Dominican ‘Duke’ takes ‘low’ music to the top

Oct. 7, 2011 | 0 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition

Joan Soriano. —Courtesy IASO Records

Joan (pronounced Joe-AHN) Soriano, a baby-faced, sweet-voiced Caribbean musician, is still young to have earned a royal title, but there it is: He’s known as the “Duke of Bachata.”

“Other musicians were going around calling themselves ‘the king,’ so I thought I’d just call myself the Duke,” he said, matter-of-factly.

The nickname, along with a charismatic style and precocious musical talent, helped raise him to marquee status in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital where he now lives. It also helped inspired filmmaker Adam Taub to make a documentary about him.

Propelled by the 2010 film “El Duque De La Bachata” and a CD produced by iASO Records, he’s now touring internationally.

“Things are going in a good direction and getting better,” he said.

JOAN SORIANO: “THE DUKE OF BACHATA”

Where: Leeward Community College Theatre

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $10-$25

Info: 455-0385 or lcctheatre.hawaii.edu

Taking a phone call in St. Louis, Soriano was good-humored and open, despite the wear of traveling. He spoke in Spanish via translator and iASO producer Benjamin de Menil, laughing often. At the show, he said, “expect to have the experience of dancing a real Dominican bachata — and watch out, I’m going to make my guitar sing like a chicken.”

Growing up in the countryside, Soriano sang and played music with his family. He made his first guitar out of a cooking-oil can, stringing it with fishing line, as an older brother taught him.

He was one of 15 children, the seventh-oldest, born in 1972. Captivated by bachata music, he hitchhiked to Santo Domingo at age 13 to learn from some of the capital’s musicians, found work as a session musician, and eventually got his own band.

He plays a steel-stringed guitar, with a dancing, bright, plucked sound that can remind you of African music, or its world-beat descendants.

WITH A basic four-beat rhythm and emotional lyrics, bachata was once dismissed as music for the barrios, the poor, the low to the ground.

The word “bachata” basically means “country party,” and yes, that can be interpreted as a disparagement. But the original term for this style of music, “amargue,” which roughly translates as “bitterness,” is also key to its enduring popularity: Bachata is a music of desire, longing, romance and heartbreak.

Asked what bachata is about, Soriano said, “Amor — love, and losing love, falling out of love, being in love. Of bitterness.” (De Menil broke in here to say, “the blues.”)

Since the ’80s, bachata has been played on steel-stringed guitars, taking on a more sprightly, dance hall-friendly sound. Soriano turns its simplicity into a reverie-inducing play on melody. All is embellished with the warmth of his voice.

SORIANO has a wife and child at home in Santo Domingo, but his brother Fernando and sister Griselda are touring with him. Griselda dances during performances.

“I do of course miss my family … but this is my work, how I support them,” he said. “This is my dream — to make music.”

His voice is melodic and yearning, somehow both joyous and sorrowful; perhaps this comes from the church-based musical traditions that also influence Dominican music.

Publicity materials call his sound a blend of “down to earth spirit and dance-ability” — and by the way, there will be room set aside to dance at Leeward Community College for Soriano’s show.

“Dancing is like — it’s hard to even separate the idea of the music from the dancing,” Soriano said. “I feel most comfortable when there is dancing.”

–Elizabeth Kieszkowski / ekieszkowski@staradvertiser.com

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