Javier Ruibal: Spain's 'madman with the guitar'

Flamenco's best-kept secret is revealed with the UK release of an album by Javier Ruibal. Michael Church meets the Iberian singer-songwriter
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"Well-kept secret" is a phrase often used to puff unsung talent, but it fits the case of Spanish singer-songwriter Javier Ruibal like a glove. Two years ago he made a guest appearance with Radio Tarifa at the Union Chapel in Islington, and also played at Ronnie Scott's. Brian Eno was among those who were bowled over - "lots of soul, lots of funny new kinds of feelings" was his enthusiastically puzzled verdict - but afterwards Ruibal, who hadn't graced these shores before, dropped back out of view. Not many people had noted the fact that Radio Tarifa's leader welcomed Ruibal on stage at the Union Chapel as the man who'd given him his first break: it's no exaggeration to say that Radio Tarifa, whose meld of Andalusian and Maghrebian music is now acclaimed worldwide, were fired and inspired by him.

He has two collections of songs on disc in Spain, but they have not available anywhere else: World Music Network's conflation of these into a single CD, Sahara, has now at last made it possible for British fans of contemporary Iberian music to hear what they have been missing.

Which is a lot. There's a flamenco edge to his voice, but also a jazzy knowingness in his instrumental echoes of Miles Davis and Jimmy Giuffre. He handles a variety of guitars with nonchalant ease; adds backing vocals; and the lyrics - almost all written by him - are delivered with the conviction of a man who really wants his ironic messages to be understood. To call them love songs is to deny their complex originality.

As with "new fado" in Portugal, "new flamenco" is touted as Spanish traditional music's way forward, but Ruibal will have none of that. "New flamenco may be a fashionable label, but it's a meaningless phrase. Flamenco can't be blended with something else, and still remain flamenco." So how does he describe his art? Flanked by David Flower, the compiler of his British disc, he answers the question auto- biographically, though it's clear even that goes against the grain with this shiningly modest man.

Born in Cadiz in 1955, he grew up listening to sevillanas, fandangos, and flamenco, but was most enthused by the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. At eight he began to play the guitar "very badly - tangos, allegrias, the less complicated forms of flamenco. But on the radio I also heard music from Morocco, and unlike flamenco, which sprang out of my surroundings, that seemed to come from a fairy-tale place. Flamenco guitar touches the soul, but the oud weaves a web around your heart.

"It was only when I was 16, and began trying things out," he says, "that I realised I had a voice I could do something with. I started trying out bulerias, playing and singing with friends - I was the one they wanted to have singing at parties. But I did not come from a gypsy family, I knew I could never equal Camaron, so I decided I had to find my own way forward, making something new and modern out of a mixture of flamenco, pop, jazz, and North African sounds. Something that did not yet exist.'

He wanted to emulate singer-songwriters like the Catalan Joan Manuel Serrat, and Bob Dylan, whom he had begun to translate. "I didn't just want to write lyrics to fit the music, I wanted to follow poetry's more profound traditions." But not in Cadiz. "Musically it was dead on its feet, and the damp seemed to get into my soul." So he moved to Barcelona, where he became known as the madman with the guitar. "Most singer-songwriters wrote well, but composed badly. I am still today trying to do what I tried to do then, balancing the words, the voice, and the instrument." His first jazz influences included Chick Corea and John McLaughlin; his literary ones took in Marquez and the magic realists. When I ask why we aren't favoured with lyrics in the liner notes, Flower explains that it's impossible to render them into comparable English - they're too oblique, too surreal.

The musicians Ruibal works with are equally adept in both flamenco and jazz: "We're all trying to reach this musical place which doesn't yet exist." But at the same time he's reaching further. His final track is a song he set to Erik Satie's first Gnossienne, a piano favourite generally rendered with drawing-room sedateness. But he takes it "out East", which is from where he believes Satie drew his inspiration. The words describe the way everyone falls silent as they watch a dancer, entranced by his grace. Ruibal's melismatic vocal line is the complete antithesis of the West's four-square tonality.

Tomorrow Ruibal is starring at the Womex jamboree in Seville. When is he coming back to Britain? "Soon, I hope. Actually I'm currently arranging two songs by Sting." Relax, Javier - we don't need ingratiations of that sort: just come and do your own inimitable stuff.

'Sahara' is out now on World Music Network