The continuing adventures of Omar Torrez
He grew up as “the Latin Hendrix” in psychedelic Seattle, traveled to Spain to learn the music of the gypsies, rediscovered old blues in Egypt, and took off around the world with carnival master Tom Waits. Now, Omar Torrez is ready to make his musical statement.
Omar Torrez is a traveler.
Distances crossed are in his blood. His heritage includes Spanish and Basque ancestry (via Mexico) as well as Norwegian, Native American (Aleut, from Alaska) and Russian. His parents were art students who met in ‘60s in Seattle, and Torrez grew up there among painters, strong passions and psychedelic guitars. He emerged dramatically as a guitarist himself while only 20, taking the Bumbershoot festival by storm with an incendiary set of Latin-tinged virtuosity that left critics gasping.
The Los Angeles Times dubbed him “the Latin Hendrix” who was “a massive talent poised to break out and kiss the sky.” But Torrez chose another course, one decidedly closer to the earth. He took what he would later describe as a “sabbatical” from rock n’ roll to study and play the music of Cuba and the Andalusian gypsies. He travelled the world and studied under Cuban and Spanish guitar masters, and in so doing became a young guitar master himself.
He toured the world. In Egypt, after a show one night, a simple question sent him twirling. “Do you play the blues?” a man asked. Somebody put in a Howlin’ Wolf record, and Torrez remembered how deeply this music was a part of him. That night, another journey began. Torrez played, and what emerged from his guitar audaciously fused gypsies and bluesman and psychedelic rockers. His entire musical past came together.
As he continued his travels, he kept mixing in blues and rock in his playing, and the results were the same everywhere he went – people responded viscerally to this most American of music. When he arrived in Moscow, an influential music critic awaited. Artemy Troitsky, a member of the World Music Consortium, had identified Torrez as an important young musician early in the American’s musical journey. But what he heard now made the Russian critic ecstatic.
“Omar Torrez is crossing many borders and establishing many unlikely links — between classical and pop, virtuoso and hot swinging, Latin and blues, European and American, sexy and pure… and doing all this with style,” Troitsky wrote.
Torrez returned to the United States and released a series of records that documented this, including 2008’s The Beat Outside (and later 2009’s Corazon de Perro). When Torrez described his sound at that time as “Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and James Brown drinking Tequila in a bar in Russia, playing all night until they fade into the oblivion of the early morning,” he wasn’t really exaggerating.
Somewhere on a farm in Northern California, another traveler from the musical carnival was listening. Torrez was sitting in a café one day when his phone rang. He answered to hear the unmistakable voice of Tom Waits on the other end. Within days, he was whisked away. He joined the beautifully ramshackle circus that was the 2008 Tom Waits Glitter and Doom tour.
It would become another strange and beautiful chapter in the musical education of Omar Torrez. Towards the end of the tour, in Spain, Waits and Torrez had a conversation that is etched deep in the guitarist’s mind. Waits was talking about Torrez’s ability to play in so many styles.
“The way he phrased it was pretty interesting,” Torrez said. “He was talking about how I have this ability to play all kinds of different styles pretty convincingly, and he said, ‘That must be difficult for you.’ But he didn’t say you could play anything – he said, ‘You could be anybody.’”
In Dublin, at the very end of the tour, Waits put it another way. “That gypsy thing you do, and that other thing, that pop thing, it’s like you are two people that haven’t been sewn together yet,” he told Torrez.
He was talking about forging his musical identity. Torrez understood. He had to become himself.
Upon return, Torrez found one last missing musical piece. He was on a big festival tour in his father’s homeland, Mexico and while performing at Barroquisimo festival in Puebla he learned about an interesting orchestra called La Banda Sinfonica Mixteca (note: “Mixteca” is a tribe who live in La Mixteca region, one of the poor areas of Mexico). He learned that the government of Puebla state had formed this 43-piece band comprised of indigenous Mixteca people. In an effort to bolster the local economy through culture and arts, the people from Mixteca region were given the opportunity to receive lessons and instruments.
Torrez was intrigued. He wrote a grant proposal to the Mexican government, proposing to work with the Banda Mixteca to arrange and record a record combining elements of traditional Mexican, Cuban, Slavic and Roma music with contemporary American sound.
The point was to collaborate and record some traditional Mexican songs and some of Omar’s original material, arranged and played by an international ensemble.
“The point of it,” Torrez said, “is that we are so concerned, especially politically, definitely culturally, about what separates us, about being different. It was just one small step to break all that: ‘Naw, let’s get together and make music. The rest is all garbage. Just see what happens. I also wanted to let people in the world know what is going on culturally in places like La Mixteca – people working hard, creating beautiful things.”
The grant was approved. In January, Omar took his band – including a Bosnian guitarist, a Cuban bass player, and an American drummer – and recorded 11 tracks with the Banda Mixteca. Three tracks include a chorus of 16 Mixteca children.
The result is a beautiful collage of songs recorded in Puebla’s open auditoriums and historical theaters.
The music ranges from a magical reworking of the Mexican folk classic “La Llorona” to Torrez’s stunningly virtuosic “Gypsy Dance” and even his own howlin’ blues “Whisky in the Morning.” Torrez will release the 11 song CD in Mexico, and return to the studio with the talented producer Tony Berg – who has worked with artists such as Ozomatli, Jesca Hoop, Bob Dylan, and Aimee Mann – and include some of these tracks on his own upcoming CD.
It feels like a moment of culmination for Torrez. He is a fully formed and major artist fully prepared to make his own musical statement. And to do so, he is creating a larger orchestra of a sort – he has launched a Kickstarter campaign in which all of his fans, from all around the world, will help fund the new project. The project, called “Together We Will Create”, was launched Feb. 21 and has until March 13 to reach its goal.
Kickstarter has become part of the post-music industry music industry in which artists and their followers work more closely together to make music outside the constraints of the corporate music-making machine.
“Being independent allows me to control my music and my career, yet independent artists do not usually have the budget to work with such gifted influential producers,” Torrez said. “With this Kickstarter campaign I find myself again returning to the people of the world, asking for their assistance to join me in creating art.”
“How can I make the world a better place?” Omar added. “If you are talking about music, popular music, certainly helping independent artists to go record and play to the next level by removing the obstacle of money from the equation certainly makes music a better place, where you have higher quality independent music.” ER