La India Canela was born as Mery Hernández in the El Limón section of Villa González, a rural tobacco-growing area in the Santiago province of the Dominican Republic. She is the first professional musician in her family, although her father played tambora recreationally. “In my house there was an accordion because my older brother played, and at the time there was no television, no radio, nothing: what there was, was an accordion to play with. So that’s how I began playing.” One day, Juan de Dios, a saxophonist who had formerly played with Fefita la Grande, passed by her house and heard her playing. La India reports that he said, “‘we’re going to make you a group!’ That’s how the idea came, and he went to my house with a whole mess of musicians and we sat under a shelter and had a sort of try-out, and he said, ‘Let’s go to Santiago.’ So I took off for Santiago with that group.” She was 14 years old.
La India’s mother loved music and was excited for her daughter, but her father was just worried. He didn’t want to let her go, but family and friends eventually convinced him, saying, “you don’t know what’s in her future.” During the 1980s, she formed three different groups before working with the empresario who eventually became her husband and the father of her two children. Though the relationship has since ended, she is grateful for the support he gave to her and her career. Now, however, she runs her own career.
La India combines a traditional repertoire with original songs of her own or by musician friends like Rafaelito Román or David David. Her hits include “Apriétame Así,” “El Rancho,” and “El Cuchicheo,” and she is also known for her performance of difficult pieces like”Las Siete Pasadas,” the only instrumental piece in the típico repertoire. She believes that both modern and traditional típico styles have their place, but that “la música típica shouldn’t lose its essence. Because if it loses its essence, it loses its roots.” The greatest influences on her style have been her teachers, Siano Arias, Rafaelito Polanco, and Lupe Valerio, as well as Rafaelito Román and El Ciego de Nagua. She is happy that, in turn, she has been able to influence a younger generation of women accordionists. “I am surprised about the number of women that are playing [now] … It has been a great satisfaction for me that some of them have come up to me and said that I have been a motivation for them … or that they have seen [in me] an example to follow.”
La India Canela has won two Casandras (the DR’s highest prize in the arts) for her recordings. However, “the best prize that one can win is the sentiment of the public, the people who appreciate and admire you, and that is a marvellous thing.” She has also recorded several albums including one for Smithsonian Folkways, titled Merengue Típico from the Dominican Republic.