Ottmar Liebert calls his music nouveau flamenco but it's really a potpourri of influences spanning Spain to Germany to China. Add a bit of luck and support from a notably un-music business town, and the result is one of the fastest-rising performers in contemporary instrumental music.
The young acoustic guitarist, the offspring of a Chinese-German father and a Hungarian mother, performs at Hamptons in Santa Ana on Sunday night on a Southland swing that also includes three sold-out engagements at Westwood's Bon Appetit club. And it all has happened because Liebert made an unplanned stop in Santa Fe.
"I was on my way to Los Angeles in early 1986," he said earlier this week, "and I had a friend who told me to stop in Santa Fe and rest a little bit. Seemed like a good idea, since I'd been putting in long hours in New York trying to make a pop music thing happen. But after I spent a few days in Santa Fe, I really didn't want to leave. So I went back to the East Coast, picked up my stuff and came back to stay."
The laid-back environment of Santa Fe was a dramatic change for Liebert, who had been living in Boston, working hard at making a "pop song thing happen--you know, sort of like Simple Minds or Duran Duran." A 12-inch single by the band he led with his brother Stefan had been released and his entire world of business contacts was on the East Coast.
"Oh, it was different, all right," he said, laughing. "For one thing, I hadn't played acoustic guitar in quite a while, but that was the only kind of work I could get."
"But when I started playing in restaurants for 20 bucks and a meal, I liked it. It was really direct, people responded to the music and it was right down to basics: food and money. Kind of the way it used to be, without lawyers, agents and managers."
Liebert found himself surrounded by a group of people far different from the crowd he knew on the East Coast--artists, jewelry designers, what he describes as "Santa Fe types." An artist, in fact, was the motivating force behind Liebert's album.
"His name," said Liebert, "is Frank Howell, and he heard me at a private party. He came up to me, said he was impressed with my music, and told me to go ahead and make an album, at his expense.
"He said, 'Every year I like to put out something special for my friends.' His thought was to produce a CD that he could make a little booklet for.
"But he had an early release date in mind to tie in with a party he was giving. I had three weeks to write 10 pieces, three weeks to record and mix them, and another few weeks to put them together for release. But we made the deadline. Frank did a bunch of original drawings, had the cover printed and that was it."
That \o7 would \f7 have been it, had the CD been nothing more than a local release for the enjoyment of a few friends. But Howell's staff, impressed with the songs on the album, sent a few copies to radio stations, including Los Angeles' KTWV (94.7 FM), known as The Wave.
"The problem," said Liebert, "was that whoever sent the CD to KTWV forgot to include any information. When they finally reached me they said, 'Who the hell are you? We just added five of your songs to our play list, and we don't know who you are!'
"Frank was generous enough to allow me to sell the master to Higher Octave (record company). All he wanted was to sell 400 or 500 CDs to cover his costs. It was a very Santa Fe way to do business, and I'll be forever grateful to him."
In the few weeks since its release, "Nouveau Flamenco" has performed impressively. Distributors report difficulty keeping copies of the CD in the stores, and it has moved rapidly up the adult contemporary record charts.
Despite its label, Liebert's music reflects his middle-European birth (in Cologne, West Germany) at least as much as it does his fascination with flamenco.
"I've always loved the rhythmic aspects of flamenco," he said, "and I wanted to see how it would work with a kind of passionate, haunting Eastern European type of melody instead of something light and Spanish. But I had no idea it would work as well as it does."
In fact, nouveau flamenco sounds like one of those natural combinations that somehow should have been thought of a long time ago. Liebert's acoustic guitar includes traces of Django Reinhardt, a touch or two of Paco De Lucia and a healthy seasoning of Hungarian Gypsy music. Toss in a foundation of passionate flamenco rhythms, and the result is a music that moves the body while it touches the heart.
"If people had told me before this happened that all I had to do was just relax and let the music happen, I think I would have slapped them," Liebert said. "But that really is the way it's happened.
"So maybe there really is some sort of magic here in Santa Fe. To come here, almost by accident, and have all this music and success happen to me is almost unbelievable--especially after having tried so hard to make it with a totally different kind of music on the East Coast.
"But I'm not complaining. I'm living in a place I love, doing music that moves me. So just do me a favor. Please don't tell anybody about the magic in Santa Fe. I want to keep things just the way they are."
\o7 Guitarist Ottmar Liebert plays Sunday at 8 p.m. at Hamptons, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Admission: $19.50. Information: (714) 979-5511. \f7