On the night of Friday, Sept. 23, Motorco Music Hall was the site of a primal encounter between Durham and the acoustic roots of Dominican dance music. It’s rare to see a bachata-and-merengue band play in such an intimate North Carolina venue, especially a country band flown in directly from the Dominican Republic rather than filtered through NYC’s urban amplifier. An international audience of “dance scene” and “concert scene” regulars mingled in the limber, laidback atmosphere. As hard-core dancers plunged in early, a curious, listen-only crowd lined the stage, but by the middle of the loosened-up second set, couples dominated the floor, moving two steps right, then two steps left, in a sinuous embrace with sharp hip punctuation.
Joan Soriano, exuding youthful brio in a black leather cap, still seemed caught off-guard by stardom. In that, he has something in common with the late Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who continued to maintain his simple lifestyle while performing on the international stage, and who also forged instant connections with his audiences through humble exuberance and sincere craft. Soriano’s brand of bachata stems from rustic porch parties, so it has the kind of mellow energy that can be sustained in the shade of a tropical afternoon, rather than the frenetic burst of a hot filament that burns out quickly.
As tropical dance forms go, bachata is a guitarist’s art par excellence. Early in the first set, Soriano did, indeed, make his guitar cluck like a chicken (as described in our recent interview). It was fascinating to watch up-close as Soriano and his brothers thumb-picked bachata’s traditional patterns—melodic lines and ornaments over a vamping background rhythm—on their beautiful six-string guitars: Joan’s honey-blonde; Fernando’s the azure of a butterfly wing. In the live setting, it was striking to hear how much gut-rumbling polyrhythm bachata generates with only guitars, bass, and the high-pitched percussion of bongos and güira—no congas or drum set. Güira player Roberto Santos manned a single kick drum at strategic moments, enhancing the va-va-voom of bass sensation like a pushup bra.
The güira—an instrument completely different from the Cuban, salsa-friendly güiro—is a Dominican delicacy. Whereas the güiro is traditionally made from a hollow gourd (or nowadays, louder plastic) with cascading ridges, the güira is homemade from industrial parts: scrap metal tubing with a tightly textured surface that is swiped with the metal teeth of an over-the-counter hair pick. It’s a real delight to see an expert player like Santos, the only member of Soriano’s band currently based in New York, in action. On his XL-sized güira, Santos improvised rapid-fire code with the ease of a telegraph operator, and also hyped up the guitarists’ downbeat-heavy rhythm breaks.
Set two opened with a Soriano family revue, with brother Fernando and then sister Griselda taking the spotlight on lead vocals. Fernando’s Haitian-influenced singing reminded me of certain African singers, an assessment shared by Soriano’s manager and label head Benjamin de Menil, a French-American producer who was attracted to African music before finding his calling in bachata. Later, the audience was audibly revved up by Griselda’s singing and stage dancing, which were tasty and provocative without tipping over into sexual braggadocio and satire—formulaic elements of most modern, urban bachata and merengue stage shows. Like the Carter Family, the three sibling Sorianos blended vocal choruses with the warm harmony of blood-on-blood resemblance.
Griselda’s tender yet powerful soprano exuded a commanding ultra-femininity. A jacked-up vocal register is iconic to some of the Dominican Republic’s biggest female stars, such as accordionist/vocalist Fefita La Grande and reigning “Merengue Queen” Milly Quezada. In Afro-Cuban music, though, you’d have to look back to the 1940s and 50s to find corollaries—big band singers with sublime upper ranges such as Rita Montaner and Graciela. In contemporary salsa, following Celia Cruz (whose sonorous, almost androgynous alto defined the Afro-Cuban sound for several decades), only La India has had major commercial success with a voice that pierces the upper octaves.
In another way, though, Griselda’s mini-set highlighted the contemporary impulse of Soriano’s young band. Rather than the classic amargue—the bitter taste of lost love—plenty of the evening’s lyrics leaned toward erotic optimism. Griselda’s rendition of “Hazme Tuya”—a 1987 hit for Mexican-American singer Marisela—was a pop confection in the best sense, thumping with bachata’s rhythmic signature. In the music of rural Dominicans like the Sorianos, one hears the seeds—and echoes—of bachata’s migration from countryside to city, connecting it to urban fusions in footholds far away.