Amparo Sanchez: Where there's smoke, there's fire

Schooled in the smoky flamenco bars of Granada, the singer Amparo Sanchez and her award-winning band Amparanoia are ready to take on the world, she tells Alexia Loundras
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The Independent Culture

Amparo Sánchez lights a cigarette and inhales gleefully. Here on the edge of Barcelona, nicotine is as central to the local diet as Jamón Serrano and paella. And warmed by a hearty plate of the latter, the Granada-born singer glows with contentment. Sánchez is amiable and laid-back yet smoulders with Latin spirit. She knows little English (her Flemish manager, Piet, is on hand to translate), but she's so expressive it hardly matters. She punctuates her words with her hands while her big doe-eyes blaze passionately. "Música es mi pasión," she says using her whole upper body, "música es mi paranoia."

Amparo Sánchez lights a cigarette and inhales gleefully. Here on the edge of Barcelona, nicotine is as central to the local diet as Jamón Serrano and paella. And warmed by a hearty plate of the latter, the Granada-born singer glows with contentment. Sánchez is amiable and laid-back yet smoulders with Latin spirit. She knows little English (her Flemish manager, Piet, is on hand to translate), but she's so expressive it hardly matters. She punctuates her words with her hands while her big doe-eyes blaze passionately. "Música es mi pasión," she says using her whole upper body, "música es mi paranoia."

"In Spanish slang," she explains, "a paranoia is an intense passion, an obsession. And in my case it's for music." Sánchez has been indulging her paranoia - making music - for 19 years, the last nine backed by her ever-evolving band, Amparanoia. She is the heart and soul that holds together a loose troupe of like-minded musicians. After garnering substantial Spanish and European acclaim, she has found critical recognition in the UK - winning this year's prestigious BBC World Music Award for best European act.

"It's a good surprise," laughs Sánchez still reeling from her victory. Amparanoia's 2004 UK debut, Rebeldia con Alegria, a compilation of the group's four albums, is a rich hybrid of intensely catchy global sounds. Inspired by Sánchez's trips to Cuba, Mexico and North Africa and the band's international membership, her music blends everything from rock to ranchera, injected with hip-hop breaks, gypsy violins and crackling electronica, to create an energising clash of ethnic colour and cutting-edge sounds.

Like their sonic brethren Ojos De Brujo, Amparanoia have been lumped under the banner of mestizo, the catch-all term for this cross-bred Latin-influenced genre. But Sánchez hasn't always sounded this way. Her love for music was sparked by the power and drama of blues and soul: "It was the songs and their sound - canción y sonido," she explains. "Hearing voices like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, they made me want to sing." Hanging around Granada's blues bars, 15-year-old Sánchez was hooked. "I realised I also had that kind of voice," she says smiling, "and I got into it."

Sánchez is a wonderfully expressive singer, and armed with her powerful full-bodied voice, she threw herself into the local blues scene. Performing standards in bars and singing with small groups, Sánchez was introduced to a new world of smoky clubs and passionate musicians. Guided by her new friends, she discovered flamenco and the emotional force of the music: "Its sentimiento," she says brandishing her cigarette, gushing with the ardour of a convert. "It's feeling - I learned there is so much more to music than just the sound. Sentimiento is the feeling that connects with people."

Young and impressionable, Sánchez was swept away by the excitement of her new lifestyle. "Entering the world of music, meeting these people," she smiles coyly, "things happen." At 17, her life changed irrevocably when she gave birth to her first son. "A mother is not something I wanted to be at that age. But it gave me a sense of responsibility. And most importantly, it gave me strength; a source for my music."

Alone and with a child to support, she made a conscious decision to take music seriously, make a go of it, and as she says: "live from my music and for my music." And to do this, she moved to Madrid. "I realised I was not expressing myself as a blues singer," she explains. "I needed to do something my own way, give my music sentimiento, and moving to Madrid gave me this freedom. I was unknown there, I could do anything - I could start again."

The Lavapies area of Madrid was the perfect place for the seeds of Amparanoia's vibrant music to grow. When Sánchez moved to the city ten years ago, the Spanish capital still raged with the artistic fervour of the cultural revolution that erupted there after General Franco's death. It was an anything-goes melting pot of ideas. And, inspired by those around her, Sánchez allowed herself to experiment, spicing her blues foundation with the blistering heart of flamenco and the pulsing rhythms of her multi-ethnic barrio neighbours.

Meeting Manu Chao, who had also moved to Madrid, was the true turning point for Sánchez. The Paris-born Spaniard had been breaking musical boundaries since the late Eighties with his cross-pollinating rock. "He opened my mind," she says, brimming with excitement. "The songs I was writing were a bit rara - they were unusual. But he taught me that it's okay to mix things up, to take the interesting bits from different kinds of music and put them together." His encouragementgave Sánchez the self-assurance she needed to really let herself go. She grins like a proud child: "Because of Manu Chao I lost my fear."

Freed of her insecurity, Sánchez poured herself into her music. "It is a mirror for me to see what I feel," she says. Politically aware, her songs rage against social injustice and the futility of war, values sharpened by her short spell with the Zapatistas in Mexico in 2000. "The way they work to change the world through words not violence was very inspirational."

Sánchez sees music as a unifying force. Imbued with her strong feminine identity (she is, she says, a mother above all else) the songs tell "real stories," she says, "from the streets," designed to rouse those struggling to have their voices heard.

Sánchez's songs are inspiring not just for those suffering inequality. The sparring Latin rhythms are irresistibly uplifting, regardless of whether you understand the Spanish words. Sánchez agrees: "Amparanoia is like life," she says. "It has all the things life has. Good times, hard times and momentous decisions. It's a living thing. But the alegria - the happiness - always comes out of the music."

"Music is something we can all understand," she continues, "no matter where we are or what culture we're from. It unites people. It reminds us we're all human beings." She sparks up another cigarette, unwraps a stick of gum and pops it in her mouth: "My blood, my culture is that of the world. And my songs are like a continuous journey." She is flushed with enthusiasm. "I don't know where I'm headed now," she says, eyes sparkling. "I'll just have to keep being surprised."

Amparanoia play the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards at The Sage, Gateshead (0870 703 4555) tomorrow (to be broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday and on BBC4 on 11 March), then touring

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