It has been said that there would be no contemporary art without Quattrocento, no Mozart without Bach and no Coltrane without Eastern culture. We might add that there would be no New Flamenco without Raül Fernández Miró, better known as Refree.
In Barcelona, the compulsory experimenter has been relentlessly exploring new expressions in contemporary flamenco ever since he fell into it “by accident.” There’s no doubt that this was fortunate, not only for the genre, but also for all of the artists—from Rosalía to Lee Ranaldo—who have had the opportunity to pass through his laboratory. Refree, a record producer and guitarist, has just released another solo album, La otra mitad, an infinitely graceful, raw disc in which riffs and samples give a new voice to flamenco 2.0.
“There’s something wild about old-school flamenco—the kind played by artists like Pepe Marchena, Pepe Habichuela or Manolo Caracol—that gives me the same kind of chills I get whenever I listen to the Delta Blues of the thirties. I love those imperfections… that rage, that punk. And even better if it’s a little dirty,” admits the Catalonian artist, whose experimental tinkering and shaggy beard have become something of a trademark.
Refree is a rocker. He cut his teeth in the late nineties as part of various groups, including Corn Flakes, a melodic hardcore group whose uncompromising riffs helped them gain notable popularity outside of the Pyrenees. So it’s only logical that, twenty years later, life and the Primavera Sound Festival would lead him to Lee Ranaldo, the guitarist-technician and cofounder of Sonic Youth, with whom he coproduced the album Electric Trim in 2017.
In fact, Refree’s activities as a record producer are what led him to flamenco. “I had the luck of being requested by artists who wanted to examine their heritage in the light of the present day.”
There’s every reason to believe that flamenco’s new guard was dying to appropriate its roots, as the demand exploded within less than 10 years. Notably, you’ll find Refree at the controls of Rosalía Vila Tobella’s debut album, the mold-shattering Los Ángeles, whose reworked flamenco classics quickly earned the singer immense success and a Latin Grammy nomination, while incurring the wrath of several purists. He was also sought by established artists, the likes of Rocío Márquez (Firmamento), Silvia Pérez Cruz (11 de novembre, followed by Granada) and Kiko Veneno (Sensación Térmica), not to mention Niño del Eche, who, in his Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo, remarkably weaves together the most exciting flamenco experiments of recent decades, cubist fandangos and socialist refrains. “Flamenco was becoming nothing more than a show of virtuosity. The instrumentalists showed off their technique, while the singers engaged in this constant quest for perfection. I found it all very dull and academic. What I wanted to incorporate into all of these projects was the soul and the raw sensuality of the old-school playing.”
Respected today for his deep knowledge of flamenco, including his capacity to reinvigorate it without adulterating it, Refree works regularly on the independent fringes of the Seventh Art. For La Otra Mitad, composed in part for the Isaki Lacuesta film Entre Dos Aguas, plunging into the rare poeticism at the heart of the Romani world, Refree allows himself to create new, personal spaces where time and voices are distended, giving rise to rock and electronic distortions, in places, attaining a state of grace.
With Refree, the voice is treated as an organic material, ideal for manipulating, sampling and deconstructing. Those used on the disc were pre-existing. “I recorded a child singing on my street, and there are some voices from the characters in the film, too. My greatest pleasure was to give them new life. The voice is the most direct way of reflecting the soul in music, and when a voice touches me, I sort of go crazy and start vibrating. Not everyone has a cello under their bed, but they do have a voice. At the end of the day, it’s very egalitarian. I even reach a state of ecstasy when I hear people who have amazing voices, but don’t give a damn about singing perfectly,” he says, visibly affected by matters of sensitivity.
As much a visual as an audio work, La Otra Mitad is surprising for its narrative power. In the evocative final portion of the disc, dramatically pushing the envelope of concrete music, in the second async, Refree samples Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Cage, Pierre Boulez and the electro-classical hybrid version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as recomposed by Max Richter. In the purest tradition of these sound poets, Refree, in turn, strums out the Andalusian arpeggios on his guitars, which are sublimated here to the inventions of his electro-acoustic toolbox. “In La Otra Mitad, there resides a void, a mystery. Most of all, I like the idea that things are never fully accomplished or completed. The search and the quest are a continuous process.”
Refree, La otra mitad (tak:til/Glitterbeat)