Cumbia with a twist
La Mera Candelaria rejects the status quo—with danceable beats
Latina singer-songwriter Stephani Candelaria fondly remembers sleeping backstage at the age of 5 inside the clubs where her mother, a salsa singer, would perform well into the night. Candelaria, now 27, credits her mother as one of her biggest inspirations for her own musical ambitions, motivating her to move from the small California mission town of San Juan Bautista into the Bay Area to pursue music at 19.
“It was definitely not your average childhood, and there are pros and cons to having that,” Candelaria says in a recent phone interview with SN&R. “But I would not change it for the world because I don’t think I’d be here making music if it hadn’t been for those experiences of watching my family give everything to their craft.”
Now, Candelaria has formed her own Los Angeles-based band that challenges the norms of cumbia and the Latin music industry at large: La Mera Candelaria (translation: The Real Candelaria). Next Friday, they’re coming to Old Ironsides, where they plan to unveil a new single titled “Yo Tambien”—a response to the #MeToo movement.
Candelaria sings: “Yo soy la trabajadora, que no puede ni hablar (I am the worker who can’t even speak) / Porque si el jefe es el culpable, quien me puede ayudar? (Because if the boss is the one at fault, who can help me?) / Yo tambien soy sobreviviente (I, too, am a survivor) / Yo tambien soy fuerte y valiente (I, too, am strong and brave).”
Candelaria formed La Mera Candelaria shortly after relocating to Los Angeles in 2015. She recruited a group of musicians who use percussive instruments like congas, tambora, claves and güira with bass and cuatro-style guitars to create the band’s fusion of genres: They collide the steady, danceable beats of cumbia with the more laid-back and buoyant vibes of Son Cubano.
“It’s not strictly cumbia that you would hear on the radio,” Candelaria says. “It’s cumbia with a very Caribbean style and instruments that you wouldn’t typically find in a cumbia band, and I think it really gives us some good edge, especially in LA where there are more than 200 cumbia bands.”
Candelaria says she always wanted to start a band of her own, even when she fronted the popular Bay Area alternative Latin group La Misa Negra for a stint. She longed to perform her original songs that explore themes of feminism and the place of women in the music industry, especially within the Latin community.
La Mera Candelaria’s first self-titled album—released last August—includes songs that put women at the forefront as they pursue men without the veil of shame or lament the loss of female lovers.
In the band’s upcoming album due in February, Candelaria says she sings with skepticism about the norms of Latin music: Instead of restricting her lyrical themes to the typical heartbreak scenario or romantic love with men, Candelaria writes from her gut and challenges what Latina singer-songwriters depict within the industry.
“My songs are about things that you don’t typically hear women, especially Latinas, singing about,” Candelaria says. “Being able to say things that women think without shame and talk about the reality of life for a lot of Latinas today and to show that it’s OK for women to be sexual and open and dynamic and beautiful—and not be pinned down as this or that. I want to bring those topics up in a fun and danceable way.”