“It’s not a classic flamenco voice,” Benjamin Escoriza told Phil Meadley in The Independent. That’s true. His voice is more softened and forgiving than the voice of your average hardcore flamenco singer. But it has that absence of calm which is one of the characteristics of flamenco. It’s as if each line has a stomach and the stomach is quivering with tension. If you don’t understand Spanish then you won’t know what he’s singing about in Alevanta!, but you won’t be able to doubt that he’s wholeheartedly wrapped up in it, whatever it is.
Alevanta! is Escoriza’s first album since the disbanding of Radio Tarifa in mid-2006. This group was named for a town at the southernmost tip of Spain, where, the musicians imagined, you would be able to pick up radio signals from a multitude of different places: Spain, North Africa, the Middle East. That mixture was distilled into their songs. At its best, their talent for blending was extraordinary, unobtrusive, and thrilling to hear. They meshed one country with another so neatly that the seams barely showed. They were acoustic and loud. Escoriza was one of the founders of the group, an ex-TV admin worker who wore dark glasses on stage to hide his nerves. The breakup came after more than decade of performing, which encompassed three studio albums (all of them good, but their first release Rumba Argelina is sometimes said to be the best), and one live recording, the genuinely terrific Fiebre.
Alevanta! is composed of songs that Escoriza worked on while the group was still together. The album has the Tarifa smell, a combination of North Africa and Andalusia, although its prominent use of flamenco is new. The rapid clikkety-tack of heels percusses its way through most of the tracks. This clicking doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the instruments, but you’re rarely allowed to forget that flamenco exists and that Benjamin Escoriza likes it. During “Talismán” you can hear a female dancer shout in the background as her heels clatter on the floor. The wood thumps and rebounds. “Carambola” has a North African-sounding harmonium-like thing and bursts of flute but behind them are the shoe-soles and quick hand-claps of the Spanish dance. The clapping intensifies — is it really clapping, or someone smacking a wooden board? — and everything crescendos except the guitar; it drifts, peacefully smiling, somewhere in the Strait of Gibralter.
The flamenco clatter appears in the next song as well, “Paquita la Guapa”, but it’s slower now. The song is melancholy. A woman’s voice joins Escoriza. She seems tense and sad. A flute comes in, sounding like a tamed cousin of the fierce rhaita. This flute is not fierce, merely deep, with the edge of a buzz. “Hambra” starts with squiggles from another flute-like instrument. This time it might be a ney. The tapping noise shifts from heels to a drum, probably a darbuka. In the early days of the band, members of Radio Tarifa worked with darbuka-fusionist Tarik Banzi. Most of the album is acoustic but this track brings in the softened doop of an electric guitar. The flute suggests ancient cities, cool stone, archways, minarets, and somehow the sound of an emergency siren as well. The emergency is happening in the next suburb over, however, and you are safe.
“El Ratón” begins with an Arabic drag of strings. Three of the songs are subtitled ‘Moroccan mix’ but they don’t sound the way that songs with ‘mix’ printed after their titles usually do. By this I mean that it doesn’t sound as if an original, intact song has been taken apart and modified. It’s easier to believe that a group of Moroccan musicians has joined Escoriza in the studio and recorded with him. If the songs hadn’t had ‘mix’ behind the title then it wouldn’t have occurred to me to call them mixes. The only track that really sounds like a mix is “Rap de Marrakech”, in which Escoriza’s voice overlaps itself, singing similar lines in three slightly different ways simultaneously.
“Niña” introduces two new sounds to the album, the musette touch of an accordion, and a piano. A woman comes in, enunciating the lyrics in a sung-spoken chanson style, with all the swivelling consonants and swallowed deep-sea vowels of French. An echo effect has been applied to her voice. I have one criticism of this album: the other people who sing on it are not completely there. They murmur in the middle distance, or their voices are altered. Escoriza is the only one who is allowed to sing clearly. I might be missing something here, but that is how it sounds.
After listening to Alevanta! it’s easy to think of this as the fifth Radio Tarifa album that never was. Benjamin Escoriza the solo musician and Benjamin Escoriza the songwriter for Tarifa have seemingly similar goals. The solo musician is allowed to flex his flamenco muscle rather more but there are no new directions he wants to go in; he’s happy building on what he already knows. The blending of different countries’ musics is still neat and close; the songs bound and exclaim or shoot along with subterranean calm, quivering with the stomachy emotion of his voice. If nothing like Radio Tarifa had ever existed and Alevanta! burst out of nowhere, fully formed, then you’d call it an astonishing album, exceptional and thrilling, the work of a brilliant new voice. Who is this man? Catch him and bottle him! Make him do another one! If you haven’t already heard Radio Tarifa then this is maybe not the best place to get into their sound, but if you’re already a fan, and the breakup of the band made you pout and groan, then welcome: they’re virtually back.