Flamenco loses another of its ‘grandes’ with the passing of the great guitarist Manitas de Plata. Aged 93, he was perhaps instrumental in globalising the sounds of flamenco from the 1960s onwards. The Gypsy Kings, either biologically or musically his sons, owed much to him in the way of having forged a path outward from gypsy communities to mass audiences for the rhythms and beats of flamenco. A guitarist who acquired the skill rather than having learnt it, Manitas de Plata embodied a lifelong passion for flamenco. He was also notable for being part of the French art scene through his friendships with Picasso and others.
I am very excited. For a while now, I have been looking forward to the release of Flamencas: Mujeres, Fuerza, Duende, a film by Jonathan González and Marcos Medina that was recently presented at project stage at the Seville Biennial and that documents the lives and work of over 60 flamencas — not least among them, my wonderful maestra here in Barcelona, La Tani. The film will be accompanied by a book in due course and will most likely be out in 2015.
In the more immediate future, though, I cannot wait to get hold of Chus Gutiérrez’s latest cinematic venture, Sacromonte: Los sabios de la tribu, a documentary that charts the arte of the great gitano community of Sacromonte in Granada. This is close to home for me. Just watching the trailer has been a moving experience, with so many familiar faces against the perennially stunning backdrop of the Sacromonte and the Alhambra opposite.
I’ve been a fan of Gutiérrez’s films for ever so long… Back in time, I even wrote a whole chapter of my Phd on her Alma gitana as a way of viewing and re-viewing both flamenco and Madrid’s Lavapiés. Both dance and ethnicity feature large in much of her work. This trailer has been enough to make me really look forward to this new film:
I’ve always maintained that the one of the great advantages of living in Spain has to be that flamenco comes to you, you don’t have to go looking for it. This happened to me the other day. Having gotten into a taxi to go from Alcalá to Zurbano in Madrid, I found myself lifted high by the unmistakeable voice of José Mercé. The taxista and I firmly agreed that Mercé is one of the best singers alive — a sad sort of thought, really, if you think of the massive losses that flamenco has suffered lately… We then wound our way through thick traffic trying to name our favourites. We agreed that one outstanding singer, getting stronger and stronger by the day, but always keeping the gentle nuances that make his voice so special, is Miguel Poveda. We both continue to mourn the loss of Morente, surely one of the greatest flamencos ever. And we differed on the deep song. I told him that it was not a question of liking a siguiriya sung by one of the Agujetas, but more one of being entranced by it. And he said he needed a few drinks to take a siguiriya in. The taxi driver did not know much about Arcángel, another favourite of mine, but then I had not heard Argentina, the singer of fandangos from Huelva, who, he said, was a slim young woman with a surprisingly strong voice. We agreed that it was a pity that the market for flamenco is so tough that only very few of the true gems emerge from the circuits of Andalusia and go global.
Ever since, I’ve been listening to nothing but Argentina…
Attempts to map flamenco abound, most often in the form of hefty books that construct histories, narratives and routes of flamenco. Few, however, manage to really get the imagination going. True, we do get to know the iconic names and the landmark moments in the evolution of flamenco, maybe even recognise the great performers from past decades, but we are too often left with a basic knowledge of the main palos and only a vague sense of how they connect or may be related. So it was great to find this blog with its maze-like depiction of the complex, and distinctly incestuous, flamenco family (not sure the buttons to turn the blog into English or Japanese work as yet…). The detailed descriptions of each palo and sub-palo are refreshing. The map made me feel as if it were moving, as if flamenco has a huge life-force that makes it grow and change even as it is being tracked. What I liked as well, beyond the dynamic, multiple connections, was also the fact that this map puts to rest, once and for all, the incredibly tedious debate about how to quantify or demarcate the gypsy contribution to flamenco as opposed to the Spanish one… I’ve decided I far prefer maps that draw connections and chart flows to ones that lay down boundaries. Yes, this is definitely a processual map.
As for the name, Flamencopolis, well, it kind of says it all… I never knew, for instance, that the soleá and cantiñas are related! My thanks to the author, Professor Faustino Núñez, a musicologist and writer on flamenco. I am really hoping to catch a few of his ongoing seminars on flamenco at Barcelona’s Taller de Músics.
I am very grateful to my friend César Gómez Gallego for pointing me to Català Roca, the Catalan photographer who took this image of gypsies in Montjuic. This image has sat on my desktop for some months, making me wonder every day who took it. Thank you, César!
As all flamenco@s know, la llamada is a surprise call by the dancer to the musicians, a signal that the pace and rhythm are about to change. Lately, I’ve had my share of personal llamadas, not least of which has included the move to living in Barcelona — a very different rhythm from life in London. This change has accounted for my silence on this blog, for which many apologies (reality deflects from virtuality…).
The good news, though, is that one reason for not writing about flamenco has been, in fact, that I have been living flamenco quite intensely here. Barcelona may not be the most obviously flamenco of cities, but there are some real gems to be found here, not least of which is my school, La Escuela de La Tani. Like La Tani and her family, there are well established gitano communities here for whom flamenco is a way of life. As a result, it is easy to connect with a strong tradition of taking flamenco seriously. What is also curious is the fact that some say that a link exists between the style of music and dance from Granada’s Sacromonte and Catalan flamenco, due to the fact that back in the 1960s, gitanos went up along the eastern coast of Spain to relatively prosperous Catalonia. Of course, the unforgettable Carmen Amaya came from here, left from here and went into exile and then returned to this city, for the filming of Los Tarantos, shortly before her passing in 1963.
So this first Barcelona post is in her memory, a homage to flamenco Catalunya, to the lady who brought so many llamadas to flamenco, breaking open gender barriers in dance, firing the soul, twisting the turn like none before. ¡Viva la Carmen!
I am hugely guilty of neglecting this blog for a good while. A few people have asked me why I have not updated of late and, while I could come up with a litany of reasons, none of them actually convince even me. So apologies to my readers…
My biggest apology, though, goes to Chris Wilson, firefighter, martial expert and flamenco aficionado, who generously sent me a copy of his wonderful Flamenco Essentials, a delightful book that EVERY novice to flamenco should read and, ideally own. Despite over a quarter of a century of afición, I really enjoyed reading this book and love having a copy of it to refer to. Covering every aspect of the art, from its history to compás, basic steps, posture, hands, palmas, contra -tiempo, percussion, sourcing flamenco online and even – oh joy of joys! – a breakdown of the steps for sevillanas, Flamenco Essentials is both a practical guide and an ode to the art.
I particularly loved the focus on the different palos. Newcomers to flamenco often find themselves studying ‘fandangos’ or a ‘garrotín’ without ever really understanding how that palo fits into the larger scheme of flamenco rhythms. Flamenco Essentials provides a chart and helps readers map flamenco and understand the art bit by bit. And if ever you have been a bit lost by the vocabulary used by your flamenco teacher — a palo seco, escobilla, jaleo, punta tacón, to mention a few recurrent terms — then please consult the incredibly useful glossary.
For flamenco followers in the UK, this book brings a special pleasure: its many images and photos are of artists, performers and teachers from Spain and also from the very vibrant flamenco scene in the UK. As a result, many are very familiar faces of teachers, friends, ex-teachers, etc.
This book is a gem, the must-have birthday or Christmas present to your flamenco loved ones. I plan to follow it up by reading Chris Wilson’s next book on flamenco, Collecting Stamps, Flamenco in Madrid, a book that he tells us has nothing to do with philately! Both can be ordered from the website of Chris Wilson’s press, UK Flamenco: http://www.ukflamenco.co.uk/books.html
Rarely do flamenco singers manage to get their audience to sing along. Even when Estrella Morente came to London some years ago, shortly after the world-wide success of her rendition of Volver, the self-conscious British audience in Sadler’s Wells held back somewhat stiffly from launching forth into song with her. This, however, was not the case with José Mercé on the last day of London’s Flamenco Festival. From the moment he walked on stage, it was clear that the audience was with him.
José Mercé is by far the one of the best known singers from Jeréz. Nephew of Sordera, he is the scion of a dynastic family of singers and his name is somewhat inseparable from that of other flamenco ‘greats’, such as the late Moraíto Chico, who used to accompany him. Mercé secured a global following through his affiliation with Antonio Gades’s company in previous decades, whereby he made a name as an exceptional singer for dance. However, as he proved in Sadler’s Wells, he is also an exceptional soloist. With typical clarity (and I have always thought that one of the great advantages of listening to Mercé is the fact that he makes the lyrics perfectly comprehensible, without distorting phonemes), he introduced each palo before singing it, so the audience always knew what the mood was. The performance started with deep song and became lighter as it went along. Towards the end, and the end itself was protracted by repeated standing ovations frm the audience and requests for ‘otra!’, he sang the songwriter Aute’s well-known song, Al Alba. Everyone in the theatre sang along with him, and did so indeed whilst spilling out onto the street after the show. Diego Morao, the talented son of Moraíto Chico, took his father’s place as the guitarist. And, here in remembrance of the wonderful music and the great joy of flamenco that Moraíto Chico and José Mercé together gave the world, is an alegrías:
Certainly one of the most interesting — and no doubt one of the longest — shows in this year’s Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells has been Rafael Amargo’s. It was also one of the most varied, ranging from contemporary, to blues and burlesque — all done in flamenco-style. At times, it was also tedious. Apparently based on Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York, the whole performance was played out against a shifting backdrop of clichéd photographs of New York in the 1920s and 1930, a time when Lorca visited the city. That, however, appeared to be the sole relevance of Lorca’s majestic work, for his poems from this collection have less to do with the skyscrapers of New York than they do with the grit and the poverty of this metropolis.
In fact, the Lorquian element was more than a bit eclipsed by the centrality of the dance and also of the song, for rivals to Amargo as protagonists of the show were the singers, most especially an amazing female singer who sang a flamenco version of the blues in one stirring piece. Amargo himself is an amazing dancer, very grounded but also nuanced and sharp. Of course, the show was more about him than about Lorca’s work, but this did not detract from the overall quality. There were, however, numerous slightly tedious and drawn-out detours in the form of inward-looking contemporary pieces. Not being a fan of writhing bodies on the floor, I just wished he had done away with them, especially as the individuality of such pieces seems light years away from the hugely social commitment of Lorca’s verse. Any irritation I felt was more than mitigated, however, by Amargo’s renditions of the bulerías. I am not surprised to see that his latest work, in Barcelona, has been indeed on the burlesque in flamenco, for he is without doubt a master of the bulería. He is clever, sharp and witty with the bulerías.
Amargo is probably not the best choreographer in the world. His show was too long, too varied in style and cluttered, too mechanistic in its reiteration of group dances, but his own dancing is nothing short of genius. He is strong and light, sharp and delicate, grounded and fluid, all at once. He can play with his audience, he can flirt and he can command. There was little of Lorca in what he did, but he did make poetry out of dance.