Ottmar Liebert

Zen for America

Air Date: July 8, 2016

Grammy-nominated guitarist Ottmar Liebert talks about creating a meditative calm for his listeners — and countrymen.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In the midst of this rollicking roller coaster of a political season that we have analyzed here on this program, sometimes you have got to turn to Pandora, iTunes, a CD, radio, FM – or whatever is your preferred “easy listening” application – and just sit back and relax. One of the go to stations for me is German American, Spanish inspired guitarist Ottmar Liebert. Indeed, we increasingly find ourselves in need of an infusion of meditative calm, and our guest today embodies that in his own musical genius. Ordained as a Zen monk, Liebert made the voyage from his artistic refuge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Highline Ballroom, and now to our studios here in New York City. The newest album from the Grammy nominated musician and his band, Luna Negra, is “Waiting n Swan,” featuring of course flamenco guitar. The album counts several Bob Marley covers, as well as reggae mixes of his classic “Barcelona Nights.” And as with our musician guests of past – Aloe Blacc and Moby among them – we’ll discuss Liebert’s craft, the promise of music to bond us, to heal us, and to rejuvenate our collective human spirit. Ottmar, thanks for being here.

LIEBERT: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: It was really a pleasure to hear you the other night. And the focus, the Zen like focus that you exhibit, is an inspiring call to calm, to think…

LIEBERT: I think it’s just really that I am not a good showman.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] The “anti Trump,” if you will. Uh…

LIEBERT: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: But no, I, I found myself… And I see in, in your performances, you tend to close your eyes.

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: What are you thinking – or not thinking – in that moment?

LIEBERT: I am not really thinking, I am just, um, working with the music. And people have asked me, why, why don’t you say more, or why do, you know, why do you not have singers, or why don’t you sing? Um, and I think it’s because, um, if I, if I would have words for what I am doing, I, you know, I could write. Um, but, but I really don’t. It’s a, it’s a whole different thing. And I, I think, um, it, it’s, it’s one of the beauty of, of instrumental music is that, um… It, it can be background. It can be what, you know, people call “easy listening.” But it’s really one of those things where it’s, it’s as much as you are willing to give it… It’s sort of like reading a book: If you read about a tree, and there is a description, you have to grow that tree in your mind. That’s not on the page; there is just words there. So that’s an active, uh, way of looking at media, whereas a movie or a TV will be passive, because they are showing you the tree. Um, in the same way, when somebody sings a song for you, those words get so much in the foreground, that even if they are using minor keys – and musicians have this, have done this many times – where you, you take a minor key, uh, key of music and then put like happy lyrics to it and people think it’s a happy song. So, um, in a song, you are told what to feel, whereas, in an instrumental music, you get as much out of it as you are willing to put into it. It’s sort of like reading a book. It’s… You have to like use your imagination and see what something is about.

HEFFNER: It seems to me it’s mind absorbing…

LIEBERT: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: …in that application. But also, mind relaxing.

LIEBERT: Sure. The mind loves to see patterns, right? I mean, we have all done this. You, you put on TV, you turn the sound off, you put a Pink Floyd record on… It always makes sense, right? And I think, well, our mind loves to, you know, figure out what’s going on, that’s what it does best. So yeah, I think in that sense, it is relaxing ’cause that’s what the mind likes to do…

HEFFNER: How did you discover guitar?

LIEBERT: Um, there was a show in Germany called Beat Club, and you can probably find snippets of it on YouTube. Um, and they had a lot of bands playing live. Um, and I had this master plan, at 11 years old, I wanted to play electric guitar, um, but I knew… We lived in a small apartment, there was no way that was going to happen. So, um, I told my parents I wanted a classical guitar and I wanted to start studying classical guitar. Um, so then a few years later, I think around 16 or so, I started playing electric. Um, but that was my, my plan as an 11 year old. I was, I thought I was so crafty…

HEFFNER: How do you define your approach?

LIEBERT: Well, actually, when I came to the States, I still wanted to be an electric guitar player. I actually, um, played in Boston for like six years or so, all in electric bands. Played in New York clubs a few times. But, um, moved to Santa Fe, uh, in ’86. And just decided that, um, hmmm, nylon string guitar is really what I wanted to do… Um, and that really, you know, uh, change my life totally as well… Uh, especially since I fell in love with the city. And, uh, Santa Fe is one of those really unusual places that is such a, an interesting mix of culture. Um, there is a lot of, you know, you know, from restaurants to music… There is a lot of cross cultural stuff… I remember one of the first groups I saw playing there, you know, in the back of a restaurant, was a banjo player, a classical violinist, and a flamenco guitarist. And I thought to myself, “What? You know, this is great.”

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

LIEBERT: “How weird and strange and wonderful.”

HEFFNER: The melting pot of guitar…

LIEBERT: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: You and I were talking off camera. The Land of Enchantment is very dear to my heart.

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: If I could live one place other than this city…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …it would, it would probably be, in your quarter, Santa Fe…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …or Albuquerque…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm. You don’t want to live it, no.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Why, why not? ;

LIEBERT: [LAUGHS] I don’t know, I don’t know… I mean, I, I, I, I, I like, I like performing there, there is a lot of great people there; but I go to Albuquerque basically to fly somewhere. Um, and other than that, Santa Fe, for me, has everything I need.

HEFFNER: But there is something in the temperament, in the water, in the kind of desert…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm, yeah, for sure.

HEFFNER: …of New Mexico that is distinctive. And that, to me, in the way that I have been listening to your work for a decade plus now – more than that – um, it resonated…that I feel “enchanted” listening to the music…

LIEBERT: Well, great. Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: And, and it, to me, it just made kind of parallel sense in this universe that, here is Ottmar, who found his home in New Mexico. What is it like to live in New Mexico?

LIEBERT: Well, I think the first shocker was, um, the first time… I have always lived in cities. Um, and the first time I, I, I climbed on a mountain in, in, in Santa Fe, and I was able to look for what was probably 50 miles – you could see the outskirts of Albuquerque – um, it was just shocking. It just seemed like, here is a canvas. What, how are we gonna live in this canvas, this emptiness, this space? Um, and I think it was, uh, for me, just incredibly inspiring, you know? It was sort of like a reset button: What do you, what do you really want to do? Um, and by the time, you know, I got signed – I would say I got signed really late, I was already 30 – um, by a record label, um, I actually loved my life in New Mexico, in Santa Fe so much that, um, I was able to say “no” to some of the demands they were making, just because in the end I was like, I can stay there. I am, I am fine. I don’t have to have this deal. ’Cause they wanted me to move to L.A., that was one of the prerequisites. I, they said, You have to change your name. Nobody is going to like, want to deal with Ottmar Liebert. Uh, and I was so happy living in Santa Fe that I actually said, you know what? Then I’ll walk, you know?

HEFFNER: I always ask artists here – whether it’s Macy Gray, or Moby – .

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: – what is the feedback now, at this contemporary moment, from, uh, folks who listen to your music?

LIEBERT: Um, well, because it’s instrumental, you really get feedback from all over the world – um, you know, people from Iran, Iraq, uh, to all places in Europe, Australia, um, Asia – um, it’s really all, all over the map, you know? And I think what speaks to a lot of the people is that – especially what I am doing with, with the music – is such a mix of different cultures. Um, and it seems like today there is such a fear of anything “other,” anything different. Um, and yet, um, the American… If you just look at the American table, what we eat, this food comes from all over the world. Um, it’s not just, you know, English food, or German food. Um, we have incorporated all sorts of stuff from, um, the Mediterranean, from the Middle East, from, from Asia, uh, Chinese… It’s how, it’s how you grow the fastest by getting…you know, adopting ideas and technologies from other cultures. And that has been proven in history, time and time again. Whether you go back to the ancient Persians, or the Romans, or the Ottomans. It’s how a culture grows, by incorporating other ideas and going, wow, how they, how did they do this? Oh, I bet you this works with this, and then you can improve it again. Um, so I think any culture that sort of says, no no no, it’s just us, nobody gets in anymore, um, it’s the beginning of atrophy, um, and the rest of the world will just pass you, you know?

HEFFNER: Well, I hope that you would share with our listeners…

LIEBERT: Hmmm.

HEFFNER: …that universal language that I have come to love…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: Um, do you mind…?

LIEBERT: All right.

HEFFNER: …showing…?

LIEBERT: [PLAYING GUITAR]

HEFFNER: Thank you, Ottmar.

LIEBERT: Oh, you are welcome.

HEFFNER: And I have wanted to tell our listeners a little bit more.

LIEBERT: Sure.

HEFFNER: You do several Bob Marley covers…

LIEBERT: Right.

HEFFNER: …in this latest album. What led you to…?

LIEBERT: Well, there is a group of flamenco rhythms that’s called “tangos” flamenco. And it has nothing to do with “tango,” which is Argentinian. “Tangos” is, um… What do you call the words that sound like a physical sound? Like, “tangos” is supposed to be the sound of a drum…

HEFFNER: I see.

LIEBERT: Um, and in fact, I think there is areas in South America was, where that’s still used for drumming and dancing. Um, so “tangos” flamenco is “tangos” and, and, and “rhumba” and a, and a number of other rhythms… But especially the one that’s called “tangos,” um, always seemed to me to be connected to reggae. Without even doing much, much research, you know, if you… Uh, a “tangos” rhythm would be… [CLAPS] This is the one. [CLAPS, HUMMING] Right? So there is nothing on the one. And it has a little bit of a lilt to it… And then one night, um, I searched the Internet, as one does, and I discovered one guy that wrote about how, um, “tangos” was brought from the Caribbean by sailors to the harbor in Spain. And then somehow the rhythm traveled down to Andalucia, and was incorporated into flamenco. And so, in fact, since it came from the Caribbean, it’s a, it’s a sister, a sibling of, of reggae, as is salsa. They all avoid the one – uh, the first beat. Um, and of course, the, you know, the, the parent of all these rhythms, it’s probably somewhere in Africa. And I am trying to find somebody that knows enough about rhythms and musicology in Africa to tell me, well, you know, what…? Can we still recognize that rhythm? Is that still there? What does it sound like now? But what I wanted to do is, um… On this record, I did, uh, stuff where the guitar… One guitar might play the “tangos” rhythm, the other one might play a reggae rhythm. And, um, the cajon, which is the drum box, would play the “tangos” rhythm, and the drum kit would play the reggae rhythm. And it just works, you know? And at first, I was like, you know, “Should we write some reggae songs?” And then I kept asking people and, you know, everybody loves Bob Marley. There is not a single person that doesn’t say, oh, that’s, that one is my favorite. So I ended up asking my friends, uh, what their favorite songs were…and a lot of those we recorded.

HEFFNER: Uh, I was recently listening to the album…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …and I thought to myself, “Well, if all these foreign fighters could just pause [LAUGHS] for a moment [LAUGHS], have some kind of epiphany, would that be possible?” Because I think what is elicited through this kind of music can be transformational…

LIEBERT: Oh, sure. Well, to me, it’s, it’s always been, uh, sort of fun chuckle. Um, you know, I can play in places…and I know most of the, the, my audience is really conservative, depending on where I am. And I am, I don’t want to get into, hmmm, “places” or anything. But they are listening to Arabic music, ’cause that’s what flamenco is, you know? Uh, I, uh… When I play… I, I, I made a record – and played quite a bit with a, a friend of mine, um, from Iraq. And every time I played something that’s more traditional flamenco, he always sorta looks at me from the side and said, “You know that’s an Arabic rhythm, right?” So you know, flamenco is Arabic music and rhythms filtered through centuries of gypsies making music. Uh, the gypsies themselves came originally from India. And then there is the Caribbean influences… So this whole… First of all, this whole idea that there is any such thing in music that “purity” is bunk, it just doesn’t exist. And second of all, I love that I am playing these rhythms to people. Uh, and, and the next time they hear something that’s maybe a little more exotic, I have created a little bridge, and they are going, “Oh, this actually sounds really cool. It reminds me a little bit of that, but it’s something different.”

HEFFNER: When you think of “Arabic groove,” right?…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: …in the traditional sense, do you see an increasing “palatability,” if you will, for and, and a, and a kind of “immersion” into this kind of, uh, “melting pot” of contemporary music?

LIEBERT: Oh, sure. That’s been done for decades now. I mean, um, you have got, um, Cheb Khaled, um, who was a… The, the music is called “rai.” It’s the pop music of Algeria. A lot of these guys live in, live in France and make great songs. Or do you, do you remember the, the song “Desert Rose” that Sting had?

HEFFNER: Sure.

LIEBERT: Um, so I mean, there is a lot of really great, um, Algerian musicians. And when you watch videos, you go, “Oh my God, these guys can funk like anybody,” you know? Um…

HEFFNER: What do you think, Ottmar, of the idea of “musical activism,” or “activist music,” as a vehicle to reconcile what are very deeply harbored animosities…

LIEBERT: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: …that still plague us?

LIEBERT: Um, I have… I, I know a lot of musicians that do things, and they are more vocal about stuff. Um, I prefer to just sort of … sneak in there. And I think I can do that best by making the music that I do that just sort of sneaks and, um, and prepares somebody or… You know, just by them going, “You know, I, I actually like this,” it might prepare a seed for, um, accepting something that’s different, uh, more than they would if they didn’t hear it. I, I like, I like that, um, that it’s, it’s “hidden” in that sense, you know? You can just enjoy this music, um, or you can get into it and try to find out what’s behind it and all these different connections that are being made, like to the Caribbean on that, um, or Arabic music on some of the other records.

HEFFNER: Have you ever felt with an audience – and you say some of your listeners are “conservative” – that there is a risk inherent in, um, where you choose to perform? Are you always at your maximum comfort, or do you sometimes find yourself in, hmmm, in more, um, questioning the climate in which you are playing?

LIEBERT: [SIGHS]

HEFFNER: If, if it’s consistent with your own moral compass…

LIEBERT: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Because…

LIEBERT: Yeah. It’s a very, it’s a very good question, ’cause I, I, I know that, um… Oh, let’s say, hypothetically – and this has happened – but hypothetically that somebody, well, asked me to play, and I didn’t agree with his, his “political agenda.” Um, I would still play for him, but then I might choose afterwards to give some of that money to a cause that I find right. Because I think music is something that needs to be universal. It’s one of the glues that keeps us together. Um, and I would never, um, ask people their opinion or their, their social or political leanings, if they come to a show. So I also wouldn’t ask it, if somebody hires me. But I do have…

HEFFNER: This is a subject that has created controversy to date about the use of political campaigns… [LAUGHS]

LIEBERT: OK.

HEFFNER: …hmmm, uh, music…

LIEBERT: Right.

HEFFNER: …in their ad campaign – rallies. And some have been explicit in demanding that…

LIEBERT: Oh yeah.

HEFFNER: …the, the candidate not play…

LIEBERT: Well, that’s a whole other level, mm hmm.

HEFFNER: So what is that…? How do you feel about that level?

LIEBERT: I, I… Uh, in music theory?

HEFFNER: Not that anyone [LAUGHS] at a Trump rally would want to chill to your music, I think…

LIEBERT: I, it’s never come up…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

LIEBERT: But if, if it were, um, I think at that point, you are really being associated with political opinion. Um, and at the very least, oh, you would want to be asked about it. And that’s one of the things that I find most upsetting is that they just feel like it’s OK, uh, to take it. And then, you know, you know, the artist has to find out, “Whoa, I didn’t, I didn’t OK that.” Um, because the, you know? If you use music for a political rally, it does need to be licensed. So, uh…

HEFFNER: And that seems in keeping with your philosophy…

LIEBERT: Yeah. I mean, it… And that’s different from, from, um, from me playing for somebody who, who, who I may not agree with… I mean, and there is tons of people I don’t agree with… Um, but that’s different from somebody making a message, and playing my music to their message.

HEFFNER: The introduction of “new” music is more and more difficult in the commercial mindset…

LIEBERT: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: And you said you “sneak” in…

LIEBERT: Mm hmm.

HEFFNER: Well, we don’t want you to sneak out. How do you stay in…?

LIEBERT: Mm hmm, mm hmm. Well…

HEFFNER: …how do you sneak in?

LIEBERT: I am really lucky. Um, when my first album was released in 1990, radio was still willing to take a chance. Um, and you could see throughout the ’90s, as, um, stations became, became the valuation of, of… Uh, radio stations changed, and so their value went up tremendously. Um, and as soon as you are dealing with huge amounts of debt when a radio station is bought, then you also are dealing with, uh, accountants that go, uh, prove to me that the people like this song. As soon as you have that, then you have got companies coming in, saying, look, we played this for an audience at a mall, and they liked it. Now, you know, it’s the same thing that happened to Hollywood movies: Do you want a director to create a movie, or do you want the director then to be questioned about every scene by an audience that, you know, is found at a mall? Nothing against people in malls, but when I go to a mall and I have to buy something, I get in and out. And somebody asks me, can you spend, you know, spend an hour looking at something?, I am like, are you kidding? I am going home. So, um, you know, the moment you are, you are, you are wondering, well, will this work, then suddenly the musical director has no power anymore, right, and a… Yeah, I remember one of the first guys that played us a lot – a program director from San Francisco, I think – um, uh, within two weeks of his station being sold, he saw the writing on the wall and jumped out a six story window, so. Um, in the ’90s, that changed a lot. So I think if, if I came up and I did my music now, I am not sure how much radio play I would get…

HEFFNER: And in the age of Pandora and iTunes…

LIEBERT: Pandora doesn’t pay us anything. Pandora is like the worst way to listen to music…

HEFFNER: Shame on me.

LIEBERT: Apple, Apple Music is great… Um, they, they get their licenses. They, they, um…

HEFFNER: So how, how does Pandora have the licensing rights to…?

LIEBERT: Well, as you… Uh, if, if you followed some of this stuff about Spotify…

HEFFNER: Mm hmm.

LIEBERT: …and David Lowery. Um, Spotify goes in and plays this stuff and worries about the licensing later.

HEFFNER: Right.

LIEBERT: Uh, and for a lot of stuff, they have never bothered to get the license. So instead of saying, you know, We won’t play it…

HEFFNER: Right.

LIEBERT: …unless you tell us where to get the license, they just play it all. And then you have to go, but wait, wait, wait… Um…

HEFFNER: The artist is much more of a “striving” artist today than ever before, in light of the digital age.

LIEBERT: Oh yeah, I am sure.

HEFFNER: And so how do you… You, you clearly possess the perpetual creative instinct in wanting to develop album after album after album. All of which I have listened to. And the albums too…

LIEBERT: Well, in the end, what I really had to do is, is, well, just be really clear that I am making albums for myself. I cannot count on anybody wanting to listen… And in a way, it, it has actually freed me because it’s just like, what do I want to hear, I don’t care… I, I don’t know… I, I am not gonna tailor it to anybody else, because, uh, uh, this… I mean, they, the, this, these days you don’t know. Um, and you are not making money of it anyway, since, you know, record sales have plummeted at, you know? It’s, it’s probably five percent of what it used to be in the ’90s – or, or less. So I am not making money from the record, I might as well make what I want to do. I mean, just… You know, my next album, for example, um, I am, I am about maybe two thirds or three quarters done with it. And I just decided, I want to do something. There is so many notifications and alarms going off all the time. Everything is so fast. I want to do a whole album that’s slow. Slow music. And I want to do everything just with a guitar. No band. Nobody else, just me. And the only thing I allowed myself to do is things like slowing the computer down so I have half speed, which give, lets me play lower notes; longer notes, because they are, they are being played back at half-speed; uh, and I am multi tracking some guitars. Um, but I think it’s, hmmm, all… Oh, it’s all gonna be really slow stuff, ’cause that’s what I want to play with. And since… In, in a way, [SNAPS FINGERS] you know, yes, it’s horrible how little money we make from records, ’cause it, it means… Unless you are touring, you are really not making any money. [CLAPS] Um, but in, in this sense, I, you know, I try to look at the positive side: I get to do whatever I want, ’cause I can’t count on it making, selling anything anyway.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s an amazing feat to accomplish that editorial integrity and autonomy…

LIEBERT: Uh-huh. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: I congratulate you on that…

LIEBERT: Well, thank you.

HEFFNER: …not just this latest album, uh, but a career dedicated to that same sense of purpose and craft. Um, and we’ll welcome your meditation, and the imposition of that meditation upon a, uh, tortured…

LIEBERT: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: …uh, ADD…

LIEBERT: [LAUGHS] Uh-huh.

HEFFNER: …ADD infested reality…

LIEBERT: Right.

HEFFNER: Slow down.

LIEBERT: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Ottmar.

LIEBERT: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.