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“A flamenco group for the 21st century.”

For a “traditional” music, Spanish flamenco is a remarkably expansive and inclusive genre — and it’s been that way from the beginning. Though no one can safely pinpoint the music’s exact origins, most scholars agree that it was some combination of Spanish, Gitano (Gypsy), Arab and Jewish musical traditions coming together in the melting pot of Southern Spain in the 16th century. Though the Gitanos of Andalucia eventually became the custodians of flamenco, over the intervening centuries they were always quick to adopt and adapt new sounds to push the music forward. In the last 25 years alone, flamenco has relentlessly assimilated a multitude of outside influences, from Arab, African and Latin American sounds to jazz, blues and rock and roll. Few groups embody contemporary flamenco’s transformation as well as Mártires del Compás -- Seville’s groundbreaking “Martyrs to the Rhythm,” — who returned to American shores on August 9th, 2005 with their World Village label debut No Papeles /No Papers, and accompanying U.S. tour.

For ten years now, Mártires del Compás (pronounced MAHR-tih-ress del Com-PAHSS) have been pushing the boundaries of traditional flamenco. Since its storied 1995 debut, Flamenco Billy, Mártires has brought a rougher, rootsier sound and a more street-level point-of-view to the flamenco-rock party – in fact, their CDs been referred to as “sung newspapers”.

“For me, “flamenco billy” is a description of the Mártires sound,” explains singer and lyricist Chico Ocaña. “It describes flamenco that’s on the border. Something a little more raw, that can only be learned on ‘the University of the Street.’ What separates us from Ketama and Pata Negra is that they play rumba, which is just one style. We play actual flamenco, in many different styles – soleas, bulerías, fandangos, etc. Even though we’re payos (non-Gypsies) and even though we’re all self-taught musicians, we’ve studied and learned many different compas (rhythms) and palos (styles). We come from Andalucia, where all that matters is that you respect the music and play it well. If you play it well you’ll be accepted, no matter who you are. So when we mix our music with blues or rock or something African, it’s still coming from a base of flamenco. It’s always flamenco first.”

Life at the border, both musical and cultural, is something that comes naturally to Ocaña, who grew up in the small coastal town of San Roque, which was the gateway to Gibraltar. “I was born on the frontier,” he laughs. “14 miles from Africa and two miles from England! Growing up I listened to shortwave radio and heard Arab music from Africa and pop music from England. All of that is part of the music I make today.”

That eclecticism was reflected in Mártires del Compás’ original lineup, which first came together around 1994. In addition to Ocaña’s vocals, guitarist Julio Revilla brought his heavy metal licks to bear, and Alberto Alvarez traded in his drumkit for flamenco’s cajon. Manuel Soto brought traditional flamenco guitar technique and bassist Jesus Diaz added a pop sensibility to the Mártires’ sound, while Senegalese percussionist Sidi Samb gave the group a funky, West African twist and Rocío Vázquez brought a clean breeze with her backing vocals.

Together, these musicians combined their disparate influences into Mártires’ signature “flamenco billy” sound -- and helped reinvent flamenco for the 21st century. “I don’t think that we created a new sound,” says Ocaña, “but rather a new posture within flamenco. We take real flamenco and update the lyrics for today’s street. My lyrics are inspired by what I see everyday, what I watch on the news on what I read in the papers. Of course, I write a lot of songs about love, too… because you just can’t get away from that in life.”

This ground-level lyricism and musical adventurousness has served Mártires del Compás well for the last 10 years. Since their 1995 debut they’ve released four subsequent albums in Spain: 1996’s Prohibido dá el cante (“Singing Prohibited”), 1998’s Al compás de la llaga dolorida (To the Pulse of the Stigmata) 2000’s Mordiendo el duende (“Biting the Duende”), and 2000’s Empaquetado al vacío (“Vacuum Packed”). Only one of these, Moriendo el duende, was released in the U.S. The band navigated some personnel changes, too, such as the departure of Sidi Samb. All of these albums saw Mártires opening new dialogues between flamenco and rock, flamenco and blues, flamenco and West African music, flamenco and the music of the Latin Caribbean. As Mártires explored the connections between flamenco and these other musics, they echoed the larger conversation of contemporary Spain finding its place in the world.

Mártires del Compás’ latest release, No Papeles/No Papers, sees the band returning to its roots, while further exploring themes of globalization and immigration. “This is a very personal album for us,” explains Ocaña. “We produced it ourselves, and worked many of the songs out a small café right here in mi barrio in Sevilla. We specifically wanted to get back to a ‘Mártires’ sound; to return to our flamenco billy roots.”

They do this in style, with such inspired tracks as “Petebuleria,” which addresses exploited foreign labor, and “Negrapata,” which takes on African immigration, and “¡Oh! Galicia calidades,” which addresses the environmental havoc wrought by oil spills on Spanish beaches.

“Politically, socially, we’re uncompromising,” Ocaña says. “I don’t write from any ideological perspective or belong to any party, but as an artist I write about the things that move me; and I won’t silence myself or only write about happy topics. Illegal immigration, terrorism, globalization, these things are part of my world, too. I don’t think it’s a contradiction to sing about these things alongside songs about love or passion. It’s all part of our experience as human beings.” Of course, songs of love and passion remain the staples of flamenco, and Mártires continue to deliver the goods. “Colores” is a celebration of sensuality, and “Inoxidable” offers a message of love’s staying power, while “Serengueti” is a sexy, playful ode to animal passion. But through it all, Mártires continue to speak for the common man with tracks like “Estoy tieso” or “Flat Broke.”

“Before we felt like we had to explain ourselves through our music,” Ocaña says of Mártires’ continued appeal. “But now we’re comfortable and don’t have to prove ourselves to anyone anymore.”

“We know where the goldmine is now,” he adds, laughing. “All we have to do is dig.”


ROCIO VAZQUEZ (backing vocals)
MANUEL SOTO (flamenco guitar)
JULIO REVILLA (billy guitar)