2009 The Duke of Bachata. : Horizon Line.
Notes: DVD, 53 minutes, Spanish and English with English subtitles
Reviewed 13 May 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Musicians - Dominican Republic
Popular music - Dominican Republic
Dominican Republic - Social life and customs
Dominican Republic - Music
Monte Plata (Dominican Republic) - Social conditions
Monte Plata (Dominican Republic) - Economic conditions
ABSTRACT: This very likeable film follows the early stages of a young Dominican singer’s career as he straddles his small impoverished village and potential and even international success.
Watching “American Idol” and the plethora of talent shows on American television today, it appears that everyone wants to be a star, especially a singing star. What this says about the meaning of music in modern culture, I am not entirely sure, let alone what it says about self-worth or even narcissism (the sense that everyone IS or can be a star) and about the life-chances of those who are not stars. And the star mentality is not limited to the United States, as evidenced by incarnations of “Idol,” “X Factor,” and other such programs in many countries around the world.
The lure of fame is great, particularly when one actually has talent, when one lives in humble circumstances, and when one is heir to a noble artistic tradition. All of these features are present in the Joan Soriano, the self-styled Duke of Bachata, and “The Duke of Bachata” is an engaging and loving portrayal of the young musician as he approaches his first brush with stardom. From a village in the Dominican Republic called Villa Mella, Soriano is already a locally-known guitarist and singer, who has previously recorded his own music. As the film opens, he aspires to greater things and says “God gave me the gift of music. If God doesn’t want it, I won’t hit it big.” Of course, he hopes and believes that God does want him to hit it big.
The film takes us to visit Soriano’s home area and his family. First we meet his wife and son; then his father and mother, from their rural homestead, recall how Joan made his first childhood guitar out of a can and some strings. His brother plays in the band, and his 18-year-old sister also dreams of success and escape from the poverty and struggle of the island. Truly it is correct when a relative concludes that “There is a traffic jam of musicians in my family.”
Soriano’s good fortune soon begins, as a music producer from America arrives to work on his album and to plan a U.S. tour. Joan, it turns out, is already a successful session musician who has backed up some famous bachata performers or bachateros. The problem for him, as for other session players, is that the band leaders and stars do not want to be outshined by a backup musician. In this regard, and in terms of the importance—even political importance—of popular music, Bob White’s Rumba Rules (2008) on Zaire/Congo (also reviewed on this site) makes a valuable written contribution to the challenge of rising from the background into prominence and stardom within a hierarchical music scene.
At this point we also get a small amount of history of bachata, which is a Dominican national music form comparable to calypso in Trinidad (see Birth 2008, also reviewed on this site). As Joan’s father tells it, when he was young, there was no such thing as bachata; instead, people played only guarach, son, bolero, and merengue. Bachata was first recorded 1960s and was initially seen as a devalued variant of bolero. However, like other new art forms, bachata has become an established style and even a ‘tradition.’
The film depicts Soriano’s band playing at a village fiesta, an incredibly local affair; we also see them at a modest ‘club’ (little more than a shack, similar to some of the venues in which Zairian rumba is played, not to mention more than a few hopeful garage bands in the U.S.). At home with the family, Joan strums the guitar while his father plays harmonica and sings. These scenes are among the many that contrast Joan’s aspirations to his rural and relatively deprived background.
The rest of the film follows Soriano on the first tentative steps toward success. In the recording studio, his producer thinks that he has an authenticity but that he might be too “rootsy” for the Dominican mainstream. Apparently some traditions are too traditional! Finally, he takes his place on the Bachata Roja tour, with other new and established musicians, such as El Chivo. The party arrives in New York, enjoying some jamming and drinking. Their first major concert is in Chicago in front of a large and appreciative crowd. Soriano signs CDs after the show for a happy (and significantly female) audience, who comment on his attractiveness (fortunately for his star chances, he is a good-looking young man). His producer informs him that the festival promoter liked him and would consider promoting him individually. Meanwhile and poignantly, Soriano is shown thinking of his family back in the Dominican Republic—a family whom he will, like all successful road musicians, have to spend considerable time apart from.
“The Duke of Bachata” is a highly likeable movie, finding one small star in the shifting constellation of popular culture. The director, Adam Taub, clearly knows and respects Soriano and Dominican culture well, and the film raises many valuable points about success, poverty, and contemporary music that can be profitably explored in conjunction with the growing body of literature on popular culture, including but not limited to music, in the modern and globalized world. Students and general audiences will enjoy it as informative without being overly academic, and scholars can use it as a visual representation of written academic studies on the subject.
The disc also contains several extras, including a segment with some dancing, Joan with the famous bachatero El Chivo, a performance of Soriano’s song “Mi Ultimo Llanto,” and Joan singing in a New York park. For more information on the project, visit http://www.bachatamovie.com/; Soriano’s videos and songs are also available on Youtube. For some history of bachata, visit http://www.iasorecords.com/bachata.cfm.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of music/ethnomusicology, anthropology of popular culture, and Caribbean studies, as well as general audiences.
Birth, Kevin. 2008. Bacchanalian Sentiments: Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
White, Bob W. 2008. Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the following style:
Eller, Jack David
2010 Review of The Duke of Bachata. Anthropology Review Database May 13, 2010. http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/cgi/showme.cgi?keycode=3657, accessed May 21, 2013.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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(available online: http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/)