Vicente Garcia - Candela
“How did this fire get started?” sings Vicente García in the title track of his visionary new album, Candela. According to this dynamic young pop-fusion artist, it was his desire to reinvent the fire and passion of merengue and bachata, the core of the Dominican Republic’s musical culture, as a part of a new global musical aesthetic. “I wanted to experiment with merengue and mix it up with different genres and rhythms, use electronics like Juno synthesizers, mix bachata with trap, bachata with James Blake, with dub and reggae,” said García. “It’s the way I always dreamed I wanted to make music, you know?”
Candela is a riveting 14-track journey into the soul of Dominican music, led by one of the island’s most creative new voices, and nimbly supported by producer Eduardo Cabra (Visitante of Calle 13), his partner in crime on 2018’s vanguardist Latin-electronica project Trending Tropics. It shifts gracefully from the loping bachata-trap of “Ahí Ahí,” (Always There) to the edgy elegy about the Taino natives of “Maguá,” and the lyrical Afro-chourses of “Detrás del Horizonte” (Beyond the Horizon) It even features an unusual attempt at using English lyrics in merengue—the infectious “Palm Beach”—that dramatizes the intersection between North and South that flows through all of García’s music.
Vicente García originally came on the scene after spending many years touring with and opening for his mentor, merengue-bachata legend Juan Luis Guerra. But after the release of his first album, Melodrama in 2010, García found himself at a crossroads. He found himself being pushed by the music industry away from his singer-songwriter roots and toward the mainstream bachata of Aventura and Prince Royce. “I started thinking about just being a songwriter for other artists,” said García, who proceeded to write for Mexican pop band Camila’s Mario Domm.
Still, García felt unfulfilled and began to immerse himself in researching the Afro-Dominican roots of the music, visiting outlying areas like Cibao and Villa Meya, where found fraternal groups dedicated to preserving magical religious drumming traditions, discoveries that had an effect on his singing style, which up to then had been most influenced by r&b, soul, and the American pop-master Paul Simon. “But I didn’t know what to do with that, until I met Eduardo Cabra,” said García.
Cabra had just finished work on his first album with Colombian pop-folkloric group Monsieur Periné on the Grammy-award winning Caja de Música (Music Box), and immediately took a liking to García’s mindset. “He made me believe that there was another way to do pop music, that I wouldn’t have to do a commercial merengue album,” said García. Working with Cabra, García released A la Mar in 2016, as well as their experimental project Trending Tropics in 2018, using guest vocalists ranging from Bomba Estereo’s Li Saumet to Calle 13 vocalist turned solo artist iLé.
But while A la Mar was more reflective, poetic meditation on a nostalgic idea of Dominican culture and music, Candela is in the tradition of the Latin American crónica, a more direct narrative about immediate thoughts and feelings. “The whole album is about a kind of nostalgia for the countryside,” said Cabra. “It’s an album completely about love, but there’s a certain sadness to it, which contrasts with how animated the songs are.” From a musical point of view, García’s re-mix of merengue has to do with going back to the music’s roots, recalling arrangements made for guitar- and piano-driven merengue in the days before the accordion was incorporated, substituting electronic instruments for saxophone riffs.
The songs capture fleeting moments shared between long-time lovers and chance encounters, always chasing rays of Caribbean sun, an ocean of memories, and the elusive refuge of mountain jungles. There’s the elemental sensuality of “La Tambora,” (The Drum), and the lost-love laments of “Un Conuco y Una Flor” (A Plot of Land and a Flower) and “Lo Que Más Extrañas” (What You Miss the Most), cementing the visceral texture of García’s neo-merengue. While García uses an 11-piece band to play live, on Candela he uses a core group of percussionists like Otoniel and David Vásquez, along with Zulu chorus of singers.
With “Palm Beach” García finds himself back in Paul Simon mode, telling a rumored origin story of the merengue variant known as pambiche, deftly code-switching between English and Spanish. “I wanna dance again with my young morena in Palm Beach,” García croons as he explains how she asks the orchestra to slow down the rhythm for her Anglo suitor. The song incorporates a chorus of singers who had worked in Broadway productions of The Lion King and the African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who also contribute vocals on three other tracks on Candela.
Though much of the attention on Candela will be focused on hits like the title track, “Ahí Ahí,” “Palm Beach,” and of course, García’s long-awaited collaboration with Juan Luis Guerra on “Loma de Cayenas,” there are quite a few sleeper tracks that can’t be ignored. The upbeat, wistful “Merengue de Enramada” (Underbrush Merengue) and hard-driving “Sanbá,” with its Zulu chorus and electronic mood-chords are secret pleasures. But “Maguá,” a favorite track of Cabra’s, stays in your head with its hyperkinetic bilingual celebration of the indigenous past of the island Hispañola.
“Maguá is like an imaginary place based on Samaná, a peninsula in the Northeast of the DR,” said García. “I bought some land there and it’s a promised land where I want to live someday, the home of Taíno tribes. What we did was take a loop of merengue and use a resampler to do a random arrangement of the pattern and then break it. Then I incorporated the macó pattern of merengue—the purists might say it’s incoherent but that’s what experimentation is.”
Candela’s experimentation is at the core of its musical appeal—while García insists he loves the 90s sounds of La Coco Band and Rikarena, he’s searching for a new chapter. “There’s an important movement in the Dominican Republic that focuses more on folklore and Afro-Dominican tradition, projects that focus on a content-rich music in touch with it roots. There’s been a musical vacuum for a while and I’m happy to be part of a new movement that creates a new horizon for our collective identity.”