Best World Music Album 2012 (ZMR New Orleans):
You can never tell where great music will spring forth from, geographically speaking. The musical world is shrinking all the time due to incredible advances in recording technology. As a result, it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of the hottest nuevo flamenco ensembles currently recording has its roots in Germany. Luna Blanca is poised to ascend to the top tier of that sub genre thanks to their newest release, the energizing and hugely unique El Dorado. Here is an album to play if you need to perk things up, as many of the 14 tracks are infused with enough sizzle and spice to make even tired and cranky music reviewers want to get up and get down! It's not as if nuevo flamenco is a staid, boring style of music (far from it), but what these cats do with it is like taking a recipe for some hot Thai dish and then, just for the lulz, throwing in some ghost chili peppers (the hottest peppers available). As if jalapeno or habanero peppers weren't hot enough, they go and really spice things up a bit.
The brilliance of El Dorado is how Luna Blanca put their individual stamp of fusion on flamenco music. Whether this is due to their German roots or some other factor is irrelevant. However founding members Richard Hecks (lead guitar) and Helmut Graebe (piano, organ, blues harp [harmonica]) happened upon this enjoyable wrinkle to the flamenco subgenre, I, for one, am grateful. Working with band mates Bino Dola (rhythm and second lead guitar) and Clemens Paskert (bass, percussion, additional keyboards), and joined by guest artist Christian Landgraf (additional keyboards on four tracks), the musicians start from a traditional base of Latin guitars and sensuous rhythms and spin out in bold directions, infusing rock, jazz, chill-out, and a few less definable but still noticeable touches. The result is music which combines the usual power, passion, and playfulness of flamenco with an assortment of new and exciting elements.
As I listened to El Dorado (many times, I might add), I started to think that what Luna Blanca is doing to nuevo flamenco bears an analogous resemblance to what the ground-breaking group Cusco (also with roots in Germany) did for South American/Incan music on some of their albums, such as Apurimac. By mixing traditional music styles and instruments with contemporary ones, including electronic keyboards, Cusco's signature sound retained the exotic feel of its ethnic roots but infused lots of cross-genre appeal. Luna Blanca hews much more closely to their influence's roots than Cucso did (the latter almost veering into synth-pop at times), but there are enough rock/jazz/contemporary touches floating around on El Dorado to justify my analogy.
Things start off with the wonderfully gonzo out-of-left-field stuff opening whistle and horn section that kicks off the CD itself on Los Ojos, which segues into a sexy midtempo flamenco number, but with the unique addition of tres jazzy virbraphone on lead melody, as well as contemporary beats, and that kick-ass horn section, not to mention the crazy guy with the whistle or the one who laughs maniacally at times! After that, some superb riffing on electric piano elevates the title track into the jazz-stratosphere, as it plays over a fast tempo flamenco guitar and drum background. Desperado opens with some straight-up electric guitar leads and a rhythm beat that will may have you envisioning yourself riding into a western movie (or perhaps the title is a reference to the Robert Rodriguez film itself that shares the track's title) about to face down the corrupt bad guys who are running the town.
Now, not every tune here shifts into overdrive. Medianoche is suitably dreamy and romantic as the plaintive piano merges with gently strummed guitar, accented by harp-like keyboards, but most of El Dorado is energetic, get-your-blood-pumping stuff, such as Dos Guitarras with a thumpy midtempo bass beat and the "two guitars" taking the lead while even more guitars blend in the background – not to mention the organ riffing at times! And then there's Rio Mamore on which blues harp mashes it up with flamenco guitar over an undercurrent of spicy, peppery beats.
I could go on and on describing the remaining tracks if I had more space, but suffice it to say that if you allow Luna Blanca to take you to this El Dorado, you may not discover gold, but you won't care because you'll be having way too good a time to even notice.
Rating: Very Good