“I am from gypsy blood, and in a way gypsies are immigrants in their own country. For something to shine, it has to shine in the dark” says Ramón Giménez, guitarist of Ojos de Brujo, a Barcelona-based self proclaimed “hip hop flamenquillo” group. A couple of years ago, Ojos de Brujo broke into the world music radar with their part traditional gypsy and part hip hop hybrid. The media anointed them as the new generation of flamenco musicians, and they became fixtures in music festivals in North America and Europe.
This innovative musical troupe was formed in 1996, when a group of friends started getting together to jam in the city’s Barri Gotic. The only premise: to take flamenco as the base from which to mix, scratch and concoct sounds on the turntables. Ramón, one of the original jam members, grew in the gypsy neighborhood of Trinidad listening to flamenco and a wide array of music. “My parents would play soul music like Aretha Franklin, and they would have to play it away from my grandparents, hiding” says Ramón, “When I started to do break dancing, my grandfather would make fun of me, for him it seemed like I was going to lose my identity.”
Although some members have changed, there are now eight full-time “flamenquillos” (flamenco lovers) in Ojos de Brujo; each with a rich variety of influences. Among them, percussionist Xavi Turull, who plays congas and cajón, has been following Indian and Cuban music for years. Beatboxer-percussionist Max Wright is a fan of Rhazel, Mystikal and Sheila Chandra. Similarly, guitarist Ramón has been influenced by hip-hop artists, namely Afrika Bambataa, Grand Master Flash, and Mantronix. Marina Abad, the main singer and songwriter, has been influenced by the protest music in hardcore punk and hip-hop groups like Pubic Enemy and Delinquent Habits, and her lyrics are charged with a political awareness. During a performance, her voice seamlessly switches from a melancholic flamenco cry to fast rap interventions all in a same song. This dreadlocked Valencia native has an eclectic fashion sense that begs for attention; few people can pair a flamenco dress and Adidas sneakers onstage and get away with it. Clearly, Marina –and the group’s – hybrid identity is one they are comfortable with and treasure.
During those early jams, Ramón and fellow guitarist Paco Gabán aka DJ Panko, started to integrate hip-hop and electronic beats to flamenco styles of bulería and tangos., “Ramón told me, “why don’t you put some scratching with the bulería, with flamenco,” explains Panko. “It was a new way of expression, I could rescue old records, rythmically play with them.”
DJ Panko is now Ojos de Brujo’s full time king of the turntables, even scratching old flamenco classics such as Camarón to go along Ramón’s fiery guitar bursts. Early this year, Ojos de Brujo released “Remezclas de la casa”, a remix album from their sophomore hit “Bari” that delves deeper into the electronic and hip-hop influences we only got a glimpse of in their previous releases. This album was a project of Ramón and Panko’s, born in between tours. “When not touring, instead of taking some time off, Ramón and I couldn’t think of anything else but to go into the studio,” says Panko. “The band lets me go off with my crazy ideas. I mixed the tracks with electronic bases and I played with Marina’s voice.” Ojos de Brujo are busy working on their next album as well as touring around the US this summer as well as Europe and Japan. “With Remezclas de la casa", we now have been able to do remixes with international artists like Nitin Sawhney, Asian Dub Foundation, people with whom we were really excited to collaborate after meeting at different festivals,” says Ramón.
From a group of friends jamming to recording artists, the members of Ojos de Brujo are still pinching themselves when they think about their success, but just don’t call them flamenco purists. Indeed, in many music festivals, the group has found that people want to pigeonhole them as a “21st century flamenco” group. Says Ramón, “We are extremely respectful of the flamenco world, and there’s already other people who are doing the new flamenco. Flamenco is in me just as hip hop, and ragamuffin are. We try to find the connection between funk and bulería, which are tremendously compatible, or between reggae and tangos, or between ”a rhythm of 12” a soleá, and hip hop, which are compatible and even much more richer” he concludes.
For Ojos de Brujo, the beauty is in the mix, in the details, in the world: “Flamenco is one of the most impure music of all. It takes from all sources, without any prejudice or any complex” says Marina. And when they get onstage, you see the beauty of the impurity she is talking about. A mix of Caribbean percussion, Spanish guitars, turntables, and when the budget permits, a modern flamenco dancer and background visuals, makes for an unforgettable performance.