Ottmar Liebert takes on Bob Marley, plays Belly Up Aspen
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
Who: Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Aug. 21, 9 p.m.
How much: $23 GA; $45 seated GA; $55 reserved
Despite his music’s laid-back sound, Ottmar Liebert can make some people angry. Liebert has raised the hackles of flamenco traditionalists throughout his prolific career. His self-styled “nouveau flamenco” draws from diverse influences in world music and most recently has brought him to the songs of Bob Marley.
“I’d be the first person to say it’s not traditional,” Liebert said recently from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It’s a hybrid. So if people criticize and say it’s not traditional, I just say, ‘You’re right, its not.’ I enjoy finding new things to sink my teeth into.”
On his current tour with Luna Negra, which comes to Belly Up today, Liebert and his trio are playing two-part shows. The first half features him on guitar with Jon Gagan on upright bass and Chris Steele playing the cajon (a Peruvian drum box). The second half swaps out the quieter instrumentation for electric bass guitars and a full drum kit. They mix up their sets with selections from their 30-some albums.
His latest project, “Waiting + Swan,” due out in October, features Liebert’s nouveau flamenco take on Marley’s reggae, including nine classics such as “Is This Love,” “No Woman No Cry,” “Jammin’” and “I Shot the Sheriff” alongside reggae-inflected takes on two established Liebert songs: “Barcelona Nights” and “Heart/Still Beating.” Liebert has been holding off on playing much of the Marley material live at this point, but expects to test out some of the new material on the Aspen crowd, including a flamenco-spun take on Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.”
The reggae project resulted in part from his teenage love for Marley and in part from recent research he’s done on the history of the atypical “Tangos” rhythm used in flamenco.
“I’ve always wondered where that came from,” he said.
His search eventually brought him to an article by a flamencologist who found evidence that the rhythm made its way into Spanish flamenco from the country’s port cities, and made it there from the Caribbean.
“That suddenly clicked,” he said. “It seems to me that ‘Tangos’ and reggae had been closely related.”
Liebert dove back into the Marley music he’d loved in the 1970s, looking for the rhythms it shared with flamenco, and a new album was born. True to form, he’s unconcerned about sticking to flamenco doctrine and willing to break out of the easy-listening box he’s found himself in.
“At some point, historically, there’s a period were things solidify and suddenly its like ‘You cant do that because that’s not traditional,’” he said. “I think we’re in that period in jazz, where after the creativity of the ’60s and ’70s it’s just, ‘Let’s put on suits and play like the ’50s.’ In flamenco, that’s definitely true.”
Dealing with criticism for flouting flamenco tradition is nothing new for Liebert. He recalled a set early on in his career, playing with another guitarist, where he modulated a song into a new key and was quickly reprimanded.
“He actually said to me, ‘You can’t do that. You’re modulating out of A-minor and you can’t do that,’” he recalled. “I just said, ‘Watch me.’”
Liebert’s flamenco fusion found a natural home in Santa Fe, where he’s lived since the mid-1980s. He recalled going into a restaurant on his first visit there and seeing a trio that mixed a flamenco guitar with classical violin and banjo. It seemed like his creative home.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is great,’” he remembered. “Any place that makes that happen is pretty cool.”
The willingness of people in Santa Fe to mash up influences in the arts fueled Liebert’s music early on. He began performing with Luna Negra in 1989, blended flamenco guitar with Latin rhythms and rock, pop and jazz. His groundbreaking debut, “Nuevo Flamenco,” is one of the best-selling guitar albums ever made.
A native of Germany, Liebert had been living in Boston and visited Santa Fe with a friend, not expecting much and certainly not expecting to stay.
“I came thinking I’d be there for a week or two to check out Santa Fe and the Wild West — everyone in Germany is like a fanatical Wild West fan,” he said. “But the first time I stood on a peak here and could see a hundred miles, it was such an outrageous thing to be able to do, certainly something you couldn’t do in a city.”