Omar Montes: Why the Spanish artist thinks the best school for flamenco is the street : Alt.Latino Anamaria Sayre and Felix Contreras sit down with Spanish artist Omar Montes to talk about why he'll never lose his flamenco influences, expressing the oppression of his Romani ancestors in his music and why the rhythms of reggaeton and flamenco aren't so different. This interview is in Spanish. Please find an English version of the conversation on our website.

Audio for this episode of 'Alt.Latino' was mixed by Janice Llamoca, with help from Isabella Gomez Sarmiento and Natalia Fidelholtz. Our show editor is Hazel Cills and our project manager is Grace Chung. Our VP of Music and Visuals is Keith Jenkins.

Omar Montes: Why the Spanish artist thinks the best school for flamenco is the street

Omar Montes: Why the Spanish artist thinks the best school for flamenco is the street

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Omar Montes is this week's guest on Alt.Latino. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

Omar Montes is this week's guest on Alt.Latino.

Courtesy of the artist

Anamaria Sayre and Felix Contreras sit down with Spanish artist Omar Montes to talk about why he'll never lose his flamenco influences, expressing the oppression of his Romani ancestors in his music and why the rhythms of reggaeton and flamenco aren't so different. This interview is in Spanish, please find an English version of the conversation below.

Audio for this episode of 'Alt.Latino' was mixed by Janice Llamoca, with help from Isabella Gomez Sarmiento and Natalia Fidelholtz. Our show editor is Hazel Cills and our project manager is Grace Chung. Our VP of Music and Visuals is Keith Jenkins.


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity and translated into English.

Sayre: You're a man of many talents, right?

Montes: Yes, I did vocational training in gardening and I worked as a gardener for two or three months until I got fired. I got fired because sometimes the plants would die because you have to be very careful and make sure to put them in a place where the sun didn't hit them directly. Sometimes I forgot and the plants would go to s***. And they fired me and then I was forced to work as a musician.

Contreras: Which one is easier?

Montes: Music ... because it's not forced. You don't have to think much. Anything that makes me think, is bad. Okay, sometimes I think. But I try not to because I lose creativity. It's better to think as little as you can, but when you do, it hits hard, rather than constantly thinking and whatever the result is, is not as good.

Sayre: But how do you write music without thinking?

Montes: When I write music [it's] because I've been in my own bubble for a week [on] a beach, enjoying myself, without giving it much thought. Then when I sit down to write, everything comes out.

Contreras: It's a feeling thing.

Montes: One thing that helps me a lot when writing is not using a cellphone. Grabbing a wooden pencil, but wood coming from a good tree. Because if the tree is good it has lots of energy and the pen is active. But if it's a mechanical pencil ... that's a no-go. Nor is the cellphone.

Sayre: Why?

Montes: Because it's not the same. I don't know how to explain it to you. That's how it flows to me. You pick up a good pen and paper and write... and it comes out on its own. But when you're on the phone, your friends are talking to you via WhatsApp, you're getting Instagram notifications. Hot girls are writing to you. You can't focus on writing properly.

Sayre: And how can you think properly if there's a hot girl sending you messages.

Montes: Exactly. That's why you can't do it. You have to leave the phone in a different room and write somewhere else to be completely focused on the song.

The music that you make is a little bit organic. It has a lot of history ... it's not something new, it's not something that comes from technology. Sometimes it's acoustic and sometimes it's not.

Montes: It depends.

Sayre: Depends on what?

Montes: The acoustic music I make is derived from flamenco. Which is music that comes from my ancestors. Romani. So I continue my family's branch to not lose it, because I think flamenco is something that shouldn't be lost in Spain. Even if it's hard to sell, I still do it because you don't make music to sell it, most of the time. You do it because you like it, for the respect and for the purists. There are still purists in Spain who like flamenco. If I want to sell [music], if summer comes and I want to hit a banger, then I'll make reggaeton. Never losing my flamenco influences, always adding flamenco around it.

Contreras: At the same time with acoustic music, it's a wooden guitar — something organic.

Montes: And with that you can transmit what you have inside: a guitar, a voice and palmas can make a revelry anywhere.

Contreras: When I listen to your music or your story growing up, I hear something ... because I study Spanish music from everywhere. What I hear in your childhood is almost the same as the [story of] flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla. It's usually called flamenco bajo mundo (underworld flamenco). Do you see it the same way?

Montes: For us flamenco Spaniards, Camarón is the epitome of flamenco music. Me, any kids that are around 20 to 30 years old, we've all listened to a Camarón album in the car with our grandpas in the summer. You'd typically go on a summer holiday with your grandpas and they would play a Camarón album in the car. You'd listen to the A-side and then the B-side, and if the trip took five hours, you'd listen to it for 5 hours. To sing like Camarón is near impossible but you can't help his culture and strength and what he transmits from reaching you.

Contreras: Isn't Camarón's childhood similar to yours?

Montes: Possibly, but not just mine — many neighborhood kids with little chances. We come from a slum in Madrid, Carabanchel. We grew up in the Pan Bendito area. The people there are looking for a life to try to survive. They do some things to make money that are not very good, so we have grown up normalizing that. And everything we have learned from the neighborhood are also experiences that we can transmit in our voice. Everything we have suffered, everything we have lived through and fought for to try to survive — all that is reflected in the voice of the Romani who sings flamenco.

Contreras: How do you put the influence of flamenco in your music?

Montes: It can be done because you can do some palmas, speed them up, put them to the rhythm of electronic or reggaeton and it would work because the beat of palmas for rumbas enters at the same time as the beat of reggaeton. The same percussion that is in reggaeton — well, palmas in rumbas are the same or the cajón in rumbas. Any melody can fit in there.

Sayre: What is the flamenco tradition for you?

Montes: Flamenco is a native cultural music of Spain. Each country has its own native music. It is made with great care. They used to use the music in flamenco revelries. Romani would go to places and sing to make money. That was the base of their economy. Then more people started to do flamenco, they began to travel. Flamenco spread worldwide. Like everything, it started being very niche and now little by little, with the help of the great artists, it has expanded and you can listen to flamenco from a Fast and Furious movie and also on the streets.

Contreras: I would like to come back to this point, the rhythm, because I am a percussionist. What you're saying is the idea that flamenco, the flamenco rumba has this rhythm and is almost the same as the one in reggaeton. Do you think that there are many rhythms, especially from Latin America, right? For example, the music of the Andes ... it's a triplet, right? But there is a point, an accent. Or Santeria music, there's always an accent, just like a heartbeat.

Montes: It is true. At some point there is always an accent and it also has a lot to do with the spiritual. 100%.

Contreras: I didn't think of that until you told me just now. That you told us about the rhythms in reggaeton and flamenco rumba.

Montes: Do you know that the bulería is similar to traditional Mexican music. For example, you can sing a corrido [to the rhythm] if you want. I learned it because I was recording with a super big Mexican [artist] Carin León. I realized that singing in the rhythm of bulerías, traditional music could also be sang to it. We made a song and aside from adding all the trumpets, percussion and all that's used in regional music, I also put in bulería castanets, I put in palmas, I did something incredible with him.

Sayre: Do you also remember Felix that [the Mexican artist] Joss Favela told us that corridos have their origins in the music of Jewish people and there is also a very large presence of this history in Spain as well, so there is also a connection there. But what's also very interesting is that I studied cognitive sciences in college and we learned that the first music you hear is the mother's heartbeat. This is how we learn rhythm — we also learn how to connect.

Montes: The heartbeat, you can create a song out of that. Those are things that we never think about, that we ignore, but it ends up being music. I could take a sampler of a heartbeat and make a song out of it.

Contreras: Another connection. I did some interviews with the pianist Chano Domínguez and also the singer Martirio. Both of them told me that the essence of singing flamenco is the same essence as a genre from this country, as the blues. Because both genres are born from pain. And when you listen to flamenco singers like yourself, and also like B.B. King, it's almost the same, it has the same meaning.

Montes: I imagine that we both come from the underworld. You learn a style of music that I think a person who grew up in a place where they didn't have to fight would not be able to sing the same way.

Contreras: It is a matter of quality, right? Because in blues, it is enough that the feeling is stronger than the technique.

Montes: That's the trick. Yes, to let yourself be carried away by the heart, not so much by the academics. In the end, the best school there is for flamenco, do you know what it is? The street.

Sayre: And for you. It is a very important part. Because for you it was a way of expressing your experiences, your neighborhood, your street, all of it. Right?

Montes: In the end, with my album, Quejíos de un Maleante, what I wanted to express, both in the photos and the cover and in the music, was the oppression we have felt at times — the gypsies, the Moors in the neighborhood. Maybe we were going to the subway, for example, and 20 normal people, who are not Moors or gypsies, passed by — we called them payos in Spain. And maybe they don't [get asked] for a ticket, but if I show up, it's funny because without exception, every time I go, they ask me for the ticket and I'd said "20 payos have just passed and you don't ask them for the tickets, but why do you ask me for the ticket? What happened? Why? Is it because I have a tattoo here?"

For example, you're in Madrid and you walk and see a lot of bars, a lot of jewelry stores where they sell rings. Well, we were trying to make money selling on the street. And if you were selling on the street, suddenly a police officer comes and takes away the piece of wood where you are selling and says "No, you can't sell here." I'd say, "But at the end of the day, I'm also trying to make money to eat, to survive. Why don't you go after them? They are the thieves who are selling you earrings for 30 euros and I am selling them for 2 euros? In the end, who is more of a thief, me or them? They are stealing from you."

When the police saw us selling on the street, they took everything from us and now, on my record, I try to fight against that. Now, those same police officers, when I go through my neighborhood, they stop me. Now they stop me because they want me to invite them to a concert, because they want me to sign an autograph. Some of them have told me: "Damn Omar, how wrong I was. You're such a good person, even knowing what we did to you, you are now kind to us." And I think that makes them change, because if I also respond with evil, in the end it becomes a vicious circle of evil. But if you do good to a person who did you wrong, something inside him changes.

Sayre: Do you think that your music can do something about it? If you can bring flamenco to the world, things might change for your community?

Montes: I am trying to change things. I try, for example, in my neighborhood. To all the children. Well, not all children, because it is impossible, but the most talented children who take it more seriously and who like to study and who like to learn, Moncho [Chavea] and I have set up a sort of academy in his house. To help kids to record or teach them to produce, teach them how to play an instrument and we do it for free without asking for anything in return so they are not out on the street, smoking all day. We take them there so they can learn a trade, because sometimes they don't go to school.

Sayre: When you arrived you were talking to your grandmother, right? I spoke with her a little. And I asked her: What do you think about his music and the show that he's going to play at Tiny Desk? And she said, well, I'm very excited for the palmas and everything. When you use electronic [sounds] or more modern things in your music, does she like it too?

Montes: She loves it because she is a very modern grandmother. And I have to be in contact with her 24/7 because if there is any time... she is worse than a girlfriend. If the time comes and I don't pick up the phone, she'll kill me. She'll say "why don't you pick up the phone? I feel terrible. Imagine that I'm dying and you're not picking up the phone." She goes into that mode.

Sayre: My grandmother is the same.

Montes: All grandmothers are that dramatic, right?

Sayre: And what does she think about your music?

Montes: She loves it. My grandma only listens to my music, all the time. She is very present in almost all the music I make because, for example, for me to get a song out, I have two filters. One's my grandmother and another is my son. My grandmother I know that she is a very happy filter and any song that I put on she will like, always. But my son, not so much.

Contreras: How old is your son?

Montes: My son is very young, he is 11 years old. He is a baby. Well, even when he's 30 he's still going to be a baby to me because I always say that he's a baby and he's already reaching my shoulders.

Sayre: You're always focused on making connections, right? For example, with your flamenco and your electronic music, also with generations. Why do you always want your music to do many things for many people?

Montes: Because I like to reach all audiences, so much so that they can listen to it in the club, but can also listen to it in the car like my grandfather used to play me. I want the music to suit any mood. I try to think of everything and take care of all the details so that my music works for you at all times. The album Quejíos de un Maleante can be played in all the situation. And if it doesn't, call me and I'll give you your money back.