How Ottmar Liebert found harmony in music and spirituality
Guitarist Ottmar Liebert rose to iconic status during the mellow tail end of the late 20th century pop music scene, in the days when New Age was fading and grunge was carving out its spot at the top of the charts. His journey into acoustic music takes him from formative years in Cologne, Germany, where he grew up, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he now lives and where he spoke with Summit over the phone about his upcoming performances at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center and Blue Note Hawaii.
“I got my guitar when I was 11,” Liebert recalls. “I really wanted to play electric guitar, but I grew up in a little apartment and, with the noise, there was no way.”
A government supported program in Cologne provided affordable weekly group lessons in classical guitar. The teacher was from the music conservatory and must have seen something special in young Ottmar. Soon, Liebert was receiving an additional, individual lesson for a half hour after the other students had left. He eventually moved to the United States, where the New Mexico desert forever changed his musical fate.
“I had always lived in cities,” Liebert explains. “I had this epiphany climbing one of the hills above Santa Fe and being able to see for what seemed like a hundred miles. It felt like this mind-expanding exercise because I’d never been able to look very far into the distance. In the city, there’s always another building or something else, and this emptiness felt like it was a canvas for my mind to be free in.”
Liebert had been playing electric guitar for several years by then, but the open desert combined with the dynamic cultural mix of 1980s Santa Fe to reshape his style, and he began playing acoustic guitar in the town’s many art galleries.
“That blank canvas idea really worked for me,” Liebert says. “Santa Fe has always been an amazing melting pot. On my first album, Nuevo Flamenco (1990), there’s flamenco and rhumba, but if you listen to Barcelona Nights (1995), it’s got an oompah bass and the thirds in the melody that’s actually very mariachi. It’s very Mexican. These are the influences that are very clear in Santa Fe.”
Liebert now has more than 30 albums and compilations under his belt, along with five Grammy nominations. His style has drifted as other influences have caught his interest. Liebert’s 2015 album Waiting n Swan was heavily reggae influenced and included several Marley covers. Rather than a departure, Liebert describes the common elements between flamenco and reggae that attracted him.
“I’m hunting for the origins of those rhythms, because tangos and rhumbas—that whole family of rhythms—was brought to Spain by sailors from the Caribbean,” Liebert says. “I love talking about how flamenco isn’t just Spanish folk music. It’s also, to a huge extent, Arabic music, and then combined with this family of Caribbean rhythms. Everyone thinks flamenco is Spanish, but you scratch the surface and find out it would never sound this way without the Moors in Spain, and without the Caribbean influence. And I love that; all our best stuff comes from when cultures rub against each other and influence each other.”
Liebert’s cultural blending and borrowing have led to some harsh critiques, especially from traditional flamenco players. But the criticism doesn’t impact his worldview, and his personal experience backs his stance.
“I played with a kora [African harp guitar] player, Foday Musa Suso, at a radio conference in San Francisco,” Liebert recalls. “And there were a number of people—academics and radio jockeys that loved African music—who were concerned about Western influence on African pop and African music. This African guy got up and said ‘what are you going to do, put a wall around Africa and African villages so they don’t hear radio? So they don’t get influenced by that? Then we’re museum pieces. That will never happen.’”
To Liebert, cultural cross-fertilization makes art vital. Consider that the guitar descended from Persian lutes invented two millennia ago and he has a point. Reggae is a particularly interesting case study, being generated from a fusion of African rhythms brought by slaves to the Caribbean and jazz from the U.S. Today, the style influences African pop, returning after being reshaped by centuries in the Americas.
“People in Africa are going, ‘yeah, this reggae thing is really cool,’” Liebert chuckles. “That makes more sense to me than this whole purity thing, which is such a dead-end.”
Another cultural translation rounds out Liebert’s life. In 2006, he took his orders as a Zen monk.
“That commitment really started when I was about 14 or 15,” says Liebert. “I started reading about all kinds of religions and it seemed to me that Zen Buddhism was like minimal religion. There are arguments about whether it is in fact a religion or not. So it wasn’t something new that I got into. It’s been on my mind for about 40 years.”
Liebert’s most recent album, Slow (2016), is a meditative exploration: one man and his guitar in a studio.
“This last album was so much fun because I said, ‘OK, it’s only going to come from this one guitar,’” Liebert explains. “The bass-like sounds come from playing the guitar back at half speed so you get a lower sound. The sounds that are more keyboard-like are guitar chords that I’ve reversed.”
Liebert comes to Hawaiʻi with his usual side men Chris Steele on percussion and bassist Jon Gagan, who has played with Liebert since his first hit album in 1989. As a heavily produced studio album Slow presents a challenge: How do you play those tunes live?
“We figured out a way for the three of us to play that song ‘Butterfly Dreams,’” Liebert says, “which becomes this beautiful, long piece with a lovely bass solo in it. It’s very atmospheric and very enjoyable to play.”
Liebert remains a fantastic musician, three decades on, and his trio is rock solid. His shows will be well worth attending, like a Zen desert oasis to sooth the end of the long, hot summer.
Ottmar Liebert, Live in Concert
Maui Arts and Cultural Center, 1 Cameron Way, Kahului, Maui // Thurs., Aug. 10, 7:30 p.m. // $45–65 // (808) 242-7469, mauiarts.org
Blue Note Hawaii, 2335 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, Oʻahu // Fri., Aug. 11–Sun., Aug. 13, 6 and 9 p.m. // $35–45 // (808) 777-4890, bluenotehawaii.com