A voice that carried her from New York to Charlotte

CorrespondentSeptember 26, 2010 

  • The term encompases traditional Mexican genres like norteno (think accordians) and the tropical styles of salsa, merengue and the more recent bachata. On the tropical side, mostly you hear salsa, with the other styles thrown in for variety.

    Jack Wolf of DanceGumbo, which has sponsored dances and festivals in the Triangle for about 20 years, says there are about 500 active salsa dancers in the area, about equally split among latinos, African-Americans and those of European heritage and others. He says there are about half a dozen clubs that cater to the music, generally with DJ dancing.

    Freeztyle is a Raleigh-based bachata and merengue group that played at a Latin music festival in Cary last month. (Check out the performance on YouTube at bit.ly/cfbXtc.)

    There's a big event Oct. 15-17 in Durham that will feature dance workshops and performances, headlined by La Excelencia, a big-band salsa outfit from New York. All the details about that are at dancegumbo.com or from Wolf at 245-0822.

When she was in her early 20s, Leydy Bonilla was living in New York City, recording albums of Latin dance pop and touring in Europe with Enrique Iglesias. She had gotten in on the ground floor of the new wave of Dominican bachata.

Bonilla's career was on the rise.

She recorded albums - three of them - and toured the world. "It was amazing. It was awesome," Bonilla, now 30, remembers of the years when she and her mother would jet to Spain for concerts.

"We would get there and be based in Madrid and then we'd just go everywhere. There were shows every day."

Then things abruptly changed. In 2004, her family moved from the Bronx to Charlotte, and Bonilla realized she would have a hard time bringing her success with her.

New York City has a rich Latin music scene that dates back decades and overlaps with mainstream popular culture. But in the early 2000s, Charlotte's Latin music scene was in its infancy.

"It was scary, because my music had been picking up," she says. "It was very hard at first. It just stopped."

Her parents weren't thinking about music when they decided to relocate. They were thinking about what would be best for family.

"My mom was ready to leave New York already. She was tired of the traffic and noise," Bonilla says. "They had come down to Charlotte for a wedding and fell in love with it. She loved the trees here. It was so peaceful."

Bonilla has made peace with Charlotte. She has formed a band whose members are scattered from Charlotte to the Dominican Republic, and she travels to rehearse and perform with them. She also sings with a local band, Bachata Flow; in 2005 she fell in love with and married the band's percussionist, Victor Mairena.

These days, Bonilla is a regular performer at Latin American festivals and at Latin-music nightclubs such as Skandalo's in Charlotte. She's even recording songs for a new album.

In June, she and Bachata Flow played at a multiple-artist concert in Charlotte. It was the second in a series of shows featuring local Latin artists.

Tony Arreaza, events manager for the Latin American Coalition, hopes festivals like these will bring attention to Charlotte's Latin music scene. "We want to show people that there are lots of musicians in Charlotte who come from all over Latin America and who make great music," says Arreaza.

The first time Arreaza saw Leydy Bonilla perform, he thought she had traveled from New York or the Dominican Republic.

"She was just so amazing and so professional. She's a natural performer," he says. "I was like, 'Did someone bring her here?' And then I talked to her dad and he said, 'No, we live right here in Charlotte.'"

She was hooked

Born in the Dominican Republic in 1980, Leydy Bonilla (her real name) got her first onstage rush during a talent show in her hometown of Nagua. She wasn't expecting to get up and sing.

"It was for adults and I was only 12," she says. "I had gone with a friend who was a little bit older and she was in the contest. But when she got onstage, she just froze. I started telling her the words from the audience."

When contest organizers saw Bonilla mouthing the lyrics to the song, "Le Llman Jesus (They Call Him Jesus)," they asked her to get up and sing it herself. Bonilla did - and she was hooked.

"After I sang it, everybody got up and clapped and gave me ovations and stuff," she says. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is it! This is what I want to do.' I was addicted."

Her parents were supportive. After the family moved to New York City in 1996, Bonilla's mother helped her get into talent shows.

On her way

It didn't hurt that bachata - the romantic, slow-tempo, Dominican dance-music style characterized by bongos, bass and shimmery, African-style guitars - was getting a shot in the arm after being dormant for several years.

Bonilla even attended high school with future members of Aventura, the contemporary crossover bachata band whose album "The Last" debuted at No. 5 last year on the Billboard album chart on the strength of singles such as "All Up To You," which featured a guest spot from R&B singer Akon.

One performance in those early years was a talent show that featured some important people in the audience. "One of the judges was from JM Records in Spain, and after I sang he got up on stage and said, 'Right now, if she agrees, we're going to sign Leydy Bonilla.'"

She was dazed. "I didn't know what to say. It takes a long time for most singers to even be heard by a record label and this just came to me. It was a blessing. That day, it was meant to be."

Bonilla was on her way. She began working on her first album, a mix of merengue and cumbia called "Nada Sin Ti (Nothing Without You)," and then she toured in Europe.

By the early 2000s, a bachata revival was beginning to take hold in U.S. Latin communities. Born in the Dominican countryside in the early 1960s, the sound was revived in the late 1980s when singers such as Juan Luis Guerra took the music to larger audiences on albums including "Bachata Rose" and "Ojala Que Lleva Café."

But when the grittier reggaeton arrived in the late '90s, bachata fell out of favor among young Latino pop fans. Then younger acts such as Bonilla and Aventura began mixing the music with R&B and hip-hop. Bonilla went full force into bachata on her second album, 2001's "Estoy Enamorada (I'm in Love)."

It was around that time that her parents fell in love with Charlotte. "We thought we could do the music anywhere, but when we moved, it just stopped."

Bonilla realizes she may have suffered a setback when she moved to Charlotte in 2004, but to the local Dominican and extended Latin American communities, she'll always be a star.

She smiled contentedly. "You know, I adjust to pretty much anything. Maybe I would be at a different level in music if we'd stayed in New York, but I'm happy where I am. We go back and forth from here to there and Santo Domingo."

She looked down at her hands and then looked back up. "You just keep going and you adjust. It works out."

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