Just a few years ago, releasing an anthology of music from the Dominican Republic that wasn't dedicated to merengue would have been unthinkable. Now it's all bachata, a working-class meat-and-potatoes music that hit the big time with Juan Luis Guerra's 1990 album, Bachata Rosa. Although widespread for decades, bachata was given the cold shoulder by both traditionalists and popularizers of Dominican music for what's proven to be the hallmark of many a brilliant genre like rock and blues: Bachata was considered vulgar. Its racy subject matter, rap-proportioned braggadocio, and unflinching social commentary kept it off the Dominican airwaves until Guerra proved street-corner culture was commercially viable. Ten years later bachata hits American shores via the Putumayo label with a surprisingly good compilation that suffers only from its generic title. Thankfully Republica Dominica isn't in the same for-dabblers-only league as Putumayo's Cuban and Brazilian compilations, though the songs will be old hat to the cognoscenti.
Down-and-dirty bachata isn't represented here. In place of double-entendres, the spotlight is hogged by romantic themes, social fables, and even a morality tale by Alfredo Polonia ("La Que La Pasó a Juan"). Putumayo's strategy seems to be to cash in on the current popularity of the classic Cuban son. Thus combinations of bachata and old-style Dominican son with sparkling requinto guitar accompaniment make a strong entry beginning with two opening cuts -- "Tranquila" by Luis Vargas and Juan Manuel's "Para Que Me Mate un Hombre Que Me Mate Una Mujer" -- and later continuing with the lean "Los Bodegueros" by old-timers Joseito Mateo and Luis Kalaff. With its tough acoustic guitar groove, accordion, and no-nonsense solo and harmony singing by this pair who first made merengue waves in the Thirties, "Los Bodegueros" stakes its passions on, of all things, a paean to Dominican shopkeepers as working-class heroes. Cheche Abreu, another graybeard with more than 35 albums to his credit, unveils the beautiful bachata-son "Mi Niña" with harmonies reminiscent of a Mexican ranchera, circular guitar riffs recalling the heyday of Congolese bands, a bouncing beat, and a laid-back groove.
Despite the elders onboard, Republica Dominica is far from an exercise in nostalgia, thanks to songs with teeth by performers with all their teeth. Bolivar Peralta's "Immenso Amor" underpins bachata's reputation as the music of bitterness, compete with stinging, in-your-face requinto plucking and the depressing theme of love gone sour. But the centerpiece belongs to Juan Bautista with the hardest charging entry on the disc, "Pegao de Que," complete with crunchy hook and a big brag of a declamatory vocal. Taking its title and theme from the cooked rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan, Bautista disses his competitors who claim that like "pegado" they similarly stick in the public eye when he would never himself commit such hubris. The fact that the song is crafted to stick to the listener's memory cells after one or two plays is, of course, sheer coincidence.
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Just two cuts on Republica Dominica have anything to do with merengue, and one of them, Raulin Rodriguez's "Anoche," is fortified with Vitamin Bachata. So this is definitely a forward-looking release, though, fortunately, not so far forward that there's a synthesizer or drum machine anywhere in earshot.