Bachata’s Creative Headquarters Move from DR to New York

Bachata singer Andre Veloz, photographed by Andrew Avi at a concert in 2018. (Photo provided to El Diario)

The requinto guitar accompanies the verses of bachata singer Andre Veloz’s latest composition, “La pendeja” (The Idiot) available on Spotify. The song aims to reach the popularity of her previous single “Eta que ta aquí” (This One Right Here) which went viral.

Since 2013, Veloz has made her way into the bachata industry, traditionally dominated by men. Even though she was not born in the Bronx – but in St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and grew up in Santiago, capital of the El Cibao region of the Dominican Republic – she is part of an Upper Manhattan cultural and music scene that boasts a quite relevant past and present.

“In the Dominican Republic, I used to sing jazz and blues because they said bachata was not meant for decent girls. However, when I moved to New York, I became homesick – as we all do here – and [realized] that it was not exclusively for men or women,” said the singer during a Q&A about bachata held this year at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute (DSI).

The event was part of a larger project exploring the history of Dominican music in the U.S. made possible by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Institute Director Ramona Hernández, a sociology professor at City College’s Colin Powell School for Civil and Global Leadership, leads the project. “This is a collective effort that brings together young researchers at CUNY DSI: John Bimbiras (music), Ruth Lizardi (art) and Jhensen Ortiz (librarian), along with an elite group of academic experts in Dominican music,” said Hernández.

Jerry W. Carlson, chair of the City College of New York’s Department of Media and Communication Arts, said: “The growth of bachata in New York is a significant cultural phenomenon. [New York] is a center of production and global distribution. It is one of the ‘bachata cities.’ (…)”

At the event, Julie Sellers presented the findings of her research on bachata in New York, which have been compiled in the book “The Modern Bachateros: 27 Interviews.”

Sellers argues that a number of things define bachata “made in New York,” including the fact that the work of the new bachateros reflects the city’s multiculturalism: It mixes musical genres, is sung in “Spanglish,” and the music is considered an element that bridges cultural and linguistic barriers.

Still, looking back in history, other important elements such as resistance and even discrimination have influenced the style. “Discrimination: That is the main issue! The first bachateros arrived among the people who migrated from the countryside to the cities in the Dominican Republic after [dictator Leonidas] Trujillo was killed [in 1961]. They lived in the poorest areas, and created their own versions of the time’s most popular boleros,” said Sellers, a Spanish professor at Benedictine College who lives in Atchison, Kansas.

“Back then, it was not called bachata but ‘guitar bolero.’ When they started recording the songs, they had to pay for studio time themselves because record labels would only support merengue, a genre that Trujillo appropriated and controlled during his three-decade dictatorship,” said the scholar.

“As a result, the quality of these recordings was not very good, so bachata was associated with marginalized classes and with poor production value. It was not played at the more upscale venues. At first, it was only played in small gatherings at home and on the jukeboxes of bodegas and brothels,” she added.

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A “Dominican-American” voice

Sellers’ second book on bachata and Dominican identity, “The Modern Bachateros” has the so-called “1.5-generation Dominicans” as protagonists: born in the Dominican Republic but raised in the United States. (…)

“They set out on a search for self-expression as Dominican-American youths in New York, and their innovations now have an audience around the globe,” said Sellers.

[Musician] Steven Cruz defines it in these words: “This modern bachata is a mix, as are all of us.” (…)

For his part, Jay Heightz, from music group Bachata Heightz, said: “We are right in the middle: We cannot say that we are totally Dominican or totally American, because we are not. Our culture is manufactured; it is a New York lifestyle, completely new.”

Another trait is the fact that these musicians make a distinction between their Dominican roots and their identity as New Yorkers: They see themselves as modern bachateros, not urban bachateros.

Bachata producer Pedro “sP” Polanco – who spoke at the event alongside Veloz – explained how the Washington Heights’ bachata was “exported” to the Bronx. “The first wave of immigrants created their own identity there [in Washington Heights] to feel as if they were in the Dominican Republic,” he said.

“They wanted to feel like back home. For that reason, the music, the bachata, never evolved while in Washington Heights. It was still a very Dominican mentality. But when we Dominicans started to move to the Bronx, where we did not have that close-knit Dominican community, we had to find ourselves in communities of other cultures, predominantly the Black and Puerto Rican cultures. We could not be ‘too’ Dominican,” he said.

“So we had to fit into whatever was being done there. I think that is why this movement comes from the Bronx, because the Bronx was not as Dominican as Washington Heights was. So we were allowed to explore our limits a bit more,” he added.

It is impossible to talk about bachata without mentioning the dance style, its sensuality and the theme of heartache. “It is a sort of melancholic happiness, which you have to get off your chest by dancing or drinking. Preferably dancing,” said Veloz.

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