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- Posted on Sep 28th 2010 5:30PM by Steve Hochman
Benjamin de Ménil
What's Soriano thinking about this scene?
"Seeing Cherito there as a star of the show with his group, I was thinking, 'One day I hope to be there myself at center stage,'" he says.
He's talking by cell phone from his very un-star-like abode in the town of Villa Mella, translated by his producer, Benjamin de Ménil, in New York. This is an area with few resources or luxuries. The interview, in fact, had to be rescheduled from its original time because phone service was out for the whole town. Watching Cherito, Soriano sees a way out of this.
"What I hope for is something that's really going to transform my life," he says. "Most importantly, I want to support my family. I have a big family. For me it's important to have success not just overseas but at home."
And how does he plan to achieve this?
"I expect to get there with a lot of dedication and hard work, performing and touring and being on the radio."
That, he acknowledges, presents some challenges beyond the mere rarity of such success. Soriano doesn't do merengue. Nor is he interested in dressing up in sparkly duds. He wants success by largely staying true to the seductively understated style of bachata.
"This musical style, it's different from what the others are doing," he says. "I'm offering something unique that people will like. It's a sort of electric-acoustic sound."
Elaborating, de Ménil says, "It's not an artificial sound like more modern pop-bachata, but neither is he the totally acoustic, nylon-string sound of the older bachata.
Joan Soriano, 'Mi Ultimo Llanto'
"He's also bringing in a lot of different rhythms, like in the song 'Aye Belie,'" de Ménil adds. "It's palo, a style of traditional sacred Afro-Dominican music usually just played on drums, drumming and singing. It's something Joan grew up with, in an area where palo is very much a part of life. In this particular one, he's made a bachata on a palo rhythms, which is very unusual. That speaks a lot of the influences he puts in that other artists don't have."
Joan Soriano, 'Aye Belie'
Soriano continues talking to de Ménil on the phone, with the producer trying to get the soft-spoken musician to elaborate. Soon they're both laughing.
"Lastly, he was saying about his style, what has made him different," says de Ménil. "He said his guitar sings like a guinea – which is sort of like a hen. Though in English it sounds better to say it sings like a rooster."
Speaking of roosters, doesn't the kind of success he's talking about take at least a little strut, swagger, style and showmanship?
"He likes to play around with his hairstyle," de Ménil explains. "Sometimes he has braids, sometimes has his hair dyed red and like to perform in his cowboy hat, too. But it's a little more street style than Cherito."
Or maybe slightly off-street. De Ménil recounts his "discovery" of Soriano, and the environment in which he developed.
"On my first trip to the Dominican Republic, on the afternoon of my arrival I went to see a band play at a car wash," he says. "Carwashes often have bars and live music there. Joan was playing – it was the first time I saw him play. I remember there was a man there with a silver revolver stuffed under his belt buckle, and he was dancing close to his girlfriend with the gun pressed between them. It felt like the wild west."
That extended beyond the car wash/saloon.
"While we were recording, I stayed in Joan's house," de Ménil says. "There is no running water and electricity for only a few hours a day. There is an outhouse, but going out to it at night can be dangerous. The studio had a generator, running water and a bathroom – much appreciated amenities. Even if the walls were covered with termites."
It's understandable why Soriano might want to rise up the economic ladder even a little. But artistically he never wants to leave this setting.
"A lot of the modern bachata sounds all alike, for me a bit of a washed-out sound," he says. "I've been playing bachata for a long time, more than 20 years. I sort of have boiled the whole history of bachata, and that's what I'm trying to give back. I want to keep that style, the roots of bachata alive."
These roots are woven deeply into his life.
"There was a radio station very popular all over the island, especially I the shanty towns, called Radio Guarachita. Basically my parents always had that playing and that station played principally bachata."
Batchata, Soriano explains, "was guitar music, traditional guitar music of the island, and around where I live there were a lot of local groups playing informally. I was exposed to it that way."
When he was very young, he was part of a group made up of various family members and known as Los Candes – derived from the name of his father, Candelario.
"At age 14 or so, I decided I wanted to be a musician and moved to the capital, Santo Domingo," he says. "I was supporting myself washing cars and then would go around the local clubs to see who was playing and talk to them and try to get a job. The first one I played with was named El Maestro Gomez and the group was Los Gitanos de Cachiman."
In the last '90s, he was taken under the wing of producer Radhamés Aracena, the owner of Radio Guarachita, recording a debut solo single. But then Aracena died and he started working with a young producer named Evangelita Montaño. It was then that he was bestowed with the title that provides the title of the new album.
"Every artist in bachata has to have an artistic name," he explains. "We were thinking, 'Bachata has a lot of kings. But it doesn't have any dukes.' So that's how I became the Duke of Bachata."
And now he wants to be an ambassador. That's where de Ménil comes in.
"Bachata has become an increasingly popular international style," says the producer, who has released several important sets of bachata, both new and archival, on his iASO label out of New York, including last year's charming set by veteran Puerto Plata, a recent Around the World subject. "It's big in the dance clubs, huge in the Latin dance community all over the world. But there's not much out there in terms of the more authentic style of bachata, the rootsy style. I think Joan could become very popular in those circles, expanding from there. This style of music is easy to like. I'd like to see Joan touring all over the US, all over Europe, Asia, South America. And I hope, of course, [he has] big success in the Dominican Republic."
And if that happens?
"I will never change," Soriano says. "I'll never forget where I've come from. That's who I am and I don't think money will change that."
Well, there is at least one bit of glamour on his mind. Finding out that he's being interviewed by someone in California, he laughs and says, enthusiastically, "Say hi to my friend Arnold Schwarzenegger!"