If the name of Edilio Paredes, bachata’s great arranger and studio guitarist, is indelibly stamped on every facet of the genre’s early development, it is nevertheless impossible to overlook the contributions of Augusto Santos, the rival who often equaled, and sometimes surpassed, Paredes in the forging of the style. From the time of the recording of the first bachata by José Manuel Calderón in 1962 to the modernization of the music by Blas Durán and Antony Santos in the late 80s and early 90s, virtually every singer of any importance recorded significant parts of their repertoire Paredes and with Santos. A very short list of the artists who had songs arranged and recorded by both of them would include, besides Calderón and Durán themselves, Marino Perez, Ramon Cordero, Leonardo Paniagua, and Eladio Romero Santos. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that, if not for the work of these two virtuosos, bachata never would have existed as a genre.
Augusto Santos was born on September 5th, 1945, in Los Cacaos, a small country town outside of San Francisco de Macoris. Like many musicians of his generation, he began his career in childhood, following local groups around and jumping at opportunities to play the güira or the maracas or sing the choruses. At the age of 16 he was able to buy a cheap guitar from a neighbor, and he began learning on his own, watching older musicians and imitating them. These were the very early days of bachata, and he picked up everything that was being played on the radio—the first song he remembers learning was “Cariñito de mi vida” by Luis Segura.
By the age of 20, Santos was an accomplished guitarist, and he felt that the music scene in Macoris had little left to offer him. Groups were unstable, changing from one gig to the next, and no one was recording any original material. After three years of making the rounds in the city, he hitched a ride to the capital, Santo Domingo, hoping for a chance to put his talent to greater use. As it turned out, he was very fortunate indeed. At the time of Santos’ arrival in the capital, Cuco Valoy and his brother Martin Valoy, the principle members of the popular guitar duo Los Ahijados, had recently parted ways. Cuco was impressed by Augusto Santos’ talent as a singer and guitarist and so he reformed Los Aihjados with Santos taking the place of Martin. Valoy taught Augusto to play the “quinto”, a double-stringed guitar similar to a Cuban tres, and Augusto became almost immediately a principle member of one of the best known groups of the era. Not only was Santos the lead instrumentalist and second voice for Los Ahijados, but he became the de facto studio guitarist for Valoy’s CMV label. The first two records Santos played on, in 1966, were his own “Con el amor no se juega” and Felix Quintana’s “Ladrona”—both of which were hits and have become classics of the bachata repertoire. From that time on he recorded the lead guitar and choruses on countless songs.
As Santos’ fame spread, a friendly rivalry developed between he and Paredes, as singers and producers sought out either one of the two leading guitarists of the day to record for them. As far as the sheer quantity of numbers recorded, it is impossible to determine which of them made a more significant contribution to the bachata catalogue; and as regards the relative importance of each in the development of the style, it is equally difficult to assess. While Edilio’s name has come to carry more weight among followers of the music, Paredes himself readily admits the profound respect he has for the impact of Santos’ work; and it is worth noting that many of their contemporaries preferred recording with Santos to recording with Paredes, whose florid style was sometimes too elaborate for his audience. As one popular singer of the era put it, “Edilio played more guitar; but Augusto’s songs were always hits.” Those hits are too numerous to list, but they include many of the best known bachatas ever made, including “El trago del olvido” by Marino Perez, “La causa de mi muerte” by Ramon Cordero, Quintana’s “Ladrona” and “Clavelito” by Blas Durán.
Santos is best known among historians of bachata as a pioneering studio guitarist, but he had a number of notable successes as a singer in his own right. The first of those, “Con el amor no se juega”, is still recognized as a classic, as is “Olvida ese hombre”, which Santos recorded in 1972, before going on his first trip to New York with Cuco Valoy. He remembers his surprise on returning to the Dominican Republic in early 1973 and hearing his song being played on radios and jukeboxes all over the country. He also sang and played in a popular duo, “Los Inimitables”, with Ramón Cordero in 1973 and 1974. The repertoire of the duo contains what are perhaps some of the best crafted bachatas recorded in that period, Santos’ conscientious guitar playing and precise, economical vocals combining seamlessly with Cordero’s plaintive tenor. Almost all of Santos’ songs, with or without Cordero, are in the tradition of cabaret bachata; he sings about dangerous love affairs with married women (“Olvida ese hombre”, “Guapo y atrevido”), betrayal and revenge (“Con el amor no se juega”, “Con la misma tijera”), and the lifestyle of a bohemian and hedonist in general (“Si me la dan la cojo”). Like the notorious cabaretero Marino Perez, among others, Santos lived much the same kind of life he sang about in his songs, and was by no means chastised by the general stigma that was attached to bachata in the Dominican society of the time. He says in his own words, “I used to get in a fight every single night.”
In addition to his trail-blazing work as a guitarist and singer, Santos has the distinction of being the first bachatero to establish a group in the United States. Santos had journeyed to New York twice with Cuco Valoy, in 1973 and 1975, but in 1982 he decided to make the city his home. In New York Santos lived much like other Dominican migrants, working hard at whatever job he was able to get—factories, restaurants, taxi driving—until he decided to found the Duo Oriental with Niño Abreu, with whom he had been playing since his days with Los Ahijados. Santos and Abreu performed, alone with only a drum machine, a repertoire of classic bolero, son and, of course, bachata. As the only group in the city in those days, according to Abreu, the duo had one and sometimes two gigs every night of the week. Edilio Paredes, who came to New York to stay in 1988, has this to say about the Duo Oriental: “In those days there was work for everybody, because there were so many places to play, but there were hardly any musicians. By the time I got here it was easy, because of the people who had come before me; Aridio (Pérez), Jaime Mendoza…but above all Augusto. Augusto opened the door for all of us.”
Santos continued to play local gigs until large numbers of bachateros began to move to New York in the mid-1990s. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1995 and his musical activity tapered off—he lost touch with Abreu, and only occasionally got musicians together to play at a wedding or a baptism. Around that time he suffered a personal tragedy, as well, when his son accidentally electrocuted himself back in the Dominican Republic, and Santos turned his attention away from music.
Interestingly, in spite of his important role as a studio musician in bachata’s early years, Santos hadn’t recorded since coming to the United States to live. In fact, he wouldn’t return to the studio until 2008, when iASO Records invited him to participate in a recording of The Bachata Roja Legends – a group which gathers under one banner many of the surviving luminaries of classic bachata. Santos’ new recordings with the Bachata Legends will be released in 2010 and his solo album will follow soon after. His early classics “Olvida ese hombre” and “Si me la dan la cojo” are featured on iASO’s 2007 Bachata Roja compilation. Since 2008, Augusto Santos returned to music and is performing with the Bachata Legends as well as in collaboration with the elder Dominican sonero – Puerto Plata.
- David Wayne