With some justification, folks in Austin, Tex., probably consider their community the Guitar Capital of the Galaxy. Consider giants like Eric Johnson, the Vaughan Brothers, Gary Clark, Jr., Junior Brown and Doyle Bramhall II, as well as the slightly-lesser-known-but-still-brilliant Monte Montgomery, John Pointer, Van Wilks, Eric Tessmer and Redd Volkaert - just to name a representative few.
Any guitar-hungry youngster growing up in the 512 probably has all the influences he or she needs. And, in fact, during Maneli Jamal's teen years in Austin, the city's ax-meisters had a mesmerizing effect on the stunningly talented solo-acoustic virtuoso.
"It's 100 percent true that there are so many great players there," says Jamal, who performs a free concert Wednesday in New London's Spindrift Guitars as part of their Cole Clark Guitars workshop. "Austin's almost overwhelming but it's inspiring, too. Eric Johnson, Stevie ... In particular, Monte Montgomery influenced me because he plays acoustic and that's what I play."
But as evidenced by Jamal's otherworldly style - waterfall melodies, fretboard tapping and percussive counterpoints, technique that twists Eastern and Western music theory like a pretzel - there are plenty of extraordinary life experiences contributing to his musical DNA.
Born in Belarus to Iranian humanitarians, Jamal's family moved in his youth to Cologne, Germany, to escape political oppression. From there, they relocated to Austin and settled in for several years - only to receive deportation papers within days of the 9-11 attacks. The Jamals had 30 days to get out of the U.S. and, after liquidating virtually everything they owned, moved to Toronto. Jamal managed to take his guitar - and it became his refuge and his therapy.
"We were really angry and confused, particularly given my parents' well-known humanitarian views," he says. "In the end, all we had in Canada was each other, and we all lost ourselves in music and art and writing. It was intense, those first few months. We'd had a really nice, middle-class existence in Austin - and we were reduced to living in a shelter, almost poverty level."
He poured his energy and frustration into his guitar, and Jamal's technique begin to evolve. With improvement, he naturally gravitated toward the acoustic work of innovators like Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia and Justin King, as well as masters of a fingerwork style called "Travis Picking" (named after the innovations of Merle Travis). At the same time, the indigenous Persian music his parents favored - and which he'd ignored as a kid - began to make sense and appeal to him. It all coalesced.
"It seems like, having gone through years of tedious scales and exercises, it gets to the point where you naturally start to get your own voice," Jamal says. "But I don't think I'd be where I am without my parents' Persian music. That stuff emerged in my sound a lot more than you'd expect in the average fingerpicker. It's funny because, when my parents were listening to it, I was like, 'Please turn that off!' I wanted to hear Iron Maiden. Now I get how great it is."
As it has with most musicians and bands, social media has had a huge impact on artists like Jamal. An entire community of contemporary acoustic players, whose stylistic source material comes from all over the world and fuses in entirely new ways, has come together through the miracle of YouTube. "Guitar Idol," an online competition for unknown guitarists, attracted thousands of musicians - including Jamal, who in 2011 finished in the Top 3 of their worldwide contest.
"I'm more than thankful to YouTube," Jamal laughs. "When I auditioned for 'Guitar Idol,' I had 50 YouTube subscribers; I now have 28,000. That helps out."
Jamal has independently released two CDs, "The Ziur Movement" (2009) and "The Lamaj Movement" (2012). Each is stunning in terms of vision and dexterity, but beyond the superhero fireworks he's proven a master of emotion, melody and momentum. Both albums are centered around four-part suites - but they are extremely distinctive and come from very different emotional places.
"The suite on the first album was an homage to the woman who is now my ex-fiancee, a way to show my love for her," he explains. "I'm not the best at verbal expression, so I thought if I wrote love songs for her it would work - and in a way it did. It was very much a stamp of my life at that particular time - I was dedicating all of my love and appreciation through music, and it came from a very powerful and deep place of happiness and optimism."
"The Lamaj Movement," though, is a darker record.
"I'm older and finally took a moment to reflect on all that we've been through," he says. "It starts with my parents' fights in Iran and the move to Germany - and then onward.
"There's a reason classical music is written in expansive forms; with one three- or four-minute song, you can only say so much. In a longer piece, you can break the work up into dynamic moments and movements. But while it comes from a darker place, I do think ultimately it's a very positive album."
The performance in Spindrift will be Jamal's first-ever concert in the States. It's a one-off before he returns for dates in Canada. In the spring, he heads back to Europe - which is a hot spot for solo acoustic guitar artists, all of whom have gotten to know one another.
"Ours is a pretty tight musical community, and we all know each other and support each other," Jamal says. "Europe is certainly a huge hub for fingerpicking style guitar, but there's starting to be an audience for what we do all over the world. It's an exciting time."