BWW Interview: Ottmar Liebert of OTTMAR LIEBERT & LUNA NEGRA at The Sofia
Global music sensation and contemporary flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert is returning to Sacramento for one night only with his band, Luna Negra. Liebert has been nominated for five Grammy Awards and boasts multiple gold and platinum records. His debut album, Nouveau Flamenco, is the best-selling instrumental acoustic guitar album of all time.
Broadway World Sacramento was able to speak with Ottmar about his new album, The Complete Santa Fe Sessions, and enjoy the intelligence, depth, and wit of a world music icon.
The Complete Santa Fe Sessions includes songs that you have reworked. Can you tell me about your new album and what made you decide to redo songs that had already been successful?
I realized about a year and a half ago that the original 2003 Santa Fe Sessions hadn't been released digitally and I was never 100% happy with the songs. On a whim I began cutting off unnecessary parts and it began to make sense. The original had 12 tracks but after working on everything I discovered that there were actually 15 songs. Sometimes it works out if you take time and look at earlier work and make changes so you actually like it.
How would you describe flamenco to someone who is a novice to the genre?
What I do is not traditional flamenco. I play flamenco guitar, which differs from the classical acoustic guitar. Flamenco is a collection of different influences. A huge portion comes from Arabic countries, like Syria and Iraq. The rhythms they use, for example, are groups of 3 and 2 or 12/8 rhythms. It is much different to the Western ear because we are used to 4/4 and 3/4 rhythms. Rumba was brought to Spain by sailors from the Caribbean. You can hear it in reggae and r&b from Jamaica. In Cuba it became salsa. Flamenco isn't just Spanish folk music. It was kept alive by the gypsies, or Roma as they prefer to be called. In the 1400's, Spain kicked a lot of people out who were not Christian and a lot of others went into hiding, including Arabs, the Roma, and Sephardic Jews. Their music then ended up being combined. Gypsy music in the Balkans is quite different as they didn't have the Arabic influence. To not want to mix a culture is the end of a culture. I've been listening to a lot of music from the Caribbean-soca and zouk. Soca sounds very much like modern pop in Spain-the accent on the drums is the same. My album Waiting n Swan combined reggae and flamenco and they fit perfectly together. I want to introduce to people that flamenco isn't just Spanish folk music. Blending culture is what makes things interesting. You watch Anthony Bourdain and what creates culture? You have religion and you have food and music. It creates a shared experience. Bourdain wasn't just a chef-he transcended food and talked about the culture. No one has done the same for music.
You traveled extensively in your youth. Has that influenced your emphasis on world music?
Once you travel, you see what it's like for everyone and the basis for human existence is very similar. We all need shelter and food. Unfortunately, most people here don't have a passport or travel very much. They don't know things like food in the south is how they cooked in Nigeria. Travel is the greatest and easiest way to open your eyes. It's cheaper than a semester at college. Most people should take a gap year and travel. As a young person traveling by yourself, you have an advantage. You can be whoever you want to be. When I was 19, I was in Asia for a year and the only way to communicate with my parents was to send a letter home. It was much different when now you can just send a text or email. It was 1979 and I decided that I was ready to go home and was going to take the train, but it was the year that Russia invaded Afghanistan so it was too dangerous and I had to fly instead. When I got home at 2 a.m., I knocked on the door and my mom opened it and, cool as ever, said, "I figured you were coming home today."
Your career began with rock music in Boston. What brought you there and who were your rock influences? What drew you to the Southwest?
In 1975, when I was 16, I went to my first concert-Santana and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I've never seen an opening act do two encores. We just couldn't get enough. In 1996 I toured with Santana for 3 or 4 months. Carlos played like a god. That was my first influence. I prefer melody over calisthenics. The guitar is a dangerous instrument because with other instruments you have to stop. For instance, horn players need to take a breath. Guitar and piano you don't. I prefer listening to vocals because of this. Carlos listens to horns. George Benson decided to sing along and discovered that he could sing.
In Taiwan I met someone studying in Boston, so I decided to go there since I would know at least one person. I considered attending Berklee College of Music. I checked it out and it didn't appeal to me. Instead of taking classes, I saved money and rented studio time. A pivotal moment occurred while I was working at a bank. My bank manager offered me a scholarship to a banking college. I saw my life flash before my eyes and I told him, "I'm a musician with a day job, not a banker with a hobby." I quit and took the one job that I could think of with absolutely no upward mobility-a bicycle messenger.
Do you choose a new genre for each album or are you inspired at random moments?
Not necessarily an influence. I think of it more like a palette. What sound I'm looking for. You start and then think it's not the instrumentation I'm looking for. My album slow was all relaxing music. Right now I'm working on an album of upbeat songs. There will be a little bit of reggae, Caribbean music, rumba, Western African. It all ties together and has connections to flamenco in Spain. I'm really excited about this and it will come out this year.
I work backward. I tend to be able to play a melody with anything you put in front of me. I'll make a complete song with no melody and then play a whole melody made up on the spot. It's my personal mental session. In 2003 I decided that I only had a little time here and there so it would be more efficient to try and engineer the music myself. I would tell the computer to go back 16 bars and then start playing. There's something about playing when nobody is watching. Then I would tell the computer to loop the song and I would go off script and try different things.
In your album three-oh-five, the song titles are all very interesting. They're random words thrown together but seemingly all of the same theme. How did that idea come about?
I've always been interested in playing with language. When I was 20 I was introduced to ee cummings. I like how words sometimes connect and create a different meaning.
Will you be including songs from your last album, slow, at the concert? I understand that album to be an homage to love and slowing down in this digital age.
We will be playing one song from slow. I changed it to be played as a group. It's the same melody and chords but a different piece that's fun to play.
I don't understand why phones still have to ring. It made sense in the 60's when there was one phone in the house that was attached to a wall. There is a bombardment of information now. I think that large Silicon Valley companies figure out they can keep us on screen by giving us adrenaline all the time. I've wanted to do something very different. You don't want it to be too slow, but want it to make somebody go, "What was that?" You want to be relaxed but not in a stupor.
Your song Elegy was written as a tribute to Prince. What are you saying in that song?
I haven't performed that song live yet. I came up with it on the day that I found out that Prince had died. I came up with different divisions of time to make some parts seem faster and some seem slower, but they are in the same time. This is how we perceive him. On stage he was unstoppable but what was it like to be in a 15,000 square foot house by yourself? It's been a hard few years. We've lost incredible musicians.
The amount of people making money is so tiny. The 70's were cooler-people were willing to take a chance on new things. We haven't created an economic culture where it's possible now.
Having been ordained as a Zen monk in 2009, what does that mean to you? Do you help others find their path? Does it influence your music heavily?
Zen and meditation are hard to separate. I played guitar at 11 and started meditating at 15. To me, meditation is similar to playing guitar. When I was at a Zen center we meditated 6-7 hours a day. People asked me if that was hard and I told them that I do this all the time. It's no different than practicing. With the guitar you try to refine your movements so they become less and less and less. With meditation you do it with your mind. It's okay to ignore things that your mind creates. Ignore what's terrible and go with what actually works. Lots of politicians would do well with that.
As a Zen monk I have to meditate an hour a day. It's a commitment to dharma. Being a Zen monk is different from a Buddhist monk. There are only 12 rules vs. 230 rules. I've met Christian monks, Hindus, and Muslims and their path is a little different but we are all the same.
Last question. I hate wearing shoes, so of course I noticed that you play barefoot! Do you always play barefoot? Why? I am looking forward to a barefoot concert at The Sofia!
I am barefoot for every concert except for a few private shows or if I don't like you. 1996 was the last time I had shoes on for a concert. Carlos' (Santana) stage manager put a stool at the edge of the stage. I was wearing boots that were too heavy and my foot fell asleep. I couldn't tap my foot to the rhythm. I had just come out with an album called Opium. There was opium incense burning, lots of candles, and rugs laid out. I went out for soundcheck barefoot and loved it. Also, when you're recording in the studio you can't have noise when you are tapping your foot. If you're barefoot there is very little sound. I dare you to come to the concert barefoot!
Ottmar Liebert And Luna Negra Will Be Playing At The Sofia, Home Of The B St. Theatre, On Wednesday, February 6, At 7:00 P.m. Tickets May Be Purchased By Calling (916) 443-5300, At The Box Office At 2700 Capitol Avenue, Sacramento, Or By Visiting https://bstreettheatre.org.
Photo credit: Greg Gorman