Classical guitarist Eduardo Niebla’s musical journey from a shed in Morocco to Yorkshire’s broad acres

In tune with the world: Classical guitarist and adopted Yorkshireman Eduardo Niebla. Picture: Mark Sunderland.
In tune with the world: Classical guitarist and adopted Yorkshireman Eduardo Niebla. Picture: Mark Sunderland.
  • Classical guitarist Eduardo Niebla talks to Julian Cole about his journey from Tangiers, via Spain and a London squat to Yorkshire.
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Eduardo Niebla lives today in a splendid new house in North Yorkshire perched on a plain before distant hills. Many decades ago he lived in a shed built by his own father. It is fair to say the journey between those two very different homes has been a long one.

Sutton Howgrave is a great distance from Tangiers in Morocco, where he was born 60 years ago. Many miles, too, from that shed his father built for the family in Spain, where they fled as refugees at a time of political instability in 1960.

The guitarist is one of 11 children. “I come from a very poor family,” Eduardo tells me as we sit at the large kitchen table with that panorama for company. “So for me the music side of things, it was something that could never be there. I could never contemplate my life as a musician.”

Yet here he is today, an acclaimed guitarist and composer who brilliantly melds flamenco, jazz, world music, classical music, Indian and Arabic music into something lovely, joyous and vibrant; a man who has released 23 albums and tours widely.

All those years ago, Eduardo’s father chose Girona, in Catalonia, at random. “We arrived there in the middle of the night with nothing. We were eight of us, my mum was carrying my younger brother, plus my parents. Having arrived there, life was difficult, you know. At the beginning they split the family and put us in convents.”

Aged five, Eduardo cleaned for the nuns until his carpenter father built that shed. Life was hard but the Nieblas were a lively and cultured bunch.

“All my childhood, my parents loved music so much, and I and quite a few of my brothers are artists, one of them is a painter and one a sculptor. I have a sister who is a painter and she also reads poetry.”

Eduardo’s brother, Jose Niebla, is an acclaimed Spanish painter, and one of his huge seascapes greets visitors to the new house, the canvas taking up a whole wall. Three days after this interview, Eduardo appears on the Cerys Matthews show on BBC6 Music, and tells Cerys that another brother is an acclaimed drummer.

Well-known artists used to visit the family shed, and Eduardo recalls listening to conversations about philosophy. His brother took to playing French music, and that was how Eduardo first heard the guitar, aged five.

“And I was thinking that’s amazing.” Two years later he owned his first instrument.

And there could only ever be the one true musical love.

“The guitar is a very beautiful instrument in the respect that it has so many tones on it. When I hold the guitar, and the reverberations you feel in your body, it takes me away, it takes me way. Totally, totally, that’s it.”

Eduardo cannot read music and remains entirely self-taught, using his computer to transcribe his music into a score for other players. Yet his interest in music was there from a very early age.

“My mother said when I was very young, I used to put my ear to the radio when they were playing classical music and things, and she’d say ‘Get out of the radio because you put your ear too close.’ I wanted to… I don’t know, for me music was like another world. That was feeling free. That’s why I jumped in and threw myself into music so much.”

And does music still feel like that? “Yes, it’s free, it’s somewhere that’s free, nobody commands, nobody orders, nobody tells you… it’s totally free. You basically create your own rules there.”

He came to London in the Seventies to learn English. Times were hard at first. “That year I came it was very cold and snowing, and I found myself playing in the street, I was doing a lot of busking.”

He lived in a squat in Little Venice in a street full of musicians and artists, where he met Tom Newman, who produced Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Newman wanted to record Eduardo and said he should also have recording gear at home.

“He bought some equipment and put it in the squat where I was living.”

One day Newman asked Eduardo to lend an amplifier to a band, a puzzle as the amp had a distorting speaker. Eduardo thought them an odd-looking bunch, but handed the amp over anyway. He later said to a friend: “This band just came to borrow a rubbish amp and it’s going to sound so crap in their recording. He said, ‘What is the name of the band?’ And I said Sex Something Guns… and he said ‘The Sex Pistols! I’m a fan of them, they’re the best’.”

Eduardo has lived in North Yorkshire for quite a few years now and the family moved to their new house last April, to be near the in-laws. Eduardo shares the house with his wife, Katherine, and two children, James, 15, and Rosie, 14. His eldest daughter from his first marriage, Alba, is 26 and a teacher in London.

He and Katherine met when she was working for Live Music Now, the music charity co-founded by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. She and a colleague came to see a gig at Pizza Express in Soho. “They were basically checking up to see if I was up to scratch,” Eduardo says, laughing. He must have done all right, as he ended up working with the charity for three years.

A short distance from the kitchen in the new house is the recording studio Eduardo has built, filled with screens, mixing boards, speakers and all sorts of gizmos, including amps with old-fashioned valves. Guitars in their cases line up along one wall, while an uncased instrument awaits its owner’s large and clever hands, complete with a broken fingernail covered by a stuck-on plastic fake.

“This is your world,” I say. “Yes, it is,” Eduardo says, smiling. He is quite short (a match for this writer’s 5ft 8ins) and a little stocky; his hair is a tumble of curly grey, and he talkative and charming, with an accent that can occasionally be difficult to catch.

Eduardo often uses community choirs and his next album will feature members of choirs led by the York musical director Ewa Salecka. He turns everything on so I can hear them sing on a composition called Trees, and the voices waver to suggest the blowing wind (my wife is in the choir, but I fail to pick out her voice).

As a long-time incomer, Eduardo is a great fan of Yorkshire and is close to his wife’s family. “Very nice people, very rounded, very down to earth. Very helpful, very warm.”

When he first came to Yorkshire, he found the people warmer than the weather.

“When I first arrived it was a shock for me because I’d just met Katherine’s dad and he said, ‘Is he properly dressed – do you have any warm underwear?’ And I said, ‘Not really’. And she said, ‘Oh dad he can borrow your long-johns.’ I was so embarrassed – I’d only just met this man!”

Although he loves his new studio, playing live is the true point of music, Eduardo says, and each time he performs he discovers new aspects to a composition. “Oh yeah, every time there is something different. Some days are better than others; some days you feel you are so in tune.”

Eduardo listens to all sorts of music and has a love for Russian composers, but he doesn’t like to be restrictive, summing up his beliefs as: “I see only two musics – one is good and the other is bad.”

The grammar might have slipped a gear, but Eduardo is speaking from his rhythmic heart there; music has kept him company, seen him through.

“For me when sometimes I was feeling alone, sometimes feeling deprived and things like that, I used to take my guitar and I felt the universe was as rich as can be, you know. You know the sound of the guitar was filling the whole sky. I was looking at the stars and I was thinking this was filling my world.”

• Eduardo Niebela, Junction, Goole, June 17, 01405 763652, junctiongoole.co.uk; and Helmsley Arts Centre, Saturday, June 18,. 01439 771700, helmsleyarts.co.uk