At 36, Vicente García is a music legend in the making. The Dominican-born singer-songwriter is decidedly non-conventional, humble yet dynamic — and the higher his star rises, the tighter he grips onto his artistic freedom, aiming to evolve his musicality while staying grounded.
"It hasn't been easy," García says. "Labels and people in the industry just want to make you [follow] formulas, and I'm getting to that point that people know that I'm not doing it. People know who I am."
García began his career playing funk, soul, R&B and pop with a penchant for Paul Simon, to whom he has a strikingly similar vocal quality. "Then," he says, "I realized I wanted to work with my Dominican roots, with my identity." In 2008, he began touring with bachata and merengue legend Juan Luis Guerra.
Bachata and merengue are distinct folkloric guitar and percussion-based genres that emerged from marginalized communities and were spawned from the island's rich mix of African, Spanish and indigenous Taino cultures. García's new album, Candela, is the sparkling finale of a trilogy of such traditional Dominican-influenced sounds, merged with a smattering of genres from his sonic palette. You can hear it in the album's first single, "Ahí Ahí," an electronic and trap-tinged bachata exuding romantic wonder amidst the smoldering harmonies of Zulu choruses.
The momentum for Candela began after a life-altering night in Las Vegas. García was stunned as he landed award after award at the 2017 Latin Grammys for his second album, A La Mar — what he calls a "poetic meditation" inspired by exploring Afro-Dominican communities and their religious drumming traditions. García took three out of his four nominations that night, including best new artist. He says he was just happy to be there for "doing his art."
But the road to his A Lar Mar breakthrough wasn't straightforward. The album, which followed his bachata-laced pop debut, Melodrama, was a rejection of industry pressure to follow a mainstream bachata trajectory: "I [didn't] want to be that guy that just does Caribbean music," he explains. He began to resign his fate to writing for other artists — until he caught the ear of prolific Latin music producer Eduardo Cabra.
Cabra, aka "Visitante," was part of reggaeton royalty, and with his superstar group Calle 13 from Puerto Rico on hiatus, he was selectively producing music with emerging artists. A La Mar would become his new baby, beginning a fruitful journey of eclectic creativity.
To follow the success of A La Mar, García decided to push his boundaries — both backward and forward. He and Cabra immediately began producing a joint side project that became the critically acclaimed experimental album Trending Tropics in 2018. "The creative process was completely different," García says: It stretched his creativity and songwriting process from waiting to be inspired to manifesting ideas at will. "It was a really good challenge [with] a really clear concept of what we wanted to say in the lyrics and the aesthetics of the music."
That newfound artistic edge led the way to Candela. He describes the album as an "evolution," which he wanted to stand not merely as part two of A La Mar, but on its own artistic integrity: "People are just waiting to see what I'm doing now and have big expectations for me, so ... it's a little pressure."
For inspiration, he shifted away from bachata-pop fusion and dug deep into the Dominican Republic's historic archives, discovering old merengue 78s. He says working with the fast-paced elements of merengue, which has a more uptempo 2/4 feel compared to bachata's 4/4 timing, felt similar to working with dancehall: "It's very natural ... to bring the textures of synthesizer into merengue." He returned to the studio with Cabra, who says he loves to fuse organic and electronic sounds, citing "Un Conuco y Una Flor" as one of his favorite examples on Candela.
Adding to its luscious layering of sound, Candela takes on a socially nostalgic tone. García says "the album has a direct, humoristic way of doing and saying things" in a Latin American style of communicating called crónica. Another presence in the album is García's reverence for indigenous Taino culture: "Guatú," the opening song, is named for the Taino word for fire. It has a mystical meaning for García, honoring the power of the elements. "I say I come from the sea, la mar, and I try to learn about it," he explains. "And now, coming to [land], I've got to learn from the fire."
For García, the making of this album trilogy was both a self-affirming and culturally affirming journey. "What I really enjoy the most about working with the music of my country is [learning about] my culture and all my identity," he explains. "It has been like discovering and loving my country."
The trailblazing Cabra says he loves García's quest for expansion. From the beginning, he was impressed by the artist's many ideas and brought out the common denominators that would string them together. "Vicente is constantly growing, constantly," Cabra says. "He never stops ... looking for something new."
To help navigate the industry, García says he looks to groups like Café Tacvba and Bomba Estereo — as well as some American artists like Tyler, the Creator — as examples of being authentic without falling into the trappings of celebrity and formulaic music. "They do their thing and they enjoy doing music and experimenting," he says. "They don't follow that hunger [of] commercial success. It's just about feeling grateful for being able to do music. And that's a gift."
While his career path is lined with Grammy love, Cabra says he defines success differently. "For me, success is to make a good album. It's to make people happy, to be happy also, to try to make different sounds," he says. "So, Candela is a successful album."
García's fight to stay authentic has brought him to a very good place. "I'm not a bachatero. I'm not a merenguero. I'm everything and I'm nothing," he declares. "And that's perfect! It's about doing what I love."