There’s a longing tenderness to Vicente García’s music – one that evokes the homesickness and heartache of years past, but where only the happy memories linger. The fact that his music brings a lump to your throat can be somewhat surprising: although García has been making and performing music in some capacity for over two decades, it was only five years ago that he left his native Dominican Republic for new opportunities (and challenges) in Colombia.
The opening of new doors signaled a distinct shift in style and sound for García, who replaced the pop-soul and funk of his early days as the frontman of Calor Urbano with music with a more pronounced Latin flavor. Merengue, bachata, and salsa are the Dominican Republic’s love languages, and although it seems obvious in hindsight, it’s natural that García – an immigrant starting a new life in a new country – would gravitate towards the sounds of his youth. His music is steeped with nostalgia and sentimentality because it was forged in those very feelings.
Much like Juan Luis Guerra, his spiritual predecessor and mentor, García is reinterpreting Dominican folk music and giving it a modern twist. I reached him over the phone earlier this week, right after rehearsal at his studio in Bogotá, the city he has called home since relocating to South America. We spoke in our native Spanish, immediately finding common ground in the familiar rapid-fire jabber of our shared Dominican dialect. This interview was translated into English with the artist’s permission.
Vicente García plays Fillmore Silver Spring on Sunday, April 14. Candela is due out May 10.
Brightest Young Things: You moved to Colombia a few years ago. How has that benefited you as an artist or songwriter? What drew you to the country, as opposed to moving to Miami or New York – or staying in Santo Domingo?
Vicente García: I had been doing pretty well in Santo Domingo for a while – and I’ve always been clear that I received plenty of support in the Dominican Republic, starting from my days with Calor Urbano. People came to the shows and I felt pretty good. But I realized I had been doing the same thing for a few years, and not just on the professional side of things – I was still living with my parents. It felt like the same story over and over: I’d play a show, I’d go out with friends, I’d rehearse. I was living with my parents, so I wasn’t paying for rent or utilities. There wasn’t really any struggle; I felt like I had to get out of there and test myself – first on a personal level, and then on an artistic level.
Coming to Colombia was the best thing I did for myself. I came to focus on my music and my job and to put my head down. It’s been five years here and I’ve grown a ton, as a person and as an artist. The country’s growing music industry and market has played a big part in that growth, and it’s vital. But on the other hand that growth is also because I left my dad’s house! I came to live alone and to figure things out, and the only way was through, you know? Many things were borne of that relocation.
BYT: Is it hard to make Dominican music outside of the Dominican Republic – without Dominican musicians?
García: [Pauses] No – it’s difficult to make Latin music that isn’t urban music. I like urban music, and it’s dominating the scene. I want to be clear: I say that with a lot of respect, not hate – there’s plenty of music in that style that I enjoy, and I listen to, and I’m friends with the people who make it. But it’s hard to come up against that machine. It has made a huge impact in global culture, and I’ve learned to be satisfied with being a minority in that. My shows aren’t that big, and maybe I won’t be a Hollywood superstar – but I do whatever the hell I want. I might not play to 5,000 people, but I’ll have 1,000 dedicated fans, and I make a living doing what I love to do. I was lucky that I grew up in a household that taught me that material possessions aren’t everything; I don’t need to drive around in a flashy yipeta. I’m perfectly happy walking everywhere.
BYT: You really put an emphasis on more traditional Dominican – and Afro-Caribbean – musical styles on A La Mar, to great success: the album earned you three Latin Grammy wins, including “Best New Artist” and “Best Singer-Songwriter Album.” What can we expect from your upcoming album, sonically?
García: Well, look – I’m 36-years-old, and started making music when I was 14; in bands, participating in talent shows, covering English-speaking songs by bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Deftones. And I had a deep interest in punk and flow, and that’s how I started Calor Urbano – I was 18 when I started that band, and that’s when I first began taking music seriously. But after a few years I started looking to Dominican music as something that had aggregate value; it was a style that allowed me a greater range of self-expression and self-expansion. It wasn’t part of a marketing plan, but it was something I felt within myself artistically. Melodrama, my 2010 album, was the first time I wrote bachata and salsa songs – as well as other Caribbean styles like cha-cha-cha. But there was still many elements from what I’d always done, particularly in my singing style and the aesthetics. A La Mar stands apart in my discography, and I think meeting (producer) Eduardo Cabra had a lot to do with that. Because he helped me dive deep into the roots and lyrics of Afro-Dominican music. That really accentuated my journey down a path that started with Melodrama.
That journey and that search stood alone; it was very organic and very personal. I started traveling to the rural areas of the Dominican Republic to seek out palo music and more traditional styles. But it wasn’t thinking that I’d make a traditional or folk music album; it was more like “Coño! This music is so beautiful!” I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it besides immerse myself in it – I wasn’t even looking to make an album. I wanted to spend more time closer to my country’s culture, and it wasn’t just about music – it was how we express ourselves, how we talk, the way we celebrate regional parties and mourn our dead. All of that created an aesthetic that I had at the forefront of my mind when I met Eduardo Cabra, and that’s where A La Mar was born. And it poured out of me with pop sensibilities – ultimately, I recognize that I make pop music – but it isn’t the pop you’d expect to hear at a nightclub. Maybe it’s a bit more interesting, stylistically, and it resulted in a record that surpassed our expectations. I tried to rescue the most important elements from that experience, which was at its core the feeling of artistic freedom without feeling any pressure from my label or external factors. I tried to do what I trust I like to do, and not get carried away by a formula I might have built with A La Mar.
A La Mar was a record that worked with the purity of Dominican folk music, and worked with tropical music from a contemplative perspective. My next record, Candela, is an evolution of all the rhythms I worked in on my last two albums. It has uncomfortable sounds and difficult passages – the lyrics sit in desperation, and in a way they laugh at the difficulties you experience in life, when you love and live so intensely. That’s the Candela I talk about throughout the record. I tried to move away from the formula I perfected on A La Mar; I don’t want to spend my entire career making different versions of A La Mar.
BYT: Do you have a guiding philosophy or lens to the way you approach music? How do you decide what the next evolution in your work will be?
García: I don’t really know what guides it, but there are things I can sleep with and things I cannot. When I know I can sleep well with an artistic decision, then that’s definitely the right path. I’ll defend whatever I make, because it’s my voice, and my vision – without wanting to sell myself short. But my way of thinking also includes urban music as something really cool, and something I’d love to explore – in fact, on Candela I work some trap music elements into bachata. Overall, I’m trying to put an emphasis on the fact that I’m not going to badmouth urban music just because it’s not a style I’ve worked in historically. I enjoy all kinds of music, including what’s popular right now; I’d love to incorporate some of it into what I’m making. I think that’s part of the magic of being an artist – we can do anything we think up. BYT: You mentioned being heavily influenced by North American bands when you first started making music. Much like you, I grew up in the Dominican Republic in the 1990s, and I think so many of us “Dominican Millennials” looked to grunge, and punk, and American pop as our initial musical references.
Can you remember when your own attitudes towards bachata and merengue and traditional Dominican music changed? Or were you always a fan of the genre?
García: I was the same as you. I didn’t look at our country’s music for a long, long time – I must have been 22 or 23 when I started to pay attention to it, and mostly because I had the opportunity to go on tour as Juan Luis Guerra’s opening act. We traveled around the world and I noticed how powerful our culture is – how people went crazy for merengue and bachata – and how much impact that has. It went beyond music; it was a feeling of pride in my roots, and my language, and all it signifies. That was amplified further when I moved to Colombia, because here I am the Dominican guy. Back home I might just be Vicente, but in Bogotá I’m “el Dominicano.” That had a lot to do with my journey towards creating A La Mar and reclaiming my culture. I can imagine you had a similar experience when you moved to the United States.
BYT: Absolutely. Nostalgia began washing over me as soon as I made the decision to move away from home; I was just 17. I spent the majority of my first flight home for the holidays listening to Yoskar Sarante and Bolivar Peralta on my iPod and crying the whole trip back. Shamelessly crying on the plane!
García: Men, the homesickness really gets you! It really gets you. The nostalgia of all those years I ignored that richness. But I’m so happy that I arrived at that beautiful space.
BYT: One of the interesting things about the Dominican Republic – and about our country’s history – is the far reaches of the diaspora. I’m only semi-joking when I say that you can find a Dominican in every single country on the planet.
García: In every city and every country! [Laughs] Doesn’t matter where you go. It’s incredible.
BYT: The first time I heard “Dulcito e’ Coco” I felt the same pangs that I do when I listen to Juan Luis’ “Amor de Conuco”. Obviously it’s heightened due to the professional relationship between you two, but both songs manage to capture the sweetness and innocence and nostalgia that unites Dominicans abroad.
García: That has been such an unexpected phenomenon, particularly with that song. And it changed the way I make art. I’ll be in Madrid, or New York, or Buenos Aires and people come up to me saying how the music reminds them of home. Forget about how I play the guitar, or how I sing, or my lyrics – or whether I’m cool or not. There’s something deeper there, and that’s the feeling of rootedness to your identity. And that continues to hit me hard.