Musician Joan Soriano grew up in a poor village outside Santo Domingo, the seventh of 15 children, and dropped out of school in sixth grade. He learned to play bachata, the gritty, soulful, guitar-driven music of working-class Dominicans, by listening to the radio — and still doesn’t read music. This Saturday, the day after he and his group perform in Little Havana, he’ll make his debut at Carnegie Hall.
“Well, I feel very emotional,” Soriano, 43, says from Villa Mella, the poor Santo Domingo district that is the birthplace of bachata. “I’ve never been there. But they tell me it’s very famous. If they’re bringing me there, it’s because people are liking Joan Soriano’s music.”
Plenty of people do like Soriano’s music, which has a soul and naturalness increasingly rare in a digitized, trend-driven world. A superb guitarist, he is perhaps the finest contemporary exponent of traditional bachata — which has gone glossy and global with the success of Dominican-American artists like Romeo Santos, Latin pop music’s top act, and Prince Royce, who blend the genre with R&B and urban music.
Yet new acts like Soriano who play in an old-school style are exceedingly rare in the Dominican Republic. Soriano is more popular abroad than at home, touring in the United States and Europe and featured on NPR and in The New York Times, and topping Billboard’s Tropical Music charts. He returns to a tiny home in Villa Mella — to a life that, though considerably more comfortable, is not that different from the way he grew up.
But Soriano has no desire to change his music.
“What I like is to keep following the essence of traditional bachata, to always maintain this essence,” he says. “There are some traditional musicians, but not so many.”
That integrity is what attracted music producer Benjamin de Menil, owner of world music label iASO Records. He first saw Soriano play at a car wash in Santo Domingo in 2006 and has done three albums with him since.
“There wasn’t any self-consciousness; there didn’t seem to be any divide between what he expressed and what he felt,” Menil says. “He wasn’t like, ‘Let me make a song because it’s cool, but this is what I feel and I’m saying it.’ There are not many artists that I encounter that have that kind of naturalness.”
Growing up, Soriano absorbed bachata on the one radio station that played the genre and began playing on a guitar made from a tin can and nylon fishing line. Not wanting to follow his father into farming, he formed a band with his siblings, named Los Candes, for their father, Candelario.
“It was very difficult,” Soriano says. “My parents didn’t have the resources to help me get ahead in music. I never went to hear a musician, I didn’t have anyone to teach me. I learned to play guitar by myself. That’s why I say that this is something God gave me. Because when I listened to this nice music on the radio, I always said I wanted to be a musician. That was my passion.”
He got his chance at age 13, when he asked a professional group passing through town if he could audition. He ended up with another group, which took him to Santo Domingo. He worked his way up to being a busy studio and backup musician and had two aborted recording deals before meeting Menil. In 2009 the producer put together a U.S. tour featuring his protégé and some elderly master musicians, but it was Soriano who provoked the most interest. His 2010 iASO debut, El Duque de la Bachata, reached the Top 10 of Billboard’s Tropical album chart, and attention for his music has grown since. (He also has an audience on the new bachata dance circuit, where, as in salsa, ardent dancers and the contests that cater to them are keeping the style alive.)
Yet he still plays from instinct.
“Pure ear,” he says. “Bachata music isn’t something you read. The true bachateros, the ones who are the roots of the music, they don’t know how to read music.”
That natural musicianship is another quality that attracted Menil.
“I was struck by how quickly a group could get together and understand what they wanted to do — it was almost superhuman how perfectly everything fit together,” he says. “That kind of musicianship is great for live recording.”
Soriano’s tale mirrors that of bachata, whose history is similar to that of the blues. It began in the country as a version of bolero, romantic songs played on the guitar, accompanied by basic percussion. As Dominicans moved from the countryside to the capital, settling in slums around the city, the music took on a bitter, yearning tinge, or used sexually charged lyrics full of double entendres. Middle and upper class Dominicans mostly looked down on it as vulgar music for poor black people, until Juan Luis Guerra adapted the style in his 1990 megahit, Bachata Rosa. That made Guerra a star and bachata, albeit in a slicker, more melodic and orchestrated pop version, a flavor in the international Latin music menu.
The rise of Aventura, a quartet from the Dominican immigrant-dominated Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, and then the group’s singer Santos, cemented the music’s popularity.
Soriano’s music is dominated by his rapid, percussive playing, with rippling arpeggios and sometimes startling polyrhythms. His melodies are sweet without being syrupy, the lyrics longing and poetic. He has recorded with his siblings Nelly, Griselda and Fernando (they will not join him in Miami, where he is being presented by Miami Dade College’s MDC Live Arts). The Friday show is part of a new dance party series at the Koubek Center in Little Havana, with Miami Cuban group Timbalive opening.
Even as bachata has become internationally successful, its roots are languishing, Menil says. Piracy has decimated the music industry in the Dominican Republic, and almost no new artists have come up to replace the acts that were popular in the ’90s. The music’s center has shifted to the new urban style up north.
“It’s difficult to invest in a new artist,” Menil says. “Bachata is as popular as ever, but it’s the old artists — the new generation is coming out of New York.”
Soriano seems content with his own place in bachata, and hopeful for its future.
“Each musician, each artist has his own way of playing and singing,” he says. “Bachata is one thing. [Santos and Royce] do it well, and they internationalize the bachata. And they are Dominicans, too. They’re also from the root of bachata, and that’s why they’ve gone so far.”
If you go
What: Joan Soriano in concert; Timbalive opens
When: 8 p.m. Friday; dance lesson 7:15 p.m.
Where: Koubek Center, 2705 SW Third St., Miami
Info: $10, free for children 12 and under, rain or shine; mdclivearts.org or 305-237-3010