A report by Jon Woodhouse for Maui News.
Known for his Spanish-influenced instrumental music that he termed “nouveau flamenco,” Grammy-nominated guitarist Ottmar Liebert took a surprising direction on his 2015 “Waiting n Swan” album by delving into reggae.
Taking its title from Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” and the Caribbean Creole phrase meaning “and so on,” the unusual album effectively mixed elements of tangos flamenco rhythms with reggae beats.
“This is the music of Bob Marley done with grace and finesse,” praised an All About Jazz review, noting how the guitarist, “delves into Marley music with his customary passion and virtuosity.”
Classics like “Could You Be Loved,” “No Woman No Cry,” “Jamming,” and “Three Little Birds,” are all reworked by Liebert’s flamenco-oriented guitar style.
There’s a historic foundation for the genre fusion, Liebert explains.
“There is a whole group of tango rhythms called tangos flamenco that were brought to Spain from the Caribbean. Those rhythms turned into reggae and salsa, and the origin of all those rhythms in somewhere in Africa. So I wanted to see what it would sound like if we played tangos and reggae at the same time, would they fit together? It really worked.”
A Grammy nominee for such albums as “Borrasca,” “The Hours Between Night + Day,” and “Opium,” Liebert takes a soothing solo path with his latest recording “slow.” Researching how a song’s tempo can change a listener’s heartbeat and blood pressure, he created the album as an antidote to the ubiquitous noise and distractions of our time.
“Peoples phones are constantly going off and we’re being bombarded with way more information than we can process or retain,” he notes. “I only used one guitar with some little tricks.”
One of the tracks, “Elegy,” was composed as a tribute to Prince.
“I wrote it about three days after he died,” he says. “It shocked me a lot more of the many people who died in the last couple of years.”
Born in what was West Germany, he began playing classical guitar at age 11, and studying flamenco guitar at age 14 after he found a flamenco album in the bargain bin at a local supermarket.
After some time living and playing rock in Boston, in 1986 Liebert settled in Santa Fe, N.M., where he began looking to create a new musical sound.
“Coming to Santa Fe I wanted to concentrate on nylon-string guitar and I started taking lessons from a flamenco guitar player,” he recalls.
Citing musical influences such as Carlos Santana, Paco de Lucia, and John McLaughlin, he founded the first incarnation of his band Luna Negra (Black Moon) three years later. His debut recording, “Nouveau Flamenco,” eventually sold double-platinum in the U.S., and became one of the biggest selling instrumental guitar records ever. There was a time when it seemed like the opening track from the album, “Barcelona Nights,” could be heard playing everywhere.
“It was pretty amazing, it surprised everybody,” he says of his success. “When we were recording, the engineer said, ‘I’ve never heard anything like it, what are you trying to do?’ It was more of simple pop form that I wanted to hear. There’s a big element of the music that is mariachi. It was a refection of how I experienced Santa Fe with the Spanish and Mexican cultures side by side.”
Fusing influences from jazz, classical, pop and Latin music, he continued to sell millions of albums including “Borrasca” (1991), “Solo Para Ti” (1992) and The “Hours Between Night + Day” (1993), which all sold gold. Liebert’s international success continued with “!Viva!” (1995) and “Opium” (1996), both of which earned platinum in the U.S. and Latin America.
In 2006 Liebert became an ordained Zen Buddhist monk. The practice has helped him navigate the travails of being a contemporary musician.
“It’s harder and harder to make a living as a musician,” he says. “It’s good to achieve a little equanimity by meditation so you don’t get too mad with the situation.”
For his Maui debut the acclaimed guitarist will perform as a trio with Luna Negra featuring Jon Gagan on electric bass and Chris Steele on drums and percussion.