A Beautiful Collage of Sounds

Los Angeles-based Omar Torrez records in Mexico with La Banda Sinfonica Mixteca

By Mark McDermott
Published on LatinoLA: March 7, 2011

A Beautiful Collage of Sounds

Seattle-born Omar Torrez was touring on a big festival tour in his father's homeland of Mexico. While performing at the Barroquisimo Festival in Puebla, he learned about an interesting local orchestra called La Banda Sinfonica Mixteca ('Mixteca' is a tribe who live in the La Mixteca region, one of the poorest areas of Mexico). He heard that the 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 of those 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. He returns to the studio in the US with talented producer Tony Berg who has worked with artists such as Ozomatli, Bob Dylan, Jesca Hoop and Aimee Mann and will include some of these tracks on his own upcoming CD.

Torrez 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.

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 '60's 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 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 doing so became a young guitar master himself.

He toured the world. 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 pureǪand doing all of this with style," Troitsky wrote.

Torrez returned to the United States and released a series of records, including 2008's The Beat Outside, 2009's Corazon de Perro, and last year's EP Top of the World.

Somewhere on a farm in Northern California, another traveler from the musical carnival was listening. Torrez was sitting in a caf? 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.

Musically, it now feels like a moment of culmination for Torrez. He is a fully formed and major artist prepared to make his own musical statement. And to do so, he created a larger orchestra of sort a Kickstarter fan-based campaign called "Together We Will Create" will be funding his next recording with producer Tony Berg.

"Being independent allows me to control my music and my career, yet independent artists usually do not have the budget to work with such gifted influential producers," Torrez says. With this Kickstarter campaign I found myself again returning to the people of the world, asking for their assistance to join me in creating art."

About Mark McDermott:
freelance writer
Author's website

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