María José Llergo: Ultrabelleza

Growing up in the sierra of Andalusia, María José Llergo gained an education in the musical discipline of flamenco, surrounded by the community and spirituality of the people who helped create it. Her skill and technique are exceptional, evidence of her classical training at the Catalonia School of Music, which she attended after leaving her hometown of Pozoblanco. While flamenco is known for being technically complex and often mythologized under the domain of lone icons, in the lyrics and the expansive atmospheres Llergo crafts, she honors the genre’s heart. The folkloric style was consolidated in the region of Andalusia, and it has served as a vehicle for Romani migrants who have faced rampant discrimination in Spain to voice their struggles.

That resilient ethos appears in Llergo’s own Romani heritage and Andalusian upbringing, a vital component of the music that is too often lost in the flamenco that becomes most commercially successful outside of Spain. Her vision, this time with a more explicitly experimental bent toward electronic music and R&B, succeeds because it builds from this context instead of shedding it. Llergo’s full-length debut Ultrabelleza, which translates to “ultra-beauty,” reflects a lyrical and musical command of the form that many spend decades trying to understand—and emulate.

Her first project, the 2020 EP Sanación (Spanish for “healing”), launched her as an avant force in the genre. Her commitment to the practice of healing is present in every element of the writing here. Lyrics feature recurring motifs of flying, wind, and water—symbols of purification and liberating movement. But these lofty images are grounded in discussion of the struggles with poverty and discrimination that she’s faced in her life. She lingers in propulsive beats and extended, reflective melismas, as if the music itself is an exercise in repair.

The album opens with a prayer to her grandmother played on a cassette; the sound of it loading into a tape deck transforms sublimely into the clatter of feet on the ground, a traditional zapateo that introduces the following track, “Aprendiendo a Volar.” On “La Puerta Está Abierta,” she sings of a childhood grief that may be difficult to remember or recognize. Singing is the portal from then to now: “Cuando se abra la puerta, cuando se alce mi voz/El aire cruza la sierra de esta habitación.” (“When the door opens, when I raise my voice/The air crosses the sierra, from this room.”) On the standout “Superpoder,” she visualizes flying over overdue bills and neighborhood whispers that she’s “broken,” finding strength in the music that sustained her. She sings, “Aprendí a llorar cantando/Aprendí a cantar llorando.” (“I learned to cry while singing/I learned to sing while crying.”) At times, her warm voice literally reverberates against sleek drum machines and string sections, blending the timelines of past and present. As heavy as these introductory tracks are—they each feature a ghostly Hammond organ, which disappears as the album builds in intensity—they encapsulate the hope that exists on the other side. For Llergo, singing offers an opportunity to bear witness to healing in all of its incarnations.

Though this is only her debut album, she’s already embodied the archetype of the artist as creator and animator. Throughout the record, the act of creation becomes urgent, almost holy—a death-defying practice of survival. On the flashpoint “Visión y Reflejo,” she identifies herself as a killer of death, an all-seeing eye, flame and wax, and “the history of those who survived,” all over a copla-turned-bass-driven flow. “Rueda Rueda,” much like the rest of the record, turns on objects in revolution: repeated incantations, rotating wheels, the orbiting moon, world tours. This movement is the source of life in a literal sense; she says she will die if she stops spinning. That story of personal growth and forward motion is only amplified by the arrival of more polished, experimental beats across the record. Both aesthetically and lyrically, Ultrabelleza reflects a newfound conceptual complexity for Llergo.

The album’s reverence for flamenco history is never framed in opposition to its imagination for the future. “Novix” is a playful interlude and the most straightforward flamenco track on the album. It addresses the narrator’s boyfriend and girlfriend, using a traditional form to subvert dated and heteronormative family expectations. “Tanto Tiempo” interpolates the classic bolero “Sabor a Mí” against a backdrop of palmas, or hand claps. “Juramento” is a hand-to-heart oath between lovers, an image reminiscent of Chavela Vargas’ “Macorina.” She places these styles in a fresh context, using them to address the present-day forms of oppression her Romani ancestors faced. These touchpoints are gorgeous reminders that liberation has been the project of folk music for centuries, a language preceding the call for a future of justice.

In a recent interview with Vogue Spain, Llergo said, “Para mí, los andaluces son luces que andan.” (“For me, Andalusians are lights that walk.”) The Spanish singer knows that her roots are a beacon—that by reaching back into the sounds of her forebears, she may find a way forward. Even then, she is still rooted firmly in the present, illustrating that constant reinvention—and the hard work of living through it—carries its own potential to create everlasting life.