La India Canela brought two accordions to Studio 4A, including a rhinestone-studded instrument that she couldn't play because Washington, D.C.'s cold weather knocked it out of tune.
La India Canela brought two accordions to Studio 4A, including a rhinestone-studded instrument that she couldn't play because Washington, D.C.'s cold weather knocked it out of tune. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
From Merengue Tipico from the Dominican Republic
La India Canela performs in NPR's Studio 4A.
La India Canela performs in NPR's Studio 4A. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
The fleet fingers of accordion player La India Canela stand out in the world of merengue music. Her original songs have her home country of the Dominican Republic dancing.
Born Lidia Maria Hernandez Lopez, she once met a radio host who looked at the young musician and said, "Your name is 'La India. La India Canela.'" The name translates to "The Cinnamon Indian" — "Indian" for her color and "Cinnamon" for her flavor.
The accordionist has won the Dominican Republic's highest prize in the arts (the Casandra) twice and is famous country-wide for her hit dance songs. Now, Smithsonian Folkways has released her album, Merengue Tipico from the Dominican Republic, in the U.S.
Three things got in the way of La India Canela's success right off the bat. First, her father didn't want her to play the accordion, because it was not something girls do. So, like many children driven by artistic passion, she practiced in secret. Then, when saxophonist Juan de Dios discovered her, it became another ordeal to convince her father to let her perform in the city.
Her biggest challenge, however, involved overcoming the stigma of the accordion as an instrument for men. At the time, only two other women in the Dominican Republic played the instrument. When La India Canela began to play clubs in Santiago at the age of 15, she decided to build up her repertoire by including pieces typically performed by men.
Most merengue music heard on mainstream Latin stations today is of the pop variety — glossy and major-label-driven. La India Canela performs in the more traditional style, which was updated when Germans came to the country and brought the accordion.
"Accordion is very profound, and you feel it probably from the moment you are in your mother's womb," she says. "There is no formal education for an accordionist."
Host Andrea Seabrook asks, "So you come with that inspiration?"
"Oh, yeah, I believe I came from my mother's womb with that inspiration," La India Canela responds, laughing.
One of her most popular songs is "Aprietame Asi," which in both Spanish and English is a delightful play on words: "Squeeze Me Like That." In NPR's Studio 4A, she performed her original song solo.
As the song ended, Seabrook commented on the percussiveness of the accordion, and how it almost suggests rhythm.
"Merengue is a very warm type of music, like the Caribbean," La India Canela says. "And when I play it, even my blood gets hot."