After president-for-life Trujillo met his end in 1961, bachata began to replace the dictator’s favored merengue as an expression of Dominican nationality and urban working-class identity. Bachata, with vocals backed by guitar, requinto, bass, bongos, guiro, sometimes accordion and saxophone, is meant for dancing, an up-tempo, unequivocally macho tradition of picaresque ballads of betrayal, lost love and the disappointments of daily life.
Sharing the island of Hispaniola, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have a long history of antagonism and political tension, reflecting racist ideology and a history of armed conflict, occasional massacres, and the memory of Haiti’s occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1822 to 1844. Immigrant Haitian manual workers and itinerant merchants face concerted discrimination in the Dominican Republic, which extends to their Spanish-speaking children born in the country, and those of Haitian descent who have lived and worked there for decades.
Nevertheless, Haitian sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic have taken to bachata, and bachateros of Haitian origin, singing in both Spanish and Haitian Kreyòl, have developed devoted followings. Bachata Haiti, the first recording of its type, offers 14 representative tracks by noted contemporary Haitian-descent artists in the Dominican Republic. Guitarist-singer Joan Soriano plays lead guitar behind Franklin Medina “El Zorro Negro” (the black fox), Tomas Pérez Zenón “Toni Tomas,” Hector Ventura “El Gavilán” (the sparrowhawk), Willy Sánchez, Fritz Sterling “Felix Cumbe,” and Tony Sugar.
One hears the occasional strain of Cuban guaracha and son (as on Soriano’s “Si un amor se va,” Felix Cumbe’s “Adónde vas?” and El Zorro Negro’s “Tounen nan vim”), but overall, the interpretations are in keeping with the topical, instrumental and vocal conventions of bachata.
While Felix Cumbe composes in Kreyòl and then translates his songs into Spanish, Kreyòl performances are becoming more common, and Toni Tomas’s “Cheri Amou,” sung in Kreyòl, has become a hit in both countries. This development suggests that music may help to break down the prevailing antagonism that Dominicans harbor against Haitians, the motivating premise of iASO in producing Bachata Haiti. - Michael Stone