Ever since Juan Luis Guerra burst onto the Latin music scene in the ’90s with his very personal take on bachata, no other artist had been able to hit the same potent musical sweet spot. It seemed that Guerra’s catalogue of tunes with smart lyrics, bolero-tinged bachata and rich variants of merengues would never find their match.
That is, until Vicente Garcia.
The 36-year-old Dominican has traced his own path of exploring the roots music of his homeland with bachata fusions starting with his debut album (Melodrama, 2011). He then took on Afro-Dominican-infused ballads in his sophomore album, 2018’s A la Mar, which garnered him three Latin Grammys. Now, he brings fresh, modern takes on all of the above in his new album, Candela. Its multi-hued bachata and merengue tunes filtered through a 21st-century prism are making Garcia the heir apparent to Guerra’s legacy with a vision that’s all his own.
Candela’s 15 songs are a heady mix of sounds that began with Garcia spending time in a music library studying 78s of traditional Dominican merengues such as those of Joseíto Mateo, the “King of Merengue.” He also investigated how merengue forms that emerged in nearby islands, such as Curacao.
We chatted with Garcia to get his take on how five essential tracks from Candela fused the past and present.
“Loma de Cayenas”
The album’s first single and Garcia’s first top 10 on the Tropical Songs Airplay chart is a long-desired and awaited merengue collaboration with Juan Luis Guerra himself. The song, explains Garcia, contains African soukous rhythms and licks like those of Congolese guitarist Diblo Dibalá, not unlike the African influences Guerra himself incorporated into his albums from the early ’90s, such as Fogaraté and Areito.
In this bachata-trap, Garcia says the bongo and guiro hold up Dominican traditions in the chorus, thereby planting the sonic flag of the island’s iconic genre, but a reggae dub base lays out a gentle tapestry of beats. South African choruses add a rich texture. Garcia also notes that in the course of his musical exploration, he came to realize that the relationship between Africa and the Americas, especially the Caribbean, was not a one-way road, but rather a musical dialogue that took place over decades as rhythms and melodies crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean.
The title track, and perhaps the most iconically traditional of the songs on the album, says Garcia, is set within classic “merengue de palo” beats, as this rapid-fire merengue is played with drums that are termed “palos.” Its rhythm is fierce and unremitting, and a characteristic call-and-response chorus alternates with Garcia’s vocals scatting and riffing on the melody as a finale.
This English-language merengue, despite being a love song, has a political backstory. Garcia tells Billboard that when Americans occupied the island in 1916, the story goes that the usually accelerated pace of merengue decelerated so that Americans could dance to it — hence, the more languid and lilting pace of this style of merengue and lyrics in English that speak of slowing down the rhythm. The song also adds Zulu choruses to its refrains, a direct nod to Paul Simon’s Graceland, which Garcia considers a seminal album and a primary influence in his work.
This song, says Garcia, was about daring to face the future rather than looking to the past, applying modern touches such as intentional AutoTune use and guitars with delay. With songs like “San Bá,” he wanted to create a “contemporary aesthetic” and differentiate Candela’s songs from those of A la Mar, which he dubs as an album more “pure and naive.”
Vicente Garcia will perform at Central Park Summerstage on July 13 as part of the LAMC- Latin Alternative Music Conference.