A native Chicagoan of Cuban descent who has made her home here in Madrid, Vivian Garcia brings an intimacy with the Blues to bear on her training in Rumba and Bolero. It’s a mix that is refreshing, original, and one that she makes feel all her own. At the center of a burgeoning group of young expat musicians calling Madrid home, Garcia plays the role of senior stateswoman with 14 years of experience performing, while still herself quite young.
In Chicago you can’t help but hear the blues … it was part of my musical heritage.
Her new album Cold Bed is a trek across her cultural heritage with tracks like “Mojo Man” feeling as if they were pulled straight from the Chicago of some lost century, to “Flor de la Ciudad” which blends hip hop and Rumba into something that feels at once modern and impossibly antique. “Fool me Once” is a particularly nostalgic song, and one in which her vocals and lyricism shine.
She began performing at the age of 14 with the Chicago-based group Inside Arts. There she was introduced to the works of Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and began a long-lasting affair with classic vocalists, while unavoidably being influenced by a Chicago saturated in house, freestyle, and hip hop. And, of course, the Blues: “In Chicago you can’t help but hear the blues. Whether or not I bought CD’s, it was part of my musical heritage.”
Chicago got into her blood in other ways, too. She remembers from an early age having an obsession with repeating the constantly present sounds of her Edgewater neighborhood: sirens, car horns, Mexican vendors shouting out the names of their corn and rice based treats…even blenders. Since childhood she was a singer, whether she knew it or not, but she didn’t learn to accompany herself on the guitar until much later.
At Northwestern University she was one of a small number of Latino students, and she began to take hold of that identity despite not having learned Spanish as a child, and having opted for French in high school. “I like sonorous things, I like sounds,” she says, “and I think [I studied French] because as a little girl I loved Pepe Le Pew.”
Her mother did not speak Spanish to her in the house because “she came as a teenager, and I think experienced a lot of racism and wanted us to avoid that, and thought that if we were good in English we’d be okay. But my mother began to reclaim that when I started to bring it home in college. She started buying things like Marc Antony and Ricky Martin and all this stuff,” she says laughing.
She refers to her time at Northwestern, at least in part, as a process of ‘politicization’ where she became more invested in her own Latina identity, and began to reclaim the musical heritage that she had been denied growing up. Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez, Los Panchos, the Trios, and Edie Gourmet became regulars in her rotation.At the same time, she was involved with a group at the University called Casa Hispana. It was also during her time at Northwestern that she heard a neighbor, Tricia Sebastian, who also happened to teach kids at Chicago’s famed Old Town School of Folk Music, playing the guitar in the apartment beneath her. Tricia talked her into adding the guitar to her vocal talents. She began to study with Roberto Arce, and took the first steps down a path that would lead her to Granada on three separate extended trips focused on studying Flamenco guitar.
In the meantime, she began a career performing, at first singing along with a boyfriend who played Flamenco in Sarasota, Florida, and then as the front woman for a Sarasota funk, salsa, and ska outfit called Big Night Out. “There were nights when I would sing flamenco from 6-9 with my ex, then go from 10-2 with this funk power tower.”
In the end, she was Spain bound: “Flamenco for me, it didn’t attract me at first, but Rumba Flamenco totally did, and then it made sense because if you look at the origins of different balos in Flamenco, Rumba is one that is called the ida y vuelta, meaning that it went to the colonies and then came back with a different toque.” Like the music before her, she was headed back to Spain. Her return was focused on studying for an M.A. in Spanish Literature. She had no idea she was also in the process of completing her own artistic return to La Madre Patria.
Surprisingly, when she arrived music wasn’t really on the agenda. She came focused on honing her academic chops, assuming that music would have to be put on the back burner for a time. But in the end, what she calls “the struggle between the two muses: music and literature,” couldn’t be put on hold.
When a friend talked her into attending an open mic, she saw professional level talent in the likes of Mary-Elaine Jenkins (South Carolina), Peter Muller (Berkeley, CA), Rafael Alves (Brasil), and Jaime Echagüe (a local Madrileño), and she couldn’t avoid the call to nurture that talent. An interesting–and promising–community of expat musicians has been the result.
Her new album, Cold Bed, can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp. She has upcoming gigs at Wurlitzer on January 11th, and Andy’s Bar in Lavapies on January 16th.
Ryan Day is a writer who lives in Madrid. He and some friends run The Toast Cafe, a space for literary and other artistic events that happens to make a pretty mean hamburger and a whole array of veggie cuisine… and lots of coffee for those who just want to sit and scribble. You can find more of his writing at The Nervous Breakdown.