Mártires del Compás pushed the boundaries of traditional flamenco. Since its storied 1995 debut, Flamenco Billy, Martires brought a rougher, rootsier sound and a more street-level point-of-view to the flamenco-rock party.
“To me, “flamenco billy” is a description of the Martires sound,” explained 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, bulerias, 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 laughed. “22 kilometers (14 miles) from Africa and three kilometers (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 Martires del Compas’ original lineup, which first came together around 1994. In addition to Ocaña’s vocals, guitarist Julio Revilla brought his heavy metal licks to hear. and Alberto Alvarez traded in his drum kit for flamenco’s cajon. Manuel Soto brought traditional flamenco guitar technique and bassist Jesus Diaz added a pop sensibility to the Martires’ sound, while Senegalese percussionist Sidi Samb gave the group a funky. West African twist and Rocio Vazquez brought a clean breeze with her backing vocals.
Together, these musicians combined their disparate influences into Martires’ signature “flamenco billy” sound, and helped reinvent flamenco for the 21st century. “I don’t think that we created a new sound,” said 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 Martires del Compas well. Since their 1995 debut they’ve released four subsequent albums in Spain: 1996’s Prohibido da el cante (“Singing Prohibited”), 1998’s Al compas de la llaga dolorida (To the Pulse of the Stigmata) 2000’s Mordiendo el duende (“Biting the Duende”), and 2000’s Empaquetado al vacio (“Vacuum Packed”). Only one of these, Mordiendo el duende, was released in the United States.
The band navigated some personnel changes, too, such as the departure of Sidi Samb. All of these albums saw Martires opening new dialogs between flamenco and rock, flamenco and blues, flamenco and West African music, flamenco and the music of the Latin Caribbean. As Martires explored the connections between flamenco and these other musics, they echoed the larger conversation of contemporary Spain finding its place in the world.
In 2007 the group disbanded. Lead vocalist Chico Ocaña went on to pursue a solo career. The rest of the band formed a new group called Pellizco.
* Flamenco Billy (1995)
* http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001LP33UW?ie=UTF8&tag=musidelmund-20&linkCode=xm2&camp=1789&creativeASIN=B001LP33UW | Prohibido da el cante “Singing Prohibited” (1996)
* Al compas de la llaga dolorida To the Pulse of the Stigmata (BMG, 1998)
* Mordiendo el duende “Biting the Duende”(Warner, 2000)
* Empaquetado al vacio “Vacuum Packed” (Warner, 2002)
* Simpapeles.es Compapeles.son (Warner, 2004)
* Mártires del Compás – 10 años (Warner, 2005), DVD + CD anthology