Eduardo Niebla - Have guitar will travel

He’s a world-renowned guitarist now but Eduardo Niebla is remembering how he took up the accordion – to make a better noise than his father made. The family household in Tangiers was a regular meeting place for musicians and Niebla Senior, who loved music and having people round to play, would join in.


“He was dreadful,” says Niebla. “I loved him very much but when he played the accordion, the sound was awful. He played the same bass note all the time, on every tune, and even at five years old, I thought there has to be a better way. I’d been playing the mouth organ for a little while, so I had some idea of what was involved and I more or less took the accordion over from my dad.”


And but for the intervention of General Franco, that might have been the beginning of a lasting squeezebox career for Niebla. Shortly after the young Niebla’s accordion take over bid, in 1960 Franco handed back several Spanish-occupied cities to the Moroccans and word came through that all non-military personnel should leave. Niebla’s father, a businessman, became concerned for his young family – Eduardo is the seventh of eleven children, the seventh son of a seventh child in fact - and arrived home one day from work, telling everyone, “get packed, we’re leaving immediately.”


“We arrived in Girona, in Cataluna, with nothing more than we could carry and it was a difficult time because at first we were all separated from each other,” says Niebla.


Fate was about to intervene, however, and about a year after the family’s move, with the shed that his father built for them to live in up in the hills above Girona completed, young Niebla found his salvation through his second appropriation of a musical instrument.


“My older brother brought a friend home one day who played guitar and wrote his own songs and I was fascinated,” he says. “I heard two chords and thought “wow”. A little while later my brother bought a guitar of his own and I pinched it. I’d watched his friend’s fingers and was able to play those two chords, which was two chords more than my brother, who’s an artist, had mastered. My brother was amazed and after that the guitar and me became inseparable.”


Niebla’s ears were as good as his hand-to-eye coordination. Living among the gypsies on the outskirts of Girona he was exposed to flamenco music and when a piece of flamenco or classical guitar music came on the radio he was able to pick it up and play it very quickly. Soon he was appearing regularly on the radio himself, playing on the local station’s talent show and providing the guitar soundtrack for his sister’s readings of Lorca poems.


In his late teens he formed a band, Atila, playing symphonic rock music that would bring Niebla to wider public attention – he was rated alongside Paco de Lucia among Spain’s leading guitarists at the time – but first he had to give up his day job with a window and door manufacturer.


“My brother, the painter, had managed to establish himself a bit by then and one day I told him that I wanted to be a musician, not an aluminium frame maker, and he said, Well, if you want to be a musician, it’s like being an artist. If you want to be an artist, you have to paint; if you want to be a musician, you have to be a musician and really devote yourself to your art. So one day I turned up at work and told my boss, ‘I’m leaving. I’m going to Paris tomorrow to be a musician.’ He said, ‘Are you sure? You’re mad.’”


With contacts in artists’ circles supplied by his brother, Niebla and his band moved to Paris and scraped a living playing gigs and working in conceptual art happenings with the painter Jaume Xifra. Atila later toured and made albums that have since become collectors’ items but by 1978 Niebla had struck out alone for London, where he joined hippie-visionary Daevid Allen in Mother Gong and then formed a band with saxophonist Lol Coxhill. His composing talents came to the attention of television film producers who commissioned orchestral works – not bad for an entirely self-taught musician – and he befriended and collaborated with writers and poets including Fran Landesman, Mike Horovitz and the Glasgow-born psychiatrist R.D. Laing.


Another collaboration, with fellow guitarist Antonio Forcione, brought Niebla further acclaim and grew from a busking duo that wowed tourists and office workers in Covent Garden – this writer can attest to their ability to gather a crowd and shift copies of their cassettes – to an international attraction, touring stadia around Europe as support to symphonic prog rockers Barclay James Harvest and playing to 35,000 people at the San Isidro Fiesta in Madrid.


It was also when he moved to London that Niebla was able to realise a long-held ambition to play with Indian musicians. Over the past twenty years, while continuing along the flamenco path and collaborating with the oud master Adel Salameh, he has worked with many of Indian music’s leading practitioners, including tabla masters Sukhvinder Singh and Partha Sarathi Mukherjee, bamboo flute player Deepak Ram and spiritual Indian gypsy singer Paban Das Baul in the UK and in India. His extensive experiences have culminated in the epic India track that closes his latest album, My Gypsy Waltz.


For his latest visit to Scotland, which will feature music from My Gypsy Waltz and other pieces from his vast back catalogue, Niebla returns to the guitar duo format with Carl Herring. Having enjoyed success with this instrumentation over the years it’s something he particularly enjoys.


“For me, a guitar is like an orchestra. It has all the colours of the various orchestral sections and it can be very percussive as well as really mellow and reflective,” he says. “Someone famous, Chopin I think, once said that the only thing that could be better than a concert with one guitar is a concert with two guitars, and I tend to agree with that. I like the communication between two guitarists and we’re able to bring out all the things that my brother, the painter, instilled in me when he talked about a musician being an artist. Music, like paintings, should describe things as the musician sees them. It should have richness and something to say – otherwise it has no meaning.”


From The Herald, May 10, 2011.

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