When nothing else seemed appealing, Vicente Garcia headed to the countryside.
The young Dominican singer-songwriter had already anchored a successful band, Calor Urbano, and put out his first solo album, but his label was pushing him towards recording more commercial bachata, which didn't interest him in the least. So he skipped town.
The album he made after that trip just yielded four Latin Grammy nominations: Best New Artist, Best Songwriting Album, Best Album of the Year, and Best Tropical Song for "Bachata en Kingston". He went from wondering if he was going to record again to his highest point critical acclaim so far. Where did he go?
Afropop's Ben Richmond sat down with Vicente in midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park, a relatively quiet oasis in the middle of a busy weekday. The musician had just played at Brooklyn Steel the night before, and had to cut the show short due to a cough and a fever. But he was feeling much better, and was ready to explain what he found in the countryside, how a bass line can blow a song wide open and what writing a merengue has to do with Michelangelo.
Ben Richmond: You've been hard to pin down since your Calor Urbano days. What kind of music do you say you make? How do you describe what you do?
Vicente Garcia: First I think I am a singer songwriter. I am a songwriter. I like to see music as a songwriter, not as an artist. That way I can do many things and not stay in one place. I can do what I love.
I started doing funk music when I was in a band years before. Then I met Caribbean and Dominican music from Juan Luis Guerra who is a very big artist from my country and I toured with him. Then I realized that I wanted to do music with my culture, with my origins. So I did my first album titled Melodrama in 2010. I recorded here, in Brooklyn.
It was like a first step into the Caribbean world. I thought I was really into the Caribbean—I was born and raised in Santo Domingo—I didn't look at it as something I could do. So I started in 2008, 2009, experimenting with bachata, bolero, cha cha cha and salsa. That's how I did Melodrama. After that I was with EMI Latin, and they wanted me to do more commercial stuff, more commercial bachata. And I didn't like the idea so I got my release and started working independently.
I started looking more into my roots. I went into the countryside in the Dominican Republic, to other regions of what we now call 'tropical music.' I was trying to know where the merengue comes from, the rhythm of the drum playing, of the chants. I did it as something I wanted to do for fun, not something I was working on. I was just not into recording. I was like “this doesn't work for me; I won't do what they want, so I'll do whatever I like.” So I went into the countryside of the Dominican Republic.
I started traveling, one, two years, going to these fiestas de palos, which are like drum parties. They are traditionally really attached to religion, so I started to get interested in that. Not just in terms of music, but in terms of culture. I started writing about that, learning about religion.
Were you religious at all before?
No, but I like to study it. I don't practice it, but I like to use terms and names of parties and names of saints. I think it really describes the culture so I like to put it in my music. But I'd never done it before.
After this situation I had, which made me break with commercial stuff, two years, three years, I met [producer] Eduardo Cabra, who plays with Calle 13. I showed him what I had, and I told what had happened before, and why I didn't want to record anymore or be in business. And he said “I think we can do something great with what you have.”
Had you been writing songs before you went in to talk to Eduardo?
Yeah, I had like 30 songs that all had something to do with things I was watching: the rhythms or ways of singing. I was really into R&B and soul before, but I was looking for another aesthetic, in terms of Afro-singing and the way people do chants and stuff. Some of the songs have that, and some have the rhythm and some have the places or names of ceremonies, and that's how I started working on A La Mer without knowing.
So when I met Eduardo I showed him all the songs I had and he really liked it, and he invited me to spend a little bit of time not just on Dominican stuff but Afro-Caribbean in general.
With that in mind we started recording in Santo Domingo. We started by mixing bachata from the Dominican Republic, son cubano from Cuba, a little bit of reggae, dub and ska from Jamaica, gaga which is a Haitian rhythm as well as Dominican—so it was a little trip into the Caribbean.
I'm always curious about people who switch among styles. I'm curious, when do you know what the song is going to be? What's your writing process and what do you start with?
I really love to start with melody. I think melody gives me the message.
Are you coming up with melodies with your guitar in hand?
With guitar or piano or just at my computer. I work a lot with Ableton Live and Logic and samples. I used to record things and then sample it and then recreate it. Many forms. I really love to experiment.
When you come up with a melody, does it have a lyric with it?
It's just blah blah bluh. And then it's like the act of sculpting the message. I think it's there so you have to guess it.
That's like how you hear Michelangelo talking about there being something in marble that he needs to sculpt out. So do you work out the chords from the melody?
I usually start with some chords and then the chords give me a start in terms of rhythm and melody and some structure like that. I start with that and then I got lyrics and get them done somehow. And then I start doing the demo, in terms of drums playing. Or sometimes I've got drums from parties I went to, if they gave me something, I try to put some chords there that have never been put there. Like maybe I'm working with some bossa nova chords into that. That's something different to do. So in this way, I took a lot from Afro-Caribbean folk, but I'm not doing Afro-Caribbean folk. I'm doing my music like starting from that culture. I'm using the music of my culture while doing my own synthesized stuff.
Sometimes just those small changes to something like the bass line can change the whole genre and whole feel of a song.
That happened with me. I was working on my song "Bachata en Kingston," half of it had the reggae line and half had bachata and where those met it became this whole song. It was crazy.
Did anyone at the religious ceremonies tell you that there were rhythms you shouldn't use, or that didn't belong outside of that setting?
No, cause they really don't have that division. They had fun. They were drinking rum till 8 am. They didn't have that division between what is sacred and what is fun and what is life or what is music...it's all together at the same spot.
In American concerts, at least, there's a stage and the musician is up and the crowd is sitting down in the dark, to watch you. Is it hard to move some of these songs from that social space where they live into that setting?
I figured that out. What I'm trying to do is have some interludes between songs, so I can recreate kind of, without being boring. The interludes try to recreate what I lived: Chants with drums, or a guitar, just chants about saints and stuff. And then I have to go back to the normal stuff.
People want to hear what they heard on the album.
Bachata, I always think of as a Dominican form, even when the people making it are Dominicans living in the US...
Well, let me tell you, bachata is not from Dominicans living in New York. Bachata is born and raised in the Dominican Republic. The bachata you hear now on the radio, that's from Dominicans born or raised in New York. But it used to be really different from what it is now, and that's the bachata I took from. It was bachata with nylon strings, with maracas instead of güiro. It was more like singer songwriter music from the Dominican Republic. Most of the time talking about nostalgic stuff or melodramatic stuff.
So for me, I tried to use the bachata as that, something more than a fast bolero. Since then you have a lot of bachata styles: bachata rosa which is bachata made in the east, and it was more trying to put bachata into a more sophisticated context—with harmonies from other places like bossa nova. Not just major or minor chords, with more extended things. I started looking for that type of bachata, like the beginnings of it. On this last album I tried to do that bachata and also the popular real bachata with a lot of colors on the guitars and a lot of picking and stuff.
You mentioned how older bachatas have a sort of nostalgic or looking back at the land subject matter. Do you feel like the form changes what you write about? When do you come up with the topic for a song?
I was really into romantic songs for this album. I didn't let it lift it out, but I wanted to do more things. I was really inspired by this Paul Simon album Graceland, and I wanted to start to do more chronicling of things that don't have to do with me, or my feelings or my stuff. So I started talking about...well I have a song called “She Prays.” And it's about a woman in a place called Semana. She was really into this rhythm bamboula, and she had many songs that worked in that rhythm so it wouldn't die. And how the places she went, the saints would celebrate when she played, and it's just about it. So with this album I didn't try NOT to have the romantic stuff, I just tried to bring more into the songwriting style. And when I talk about love, I try to do it not in a plain mode, but with something specific. Sometimes with really Dominican terms or with things from my country like the national bird or the national flower or the rivers or name of the beaches, something that tries to make a difference between saying “I love you” or something different. I want you to feel love or lack of love, but when you close your eyes you can imagine something. It's not just “I feel really good” or “I feel really bad with you.”
The detail makes it yours.
If you see the titles it's not about “I love you” or “I miss you” or stuff like that. It's more specific down to the titles.
Also on “She Prays” you slide in some English.
It came from a dialect we have a culture that came to the Dominican Republic with the sugar cane industry many years ago. They came the West Indies, with their culture and idioms, they used to speak English and they mixed it with the Spanish and they went out of the Dominican Republican. So it was trying to evoke that area.
Vicente Garcia's been on tour for some six or seven months and has no idea when he's going to stop. Upcoming tour stops will be added to his website.