Just as American performers use phases of the Beatles or Prince as references, Vicente García can frame much of his career in the context of the veteran Dominican star Juan Luis Guerra.
“Melodrama was was really influenced by Juan Luis’ bachata mixed with ideas from other parts of the world, like boleros, and different harmonies,” García says, referring to his first solo album from 2011. “After that, I wanted to add Dominican folk and Afro-Dominican influence: That’s the same direction Juan Luis did in albums like Areíto (1992) and Fogarate (1994). That took me to the countryside to get in contact with chants and drumming, and that’s how I wrote A La Mar, which is my second album.” On the strength of A La Mar, García won three Latin Grammys last year, including best Best New Artist.
Now the singer is able to interact more directly with his lodestar: García’s latest single, “Loma De Cayenas,” is a nimble merengue collaboration with Guerra himself. The two singers trade light-footed verses about love at first sight as a guitar tumbles and cascades and an agile brass section adds weight to the driving beat. In the song’s final third, wordless backing vocals arranged by Janina Rosado swell prettily just beneath the drums.
Guerra has been a force in Latin popular music since at least 1990, when his Bachata Rosa album went platinum. “All my really big memories from when I was a kid, going to the beach, hanging out with my parents on Sundays, all those are hooked to Juan Luis’ music,” García says.
But initially García was focused on absorbing other genres: “When I was 14, I was into punk rock, I was really influenced by Rage Against the Machine and Deftones,” he explains. “Then I had a funk and R&B band.” García enjoyed success fronting the band Calor Urbano, and Guerra invited the group to open for him on tour. “That’s when I realized that Dominican music has this power to make people dance and saw how people got really interested in our culture [through Guerra’s music],” García says.
“I went back to the Dominican Republic after that tour, realized I wanted to work with Dominican music and with our culture,” he continues. “I was really influenced not just in terms of music and rhythm, but in the way [Guerra] writes songs, trying to bring Dominican expressions and make people get curious about the things said in Dominican Spanish.” García left Calor Urbano to pursue a solo career in 2010.
After the bachata and bolero explorations of his first two albums, García set his sights on merengue, one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular musical exports. “I think merengue is our best known rhythm, our music flag,” he says. “But I didn’t want to do it before because I thought I wasn’t ready to do it — it’s a really specific way of singing. So I started to look into the origins of the merengue and see how I could get my own voice.”
After studying a variety of old recordings, García concluded that “after the 1990s, merengue got into just one kind of style.” “We really enjoyed it,” he adds, “but it’s just one thing to the merengue universe. I wanted to bring back all the old kinds of merengue but in a modern way.”
That’s his project on his upcoming third album, which will be released at some point next year; García will tour with Guerra next year as well. “There’s merengue típico, which is played with accordion in a trio with a tambora; there’s merengue based on guitars, that mixes sometimes with bachata, that has a different kind of harmony, a different kind of texture,” García says. “There’s the Haitian merengue; there’s a kind that has a lot to do with Angolan music.” He wants to acknowledge it all, in hopes to “bring back a universalist perspective” to the merengue.
“That’s what I look for when I do Caribbean music,” he adds. “I don’t want people to think of it as just Latin artists making Latin music — I want people to think of it as the world’s music.”