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For the past week, I have been doing some serious dancing in the driver's seat with some compilation CDs that came my way. They're full of wildly passionate music, a lot of expressive, hormonally charged guitar melodies jumping over thumping, hip-shaking percussion, with a few woozy laments thrown in. These are songs full of forbidden love, deceit, revenge and regret, soaked in booze and set on fire with sparks of lust. It goes straight for your heart at the very least, and usually gets you below the belt, too.
If you think I've been on a serious blues kick, you're close. The music's a Dominican Republic-born style called bachata, and although it sounds nothing like blues, it shares the same kind of swagger and soul.
Film producer Alex Wolfe thinks so, too -- he made a documentary about singer-songwriter Luis Vargas, one of the genre's biggest stars, and called it Santo Domingo Blues. Released in 2003 to film-festival accolades, and scheduled to come out soon on DVD and air on PBS this fall, the subtitled, bilingual film will be screened this Sunday at the Phoenix Art Museum.
"I live in a very Dominican neighborhood in New York, and I grew up in Puerto Rico, so I speak Spanish," Wolfe tells me. "One day, I went to the corner store and heard this bouncy guitar tune with a real crooning vocal. I found out it was this guy Luis Vargas. So I started going to shows and really getting into the music. But then I learned about the social history of bachata . . . I discovered that bachata had this history of being a suppressed, blacklisted music."
And there's the really intriguing part: bachata as the music of the poor, the common man on the street. Sure, it's danceable, but it was also long derided for its sexual double entendres, and despised for its affiliation with drunks and prostitutes. In other words, it was the dirty little secret of Dominican society. But the strict taboo against bachata spawned a whole subculture.
I admit, when No Festival Required organizer Steve Weiss told me he was planning a screening of Santo Domingo Blues, the subversive element hooked me. Watching a preview of the film, I especially got a kick out of seeing how bachata finally got some respect.
"Bachata started breaking out in the '90s because immigrants brought it with them," says Wolfe, explaining how Dominicans who had come to New York in the '80s started to become successful, spending money to hear bachata at nightclubs. Promoters began bringing "bachateros" up from the Dominican Republic, and "soon New York became more of an economic engine for their survival than even the Dominican Republic," Wolfe adds.
On the flip side, immigrants who found success in the U.S. "had money enough to travel back to the Dominican Republic, buy a car and some gold chains, and blast bachata," Wolfe says. "So somehow in New York it had empowered itself and come out of the closet."
These days, in the midst of so much immigration controversy, culture -- and especially music -- never seems to enter the picture. So the timing of this film's Arizona debut seems especially poignant, and Wolfe agrees -- he's lived in Phoenix on and off over the past two years, while working with the Phoenix Police Department for A&E's The First 48.
"I think this music is an immigrant success," he says, "and that's why I think it's got broader appeal."