Anthony Ocaña’s In Trance

Photo credit: Monika Frias

Guitarist Anthony Ocaña. Photo credit: Monika Frias

Anthony Ocaña, the Madrid-based, Dominican-born guitarist, has released his fifth album In Trance featuring an ethereal blend of African-Caribbean music he has composed and performed on electric and classical guitar. Enhanced with vocals, looping, delay and percussion, Ocaña is joined by his longtime colleague and collaborator Gorka Capel, who provides additional guitar and vocals on several tracks. Capel also helped engineer and produce the album.

The music is joyful and transcendent, veering from sing-song crooning to distinct Latin American rhythms which utilize soundboard tapping and unique percussive techniques on the guitar. The album is divided into two parts, one featuring music and the other featuring a poem, “La Luna o Los Ritos Del Amor/The Moon or The Rites of Love”, written by the Dominican poet Nelson Ricart-Guerrero, which sparked Ocaña’s musical imagination.

“Ricart-Guerrero asked me to read his poem with the idea that I might write some music inspired by it,” Ocaña says. “The poem recounts an Arawak legend that takes place on the island of Hispaniola.  I have always been fascinated by this time period even though we Dominicans don’t possess much scholarly documentation. When I read the poem, I realized I was already writing music in this direction so it gave me additional fuel. But I did not write the music to follow the poem’s plot–my music was inspired by several scenes within the poem.”

“’La Luna o los Ritos del Amor (Poema)‘ was first published in 2005, by an editor established in Berlin,” Ricart-Guerrero says. “In addition to producing books, Cielonaranja, the publisher, has a website which is a virtual gallery on Dominican literature. We have no official English translation of the poem but I hope this little summary will be of some help: The poem is inspired by an Arawak (Amerindians from the Caribbean and Amazonia) myth that takes place during the first Creation when the night was pitch black, as there was no moon. Princess Guacaniona, daughter of a Cacique (king, chief) meets her lover every night to make love in the complete darkness, only aware of the other’s body by senses and desire. One evening, hoping to identify her lover, she put coal dust on her palms and caressed her lover’s face. The day after, as always, she wakes alone with the sunrise.

“It is late when she returns to the settlement where villagers have already begun the ceremony dedicated to the return of light with their prayers and music. Guacaniona enters the circle of dancers, passes from arm to arm, from the women to the men, until she finds herself dancing with her brother Prince Guacatey. She sees his coal-spotted face, screams and falls into trance. Guacatey, who does not understand what is happening, holds her in his arms and then recognizes the scent of his night mistress. He raises his hand to say, ‘If you are my woman at night, we are the legend.’ He leaves the village. And that night, for the first time, a full moon with black, coal-like spots appears in the sky. Guacaniona, who was pregnant, subsequently gives birth to a new world, the second creation, and the island that becomes that world Quisqueya, the native name of the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which means the Mother of all Lands.

“This myth gave me the idea to write an erotic poem using as much as I could of the Spanish Golden Age metrics, patterned after the great poet and dramatist Calderón de la Barca with a nod to Dominican 19th Century indigenist literature,” Ricart-Guerrero says. “This brought me to researching the 17th Century Castilian Spanish spoken on the islands. I avoided the use of sexual language and instead incorporated a vocabulary derived from the fertility of agriculture. The poem, inspired by Greek tragedy, is constructed as a play with the presence of a narrator and a chorus while the metrics and words follow a rhythm. The last verse says Boom Boom the tambours.”

As for translating this story into music, Ocaña explains, “I tried to capture indigenous tribal sounds, especially on the track In Trance 1 in order to evoke the mood of the culture enveloping the story. And though African culture was not yet present in the years prior to the discovery of the Americas, I could not escape using influences from African-Caribbean sounds as well. The poem speaks of our ancient tribes in the Dominican Republic and trance is an important element throughout the story, just as it is in African culture.”

Ocaña studied classical guitar at the National Conservatory of Music in the Dominican Republic with Ruben Gonzalez and then moved to New York to study composition and guitar at Manhattanville College. He has performed by invitation as the opening act for multi-GRAMMY winning jazz pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Egberto Gismonti. While in New York, he also studied with guitarist Benjamin Verdery and composers Ingram Marshall and Mary Ann Joyce-Walter.

Photo Credit: Monika Frias.

Anthony Ocaña. Photo Credit: Monika Frias.

“After finishing my studies, I moved to Madrid, where I have now been living for about 13 years,” Ocaña says. “My family emigrated from Spain to Dominican Republic a few generations ago and I felt the need to discover my origins and explore musical possibilities of the old continent.”

Ocaña’s grandfather was born in Ceuta, Spain, emigrated with his family to the Dominican Republic where they founded a mosaic factory with, coincidentally, the family of the poet Nelson Ricart-Guerrero.

A masterful collaborator, Ocaña, teamed with two talented filmmakers to produce a set of compelling music videos for his In Trance album. “I asked two friends to do something with their ‘lost’ footage and the rest was in their hands,” he says. “I was not looking for a story but rather images that could evoke a trance. Elena Cid is a documentary filmmaker who used to work on one of Spain’s big television shows about science fiction and paranormal topics, called Cuarto Milenio. Mónika Frías, who made the video for the track, Fábrica de Sueños is a Barcelona-based filmmaker and photographer who took the pictures for my website.”

Cid was lured into attending one Ocaña’s concerts through a mutual friend. “I’m more of a rock-indie person–I didn’t at all expect what I heard,” she says. “How he uses the guitar, his voice and the music he creates is something new. Anthony’s music has a magical, transporting quality and, as a filmmaker, it immediately triggered my visual imagination.

“I travel whenever I can, and of course, I can’t stop filming and taking photographs. I’m constantly enthralled by how many ways of living there are in this world and when I return home I have hundreds of gigas to sort through.

“When I heard In Trance I was sure I wanted to work with this amazing music,” Cid says. “I needed to do it. I spoke with Anthony about my next trip to Vietnam, and he let me listen to some of the tracks of In Trance, so when I was travelling through Vietnam, I had the music playing inside my head.

“This time I knew exactly how I could transmit the way of living of the wonderful people I met in Vietnam. Anthony’s music speaks of the incredible talent he has, to create music that inspires you to travel, live and create,” Cid says.

“Some time later I was seeing news about Nepal’s earthquake,” Cid says. “Many relief organizations were asking for money by showing the horrible images of the disaster, but I felt it was important that people see the true faces of the people in Nepal, these wonderful people who live with smiles on their faces. I was sure the only way I could express this was by using Anthony’s music, so we spoke again to create this video that conveys the spirit and simplicity of everyday life Nepal before earthquake.”

Ocaña writes his music through a general improvisation of ideas, utilizing the guitar, voice and piano. “I’ll either record them on my iPhone or directly at my studio, where I will experiment until I the music reaches a point where I feel there’s something special,” he says. “If the piece is meant to be composed for other performers or ensembles, the next step is notation. If the piece is meant to be performed by myself, I will build different versions and try these in my concerts until the performance and the music itself matures. Once the music has reached a level of maturity, then I feel I am ready to record. Improvisation is always part of my creative process from beginning to end. When I feel the piece is finished, I tend to improvise less.

“In the case of this album, In Trance, I wrote and arranged the music. My collaboration was with the poet, whose story gave me a key to open a musical door. I made the album after having digested these pieces over a long period of time. Nevertheless I did change many of the arrangements during the recording process.”

Below is an exclusive video for The Guitar where Ocaña explains and demonstrates the various percussive techniques he used on his album.

Ocaña performs in the Dominican Republic once every year, last performing at the National Theatre of Santo Domingo in 2014. “The Dominican Republic has a strong mixture of Western African music mixed with Spanish music,” Ocaña says. “That Western African part dramatically changes the concept of rhythm compared to Spanish music, which has a more peculiar mixture of European and Arab influences. The timbre of flamenco guitar reminds me of the Arab oud. Spain is also rich on Celtic culture from the northern and western part of the country, where it is close to the U.K. and Ireland,” he says.

“Though the Dominican Republic is kind of a daughter of Spain, it has its own distinctive character and many different rhythms have developed over the different regions of the country. This is due to the migrations from different parts of Africa and, of course, from other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic also shares territory with Haiti, which has also influenced our music.

“My music for this album is a result of what echoes within me from each place I have been, each song I have heard and each person I have met.”

* * *