Leonard Cohen, Garcia Lorca, Flamenco & Punk: Doc Tells Story of Enrique Morente's 'Omega'
A new documentary and reissue coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Spanish album milestone
Leonard Cohen. Federico Garcia Lorca. A flamenco revolutionary. A punk rock band. In 1994, Enrique Morente, one of flamenco’s greatest voices and a Sonic Youth fan, went into the studio with a group of young Spanish rebels called Lagartija Nick to combine Cohen’s music with lyrics based on Garcia Lorca’s verses in songs that brought the chanting vocals of flamenco, the wail of electric guitars, handclapping and driving drums together. Two intense and often tumultuous years later, they emerged with an improbable album that shook flamenco traditionalists at the same time that it was embraced by rock fans as a work of genius.
“Omega is the most transgressive album that has ever been made in Spain,” says Javier Pouso, Business Affairs and Strategic Marketing Director at Universal Music Spain, which will release a re-mastered and expanded 20th anniversary edition of the album in November, coinciding with a must-see new documentary that intimately tells the story of the recording. The first single from the reissue, “Manhattan” -- the powerful version of “First We Take Manhattan” -- is available now on streaming services.
“Omega is a reference,” Pouso adds. “It’s an album that people talk about even if they have never heard it. The same way that people who have never read Don Quixote talk about it as if they had.”
The documentary, also called Omega, is centered in Morente’s studio in Granada, the ancient city in Southern Spain where the musicians met. The project evolved from an idea for Morente to record some tracks for a Cohen tribute album -- his first was a 1993 version of “Take This Waltz” -- to one that also incorporated the poetry of Garcia Lorca, the legendary Spanish writer who was killed by Franco’s soldiers in 1936. The vanguard poet was also from Granada, and his anarchist spirit is reverberated in both flamenco and punk. He wrote poems and essays inspired by flamenco; his work has in turn been a source for contemporary flamenco artists.
“Leonard Cohen led me to Lorca,” Morente, who died in 2010, explains in an interview in the film. Cohen, who has said he first read Lorca in 1949, named his daughter for the poet. Fittingly, the poems in Lorca’s work, A Poet in New York, served as a departure point for songs on Omega.
Morente and Lagartija Nick were joined in the studio by Spanish flamenco artists who included the renowned guitarist Tomatito. Estrella Morente, who has since performed on global stages including Carnegie Hall, made her impactful debut on the album, as did his younger daughter, Solea. Also present was Morente’s wife, dancer Aurora Carbonell, and his son Kiki, a singer and guitarist, who was in elementary school at the time.
José Sanchez-Montes, the director of the Omega documentary, was aided in the making of the film by a diary kept by Lagartija Nick’s Antonio Arias, who detailed every day of the recording. Arias has spent the last seven years working with the masters of the Omega sessions to refine the original tracks and prepare previously unheard ones for release. He also discovered video of the sessions, that were used in the documentary.
Lagartija Nick’s career was rising when the group started working in the studio with Morente. Signed by Sony, the label was awaiting the delivery of a new album. Instead of the straight-ahead rock songs that the label people were expecting, the group brought the tapes from the Omega sessions to a meeting and played them.
“Those were four tensest minutes in the history of record labels,” recalls one of the band members in the film. “And after those four minutes were up, we were out of Sony!”
Without a label, the musicians turned to Borja Casani, the publisher of Madrid magazine EL Europeo, to release the album as one of the magazine’s monthly premiums. A Polish hotel empresario who backed the publication also provided funds to finish the recording.
Omega’s release, in late 1996, shook the flamenco world. At a Morente concert in Madrid in which Lagartija Nick and the rest of the Omega ensemble made a surprise appearance, the musicians were booed by flamenco purists who called it “garbage.” In flamenco circles, the debate about Omega continues to this day.
But the album was immediately and lastingly embraced by rock audiences. As one of flamenco’s best-known artists, Morente was used to giving major concerts for audiences of one or two thousand people. Soon, with the Omega project, he was appearing at massive rock concerts.
“This is the story of how you make a record that convulses the world of music,” Omega documentary producer Gervasio Iglesias said at a press conference in Barcelona before its October 27 premiere at the In-Edit music documentary festival. The film is a co-production of Sacromonte Films, Telecinco Cinema and Universal Music Spain. “It was a moment when Spanish music opened new doors.”
Morente, who called the sound of electric guitar and drums “sublime,” amassed a collection of rocker boots and slim black pants. The musicians went on an Omega tour in Spain and Latin America, and came to Brooklyn’s BAM for several dates in 2003.
Later, Morente performed with Sonic Youth.
Cohen was not interviewed for the Omega documentary. A request was turned down because of his health, according to Iglesias. But he is heard in the film through a vintage interview on Los Angeles’ KCRW in which he expresses admiration for Morente, and says he is “touched” that the Spanish artist was moved to make flamenco versions of his songs.
Omega will open in theaters in Spain on Nov. 18; the 25th anniversary edition of the album will be released on Nov. 25. More festival dates for the film and a commercial run in the U.S. are in the works, the producers say.
Enrique Morente’s children and members of Lagartija Nick are scheduled to perform tracks from Omega in concert in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in early December.
“Omega is a record that twenty years from now will still sound contemporary and of the moment,” Carbonell, Morente’s wife, said at the press conference. “It’s a magic album, it’s not a normal record. It takes you to another realm.”