In the late 1990s, a musical revolution was taking place in Spain. A generation of young musicians were creating and playing a new genre of music dubbed flamenco fusion or nuevo flamenco. Purists were outraged at this fusion of rock, hip-hop, punk and flamenco, even though flamenco itself was fused from Roma, Arabic and Sephardic musical roots. Leading the charge was the group Ojos de Brujo (The Eyes of the Sorcerer), although they preferred the term “collective” over “group.”
Their songs' lyrics and lead vocals were mostly contributed by Marinah (AKA Marina Abad). From their first album Vengue in 1999, both non-purist listeners and music critics were enthralled by what the band called, their jipjop flamenkilla (hip-hop flamenco) sound, but which also included a heavy dose of rumba catalana, often described as “the Spanish cousin to Afro-Cuban rhythm” and punk rock attitude. Their music was furiously danceable, and their lyrics unafraid of tackling social concerns (they always made a point of saying they were “social, not political”). Disgruntled with how their label was treating them, they made a radical move at the time, to form their own label, on which they recorded to more albums – Bari (2002) and Techari (2006) – the latter awarded them a Latin Grammy for best flamenco record in 2007.
Then, after just over a decade of performing, the collective decided to call it quits.
“Before,” says Marinah through a translator after her performance at the Festival International de Jazz in Montreal in July, “with Ojos de Brujo it was like a kidnapping. We went quickly from zero to one thousand. We had no time to reflect. We were always traveling. It was really crazy – really good, but crazy. It was exhausting. Then, when I got pregnant, there was no more thinking. It was all about what was happening inside me. It was too much.”
She laughingly explains there was a “law” that she couldn't sleep with any member of the band. But she says, “Thankfully, Carlito [trumpeter Carlos Sarduy] wasn't in the band when I got pregnant. He was touring with Chucho Valdes at the time.”
Sarduy, born in Havana, Cuba, has played and or recorded with both Chucho and Bebo Valdes, Esperanza Spalding, Concha Buika, Orishas, Los Van Van, the Afro-Cuban Allstars, and Nitin Sawhney, among many others. He did play on Techari and toured with the Ojos de Brujo on and off, and is now her partner both in music and at home.
Even when she realized it was time to make a break, she says, “It still took me a few years to finally do it. We were touring all over the world while I was pregnant and even after Kiran was born. He's 10 now, so it's been seven years since I left Ojos de Brujo.”
Marinah released her first solo album in 2013, El Baile de las Horas (the Dance of the Hours), which she says was a purposeful turn to a more pop sound in contrast to her work with Ojos de Brujo. In the video for the song “Menos Mal” from the album, we see her recording with Sarduy, and their then 5 year-old son, wandering around the studio.
“Having a son changed the music I make very much,” she says. “Everything changed. It's like a straight line from there. I used to be a night owl, running around all night. Now I have to find time to do that kind of thing, when I have the time to do it. But seriously, when I write lyrics now, I always think through my son. I'm more radical, less punk now. There's an urgency to change things because we are in this state that you know is not the best. So I'm always thinking about my son.”
Her second solo album, Marinah & Chichuelo: Sintonías, featured flamenco guitarist Juan Gomez Chichuelo. Marinah has described the 2015 album as the soundtrack to a party where Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca are all in attendance, and an opportunity where she could enjoy sitting and singing with a simple quintet. Chichuelo had been part of Marinah's circle of musical friends for some time, having also collaborated with Ojos de Brujo. And, of course, the album featured Sarduy on various instruments.
Last year she released Afrolaila, yet another exploration of the connections between Spanish, Cuban and African rhythms. She explains that afrolaila is a term she made up, combining “afro” with the Spanish slang word for Roma people, Lolaila.
“You see,” she says, “It's my family, my house – Cuba, Barcelona, it's rumba and all the ties connecting them. It's just a family affair. I've always been a fan of Cuban music and now it's part of my home, thanks to Carlito. All these influences, it's what I've been drinking for a long time now.”
And when she says “her house,” she literally means the album was produced in their home in Barcelona.
“The good thing about being solo is I can do things differently,” she says. “I can throw in all sorts of things, electronica beats, Afro-trap, flamenco, but definitely more electronic now. There's no big plan, just whatever interests me. I've always been like that.
“These days,” she continues, “I'm really into these African sounds – Afrobeats, Afro-trap – lots of this I'm listening to, and mixing it with all my Latin roots.” Marinah adds, that as sees it, whoever we are, we are all descended from the people of Africa, “It is in our veins, whether you like it or not. You cannot be racist today, because you are just going up against yourself.”
“I'm releasing a new video,” she announces. “It's going be something fresh, and so is called 'Fresca.' It's is a mix of Afro-trap, flamenco and Cuban horns, featuring Hector Guerra. Hector is a rapper, and his mother is Andalucian, his father from South America. He has lived in Los Angeles, but lately he's been living with indigenous tribes in Mexico.”
“Fresca” is available only as a video, no mp3. The song is mixed by Florida-based engineer Frank “El Medico” Rodriquez, and produced together with Guerra and his collective, Pachamama. Marinah adds that there will be another video released in September. And for this year's WOMEX, which takes place in October in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, they will have a new EP.
“'Fresca' is a continuation of what I am doing on Afrolaila,” Marinah says, “but again, there is no steady plan. It's really just all about dancing. I wanted to do a music that is light that you can dance to, but also the lyrics express some of the bad things going on in the world, such as muzzling of free speech. Like in Spain, they've sentenced some rapper to three years in jail, and others who have fled because of this. Also, people in theater being censored. This is a problem not just about Catalonia, but all over Spain.”
Although she adds, with a wry smile, “The way I describe this new song is that it's 'global music for global problems.'”
“We are in difficult times and it’s hard to keep the flame burning, but you have to keep fighting, because if you lose hope you can be buried,” she wrote for Afrolaila's press release. We asked if she really does have hope for the future, what with all the terrible news that seems to keep compounding daily, and if so, what is her secret.
“Do I have hope?” she sighs. “I sometimes don't know anymore. For instance, in Spain, the big problem is housing. There is a big housing bubble.... Everything about migration, borders being closed, it's horrible. But I have to have hope only because I have a son.
“But there's also an advantage to having global problems,” she continues, “which is that we have to all get along. So now with social media, we can physically be in Cadiz or Toronto, but we're on the same page. We have to take advantage of that.
“To be truthful, though, it's tough to keep hope when you see so many things getting worse. It's difficult. Also the extreme right is rising in Europe. It seems easier when you have a period of crisis for the people to want a populist leader. In five years they've been destroying education, health, and maybe the worst is yet to come. We don't know. I'm more worried about my son who asks, 'Is there's going to be a war, mommy?'”
Marinah takes in a big breath and sighs. She has a thought, then a smile crosses her face. “I will tell you this,” she concludes. “It's when I'm on stage singing to the audience, everything seems possible. That's where the hope is.”