23 Feb 2015

Preserving a Musical Tradition; Inspiring Future Generations

The Dominican Republic keeps moving to the beat of bachata, thanks to Ben de Menil and his enthusiastic young music students.
by April White


Photo courtesy of Ben de Menil

In a palm tree–lined school courtyard in the small town of Cabarete, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, children are making music. Some play the bongos; some, guitars. Others sing or step and sway to the familiar four-count rhythm of bachata, the soundtrack of Dominican life. The young musicians are all a part of the nonprofit iASO Bachata Academy, established by Ben de Menil (MBA 2006) in 2013 to preserve the country’s musical tradition and educate a new generation of Dominican musicians.

De Menil was first introduced to bachata—which he describes as “playful” and “creative”—not in the Dominican Republic, but in New York City. After graduating from Brown in 2001, the amateur musical historian made a hobby of recording New York’s subway musicians. It was through that project that de Menil met guitarist Edilio Paredes, one of the leading figures of Dominican bachata. “I loved Latin music. I loved Cuban music especially, but I had never heard traditional Dominican music,” recalls de Menil, whose own background is French and American. “When I heard the way that Edilio played guitar, it was something special.”

The chance encounter was the seed for iASO Records, de Menil’s record label, with the mission of promoting traditional music. It wasn’t an easy sell. Like de Menil, few people outside of Latin America had heard of bachata, and even in the Dominican Republic it was often considered an old-fashioned musical form. But even as he hustled to book gigs for bachata artists in the United States and Europe, de Menil dreamed of a bachata academy that would ensure the survival of the art form that had typically been passed down informally.

“I had a dream of a musical community. A place where people went and were fully immersed in music as if it were a language they were speaking constantly and through that were able to develop their musical senses and abilities to a very high level. And that was just this idea floating around in my mind: Wouldn’t it be great if there were something like that?” de Menil says. He wrote about this dream on his HBS application.

After earning his MBA, de Menil returned to iASO Records and, through his work in the Dominican Republic, met Michel Zaleski, founder of the DREAM Project, a nonprofit that builds and runs schools in the country. The DREAM Project’s flagship school in Cabarete would become home to the first iASO Bachata Academy.

“We announced to the classes, ‘We’re offering music lessons in bachata. If you are interested, please come to the tryout,’” de Menil says. “Pretty much every student came. There were hundreds of them.” The first bachata academy class, free to participants, had 10 students, ages 7 to 15, and a long wait list.

The students’ enthusiasm wowed de Menil. So did the logistics. Two bachata musicians traveled twice a month from Santa Domingo—125 miles away—to teach, a model that was difficult to sustain. De Menil, still based in New York, worked to expand the program, drawing on everything he learned during his time at HBS about building organizations and motivating people. Now, two years later, six teachers teach 40 students, who each receive one to two hours of instruction, five days a week. He hopes to open a second academy in 2015.

For de Menil, a self-described amateur musician, who endured seven years of playing scales during childhood piano lessons, it was important that the curriculum be fun and engaging to the students. For guidance, de Menil has turned to the Suzuki method, which teaches music as one might a language, and Venzuela’s El Sistema national network of youth orchestras. “We’re not teaching music at all in the way that it is usually taught in a formal setting. We’re mimicking more how music is taught traditionally,” he says. “It’s about developing a student’s ear, not just about learning chords and strumming a chord aimlessly. We want them to feel the music that they are playing. And to feel they are a part of something bigger.”

When the students perform, for other students and for the town, de Menil sees the musical community he envisioned and a future for traditional bachata. “There’s an extraordinary enthusiasm. They are playing songs that everybody knows and the crowd will be singing along.” These students—“probably the best guitarists in the area”—are the next generation of professional musicians, the people who will be invigorating traditional bachata, writing songs, recording and touring internationally, says de Menil. “Hopefully, they will be making the music even better than it already is.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2006, Section J

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