Flamenco guitarist gets into the reggae groove
World-music rhythms are as diverse as the countries they come from — or are they?
Flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert, who will play three nights at the Egyptian Theatre this week, begs to differ.
His new album, “Waiting n Swan,” features his world-class flamenco tangos playing applied to the music of the late reggae icon Bob Marley.
The idea came to Liebert while he was reading Arturo Perez-Reverte’s new novel, “What We Become.”
“This book is about a tango dancer who worked on a Caribbean cruise ship in 1928 who has a discussion with a Spanish composer,” said Liebert, who called The Park Record from his bus while on the road between California and New Mexico.
According to this book, the Spanish flamenco rhythm, and salsa, and Argentinian tangos rhythms are related to Caribbean rhythms that are found in reggae, explained Liebert, who began playing guitar at 11, and traveled extensively through Europe and Asia before eventually settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he founded his band, Luna Negra.
“The origin of all of that is probably from Africa, but the main aspect is the de-emphasis on the up-beat one,” he said. “It made sense because I have been playing tango rhythms for more than 20 years, but I always felt there was a kinship to reggae.”
To test his theory, Liebert did an Internet search.
“I discovered a flamencologist who said sailors in the Caribbean brought back these
rhythms that eventually made their way down to Andalusia, and became tangos,” he said. “So, I called my drummer Chris Steele and asked about reggae and I asked if he knew reggae and tangos fit together, and he was quiet for a minute and said, ‘I never thought of it, but once you pointed it out, it’s obvious.’“
Once Liebert found that solid connection, he knew what he wanted to do with his next album.
“On the new album, Chris played a reggae drum rhythm on his kit and then went back and recorded himself playing the tangos rhythm on the cajon,” Liebert said. “I did the same with the guitar. We recorded a guitar track that was a reggae rhythm, and then recorded another that would play the tangos rhythms, and it all fit together perfectly.”
The idea to make an album of Bob Marley covers came while he was recording the tracks.
“I remember in the mid 1970s, for me and my friends, Bob Marley was the big dude,” Liebert said. “By then the Beatles had broken up and for someone who was 15, Bob was the revolutionary, because his lyrics meant something that had something to do with social commentary.”
To start off, Liebert asked everyone he knew what their favorite reggae song was and they all had a Bob Marley song.
“He is one of the most legendary performers,” Liebert said. “I am in the opinion that if he didn’t die when he did, he would be an artist that would have rivaled Michael Jackson.
“You can take a ride in a tuk tuk in Sri Lanka and see a Bob Marley sticker. You can ride in a cab in Peru and see Bob Marley stickers.”
Liebert learned a couple of things during the recording process.
“First, when you play reggae, you have to be relaxed, but at the same time you have to keep things together,” he said. “You can’t charge ahead with this stuff, and it was wonderful to keep working at that and trying to reach for that.”
The second thing he learned was how much he enjoys playing reggae.
“I love playing traditional tangos with the reggae rhythm insomuch that we’re actually doing some of my songs that way,” he said.
Liebert and his band premiered the songs from “Waiting N Swan, “ which the guitarist said is a colloquial take on the Caribbean phrase, “Waiting and so on,”
during the East Coast leg of the tour in May.
“At that time, I met a few people who knew and toured with Bob Marley, either through touring with him or writing about him, and they loved the show,” Liebert said. “That was gratifying because that told me that I got close enough to the spirit that they dug what I did.”
The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., presents flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert and his band Luna Negra from Thursday, Oct. 13, to Saturday, Oct. 15. Showtime is 8 p.m. Thursday tickets range from $23 to $35, and Friday and Saturday tickets are $29 to $45. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityshows.com.
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