Album Review of

Written by Joe Ross
March 21, 2023 - 1:27pm EDT
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The debut album from FlamenGrass, Alegria features a new ensemble of four musicians with long careers and recognized prestige in the world of acoustic music. Spanish 5-string banjo-player Lluís Gómez who is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, festival director, music teacher, world traveler, author and performer in various musical genres from bluegrass to swing, blues to folk, and gypsy jazz to celtic. The others in the Barcelona-based band include Carol Duran (violin), Maribel Rivero (bass) and Javier Vaquero (Spanish guitar). Carol Duran played with a very well-known band in Spain called La Carrau. She’s also been involved in many projects as has Javier Vaquero who has released two albums featuring his guitar playing. Maribel Rivero is a well-known, in-demand bass player.

Aptly entitled Alegia (meaning “joy”), their debut album describes the emotional feeling that we get from their confident and captivating new acoustic music. Their synthesis of bluegrass and flamenco music is built upon the foundational premise that both genres have much in common such as the use of acoustic instruments and the importance of both the voice and virtuosity of the instrumentalists. With two women and two men in the band, we hear a lot of versatility on Alegria

FlamenGrass had not been a pre-planned project. Rather, it sprouted like a flower from its members’ respective backgrounds, experiences and influences. Duran, Rivero and Gómez had performed as a trio, and they had worked with other bands. Gómez had known guitarist Vaquero for about 20 years, and the group brought him on board when they decided that a flamenco guitarist was needed to complete their combo and realize their full FlamenGrass sound and potential. To experience the blossoming of their innovative music, they open their album with one of Gómez’s originals, “La Flor” (The Flower). His “Grant Por Bulerías” is another standout track of their radiant and carefully-cultivated instrumental music.

As a boy, Gómez had studied classical and jazz guitar. Attracted to folk music, flamenco is part of Spanish culture so it’s always been inspirational to him. When he began playing bluegrass banjo, he adapted the flamenco language to his banjo playing. It made sense. He also studied the styles of influential banjo players like Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Bill Keith, Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck. To develop his own personalized banjo language and signature sound,  Gómez has tried not to be restrained or limited by any boundaries.

“I have many influences, from classical to jazz and beyond,” he once said in an interview with Bluegrass Today. “In terms of flamenco, Paco de Lucía is the big influence. However, it’s impossible to mention everybody. I think all of us, depending on where we are in our lives, listen to different musicians. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of classical music.”

Flamenco is one of Europe’s great musical forms with wild, savage feelings that few “folk” cultures can match. And like much traditional music, it’s had rises and declines in popularity over the years. At one point, it was being preserved mainly in clubs (penas) of its aficionados or in castanet-clacking shows for tourists. But, in the 1980s and 90s, flamenco returned to the Spanish mainstream, and its popularity has grown considerably beyond the borders of the southern Spanish province of Andalucía. New musical styles infused by jazz, blues, salsa and rock made their way into the charts and clubs, as well as proliferating a newfound respect for the “old pure” and traditional flamenco artists. That’s why it is high time that the masterful musicians of FlamenGrass have embarked on their inspired and inspiring musical journey. And they appear to building a fan base that appreciates cohesive, energetic new acoustic music (with roots in bluegrass and flamenco) that express the vitality and attitudes of the younger generation.

On their joyful Alegria album, FlamenGrass presents their driving grassy arrangements of three traditional tunes, “Nel Pozu,” “Abenámar” and “Zorongo Guitano.” The former is a poignant slower-tempo’ed song with pauses, phrases and rhythms that meet the needs and capture the mood of the cantaor (creative singer). Dating back to the fifteenth century, “Abenámar” tells the story of a Moor, born by such signs that he mustn’t lie, and his encounter with King Don Juan. The anonymous lyrics of the ballad were found in the text of “Romancero Viejo”as recited by Tomás Galindo. “Zorono Gitano” is an old love song (and dance) that is a clear nod to the roots of the music brought to Spain by gypsies arriving in the fifteenth century, and then fused with elements of Arab and Jewish music in the Andalucían mountains. Maribel Rivero sings, “This gypsy is crazy. So crazy that she should be locked up. Because she wishes for the things she dreams at night to come true. The moon is like a small well and flowers are worth nothing. It's your arms that have value when you embrace me at night.”

Bluegrass and flamenco songs share another similarity. They often express pain and sorrow, and with a mournful fierceness that can turns those emotions inside out. With FlamenGrass, a few tracks feature singing, and the women’s voices closely interact with the melodic banjo and improvising guitar. Their musical conversations inspire each other. Written by Duran, “Alegria (Joy)”, “Quan s’atura el Temps (When Time Stops)” and “Station to Your Heart” are nice showpieces to demonstrate the women’s vocal prowess and expressive intensity. The latter is sung primarily in Spanish with some lines in English.   

I only missed more of the jaleo – the hand-clapping palmas, finger-snapping palillos and shouts from the participants at certain points in the songs to set the tone, create an atmosphere and shine a light on the singers and instrumentalists. Those of us in the listening audience should be shouting encouragement, most commonly “Ole!” as the artists get deeper into their songs. A stunning dance piece might be met with “Viva la maquina escribir!” (Long Live the Typewriter!) as a dancer’s heels move so quickly they sound like a typewriter.       

In the melding of the styles and sounds, FlamenGrass respects the soul of both genres and their vision is to create music that makes sense. “It’s not enough just to say, it’s a fusion or whatever,” declares Gómez. “I don’t like the word ‘fusion’ to begin with. After all, all music is influenced by different styles, and flamenco and bluegrass are no exception.” On their debut album, the closest one might hear to actual bluegrass is a Duran/Gómez composition called “RumbaGrass” that is a lively, spirited breakdown with some powerful shouts of joy stemming from the depths of their soul.

For a rather dichotomous close of their album, “Imatges” (Images) is another effervescent instrumental that also enlists the voices of three guest artists, Jean Marie Redon (banjo-player from France), Martino Coppo (Italian mandolin player with Red Wine) and Sharon Lombardi.

It will be interesting to see how the music of FlamenGrass matures and evolves. They are wisely grounding themselves in the roots of bluegrass and flamenco, all while creating their own personalized signature sound. During the pandemic, Gómez had a chance to participate in Zoom calls with other banjo players. Béla Fleck advised and encouraged him to “open the door of flamenco to the banjo” and for three years now, Gómez has investigated the genre, learned a lot from guitarist Javi Vaquero, and then shared his discoveries with the rest of the band. “It’s a really difficult language,” he admits.

To date, FlamenGrass has only released the one album, Alegria. However, all four musicians in the ensemble have recorded prolifically. Gómez’s first solo album, Quartet, came out in 2007. A decade later, he released Dotze Contes. “Between these two albums, I recorded several others with different musicians, specially three albums with the Barcelona Bluegrass Band, which found Tony Trischka and Alison Brown recording twin banjos with me,” he recalls. Recently, I reviewed his twin banjo project called Redon & Gómez: Una Mas. It’s a very well balanced and entertaining collection of fresh music that conveys some fresh turns and spicy twists along the new acoustic trail they forge together to leave a delightful legacy of memorable music for future generations.

FlamenGrass has performed at festivals, clubs and theaters including an online showcase for the IBMA, some prestigious European festivals, and the World of Beer Festival in Raleigh, N.C. Their plans are to perform in person at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass. With the support and encouragement they’re receiving, FlamenGrass is continuing to grow. New material is being written for their next album, and, in keeping with their theme, perhaps they’ll call it fandango for another type of happiness that the music conveys. Exploration continues into learning the languages of both flamenco and bluegrass to achieve their bountiful rewards from an association and marriage of the two genres.  

As FlamenGrass gets people on their feet shouting encouragement, they’ll know that they’re getting deep into the emotional psyche of their listening audiences. I would suspect that their goal is to achieve the rare flamenco quality of duende – a term that represents total communication with their audience. It’s the mark of great flamenco of any style or generational attachment. It’s a powerful concept to be so totally and powerfully immersed in one’s music. An ethereal quality, duende can be applied to both flamenco and bluegrass music that is moving, profound, expressive and mysterious. The music becomes a way of life, a philosophy that guides its practitioners during their daily lives, and a quality in the music that stops listeners in their tracks. (Joe Ross, Roots Music Report)