Deborah Pacini Hernández went to the Dominican Republic planning to study merengue, but she discovered a more intriguing and less known popular music called bachata. Unlike merengue, bachata is guitar-based, related to trio music (but angrier), and has not, until recently, been dance music. For most of its history, bachata has been honkytonk music, like tango or country-and-western (but bawdier), and has gravitated toward their common theme of female faithlessness. It is the musical medium that allows the Santo Domingo poor, in Hernández’s words, “to hear the sound of their own voice.” From the 1960s to the 1980s, bachata was spurned by the Dominican middle class, who found it in poor taste, to put it mildly. Record stores refused to sell it. Bachata circulated instead on crudely pressed 45 rpm disks sold by street vendors and often played in bars and corner stores where shantytown dwellers gathered to pass the time. A few radio stations broadcast bachata along with the sort of public service announcements—about lost people seeking their families, for example—of interest to the rural-urban migrants who flooded into Santo Domingo during those years. In the 1990s, though, bachata — like the blues or samba and so many other popular musics before it—has begun to move “from the margins to the mainstream.” Many readers will have heard bachata, without knowing it, among the international hits of the Dominican recording artist Juan Luis Guerra.

Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music is the work of a superbly qualified researcher with personal Caribbean roots. Pacini Hernández really knows her stuff, and the reader who opens her extraordinarily lucid book will soon know a lot, too. Here is a wealth of information collected though extensive interviewing, persistent footwork, keen observation, and lots of listening to bachata—detail in the music itself, its evolution and variety, its social context, its historical background, its lyrical themes, its recording and commercialization, and its relationship to competing popular genres—all harnessed to a comprehensive, well-articulated interpretation. The author not only understands the nuances herself, she knows just how to explain or translate them, as well.

Any reader interested in Latin American popular music will enjoy and benefit from this book. Its unusual virtue is to combine impressive breadth of perspective with equally impressive depth and thoroughness. Readers who have heard of bachata, or Colombian música carrillera, or Peruvian chicha, but who have little idea how they fit in a broader picture of contemporary Latin American popular music, will find much clarified in these pages—to say nothing of readers who have never heard about any of this. And many readers who have, in fact, never listened to bachata will come away from Pacini Hernández’s in-depth descriptions feeling as though, somehow, they have.