Dominican Bachata Music Gets to Carnegie Hall

01/18/2016 10:21 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2016

When Joan Soriano left his mom, dad and 14 siblings in the Dominican countryside to take a shot at becoming a musician in the big city, even his wildest dreams could not have conjured being on the stage one day at Carnegie Hall playing his beloved bachata music.

"At the time, bachata was considered music for poor people and played by poor people," Soriano said. "No one thought that you could become wealthy playing bachata, or that a bachata concert could take place in a classy venue -- let alone overseas."

Soriano built his first guitar from whatever he could find, enlisting siblings to play bass on empty bottles and performing where they could locally. Eventually his mother took up a collection for him to buy his first factory-made guitar.

"At first I dreamed of being a merengue singer," he said, "because in those days merengue orchestras, not bachata bands, were what would play at the classy venues. You'd see them on TV in fancy suits and gold chains -- that to me was success. But bachata is what is in my veins, and that's where destiny took me."

Bachata itself was changing though. Initially considered vulgar and mostly banned from the radio, guitar-driven bachata focused on "amargue" or bitterness, as well as boozing, double-entendres and general bad-boy behavior. It gained wider audiences through the 1980s and 1990s as it becoming more electric and romantic, taking on influences, including Dominican merengue. The sea change came with the meteoric rise of the pop group Aventura, its Bronx-born lead singer Romeo Santos and then Prince Royce.

"They've blazed new trails for bachata," Soriano said. "It's thanks to them that now I'm playing so much overseas."

Soriano's current tour brings him to the storied Carnegie Hall, supporting his latest album, Me Decidi, which was recorded in part in New York City.

"It's clean like a studio recording," he said. "But has the mojo of a live recording -- that's what I love about it."

He also collaborated with New York-based singer Andre Veloz on two songs, a recreation of an old bachata song "Llanto a Luna," which he notes "sounds like American doo-wop."

Though he now lives outside Santo Domingo, he is never figuratively or literally far away from home.

"I visit as much as I can," he said. "Some of my siblings and their children still live with my mother, and others are nearby. My family is the center of my universe. Wherever they are is home. I love Monte Plata, the region where I grew up, and wish I could be closer to my family, but Villa Mella is where my career is....But I'll never go live abroad -- that's too far from them. It's hard enough when I'm touring."

Having grown up playing with his siblings, Soriano has tapped them now that he is an established performer. Several of his sisters often sing with him, his brother plays guitar in his band and one sister is married to his bass player.

"We've all been playing together for a long time," Soriano said. "We share the same blood, so we gel musically. I have 14 siblings, so there's a deep pool of talent to draw from."

Soriano's sound is rootsy, though he doesn't play the unamplified nylon-string guitars that early bachateros used.

"I use very light weight strings and lower the bridge so they they're as close as possible to the frets -- to the point where they buzz a little bit, " he said. "I also put on some chorus effect -- this makes the guitar sound a bit like a tres or cuatro, traditional instruments in the Dominican Republic that use sets of double strings."

"If I hear a song somewhere that I like," he continued, "it could be a ballad or a rock song even -- I'll re-interpret it with a roots bachata vibe -- that just what I do. I hear something that I like and translate it into something I like even better. Roots bachata is the music that relates most to me -- to how I live my life."

Soriano's music in a video showing different regional styles of bachata dance

Soriano on NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert" series