It was 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning and Ottmar Liebert had been roaming the streets of Boston for a couple of hours, taking in the city. He had just bought a cup of coffee and parked himself on the bank of the Charles River when a group of Brazilian tourists threw themselves from a nearby bridge and into the chilly water.
“That was fun to see,” he laughed over the phone as he described a non-musical highlight of his Beantown visit. “I’m having a great time. I’m playing Boston at a jazz club tonight. That’s why I’m here.”
Quite a ways from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the music legend is performing up and down the Eastern Seaboard with his ensemble group, Luna Negra. As part of the tour, he will be making a stop on Saturday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center to play what he does best—nouveau flamenco, a genre he created, and with it a fair share of controversy.
“I’m a mutt. I’m a hybrid. And that’s the kind of music I make,” he said. “This is my 24th year of touring. We have close to 30 albums, so we try to do a cross-section. Songs have a life of their own.”
Keeping the music fresh is of utmost importance during a live performance, he added.
“So I, personally, if I hear somebody play exactly what’s on the album, I always feel like I can stay home. I don’t have to watch that. I grew up in the ’70s, when bands kept changing stuff and playing things differently,” he said. “People will certainly recognize the songs we’re playing, but we try to switch things around a little bit.”
Born in Germany to a Chinese-German father and a Hungarian mother, Mr. Liebert first discovered flamenco at age 14 by way of an LP bargain bin at a local supermarket, he reported. The young boy had already been playing acoustic guitar for three years, but that particular album’s rhythm and energy enraptured him.
“I wanted to play electric guitar,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a TV, so on Saturdays, my mom and I would visit my grandparents. They had a TV and there was a fabulous program called ‘Beat Club.’ Amazing live performances. I think I liked what the guitar players were doing. I knew my parents wouldn’t go for the electric guitar thing because we lived in a small apartment and it was loud and I thought we couldn’t afford it. So I thought I was very clever by asking for a classical guitar.”
It wasn’t until the musician moved to Santa Fe in 1986 that he delved into flamenco guitar and the culture that came with it. He was immersed in a melting pot of Hispanics, Native Americans and “Anglos”—which were anything but, from the Chinese to Africans, he said. Even the food was adventurous, he said. The environment inspired the musician.
In 1989, he founded the first incarnation of his band, Luna Negra, which now includes bassist Jon Gagan, percussionist Chris Steele and JQ Whitcomb on trumpet. That first year, the band self-produced its first album, “Marita: Shadows and Storms.”
The initial 1,000 copies were sold in Santa Fe artist Frank Howell’s gallery. When the record eventually found its way to the radio waves, Higher Octave Music picked it up and released a remastered version.
“Nouveau Flamenco” was born. And it was the first of its kind, Mr. Liebert said.
He had made the music for himself, exploring the sights, sounds and tastes of Sante Fe. Since, the album has gone double-platinum and the musician has courted a proportional amount of criticism from the flamenco community.
“You always get heat from the traditionalists,” he said. “They practice so hard to play traditional flamenco and then when an upstart comes by and comes up with a little melody and some rhythm and starts selling lots of records, they get upset. That’s just what always happens. The funny thing to me is that the people who are not even Spanish, who are typical Anglos, pick a Spanish name and they’re even more defensive than the people who actually grew up in Spain. You become extra protective of something you studied so hard to be, even though you come from a completely different culture.”
He laughed, and let out a sigh. “I wanted to avoid that from the beginning,” he continued. “I’m interested in how we combine things, how we make them fit together. That’s what I’ve tried to do with music from the start.”
Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra will play the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, June 15, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $35 from $55. For more information, call the box office 288-1500 or whbpac.org.