An interview by Fernando González for the Miami New Times.
Singer and songwriter Joan Soriano seems to embody the very history of his music. Like bachata, the guitar music from the Dominican Republic he so soulfully interprets and composes, Soriano comes from humble beginnings but has found his way around the world of popular music.
Bachata has become enormously popular as interpreted by heartthrobs such as Romeo Santos and Prince Royce in stadiums and concert halls, but in the 1950s and ’60s, it was treated with contempt. It was considered to be too simple and often too vulgar lyrically. The word “bachata” initially meant “backyard party.” But Deborah Pacini Hernandez, author of Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music, noted in an interview on NPR in 2012 that in the 1970s, “they started using it as an insult.” To say “Eso es una bachata” (“That’s a bachata”) was to mean “That’s worthless.”
But bachata is music of sweet sorrows. The amargue, or bitterness, that special quality of bachata that is the equivalent to Portuguese fado and the longing in tango or blues, began to resonate in the 1980s with the Dominican communities in New York, pining for home and less concerned about class aspirations. In 1990, Berklee-educated pop singer and songwriter Juan Luis Guerra released Bachata Rosa, his very personal, sophisticated take on bachata. It became an international hit. Then, in 1993, the Bronx-based group Aventura (Romeo Santos was the lead singer and songwriter) blended bachata with R&B and hip-hop. Bachata was no longer worthless.
The music that Soriano, age 43, represents is the straight-from-the-source sound of rural bachata — at once elegant and strong. Then again, at times, the sweet singing, the easy swing ,and the delicate, fluid arpeggio patterns on the guitar evoke the sound of Congolese rumba masters.
Soriano’s first international solo release, El Duque de la Bachata, is an intriguing sampler including bachata and merengue. It was followed by La Familia Soriano (2012) and Me Decidi (2015), both featuring Soriano’s siblings. He was also the subject of Alex Taub’s film The Duke of Bachata and was featured in Alex Wolfe’s documentary Santo Domingo Blues.
Soriano spoke with New Times from his home in Villa Mella, Santo Domingo.
New Times: Can explain amargue? What does it mean to you?
Joan Soriano: [Laughs] Well, by what I understand, el amargue is the suffering because of a woman, that a woman left you, that type of thing. But there are many types of amargue. When I have to leave on a tour for a month and I don’t get to see my wife and my son for what feels like ten years — that’samargue.
You were in the countryside, in a community nearly 25 miles north of Santo Domingo. Your father and brothers worked in the fields, and it was expected you would follow. When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
It’s a long story. Here, in my country, when I was growing up, bachata was discriminated against. There was only one station that played it, Radio Guarachita. I would listen to it, but almost in hiding. But when I heard that music, it stuck in my mind. One of my brothers made a guitar out of a tin can and with some fishing lines for strings, and one day when he went to the fields, I took it and on my own started to play it. My mother heard me, and I thought I would get in trouble.
But what happened is that she called on everybody, told them what she heard, and my brother, rather than getting mad at me, gave me the guitar. I must’ve been 9 or 10. That’s how I started. I’m the seventh of 15 brothers and sisters, and it’s funny because my father used to say that he wanted God to at least give him a son who was a musician, and it seems that God granted him his wishes.
When you were 13, you left home and moved to the city, where you washed cars by day and started playing in groups by night. How did you make that decision to leave?
I was playing around the neighborhood with my brothers, but I wanted to play professionally, and they were not interested. I wasn’t going to stop. My father wanted me to work with him in the fields, but I told him: “I’m not going to make my living doing that, and at some point I’m going to have to leave.” And that’s how it was.
What do you think of the bachata of guys like Juan Luis Guerra, Romeo Santos, Prince Royce — the urban bachata?
It’s the same bachata with different instruments. Juan Luis was always international,l so he gave it an international touch. Personally, I like the music I record to be close to the roots, to the tradition, to the music I heard when I was a kid — but bachata is bachata.
With opening act Timbalive. Presented by MDC Live Arts. 8 p.m. Friday, January 29, (dance lesson at 7:15 p.m.) at the Koubek Center, 2705 SW Third St., Miami. Tickets cost $10; children 12 and younger get in free. Visit mdclivearts.org or call 305-237-3010.