself to successful musicians in Santo Domingo. Back home, the band enjoyed the adoration of friends and neighbors at yard parties, but for Soriano, those stages represented only the beginning. Decades later, his commitment to the culture and art still drives his work, which has landed him atop the Billboard Tropical Music charts, on NPR, and elsewhere as he works to sustain bachata’s cultural legacy and extend global reach.
To succinctly capture bachata’s oft-cited similarities to the blues, documentarian Alex Wolfe describes the traditional bachateros’ project as one about “love and abandonment and how women are going to ruin your life.” Bachata’s history in the Dominican Republic is, of course, more complex than what ear may grasp. Long established as the music of choice in the countryside, early bachata was largely comprised of restyled bolero classics and featured much more expansive instrumentation than what is contemporarily familiar. As social and economic conditions drove many rural residents from country to city, often with lackluster accommodations, so, too, did the music migrate to the bars and brothels with which it is most commonly associated in the popular imaginary. This new setting provided artists with subjects and scenarios not yet explored in the music, transforming bachata from its romantic beginnings to taboo narratives of the downtrodden and debauched. The softer bolero-register lyrics were cut with slang expressions and representations of the shifting landscape, and instrumentation thinned out to the basic drum and guitar—symbol of wandering and want. An increasing tempo also bolstered the music’s sociality, and songs were cycled amongst artists with lyrics rearranged or swapped altogether to convey the moment’s most pressing emotion.
Later bachata would see the influence of other musical styles and industry practices—the once raw and ephemeral now polished with advanced technologies as its more commercial elements are plucked and packaged for a new crop of pop stars, but Soriano feels little attachment to this direction, maintaining instead the music’s original romantic sensibility through his blend of smooth vocals and the pulsing arpeggios of his guitar. He is, ultimately, a student of the tradition, even as he marks it with his own take.