“It’s important to transmit these values through our music, especially in these times, where many people live with low morale and fear.” Manuel Vellón and Roberto Rengel, founders of Grupo Candela.
Welcome! Finally, an interview for this marvelous Latin music group. Manuel and Roberto, thank you!
Tell me about Grupo Candela. Who makes up the band and when did you come up with the idea to create it?
Manuel: In the summer of 2005, we were playing in my basement with Pavel Polanco. We got together just to enjoy the summer, and in there appeared the idea to create Grupo Candela.
Roberto: That’s how it went, we practiced all summer and played for the first time the 5th of September at the old Jolly Bob’s on Willy Street. There were originally eight of us, but people change and things evolve, so we started with 8 and today total 13. Of the original members only Manuel Vellón, Greg Smith and I remain.
What type of music do you play? Do you play different styles?
Manuel: The idea when we started was to play music that could reach the whole world. For this reason, we included old salsa, contemporary salsa, merengue, bachata, cumbia, plena, bomba and latin jazz. A very abundant genre!
What do you each bring to the group? What roles do you fill?
Manuel: Well, we, as co-founder and founder of the group, are in charge of promotion, setting up performances, the website and important decisions.
Roberto: In whatever work group, there’s always a couple members at the core of the labor for the group. These days, Manuel and I are at the center, but Carmelo Sáez, who is a trumpet player and our musical director, and Mario Mendoza, who’s the main singer, are helping out. Between the four of us, we spread out the tasks of setting up shows, promotion, etc.
Manuel: Mario Mendoza is a lawyer and handles any legal concerns.
Roberto: And Manuel is our spiritual leader!
How hard is it to play together? Or how easy? What is the challenge of maintaining a group together?
Manuel: One of the things we always wanted before Grupo Candela was even born was that we consider ourselves not only professional musicians, but colleagues, and also a family. We always try to make sure that all who come feel comfortable with us. The hardest part, since there’s 13 of us, is coming to an agreement regarding performances.
Roberto: Well, regarding what Manuel said, I’d just add that we always wanted to create an environment that doesn’t tolerate negativity or disharmony. Whatever person that projects negativity isn’t going to last with us. When we’re on the scene, you can tell that the vibe is positive and joyful. That’s important and is part of the character and personality of the group.Manuel: I’d like to add that another thing we don’t tolerate are airs or grandeur. Humility is incredibly important. It doesn’t matter the vast experience one might have, because we’re all on the same level, we are all one. With unity comes strength.
Roberto: I think the biggest challenge is logistics. It’s difficult to all come to an agreement because we also have lives and other jobs.
Do you have an album? Why or why not?
Roberto: We haven’t recorded anything yet, but that’s one of our goals. Basically because of lack of time and difficulty coordinating schedules. We’ve got original music, Manuel has written several songs, as has Mario Mendoza. So we have material to record but haven’t managed it to date. It’s one of our goals for the near future.
What’s been the peak for the group? The biggest low? Errors committed and learned from? Life lessons?
Roberto: At the beginning, all groups start with lots of energy. The challenge is maintaining that energy. We’ve had several stages with different members. The first stage was modest because we were still finding our sound. Later, Mario Mendoza joined and brought us lots of energy. Another era, which we remember fondly, was when Pedro Suårez joined. He was a Venezolano with lots of talent and a big personality, who was a pastor of a Lutheran church. A fantastic North American pianist also joined. Those times we managed to perform a lot and attain a lot of unity. In fact, it was perhaps one of the times of greatest unity for our group. Well, we’ve always had highs and lows, but we’ve known how to stay active and look towards the future.
Roberto: Thanks to God we haven’t committed huge mistakes that became catastrophic, but we’ve certainly learned lots of lessons. These lessons have to do with the importance of treating all musicians with honesty, transparency and respect. This is very important because it’s a team effort and we’re all investing time in the project. These are super important values to maintain the positivity of the group.
Manuel: Roberto said it all; if these values don’t exist, it’s a problem. With the years of playing music and experience that I have, I learned that the lack of these values leads to the rupture of groups. Unity is a fundamental factor.
How hard is it to make Latin music in Madison? Where do you usually play and what type of public do you have?
Manuel: Many years ago it was hard. I want to remember Ricardo González, who’s the one that started all this more than 40 years ago, and Tony Castañeda, who was also one of the first to play Latin music. Nonetheless, everything has continued evolving. I don’t see it as very difficult these days, now that the city of Madison is growing and more Latinos have joined our community.
Roberto: It’s not that hard because many of us grew up with Latin music, so we carry it deep inside. But, there’s not a lot of musicians here and one of the challenges is finding them. Many of the musicians that play with us are North Americans who come from a more classical tradition One of the great things about this kind of music is that it attracts lots of people, Latinos and beyond, who like to dance, so people always come to our events. For this reason, the business functions well and carries on. During the summer, we play at many events like Dane Dances. Furthermore, we participate every year in the fundraiser for Rhumba 4 Rainbow. In addition, we played with certain frequency at the Cardinal Bar. Nowadays, it’s called Nomad World Pub but we haven’t been able to perform there yet. We also played once a year at the Majestic Theater for the Latin Festival in November and at the university. We’ll go to UW – Lacrosse often. It’s a challenge that there aren’t many clubs that have the capacity to host us and a public that needs space to dance.
For the new generations of musicians that want to follow your steps in the present day (we live in a different world, ran by the digital, snapchat, and facebook), what’s your advice to move forward?
Roberto: Come study with Manuel at his percussion class!
Manuel: The University of Wisconsin – Madison offers a successful percussion program with classes at Centro Hispano. Roberto started the program and we offer conga classes, bongo, timbal, maracas, and other instruments. We’ve had the privilege of growing musicians from there that are now playing in groups.
Roberto: Working with the youth is important. There needs to be more workshops for youth.
Manuel: One of our goals is to maintain the culture through our youth. Our mission is to continue promoting this culture and this music.
We know that music evolves, like other arts. What are the parts that ought to be preserved (fundamentals, principles) from the type of music that you play?
Roberto: Well, the kind of music that we play has lots of tradition, many roots and variations. Salsa vieja is closer to the roots, it’s stronger. Salsa romantica is more pop and enjoys the youth. There’s also influence from the Dominican Republic (Merengue, Bachata) and Cumbia from other latin countries. It’s important to make all of this music with integrity, which is to say, staying true to the roots. But, these days, the youth are interested in other kinds of music, like reggaeton for example. It’s important to evolve as well and appeal to the youth. So, at some point, we’ll throw ourselves into experimenting with it because all music has its value.
Why aren’t there more female instrumentalists in your group? Is there a specific reason?
Manuel: We’ve had female musicians in the past, and, currently, Beth Wilson plays the piano with us. What happens is there aren’t many female musicians.
Roberto: I’d say that there are more male musicians than women. Nonetheless, there are many talented female musicians, like, for example, in the group Charanga Agoza. I think there are female musicians, but, perhaps, they’re playing other types of music!
Do you have any upcoming projects? Which ones?
Roberto: There’s always projects. Right now, the group is in a moment of transition. Our singer, Sandra Faitel, is no longer with us because she decided to take a break. We’ve collaborated recently with other female singers, like Ángela Puerta and Andrea Ramírez, and we like the energy of having two singers at once up front, male or female. We like the chemistry it creates. So, we’re looking in that direction. We’re also thinking of putting out new music and recording, as I mentioned before.
The majority of the Latino artists I’ve interviewed up to now have denounced the lack of funds for art in general, and even more so for Latin art. What’s your opinion? Do you also feel affected?
Manuel: I think it affects us equally as it does all of us in the realm of music. The lack of funds affects the different social programs that exist within the community. For that reason, on many occasions, we’ve played at events for different causes. At the personal and professional levels, we’ve volunteered our services to attempt to help during times when there’s a lack of funds.
According to you, why is it that in a city as rich as Madison that it’s difficult to find funding and greater support for the community of Latino artists? Do you think there’s some kind of hidden discrimination?
Roberto: You have to work to find sponsors, for example, because oftentimes large events are put together with corporate sponsors. There’s money for good quality music. What also helps a group like ours, like I mentioned earlier, is attracting lots of dancers. However, you can’t live only doing this. It’s almost impossible to make enough money. Very few reach the level of fame as well. And, if it’s achieved, you have to travel a lot and live a lifestyle not everybody is willing to have. But, it’s very important to continue promoting art through sponsorship and grants. We were able to start the percussion classes because UW – Madison secured a grant.
In reality, how integrated is Latin music in the community?
Manuel: I think it’s well-received. We can see it especially when we play at events like Dane Dances. You can spot couples that enroll in dance classes because they love the music. Classes have popped up that didn’t exist before. They’ve been spreading. For us, we love to see how people appreciate this music, even when they don’t hit that perfect step, they’re jumping, dancing and enjoying it. That vibe, that energy, makes us very happy.
Roberto: Latin music is happy music. It’s rhythmic, and enjoyable, but it’s also music that’s generally sang in Spanish. Many don’t understand it. Many North Americans don’t seek this kind of music, but when they find it, they enjoy it a lot. There’s groups that play salsa with more songs in English (such as the Madison group Salsoul), there’s radio shows, such as WORT, that play lots of salsa in english. I myself ran some radio shows that many North Americans listened to. So through these experiences I’ve been led to believe that many people enjoy Latin music.
15. Is there something else you’d like to say in this interview?
Roberto: One of the biggest messages we’d like to have reach the public is the need for unity and camaraderie, that goes beyond our group. It’s important to transmit these values through our music, especially in these times, where many people live with low morale and fear. It’s very important that we come together as a collective now, of all colors and races, so we can come together through this positive experience and promote a positive sense of camaraderie and confidence.
-Thank you Manuel and Roberto for talking about values that we sometimes forget exist. Unity, camaraderie, confidence, respect. Music has great power and has the ability to create change. I hope you continue forward without letting any negativity affect you. Qué viva la música!