Assembling this cast of characters was no cakewalk.
It's not easy to keep a band together for five years. Ask local musicians why their last group broke up, and they'll cite crazy schedules, artistic differences or the quintessentially Madison problem of bandmates moving away once they've finished college. Then there are Hollywood-style clichés: the drummer who steals the guitarist's girlfriend, the vocalist who skips town, the bass player who likes tequila a little too much.
Any number of things can go wrong. That's just one of the reasons local Latin ensemble Grupo Candela has decided to celebrate its five years together. It has grown into a vibrant 12-piece that knows how to get along at practice and keep on keepin' on when a member changes zip codes.
The band's ability to keep not three, not four but 12 musicians satisfied has to do with its founders, percussionists Roberto Rengel and Manuel "Manny" Vellon. They've set a steady pace for the band's advancement, and, despite coming from two considerably different walks of life, they're models of respect and cooperation.
Vellon, a retired military veteran, grew up in a poor neighborhood in Puerto Rico, where he discovered his knack for playing percussion instruments.
"I grew up in a very humble barrio," he explains. "There are lots of percussionists in Puerto Rico, so I looked up to them and was able to learn from them. I was also fortunate enough to go to school, where I was able to learn bongo and conga."
After returning from the service 25 years ago, he moved to Madison, where he's been part of numerous bands - so many that he can't keep track of them anymore, he says with a laugh.
Rengel, an interior design professor at UW-Madison, also grew up in Puerto Rico and spent 15 years designing for big-name clients such as Chase, Disney and Coca-Cola before making his way to Madison. But like Vellon, he always kept music in his portfolio.
The two found one another through other bands they moonlight with, like the local Afro-Cuban group Que Flavor. Along with pianist Pavel Polanco, they decided to form a new salsa group. They started small, recruiting experienced local musicians who excel not only at salsa and merengue but other Latin dance music, from cumbia, a Colombian courtship dance that evolved into a party standard in much of Latin America by the 1950s, to bachata, a spinoff of Cuban bolero music that made its way into dancehalls in the 1990s.
From there they added three horns, a bassist and a vocalist, but the group had bigger ambitions. They began searching for an extra vocalist, which led to the addition of a saxophone player. Then, when Polanco moved to Indiana, they entered search mode once again and settled upon a sharp young piano player from the UW.
Assembling this cast of characters was no cakewalk, Vellon says. Some of the musicians they auditioned didn't have enough experience as performers, and others simply didn't jibe with the group. But the ones who made the cut - trumpeter Carmelo Saez, bassist Pedro Suarez, conga man Peter Rios, sax player Greg Smith, pianist Erin Grier, trombonists Derren Sterud and Cary Shely, and singers Sandra Faitel and Mario Mendoza - have transformed the group into a supergroup with ties not only to Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland but Venezuela and Colombia as well.
In other words, the band has many reasons to celebrate, and getting parties started is what it does best. To commemorate their own founding, the musicians will host a bash at the Majestic Theatre Oct. 9 featuring their sizzling dance tunes, as well as salsa dance lessons by Dando Mambo, a salsa competition, some hot beats from DJ Rumba, a giant cake and even a laser light show.
The energy from a fiesta this grand ought to propel them through another five years and then some.