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"Let me see that!" demands Alexandra Mercedes Cabrera de la Cruz, snatching a CD out of the hands of her singing partner Ramón E. Rijo. The sweet-voiced pair better known as Monchy & Alexandra has ruled the tropical airwaves in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Central America, New York, Miami, and even California with their heart-wrenching duets since the release of their breakout single -- and first song together -- "Hoja en Blanco" ("Blank Page") in 1998. But the round-faced, wide-eyed Alexandra didn't learn until last Saturday, on a visit to the Miami offices of J&N Records before a concert at the Miami Arena, that before she partnered up with Monchy there had been another woman slated to take her place.
"This skinny thing!" Alexandra gasps when Victor Reyes, a J&N exec, points to a thumbnail-size photo of Ivelises Novo, one of four bachata babes featured on the 1997 compilation Bachaton '97. With her coffee-colored skin, laughing black eyes, and voluptuous figure, Alexandra scoffs at the thin, light-skinned singer decorating the jewel case. In fact, Reyes explains, Novo backed out of the recording when her husband enticed her back to the countryside by buying her a beauty salon.
Alexandra harrumphs at this twist of fate as she hands the disc back to Reyes. However close a call it may have been at the beginning, there is no doubt anymore that she, Alexandra, is the world's biggest female bachata star. Or that she and Monchy have helped make bachata the fastest-growing genre in tropical music today.
Monchy admits that his own ascent to stardom was just as arbitrary. A lifelong student of music, he had been helping out on the technical side in a Santo Domingo recording studio when producer Martires de Leon suggested he sing on "Hoja en Blanco." The song was slated for one of the compilations that J&N Records releases frequently to test out new talent and new material. Two stars were born, recording two albums: a full-length Hoja en Blanco and Confesiones, out last spring.
"That was a gimmick of ours," confesses Juan Hidalgo, a former dishwasher from Queens who founded J&N Records with his half-brother Nelson Estevez twenty years ago. "We've had to invent things in order to survive," says Hidalgo. "In music, we don't know what's going to hit. You always have to keep innovating and believing in new things. No one believed in bachata."
A popular dance music among the poorest sectors of the Dominican Republic, bachata, with its heartbreaking guitar arpeggios and often bawdy lyrics of love lost or betrayed, had long been shunned by both polite Dominican society and the major labels; this despite a brief star-turn when Juan Luis Guerra had an international hit with the pop-inflected "Bachata Rosa" in 1990.
But Hidalgo and Estevez have never followed pop trends. Instead they keep their ears to the street, tapping into whatever music new or old might be spreading from the Caribbean countryside to urban centers in the islands and New York before that music hits the charts. The brothers helped create merengue-hip-hop with Proyecto Uno in the early Nineties, promoted merengue-bomba in Puerto Rico in the mid-Nineties with La Maquina and Rikarena, then picked up on the surging popularity of bachata later in the decade with Monchy & Alexandra, Yoskar Sarante, and Alex Bueno. The major labels always seem to be several steps behind.
"When the independent [labels] were recording salsa, there were salsa stars," says Hidalgo of the glory days of the Fania All-Stars. "Now you can count the stars of salsa on one hand. I have $10 to spend on promotion and the majors have $100, but they don't know where to spend their $100. I can do more with my $10. We have something they don't understand. They're looking everywhere for it, but they can't find it anywhere."
"You have to like bachata in order to sell it," explains Reyes.
Hidalgo agrees: "The executives of the majors look down at our music as something that belongs to the [working-class] people. We look at the music with love. We can feel it. Don't make a merengue record, if what you like is pop. Don't make a bachata record, if what you like is pop. You speak better when you speak of something you love."