Ojos de Brujo
What I like about this band is that we’re really like a big family, and on the stage is like when you’re making love…there’s always some moment when I look to one or the other and I laugh or I feel happy, you know, at that moment.
story by Don Bartlett
Driven by passion rather than profits, the Barcelona “flamenco hip hop” collective Ojos De Brujo threw the music industry rulebook out the window. Then something funny happened – they succeeded.
The last time Ojos de Brujo (“Eyes of the Wizard”) was through Chicago, things didn’t go exactly as planned. About an hour into their sold-out February set at Martyrs’, the City of Chicago shut the show down due to overcrowding. For the band, it was devastating. After selling out clubs and festivals throughout Europe in support of their new album Bari, they were playing just their second American show.
More importantly to percussionist and cajon player Xavi Turull, their fabled live show was just hitting its stride. “We were at the peak, the highest part. And then wow! ‘We can’t do the rest? Why?’ I couldn’t believe it. But there was something in our mind that ‘when we go back [to America], we have to do Chicago again somehow’.”
A little more than a year later, the band is headed back to Chicago as part of a 3-city American tour – and this time around they are looking to showcase the full power of their live show.
The source of that power is an unlikely group of musicians brought together by late night jam sessions and a common interest in creating something new. Turull, speaking to Chicago Innerview from his home in Barcelona, says that back in the mid-1990s, they weren’t even intending to start a band. “The funny thing is, it was something natural. We started jamming with lots of different people. It wasn’t a fixed band at the beginning. People were coming and passing by and we were playing in many different places. There were always different people in the band.”
Over time an informal collective was born, and the music began to develop a distinct personality. Turull and guitarist Ramon Gimenez were steeped in flamenco tradition, while another fixture from the local scene, DJ Panko, brought his take on dance music and hip hop to the table. The versatile rhythm section of Turull, Sergio Ramos and Maxwell Wright adds the complexity of rumba Catalan – the potent hybrid of flamenco and afro-Cuban rhythms.
Audiences were quick to catch on. The music was dubbed “flamenco hip hop”, and won over crowds by combining a modern, danceable edge with the soul of traditional flamenco. Turull is quick to point out, however, that they do not play flamenco music. “The old flamenco people respect us, because we don’t pretend to do flamenco. What we are doing is using the richness of flamenco and the richness of other music to build up something different. What we’re doing is picking up the essence of different styles and putting them together. Maybe sometimes I would say that flamenco is the strongest ingredient, but we don’t pretend to be doing flamenco. We are doing something new.”
As the crowds grew, record companies began to notice. Edel Records signed the band and released their debut record Vengue in 2000. The record was a moderate success, but almost immediately there was tension with the label regarding the direction of the music. “It just wasn’t working with them. You know the feeling when you’re having a bad moment with your girlfriend? It was like that from the beginning. They wanted to try to fit us in the top 40, which was something impossible with the first CD because it was this kind of crazy experiment.”
Rather than bow to label demands for radio-friendly 3-minute songs, Ojos de Brujo undertook their biggest gamble of their career. In the fall of 2001, the band dropped Edel and started their own label, La Fabrica de Colores (“The Color Factory”). Taking the name from their existing Barcelona artists collective, they toured Spain relentlessly. They also added a new weapon in vocalist Marina Abad, whose socially conscious lyrics provide a dynamic and sensual center of gravity for the band’s diverse sounds.
Free of record company pressure, they let the music develop at its own pace, and on its own terms. Most of the band’s songs are perfected on stage long before they are recorded. “That’s why we’re really slow to do new stuff,” Turull explains,” because we like to try everything. And until we find that magic that says ‘Wow, that’s it!’, we don’t stop.”
The resulting record, Bari, was released in September 2002 to critical acclaim and has gone on to sell more than 100,000 copies worldwide. Whether or not that success will translate to American audiences remains to be seen. “We got to the level we got in Spain without using the big media. But we’ve been playing a lot, and that’s not so easy to do [in the U.S.] because we’re really far from America.”
What’s clear is that Turull is eager to give it a shot. When we hung up the phone it was well past midnight in Barcelona, and his enthusiasm to play for American audiences was still crackling.
“The band is much more powerful in the live shows than on the CD. What I like about this band is that we’re really like a big family, and on the stage is like when you’re making love. There are all these moments when you really feel something special going on with the rest of the band, sometimes more with one and sometimes more with another, but there’s always some moment when I look to one or the other and I laugh or I feel happy, you know, at that moment. For me, it’s the best band I’ve been in in my life.”
He had the confidence of a man who had gambled and won.
Ojos de Brujo will play at Metro July 23.