Walking through the Pilsen Community Market at 18th and Racine, one hears a cacophony of sounds: people shuffling through different stands, shoppers bargaining over the price of an item, children asking for this or for that, bags rustling as bought items are packaged. But on occasion, above the morning hustle and bustle, another, more euphonic noise can be heard: music.
The melody is being played by singer-songwriter Vivian Garcia—and it’s a melody that’s hard to attribute to a specific genre or style of music. The finger-pickings on the guitar are a reprise of calm, soothing flamenco-folk guitar. Every note reverberates singularly in a constant rhythm and complements the accompanying ensemble of instruments. This ensemble provides support to the music by cleverly weaving in and out between the guitar rhythms and the enticing, lyrical vocals that lie somewhere between blues and jazz in Garcia’s sultry, almost-raspy voice. It’s music that makes you wait in hypnotic anticipation for each note and leaves you pleased and reassured as each one arrives.
As a musician who describes her style as a combination of folk, blues, jazz, rumba-flamenco, afro-beat, world, electronica, cumbia, and other Latin and non-Latin rhythms, it is easy to see the appeal of having Garcia perform at the Pilsen market, where the offerings are as diverse as Garcia’s catalog.
Garcia was born to Cuban parents and grew up in Uptown. Though she currently resides farther south in Brighton Park and has gigs throughout the city, her time in Uptown and Roger’s Park as a youth had a large influence on her musical development, she says.
“My parents are Cuban, but I grew up in an English-speaking home,” says Garcia. “It was the diverse community of Uptown and the time I spent surrounded by all the different cultures that led to my diverse taste in music.
“With all of the cultural exposure surrounding me, I didn’t have much of a choice,” she says. “It became a part of me whether I was aware of it or not.”
Still, it wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she really began to emerge as a musician, when she started to take guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music. There she began to explore such genres as rumba-flamenco, cumbia, and other South American styles of guitar playing.
Soon after, she joined her first band, a flamenco group called Mezcal. Now, she says, she’s part of a more experimental group called ¡Esso! Afrojam Funkbeat, which produces, among other genres, “cumbia, house music, and New Orleans style music.”
As Garcia sees it, there’s a huge difference between the artist she is now and the artist she was then as a consequence of her culminated musical experiences, including those abroad in Spain. It was there that she was able to fine-tune her guitar skills to the point where she became comfortable accompanying her own vocals in performances.
“I wanted to really learn to accompany myself on guitar,” she said in an interview with Gozamos magazine, “so I left my full-time job and took the little I had saved to move to Granada, Spain to study flamenco guitar.” But beyond affording her the opportunity to learn flamenco guitar, her time in Spain helped her develop a musical identity.
“I would work the open mic circuits of Spain and would be asked to play blues and jazz,” she says. “I was hesitant at first because I didn’t want to bastardize the music of other cultures, but I learned that it was okay to play this ‘other thing.’ [The audiences] were moved by the American genres and enjoyed it.”
Her experiences abroad also helped her come to terms with what it means to be a Latina, even “entre comillas” (“in quotation marks”), in the music industry.
“There is a vast diaspora of what can be contained in this definition, a fluidity that allowed for doubt,” she says. “My parents were Cuban immigrants, and I had many friends from Central America, but it wasn’t until I began working with them [referring to her time abroad] that I gave myself permission to identify as one. Living abroad made me aware that there was no need to culturally appropriate. The linguistic and cultural elements are so different, it is more about how one perceives and identifies themselves and who they surround themselves with.”
Garcia believes that her multiculturalism has allowed her to pave her own way in her development as an artist and opened her to a larger number of influences. She has been able to connect with musicians from across cultural boundaries; Irish folk artists (“counterintuitive, I know,” she quips), people who play Americana in Europe, and Scots who also played blues and folk.
“Being bicultural and bilingual opened a lot of opportunities for me,” says Garcia. “[ I] haven’t been pigeonholed and have been able to work with a diverse group of people. It has given me a good deal of fluidity, and being able to move between the two languages helps me improve the experience for audiences.”
Garcia didn’t always think of herself as being bilingual or a singer-songwriter, but after so many years she now considers herself to be both.
“Everyone in Europe is a singer-songwriter, and most of them are very talented,” she says. “It was a little intimidating at first, but then became something that I could learn from.”
Garcia’s first album, Cold Bed, is in English despite being developed and produced during her time in Spain. She says that the songs “simply arose in English.”
However, since the development of that initial album of English musings, Garcia has released some bilingual singles—most recently “Loc@s,” a collaboration with Armando Perez. She describes the differences between working with the two languages as depending on how she wants to express herself.
“When I want something to sound passionate, I write in English,” she says. “But when something passionate arises within me when writing, it manifests itself in Spanish.”
Being a musician in two major cities—Granada and Chicago—with such rich cultural diversity has helped her success as a musician in her particular genres. “The vastness of these cities is incredible,” she says. “With so many people, there is a constant fuente [fountain] of information.”
Garcia looks forward to her return to Spain later this year and continues to work with a number of artists who have histories as rich as hers. Working with these people exposes her to new styles and makes her work both “fun and easy to do.” And of course, each time she does so, she says, her identity develops.