Essential New Music: Various Artists “Manos Ocultas: A Contemporary Guitar Music Compilation From Spain”

The guitar may be easily portable, but it is nonetheless freighted with all manner of baggage. In diverse locales around the world, you’ll find it associated with some local style. West Africa has palm-wine music; Hawaii has slack-key guitar; and Spain, of course, has flamenco and classical guitar. There’s no shortage of folks who will tell you that their way of playing is the one true path, but there are others who have found in the guitar a tool of personal expression and endless possibility. 

Manos Ocultas is a compilation of Spanish pickers who refuse to be burdened by cultural expectations. Some have, like Isasa (whose poetically reflective “Canción Para Un Recién Nacido” opens the record), have taken their music to other continents. Others are barely known, even in their homeland. But all of them have learned well the lesson of mavericks as unalike in sound as John Fahey and Kevin Shields: You don’t have to listen to anyone who wants to tell you how to play, nor let geography determine your destiny. 

Narcoleptica, a woman based in Seville, has reversed the vocabulary of shoegaze pedal-tapping into something more celestially oriented. The amplified fingerpicking of Negro, who lives in Valencia, fuses methods learned from the British Isles and the Sahel desert into a model for white-knuckled propulsion. And Oskar Benas, a 20-year veteran from the Basque region, warps a surfy twang into a circuitously swaggering crabwalk.

Solo-guitar compilations, like the guitar itself, come burdened with expectations. From The Takoma Sampler (which was a manifesto disguised as a catalog survey) to Wooden Guitar to the ongoing Imaginational Anthem series, they have done yeoman’s work introducing listeners to wave after wave of musicians who have found their own way to play. Mano Ocultas (whose name translates as “Hidden Hands”) earns its place in their company.

—Bill Meyer