De Madera is the name of latin/flamenco guitar duo Juan Benavides and Jaime Iberra. Benavides grew up in Bogota, Iberra in Australia, though both now make their home in North Carolina. On their debut, Aire y Candela, Benavides and Iberra’s nimble fingers take us through almost the entire range of contemporary Latin and Afro-Cuban guitar styles—from rumba flamenca (most commonly associated with the Gipsy Kings) to guitarra latina (pioneered by Strunz and Farrah) to the more common salsa, merengue and samba. Three tracks are more firmly rooted in the traditions of flamenco: “La Enredadera,” “Penumbra,” and “Pareded Blancas.” Everything’s carried off with a great deal of skill and passion. Not only can these boys play their guitars, they’re also talented composers (all the tracks are originals). So what’s missing?
Something certainly is. If there are no real weak tracks on this album, there aren’t any that really stand out either. Those whose ears aren’t attuned to the subtle differences of form and style that characterize each track might find thinking that this all sounds the same. Flamenco is supposed to sound inspired and passionate. The rhythmic attack on the frets characteristic of Latin guitar is meant, I think, to produce energy rather than lethargy. Yet Aire y Candela all too often sounds muzaky, monotone, and almost entirely devoid of life. The problem lies less in the playing than in the production (Iberra recorded and engineered the record). With few exceptions, such as on “Gato Gris” and “Mamaqui,” the sound seems washed out and flat, the highs and lows both tending towards some kind of murky pre-stereo middle. It shouldn’t sound this way. Benavides and Iberra’s guitars are recorded on separate channels, which seems like an interesting way to position the guitar solo against both the bass and the rhythm.
Which is not to say that this isn’t an album that fans of Latin guitar would enjoy. In the end, however, Aire y Candela is compelling less for its own merits than for the promise its suggests. I fear that Benavides and Iberra belong to that unfortunate brotherhood of extremely talented musicians who will never get their due. I hope that this doesn’t turn out to be the case, and that their next album brings them the accolades their playing deserves.