Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Sixteen Questions for Benjamin de Menil, Producer of the Bachata Roja Legends

Benjamin de Menil is the head of up-and-coming independent world music label iAso Records and also the acclaimed producer of both Puerto Plata and the Bachata Roja Legends’ albums. Since the Bachata Roja Legends make their historic New York theatre debut tomorrow night, Friday August 1 at the Queens Theatre in the Park at 8:30 PM, we were curious to know more. Lucid Culture hit him with sixteen tough questions. He hit them back to us like Manny Ramirez swatting one into the seats…at Dodger Stadium

Lucid Culture: How did you discover the Bachata Roja Legends?

 

Benjamin de Menil: I was taking New York’s F train uptown. When the doors opened at the 14th street station I heard an incredible voice coming from the platform. It was a Dominican singer I would later work with for many years, Super Uba. I had just begun putting together a home studio at the time, so I invited him over. He arrived with Edilio Paredes, the legendary guitarist of the Bachata Roja Legends. I had never heard the old school bachata before and as soon as Edilio and Uba began playing I knew I had to do something to get this music out to a wider audience.

 

LC: To what degree did the group exist before you got involved?

 

BDM: Edilio, Ramon, El Chivo, and even Soriano have been performing together for many years. Edilio and Ramon first recorded together 42 years ago! The backing band also deserves mention, Edilio’s son, Samuel, on bass, Rando Alejo on bongo and tambora, and Roberto Santos on guira – all incredible musicians and all have worked together for years. So in some sense this is not a new group, though this precise lineup has never existed before.

 

LC: As exciting as their music is, to casual ears, what they play bears little resemblance to today’s bachata. How have audiences in the Dominican community reacted? How about younger audiences?

 

BDM: The Dominican community is very supportive. I think it’s also a good feeling for them to see their culture being appreciated by outsiders – especially because this music has suffered so much humiliation and rejection from some elements of Dominican society. For the older audience, these are the sounds they grew up with and even to the younger audience it’s a familiar sound. The Beatles broke up more than 35 years ago but I think are still very much a part of today’s musical culture.

 

LC: Outside the Dominican community, how much interest has there been?

 

BDM: The difficulty has been getting a foot in the door – once people hear the music they love it.

LC: To what degree, if at all, do you think the Bachata Roja Legends could cross over to an English-speaking American audience?

 

BDM: These days people are open to music in foreign languages – Spanish especially. Plenty of Spanish language music has already hit it big in the USA – from Buena Vista Social Club to reggaeton. And that acceptance goes beyond the art-music audience – look how popular Wyclef was rapping in Haitian kreyol. All our performances so far have been very very well received. And our audiences are culturally mixed.

 

LC: How would you describe the group to an American who might not even know what bachata is?

 

BDM: Blues meets carnival with a smattering of fast paced reggae.

 

LC: Along with salsa and merengue, bachata is one of the three most popular styles of latin music. Was it always this way, and if not, why?

 

BDM: For a long time bachata was suppressed by the Dominican elite. Despite bachata’s popularity, TV and radio stations in the Dominican republic would not play it and neither would the upscale performance venues. That began to change in the late ’80s but there are still remnants of that attitude today. Ironically, because the island’s media powers wouldn’t touch it, bachata flourished for three decades uncensored and without the collaborative co-promotion of music and consumer products which has been so harmful to the state of music worldwide.

When the media censorship lifted, bachata began getting more traction internationally. Also, the wave of Dominican migration to the USA helped spread bachata among the various Latin/Hispanic communities here – and from here it has been spreading to the rest of Latin America and the world.

 

LC: How has the style evolved since the Bachata Roja Legends started?

 

BDM: Bachata went electric in the 1990s and along with that change the music adopted a pop ballad sound. The music of the Legends is more roots – the emotional dynamics are greater and Edilio Paredes on his acoustic requinto (small-body Spanish guitar) takes you places. I’ve been listening to his solos for eight years and am still amazed.

 

LC: Is it fair to say that the Bachata Roja Legends are to today’s popular bachata artists what blues artists like Robert Johnson are to rock bands like Led Zeppelin?

 

BDM: You could look at it that way. The conditions they live in probably resemble the rural south of Johnson’s day. But I think a better analogy is they are Otis Redding to today’s Maria Carey, because the Bachata Roja Legends were and are pop stars – even though this is a version of pop rooted in local Latin American and Dominican traditions.

 

LC: You’ve gone on record saying that as a producer, you prefer to record artists live rather than laying down one track after another. Does that make things difficult, especially when you’re working with older artists who may not have the chops or the stamina they had decades ago?

 

BDM: Recording live has its challenges. All the musicians in the group have to be top notch, if one musician is off it throws the whole group. Also, a studio recording is not like an ordinary live performance. The sound is much clearer, and the recording will be played over and over again, so mistakes that might slide unnoticed in an ordinary live performance become much more evident.

I have the good fortune to be working with some phenomenal musicians. Even the older ones have incredible stamina and in some cases I think they have even improved as musicians since their earlier recordings. This hasn’t always been the case – I’ve had some recording sessions that have nosedived. It’s a hazard that goes with the territory.

 

LC: What producers have influenced you the most, and how?

 

BDM: It’s hard to say, I’ve been influenced by music more directly than by its producers. I never got to see the producers of my favorite music in action – their influence is there I’m sure but their names are mostly lost to history. A producer’s role takes place behind the scenes – invisible.

 

LC: With cd sales plummeting, how do you see your role as a producer in today’s marketplace? Has this changed in the last couple of years?

 

BDM: Well, by the time I launched fully into my own label the catastrophe had already hit so I fortunately have no good times to reminisce about. Things are bad now for recorded music but I’m confident the business will remain viable. The appetite for music is greater than ever. It’s just a question of figuring out how to make that work for us.

 

LC: You’ve said that one of your dreams is to create a network of music schools around the world, whose students and staff can interact and even record with each other. How viable an idea do you think this is? How would someone go about doing this?

 

BDM: Music education is of the utmost importance – making music should not be only the realm of a few professionals, but something which ordinary people can and do take part in on a regular basis. This is true spiritually, because making music is part of what it means to be human and those who aren’t able to experience it are missing out on something almost as fundamental as eating and sleeping. It’s been shown than music education improves intellectual and social performance in all kinds of ways. Finally, education and participation is essential to the survival of music. Why does America produce so many phenomenal basketball players or Brazil and Italy such high quality soccer players? It’s not genetic, it’s because these sports are popular among youths at an amateur level. If we don’t nurture a culture which encourages children to get involved with music, our musical output will suffer.

 

I’m impressed by what Venezuela’s system of youth orchestras has achieved – they’ve managed to get hundreds of thousands of children, many living in difficult economic conditions, enrolled in a rigorous program of music education. They’ve also gotten a lot of support from the community to attend performances. Out of the thousands a few will end up as professionals and a handful as stars. In the meantime, they are raising a generation which will appreciate and support music and which will hopefully pass that on to their children as well.

 

LC: To what degree, if at all, do the big record labels compete with you? If not, who’s your competition?

 

BDM: To some extent, I think the competition is good. Having so many players out there – big and small – helps create the economic system which makes it  possible to produce music. Where things are not so good in the music industry is the lack of openness. It’s a business which is very much relationship-driven – so if your music’s good but you don’t know the right people – good luck! The internet is helping by creating a more direct channel to the public, but I expect this will remain a struggle for years to come.

 

LC: What artists would you most like to produce?

 

BDM: I’m working with them now.

 

LC: After the Bachata Roja Legends, what’s your next project?

 

BDM: A number of solo albums will come out of the Legends project. Beyond that it’s all top secret.

 

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July 31, 2008 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City

2 Comments »

  1. great interview. We look forward to seeing group tonight in Queens

    Comment by jeff rosenstock | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] Sixteen Questions for Benjamin de Menil, Producer of the Bachata …If we don’t nurture a culture which encourages children to get involved with music, our musical output will suffer. I’m impressed by what Venezuela’s system of youth orchestras has achieved – they’ve managed to get hundreds of thousands … […]

    Pingback by Venezuela » Nomadic contours of an assimilated life: Venezuela Clarifying ... | August 14, 2008 | Reply


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