El mundo es un pañuelo. In English, that roughly translates to ‘the world is the size of a handkerchief.’ If you are talking about the world of music in Barcelona—especially the world of flamenco/rumba fusion—the metaphor is more than accurate. The wave of fusion music that has come out of this city in the last decade is stronger and more alive than ever, but nobody outside of the inner circle is aware of how much overlap exists within this small but powerful group of sonic innovators.
These are the musicians who link the past and future of Barcelona’s live and recorded music, and who keep the scene going—at least within the world of fusion, where traditional music meets modern technology and sensibilities.
Here in Barcelona, three artists, in very different phases of their careers, are intricately connected by artistic collaborations and musical ties. They are the band Lenacay, which includes a few of the founding members of Grammy-winning flamenco fusion band Ojos de Brujo; former Mártires de Compás band leader Chico Ocaña who, after years of recording and touring with his band, is now promoting his solo career, backed by Warner and EMI; and singer-songwriter Izä, who released her first album when she was only 18, and 15 years later has finally released her second.
Lenacay was founded in 2011 by Ramón Giménez, or ‘El Brujo’, a gitano born on the outskirts of Barcelona. The formation of this group came after the breakup of his former band Ojos de Brujo, one of the best-loved bands to come out of Barcelona, and an undeniable force on the flamenco fusion scene for well over a decade.
After 15 years together, the members of the group went their separate ways and Ramón found himself looking for another project. He says, “The musicians in Lenacay aren’t afraid to try unconventional things in search of an interesting sound. It’s been incredibly exciting mixing flamenco concepts with electric guitar and electronic music. The sounds work amazingly well together. That may surprise some people, but it just goes to show how all musical genres really are connected.”
Ramón plays flamenco guitar. He also plays midi guitar, programmes electronic beats, and breakdances. As you might guess, Lenacay's live show is a series of surprises. Old-school flamenco mixed with funkified bass, electronic beats, baile flamenco, rumba melodias, and fuzzed-up electric guitars. DJ Panko, the other co-founder of the group, goes by the name ‘El Mago’ and was also a member of Ojos de Brujo. He plays bass and keyboards, contributes scratch and vocals, and is responsible in large part for the urban aspect of the group’s sound. Between the two of them, they’ve developed new takes on traditional rhythms, such as ‘scratching por bulerías’ and ‘rumba break’.
The other members of Lenacay are drummer and percussionist, Ramón Meja, lead singer, Paula ‘La Camaleón’, and singer Carolina ‘La Joya’, who is also a flamenco dancer. To round out the configuration is Charlie ‘El Ilusionista’ on funk bass and El Rubio, who plays electric guitar.
Rubio has played and recorded with numerous artists in Barcelona, including Color Humano, 08001, Canibala, Poet in Process, La Kinky Beat, and artists touring through such as Rosario Flores. “And that’s only a tiny part of the list,” he says with a wink. While Lenacay were in the middle of recording their new album, Yerel, Rubio got a call from yet another artist in need of a guitar player, Chico Ocaña.
Ocaña is originally from the town of San Roque in the province of Cádiz. He moved to Seville in the eighties, alternating between playing rock shows and flamenco shows, until he realised that he could combine the best of both worlds in one genre. He founded Mártires del Compás with Kiko Veneno and was self-proclaimed creator of the musical fusion genre ‘Flamenco Billy’.
Mártires del Compás broke up in 2007, 15 years after the release of their first album. Chico released his first solo album Canciones de Mesa Camilla on EMI Records in 2010.
He doesn’t play an instrument, but writes his songs in his head, and then has his collaborators put music behind the rhythms and melodies he’s imagined. “We recorded the album backwards. First we laid down vocals and guitars, then bass and percussion. People said I was nuts, but that’s how the songs were born.” His second solo album is De Piedra, released in September 2014 on Warner Records.
When Chico was looking for an electric guitar player, he put the word out on the street that it didn’t have to be a flamenco guitarist—“which was perfect,” says Rubio, “Because though I’m Andalus and I’m influenced by that music, I’ve never considered myself to be a flamenco player. I’ve always wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from all of the musicians around me, and not to limit the projects I work with based on musical or cultural prejudices.”
Rubio says working with Lenacay and Chico are very different experiences. “Though they both use flamenco as a vehicle through which to make music, neither project is pure flamenco, and neither project resembles the other.”
He says that the difference in the way the businesses of the two groups are handled has to do with the moment that each is in with regards to his career, respectively. “Chico is a big name in Spain. He can ride on his reputation to a point. He’s worked with big record companies and at this stage in his career he’s able to avoid a lot of the irritations that come with handling the business side of things. He can just focus on making music.”
Lenacay is a different story. “They prefer to keep a tight rein on where they are going, both business-wise and musically,” Rubio explains. Taking small but firm steps towards building their fan base is paying off, but it’s a longer road—they’re at a different moment in their career.”
One of Ocaña’s other backing musicians, percussionist Xavi Garcia, met Chico in much the same way that El Rubio did: through a mutual friend who commented to him that Chico was looking for musicians in Barcelona. “As it happened, he was looking for exactly the kind of format that I’d already had for years my in own trio, Calamento—Spanish guitar, cajon, and bass. Add Rubio into the mix, who I’d actually played with before, backing up other artists around town, and we had a band. We eventually invited one of the singers that we work with to come into the mix as a backing vocalist—a solo artist with an incredible voice, named Izä.”
Izä is now the backing vocalist for Ocaña. She has her own original music project, but the project that Calamento has with her is another kind of show. “When we work with her, we perform covers from the world of flamenco and rumba,” Xavi says. “Working with her on arrangements of this material is extremely rewarding—her voice is amazing—but it’s also more of an in-house project. We all seek out gigs for the group.”
Xavi met Izä more than four years ago when Pepe, the guitar player for Calamento, had heard her sing in a bar in town and told Xavi he’d come across an incredible voice that would work well with the trio.
Izä is from a town in the countryside around Gibraltar called Los Barrios, and has been living in Barcelona for the past several years. Her first time on a stage was when she was only seven years old, accompanied on guitar by her father. She recorded her first album in 1998, when she was 18, with her band PAAN, after which they went their separate ways and Izä moved to Granada. “There I started to investigate different styles of music and collaborate with musicians in the Granada music scene.” She also learned a lot about flamenco in Granada even when she was experimenting with other styles.
After that she moved to Barcelona, returning to her roots, so to speak, and interpreting traditional songs by Martirio, Camarón, and others. Izä says the result of this musical journey of self-discovery is her new rumba-influenced album La Llama, released on Dona Cançó records in March 2014. It’s her first album in fifteen years.
“With Calamento we had a connection ever since the first moment that we met to rehearse,” she notes. “They understood where I was coming from because they play a form of fusion too. They are one of the projects that has influenced me most in my time in Barcelona—especially Pepe Camacho, Calamento’s guitarist, who is like family to me.” She and Calamento have since worked together as a backing band on various musical projects.
If you’re still following this thread of musical interconnectivity, it seems like Barcelona’s varied and vibrant music scene is thriving. But what is it really like to live and work as a musician in BCN?
Ramón of Lenacay says although he loves the new technical possibilities that came with the electronic music revolution of the nineties, he misses the musical diversity of the Barcelona of the eighties. “There’s a lot of good flamenco out there—and good indie rock and good pop, you name it—but back in the day there were many more schools of thought. Musicians were into the idea of creating their own sound. Now, a lot of people just copy what they think flamenco or hip hop or even fusion ‘should’ sound like. Still, hopefully this trend will pass, and new generations of musicians to come will realise that you don’t need to try to sound like someone who came before to be respected.”
Still, he’s optimistic about the city’s chances as a live music market. He says that the public in Barcelona is used to the idea of fusion between flamenco and rumba and other styles, thanks to groups like his. “Their criteria is high and they know how to listen. This is great for young bands coming up now, who want to try something incorporating traditional music and modern styles. The important thing is that we all keep evolving as musicians, instead of just resting on our laurels in a market that we’ve helped to create. I see a new wave growing in spite of the many challenges.”
Izä seconds that opinion, saying that musically, the audiences in Barcelona are becoming more omnivorous in their tastes. She says that in the past you didn’t see the demographic mix like you do today. “The flamenco fans came to the flamenco shows, the rock fans came to the rock shows. But these days, flamenco fans are more open to the concept of fusion than they might have been previously.” And the fans who might have preferred a Gibson to a Spanish guitar back in the day don’t seem to mind if the band's rocking out to a flamenco beat.
Rubio agrees, saying that “the world of music in Barcelona is very rich. There are interesting projects here that are on a par with anywhere in the world, and the public is more and more open-minded.”
But when it comes to the business side of things, he says that Barcelona has a serious problem. “There is absolutely no support for musical projects here. Live and recorded music seems to have no value at all. Most of the fault lies with the government. The laws that prohibit busking in the streets, and the resulting massive fines that any project leader would have to pay, the persecution of the small music venues that used to offer live music. There are so many road-blocks in place! It’s like a boycott on culture.”
This has created a solidarity among local musicians that might not exist otherwise. “We’re all in the same boat, whether we play rock or flamenco or something in between,” says Rubio. “There aren’t many people outside of the world of music who can understand how complicated it is to make your living playing music here.”
Izä says that “thanks to the new laws, there are fewer and fewer small music venues in the city. The costs of the licences they’re required to have are so high that it’s impossible for them to keep their doors open. The musicians of the city are furious and horrified. We don’t know what to do.”
Chico Ocaña says he loves Barcelona’s vibrancy and the passion of the audiences, but echoes the thoughts of his compatriots, saying that in recent years the government’s influence in forcing small music venues into bankruptcy has made it difficult city for artists. “The government cares about money, not about culture. But there is still a part of the soul of the city that survives. We’re fighting back against the pull of cheap consumerism.”
Xavi of Calamento says that he tries to just focus on the work, and not to think too much about “how insanely complicated” it is to be a professional musician in Barcelona. He chalks it up to the lack of a workers' union for musicians, which he thinks would improve matters. “I suppose it comes from the often crude quality of the work conditions,” Xavi says. “You have to take what you can get. It’s tough to make a living. You always have to be out there and active in order to make sure you’re on people’s radars. Always. You can never rest. It’s hard. But luckily the adrenaline of playing live and the support of the public, and of your fellow musicians, makes it all worthwhile.”
Izä is currently in the process of planning concerts around Spain for winter 2014 and spring 2015, both with Calamento and also in support of her new album. She will also be backing up Chico Ocaña on selected concerts in support of his new album.
Chico’s agent and record label plan to keep him on the road as much as possible for the near future. While he is pragmatic, noting that the economic crisis has seriously damaged the financial support that previously existed for live music on a global scale, he is still hopeful. “There are budget cuts. It’s affected the music business everywhere in the world. But we do what we have to do and we play as much as we’re able. That’s how this game works.”
Lenacay has tours planned in Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe, with more tour dates posted all the time. They’re also hoping to tour Latin America in 2015. And Pepe, Ramón, Xavi and El Rubio will continue to do what they have always done: multitask, collaborate with their own musical projects and others’, and play as much as they can, be it in Palau de la Música or in a tiny bar in Gràcia or the Raval.
As Xavi says, “For me, all music work is welcome, and I appreciate every project I’m involved in. Work creates work. The more work the better!” Play on.
Chico Ocaña: www.chicoocana.com
El Rubio: www.facebook.com/franciscoguisado.rubio
ZA-TAPEANDO with IZÄ AND PEPE CAMACHO
Izä, along with musical collaborator Pepe Camacho, the guitarist for Calamento, has also started a series of culinary events called “Za-tapeado”—a play on words that mixes the term for fast and furious flamenco heelwork with the verb for eating tapas. Izä describes Za-tapeado as "a delicious musical concert, a unique gastronomic journey through the various regions of Andalucía through the different rhythms of flamenco.”
Eight traditional Andalusian recipes are paired with eight different flamenco palos. Contact Izä via her Facebook page for more information about their next event. (www.facebook.com/Izämusica).