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Chambao, an Andalusian band from Málaga, Spain, introduced the concept of "flamenco chill" to the world in 2002 when it released an album by the same name. But since then, it seems the trade winds blowing up through the Straits of Gibraltar have brought many changes to the group's music and production.
For starters, single-monikered cofounders Eduardo and Dani split from the band in 2005, leaving remaining original María del Mar Rodríguez, known as La Mari, to fly the sound sola. But up and away she went with it, changing the direction a bit by incorporating Far East and Caribbean undertones on her latest album, Con Otro Aire (With Another Air), released this past fall on Sony International.
Ask La Mari to define the new style and she comes back with a flat, "Well, I normally just call it music with lyrics and melodies." Then she pauses, and as if taking pity, she offers her traditional Chambao explanation: "It's based on flamenco because that's the music that has filled me since I was a little girl, and the electronica is what moves my generation."
However, the band's travels and perhaps the increasingly multicultural tone of her native Spain have resulted in a broader mix. "Spain's changing a lot, but regardless, you shouldn't think of us as [typical] Europeans, and Andalusia, that's something else entirely," she says. "It's clear now that everything influences the composition — from travels to newspaper articles to personal experiences."
As such, Chambao's increasing number of artistic collaborations has also expanded in scope. La Mari says the original trio of artists banded together to record because they didn't have much contact with other musicians. However, by the time Chambao's 2005 album, Pokito a Poko (Little by Little), was released, its style was resonating deeply with artists from across Spain and Latin America. So it should come as no surprise that all manner of well-known artists were inspired to assist La Mari as she forged it alone on Con Otro Aire. The band was a so-called Latin alternative sensation when it first hit the market, but for La Mari, free-flying expression can't be wedged into marketing categories.
For example, just before the release of Con Otro Aire, she and Ricky Martin were nominated together for a 2007 Latin Grammy for their emotive duet "Tu Recuerdo" ("Your Memory"). And on this latest album, La Mari collaborated with Mexican pop group Camila to create "Yo Soy Quien," a rendition of the traditional Zapotec song "Nanga Ti Feo." Then she runs straight back to her roots by interpreting the late, legendary Ray Heredia's flamenco hit "Lo Bueno y Lo Malo" ("The Good and the Bad") alongside young flamenco prodigy Estrella Morente, whose even more famous father, Enrique Morente, backs La Mari up on "Respira."
"Music is simply a way of describing emotions, and I've crossed paths with all sorts of artists — none of whom are better or worse than the other," she says defensively. "I've been enriched by their ideas, their experiences. Why Ricky? He passed through my life and the music united us."
There are no boxes placed around lyrical content either. On the opening number, "Papeles Mojados" ("Wet Papers"), La Mari sings the woes of boat migrants who risk their lives in the narrow stretch of ocean that separates Africa from the Iberian Peninsula, and in the even more perilous waves between Africa and Spain's Canary Islands. The migrants' mostly Near/Middle Eastern and African origins are represented in the song's music, which is infused with instruments from those regions.
But later comes "Duende del Sur," a sweet, soft pop number that incorporates pieces of the Gipsy Kings and Rubén Blades's famous "Caminando por la Calle," with an added feminine mystique. Meanwhile, "Detalles" ("Details") shows La Mari's attention to all kinds of musical elements by interwining flute solos and husky male flamenco backup vocals with the tune's steady rhythm and her own smooth voice. "El Viejo San Juan" ("Old San Juan") rumbas through the Caribbean with plena, merengue, and a much-appreciated modern funk. The playful number "Despierta" ("Wake Up") awakens feelings of innocence and contentment brought out not only by La Mari's youthful singing but also by a chorus of children. Finally, her cool interpretation of Tony Cantero's "Canto de la Ballena" ("Whale Singing") offers a mysterious, transoceanic mix of whale chatter and organic rhythms that feels Native American, African, and even Asian-inspired in origin.
In short, La Mari is happy to let Con Otro Aire take her wherever the wind blows. But when it comes to landing, her working-class barrio malagueño is where she'll always plant her feet. "It's where I've felt the ground since I was a kid, and I know everyone in my neighborhood — the butcher, the stray dogs. It's my birthplace," she says.
Still, every other spot she's visited on her whirlwind tours of the planet inspires her in fairly equal amounts. In fact, that might be part of the reason she has occasionally shouted out a great big "!Hola!" to one city when she's standing on the stage of another, she says with a chuckle. But change is good, and the faster the better, she says: "Good things generally happen in a flash."