When Vicente García pulled in three Latin Grammys for his 2016 album A La Mar, he did so on the strength of handsome ballads: “Bachata en Kingston,” a swaying reggae fusion that was awarded Best Tropical Song, and the tender, conversational “Carmesi,” which became a moderate chart hit. A close study of bachata and bolero singers but also American shapeshifters like Paul Simon, García laid claim to a unique corner of singer-songwriter-dom, where he made intricate hybrids sound relaxing.
So it’s notable that “Sanbá,” an early highlight on his upcoming third solo album, Candela, is something else entirely, full-tilt and funky. García sings with the same weightlessness that keeps his ballads unexpectedly buoyant, but everything around him is percussive and hard-charging: The bass slashes fiercely, high in the mix, the guitar hints at both ska and afrobeat, and spurts of four-on-the-floor kick drum approximate the heft of house music.
Songs like this — and the album’s galloping title track, out today, which is pushed close to boiling by rounds of call-and-response vocals — were the result of careful recalibration on García’s part. “I really wanted to do the songwriting very differently from the way I did it before, which was very singer-songwriter oriented, with a guitar and always a cup of wine,” he jokes, speaking last month at Flux Studios in Manhattan, where he recorded parts of Candela. So he holed up with his band for multiple days at an Airbnb in the Dominican Republic — García was born there, though he now lives in Colombia — to make sure he wasn’t just another “guitar guy.”
Candela marks García’s third consecutive collaboration with Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra, following A La Mar, which Visitante produced, and Trending Tropics, a joint album the pair released last year. Working on that album, which put human interaction with technology under a microscope, also informed García’s new writing style. “With Trending Tropics I had to force myself to be like, ‘ok, we’re going to talk about this, and the paper is blank,’” he says. “It’s not, ‘oh, I feel inspired!’”
Even with this new emphasis on in-the-moment writing, García still did his homework before making Candela. The album explores merengue, “the most important rhythm of the Dominican Republic.” It’s music that can kick off a party and close it down many hours later, but García was studious in his approach, heading to a state-owned musical library to listen to old merengue 78s — “trying to go backwards and find new harmonies, new waves.”
At the same time as García scoured the archives, he fought to add a jolt of modern electronics to a traditional form. “On Trending Tropics, we had one merengue that was really experimental, and it gave us this sensation of being disruptive with the genre,” he explains. “That’s why we started applying Junos [synthesizers] to the merengue instead of doing saxophones — instead of baritone sax, use a synth that sounds like a fart.”
In “Sanbá,” much of the rhythmic energy is provided by hand percussion, but flat electronic drums sneak in before the finale, simulating the type of “drop” that’s now commonplace in many strains of modern pop. García took a similar approach with Candela‘s bachata cuts like “Ahi Ahi.” The singer describes it as “James Blake-oriented with a Prophet [another synth] and trap sounds, but brought into the sounds of the bachata;” it suggests a previously unexpected fusion, somewhere between bachata and trance.
With hand-played instruments rubbing up against electronics, achieving the proper sound balance was no easy feat. “Anything hybrid like this is hard, and that’s why so many people fail at it,” explains the engineer Fab Dupont, while putting together yet another mix of “Palm Beach” at Flux Studios. “Palm Beach” is a lovely, Rhythm of the Saints-like cut based on a merengue fable about a hapless American unable to dance to the uptempo music; his Dominican lover kindly requests that the band slow down so he can keep up. Dupont listens attentively, and before long, he spots something incorrect with the drums — “the placement here is not right.”
Dupont continues, “I’m mixing it so it sounds huge. A Demi Lovato record, those sound great. A Jason Derulo record, those sound great. Vicente’s stuff can be put next to that, and it will sound equally detailed, full, creamy” — here he smacks his palm for emphasis.
The percussion proved particularly tricky. “There are 808s on all the tracks to the left,” Dupont says, “which enhance the straight bass drums.” The effect is subtle, never crass, but in a song like “Ahi Ahi,” García, Visitante and Dupont are breaking precedent — “in theory, there’s no real kick in bachata,” Dupont says. “Sometimes we make it closer to a hip-hop bachata.”
“It could be a straight bachata record, and it would work out,” the engineer adds. “But it’s good to push.”
Those who push are sometimes penalized: Every musical style with a revered history has purist police, musicians who demand fealty to classic form. But García’s efforts paid off on A La Mar, and he is not worried about the reception to Candela.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s this or just mute.”
Vicente García Tour Dates
April 12 – Orlando, FL @ House of Blues
April 13 – Miami, FL @ Adrienne Arsht Center
April 14 – Silver Spring, MD @ Fillmore
April 19 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
April 21 – Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club