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  • Writer's picturesP Polanco

Ni de aquí, ni de allá: Finding My Identity Through the Beat of Bachata

bachata producer sp polanco in the recording studio during the BCHTA RISING sessions
In the studio during the Bchta Rising Sessions

When you think of bachata, what place comes to mind? Most would say the Dominican Republic, and they wouldn't be wrong. But what if I told you that some of the most pivotal figures in the genre over the last two decades have emerged from the United States, specifically from New York City? My intention is not to trace Bachata's origins back to its roots, I'll begin, instead with when bachata landed on the vibrant shores of NYC, right around the same time I did, in the 1980s.

In New York, bachata found a new voice that echoed through the lives of immigrant sons and daughters, like myself, who were struggling to find their identities in this bustling melting pot. Here, the genre evolved beyond its traditional confines, adopting elements of the urban soundscape and resonating with a generation caught in the limbo of being "Ni de aquí­, Ni de Alla" (neither from here nor there). Bachata, as experienced in New York and the rest of the United States, became more than music:" It became a medium through which we could express the nuances of our bicultural lives. This story isn't just about music; it's about finding a sense of belonging in the rhythm of bongos, güiras, guitars, and vocals in a city that is nowhere and everywhere at once.

In the late 1980s, when my parents packed our belongings and bravely relocated to the Bronx, I was only seven years old, still a bit too young to understand the impact and importance of that decision, but old enough to experience the shift in culture from a small, humble Spanish-speaking country in the Caribbean to the most densely populated city in the world's wealthiest nation. Like many children of immigrants, I entered the public school system in New York City, speaking nothing but fluent Spanish. Until then, my only exposure to American culture was what I casually consumed on television, most notably MTV, where I vividly remember watching Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" for the first time.

My parents, both public school teachers, were adamant that we learn English and engulf ourselves in this new culture. New York City is an interesting melting pot full of people from different places. Therefore, growing up in this city, it wasn't apparent what being a "real" American truly was. As I grew older, made more friends, and started dominating my new language (thanks mainly to only watching English cartoons and listening to English music), I began leaning more towards my new adopted culture. I found myself not speaking Spanish outside of my house and only listening to hip-hop, R&B, and the occasional rock song. The only time I'd be exposed to Spanish language music was when my mom cleaned the house to the sounds of Juan Gabriel and Rocio Durcal or at the almost monthly house parties at my aunt's house in Washington Heights, where they exclusively played merengue and bachata. Aside from that, reggae sounds spilled from the windows of my Jamaican neighbors, hip-hop and R&B from the housing projects across the street, salsa from the bodega on the corner, and top 20 pop from the adult contemporary radio station that my father would occasionally play in the house as he also was seemingly trying to find a place in this new culture by listening to music.

Because my parents would also get a vacation in the summers, we would all travel to the Dominican Republic, where even though they felt at home, I would feel more like a visitor as the years went by, a sentiment amplified by the teasing of my cousins when they shouted: "llego el gringo” ("the gringo has arrived"). Visiting the Dominican Republic as often as we did was an essential and annual cultural refreshment for my siblings and me. We were again fully immersed in the food, the music, the language, and the culture, solidifying our roots while aligning our heartbeats to the pulse of Dominican rhythms. Upon returning home, my friends often teased "The Dominican is back" (llego el dominicano); in hindsight, it was this back and forth that probably made me feel that I was "ni de aquí, ni de alla (neither from here nor there). Was I supposed to pick a side? Is there a way to be both? Am I a traitor if I choose the cheeseburger over the plátanos con queso? Are other people also feeling this way?

Fast forward to the mid-90s, my early teen years. At this point, my fascination with music had evolved into a burning curiosity to find myself through it. My parents, recognizing this spark, got me a small two-octave keyboard. After school, I would spend hours listening to the radio and playing along by ear. Despite my growing skill, my playlist was still heavily dominated by hip-hop and R&B. These were the sounds of my New York, the soundtrack to my American experience.

The only echoes of Spanish music in my life continued to be the backdrop to my mom's weekend cleaning sessions and the ever-consistent monthly parties at my tia's house in Washington Heights. I need to pause here and tip my hat to their remarkable consistency with these gatherings; it's pretty impressive.

During this time, a significant shift occurred in my musical journey. I was introduced to the sounds of Marc Anthony. His music was a revelation. Although the songs were in Spanish and carried a tropical rhythm, something about them resonated deeply with me. Digging deeper into his music, I discovered that Marc, like me, was bilingual and had seemingly mastered the complexity of navigating his dual identity in New York's melting pot.

The game changer for me was discovering Sergio George, the man behind much of Marc's music. Sergio, a Harlem native with Puerto Rican roots, was a living testament to the bi-cultural existence I was experiencing. His approach to music, clearly influenced by his American upbringing and Hispanic heritage, resonated deeply with me. This duality was even more apparent in the songs of DLG (Dark Latin Groove), blending salsa with urban beats and soulful vocals in a way that mirrored my own life's soundtrack.

This music was "ni de aqui­, ni de alla; neither here nor there, just like me. It was the first time I truly saw my own cultural straddling reflected back at me in music, and I was hooked. But it wasn't enough just to listen; I was inspired to create music that felt just as representative of my dual identity.

But wait. I'm not Puerto Rican. Surely, I thought, there must be Dominican sons and daughters of immigrants expressing themselves musically, just as Sergio and Marc were. Despite my immersion in hip-hop and R&B during my early teens, the heartbeat of merengue's tambora and bachata's bongos still pulsed in my veins. I needed to dive deeper.

record shop, cd store
I would frequent "Elvio Records" in the Bronx.

This curiosity led me to frequent visits to a local record shop in the Bronx, a tangible place where music could still be held in your hands. The shop's owner, a Dominican immigrant and local DJ, shared my passion for music. He quickly introduced me to Sandy y Papo, Proyecto Uno, and Fulanito, pioneers of the Urban-tropical fusion that deeply resonated with me. These artists were blending rap, chopping up samples, layering in synthesizers, and even mixing English into their tracks, all while maintaining the dominant rhythms of Dominican merengue. Once again, I was hooked. It became clear to me that I wanted to create music that expressed my reality of being "de aquí y de allá¡" (from here and from there).

So, how does this relate to New York Bachata? As it turns out, I wasn't the only Dominican immigrant's son going through this cultural mash-up. My DJ friend at the record shop introduced me to a newly formed bachata group called "Los Tinellers, a playful spin on the English word "teenagers." Several things about them stood out to me: firstly, they were a group, a rarity in a genre typically led by solo artists or duets. Secondly, their music offered raw self-expression while honoring the roots and rhythms of traditional bachata, yet they used a younger, more "Americanized" Spanish. Thirdly, and most importantly to me, they were from the Bronx, just a few blocks from where I lived.

live performance, Toby Love, concert, bachata concert
Performing live with Toby Love in front of 20,000 people

Initially, Dominican music purists dismissed them as not representing "real bachata," a judgment they would soon regret. Los Tinellers would eventually evolve into Aventura, arguably the most successful and influential bachata act of the past 20 years. Their unique blend of cultures, perhaps inspired by summers in the Dominican Republic and house parties at their tias' houses, paved the way for many other groups and acts that followed, including myself as a producer. This modern and sincere interpretation of the genre inspired many artists, from Xtreme to Toby Love, from Prince Royce, all hailing from the Bronx to the new generation of Bachateros and Bachateras like Dani J, Mario Baro, and Dama, from Spain, Pinto Picasso from Puerto Rico, Mr. Don from Chile, and many others worldwide. Aventura, Xtreme, Toby, Royce, and the bi-cultural bachata movement from the United States inspired songs like "La Bachata" by Manuel Turizo, which heavily relies on R&B melodies, synths, and keyboards. Bachata continues to evolve, serving as a vibrant avenue for young artists eager to share their gifts and talents with the world.

Today’s modern bachata emerges from the stories of a generation that yearned to carve out its identity within a melting pot of cultures. It's born from the experiences of those searching for a sense of belonging and understanding. Yes, bachata originates from a specific country, but more importantly, it springs from the heart. This music is not just a cultural expression; it is the voice of people bridging worlds, crafting a hybrid identity that resonates with anyone who has ever felt caught between two places. It's a testament to the power of music to connect, heal, and celebrate the complexities of the human experience. Bachata today is as much about rhythm and melody as it is about the stories it carries and the hearts it touches across the globe.

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