Bluegrass Beyond Borders: FlamenGrass plays flamenco with banjo and fiddle
As noted in last month’s Bluegrass Today review of their current album, Alegria, FlamenGrass defy the notion that bluegrass and flamenco are mutually exclusive. The Barcelo-based band — Lluis Gomez (5-string banjo), Carol Duran (violin/fiddle), Maribel Rivero (vocals, stand-up bass), and Javier Vaquero (Spanish guitar) — exude the emotion expressed by the album title (which translates as “Joy” in English) while utilizing their instrumental dexterity in a way that serves both genres well, ensuring a delivery that’s both assured and intriguing.
Duran, Rivero, and Gomez are veteran musicians who performed as a trio, and worked with other outfits before FlamenGrass took root. They also served as support for American musicians who toured in their native Spain. Vaquero, who Gomez had known for 20 years previously, came on board when the trio decided that a flamenco guitar was needed to complete their combo.
Nevertheless, the mesh of styles came about gradually. “I studied classical and jazz guitar,” Gomez explains. “When I was 15 years old, I began playing electric bass in a hardcore rock band, even though I was always been attracted to folk music. Flamenco is part of Spanish culture, so it always was there for me. When I began playing bluegrass music, I adapted the flamenco language to my banjo playing, and I think it made sense.”
Gomez arrived at his conclusion in a logical manner, given that his key influences included Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Bill Keith, Tony Trischka, and Béla Fleck, to name but a few. “Béla has really been an important part of this new banjo language,” Gomez insists. However he also makes it clear that he’s never limited himself in terms of his musical scope or diversity.
“I have many influences, from classical to jazz and beyond,” he maintains. “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.”
Happily then, Gomez and his compatriots managed to do justice to the meld of styles and sounds. “I think we respected the soul of both genres, and tried to make something that makes sense,” he suggests. “It’s not enough just to say, it’s a fusion or whatever. 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.”
Nevertheless, Gomez concedes that the band’s evolution was, at times, unexpected. “It was a coincidence, and the pandemic forced the process,” he reflects. “Every time we would travel throughout the rest of Europe or, specially, to the USA, people would ask us to play something from our native country. However I would always say, ‘Well, I play the banjo.’ Still, I always wanted to learn bluegrass. A few years before the lockdown, I remember talking with Martino Coppo, Red Wine’s mandolin player, backstage at the La Roche festival and him telling me about wanting to play something from my country. I also had the same conversation with Tony Trischka.”
Ironically, it was the pandemic that helped bring the process to fruition. “When the lockdown arrived, I was really lucky to be part of a weekly Zoom call with banjo colleagues like Jake Schepps, Adam Larrabee, Hank Smith, Nat Torkington. and Béla Fleck,” Gomez says. “That was a dream come true. The first time he appeared on the call, I was speechless! During these calls I asked Béla if he was interested in flamenco, or had ever played flamenco music. Then he started playing, which was amazing enough. He told me, ‘Since you’re from Spain, you have to open this door to the banjo.’ So during these past two years, I’ve shared my process of learning this really difficult language with the rest of the band. Javi taught me a lot of the language, and, in fact, we trade banjo and flamenco lessons!”
To date, the band have only released the one album, but Gomez says that as individuals, they’ve each recorded prolifically, given the fact that they’ve each been making music for awhile.
Gomez notes that his first solo album, Quartet, came out in 2007, and that ten years later, he released a follow-up titled 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. “Carol had been a member of a really well known band here called La Carrau, and she’s also been involved in many projects as has Javi, who has released two albums. As for Maribel, she’s a well known, in-demand bass player.”
As a unit, FlamenGrass have performed in a variety of venues, ranging from festivals to clubs and theaters. They also we did an online showcase for IBMA last September 2021.This summer, they’re scheduled to perform at two important European festivals, the Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival and at La Roche. They’ve also been selected to play a showcase at the World Of Beer festival in Raleigh this September. Gomez says that in the meantime, they’re trying to raise the funds to go and perform in person at the World of Bluegrass.
Happily, the reviews the band has received have been overwhelmingly positive. “We’re really pleased with the comments and reactions from friends, music colleagues, and the press,” Gomez maintains. “In general, all the people say that it’s a combination that may have seemed far away, but that it’s really closely-knit acoustic music. We’re really happy with the support we’ve received from so many people.”
Naturally, then, that’s encouraged Gomez to continue to progress. “Right now, I’m really into the flamenco language, and trying to learn the style while also trying to adapt it to the banjo,” he reflects. “That’s been really difficult. However, I was also working for Mel Bay before the pandemic, and they told me to write ten banjo books. As of now, I have three published and I continue to work to finish the others. In addition, I’m writing new material for the next FlamenGrass album. I’m also practicing everyday to improve my playing, because I have a lot of things to learn!”
That said, Gomez offers his own thoughts about why bluegrass is so popular worldwide.
“I think it’s because you can play music with other people, and it’s a really unique thing,” he responds when asked. “For example, if you go to a pop or rock festival, you go home and that’s about the extent of the experience. However, if you’re going to a bluegrass concert or specifically, a bluegrass festival, there will likely be a jam after the concert is over. That’s a great thing. Since I began playing bluegrass, I’ve made friends all around the world. When people come to see us in Barcelona, the first they ask is, ‘Where’s a jam?’”
In fact, Lluis says the bond runs even deeper. “All the musicians are really humble and great human beings,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet all my banjo heroes, and I can honestly say that they’re all wonderful people.”
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