Flamenco Taxi!

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…

 

June 12, 2014 Posted Under: General   Read More

Flamenco Map

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. 

 

January 25, 2014 Posted Under: General   Read More

Thank you, César!

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!

January 19, 2014 Posted Under: General   Read More

Gypsy Barcelona

The many centenary celebrations of Carmen Amaya’s birth and life have also put a long-needed focus on the rich gitano culture of Barcelona. I found this lovely image a while ago and would like to know who took it. If anyone knows, please get back to me. 307305_488569537846730_1909936356_n

January 19, 2014 Posted Under: General   Read More

¡LLamada! Homage to Carmen Amaya

 

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!

November 17, 2013 Posted Under: General   Read More

Flamenco Essentials

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

May 25, 2012 Posted Under: General   Read More

José Mercé, the Voice of Jeréz

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:

February 23, 2012 Posted Under: General   Read More

Rafael Amargo — A Genius of the Burlesque

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.

February 20, 2012 Posted Under: General   Read More

Manuela Carrasco at Sadler’s Wells — Diva or Duende?

Very occasionally, I have witnessed some rather strange flamenco shows, where duende reveals its dark side. Last night’s performance by Manuela Carrasco was one of them. The performance was not helped either by the freezing weather outside or the sudden power cut that afflicted Sadler’s Wells just before the show was due to start. Plunged into bewildering darkness whilst in the ladies’, I struggled to find my way out of there, only to find that no drinks could be bought because the tills too were down. Nor did it help that, when the lights finally came back on, the performance took yet more time to start. However, none of this mattered much at the time to me, as I have long wanted to see Manuela Carrasco, if only as a gitana pura whom I recall from the 1970sI was more than willing to wait for as long as it took. Carrasco cuts an imposing figure even on film, so when she finally strode on stage, it all seemed — just briefly — worthwhile.

To watch that performance was to take a trip down memory lane, to a time before flamenco dancers honed their performances in studios and before they borrowed from ballet or contemporary or jazz, to a time when a few chosen artists were deemed gifted with authenticity and born to the art. Manuela is one such figure. However, can one ever just stand still on stage or merely raise their statuesque arms in order to be called dancers? Carrasco certainly belongs to a time when elders were respected and when people still believed in notions such as purity and authenticity… and there is, to my mind, an element of arrogance in that. For try hard she did NOT. Despite some amazing performances by her gifted supporting dancers, she herself veered between prolonged statuesque poses, arm high up in the air and enraged footwork that nevertheless felt a touch jaded. That did not stop yells of encouragement from some in the audience, for we all know that the flame of duende must be fanned if it is to burn brightly. Brightly it did not burn last night. The performance never quite got off the ground. On the contrary.  I sat waiting for the moment when Manuela would burst into inspiration, but that, sadly, did not come. Instead, in an apparent turn that came all of a sudden, she thrust her fingers at the audience in the guise of a bullfighter’s estocada and then proceeded to collapse on the shoulder of her principal singer, a man whose baritone voice recalled the popular stars of the 1970s in Spain. He dutifully escorted the star off stage and so the show ended, some thirty minutes earlier than announced.

I am seldom negatively critical of flamenco. In fact, it occurs to me that I veer usually towards unflagging admiration, but this was one performance that left me feeling let down. Perhaps it had also been due to the anticipation. After all, Manuela Carrasco was, to my mind, of the ilk of El Farruco, a gypsy from Seville’s Triana with flamenco ‘in the blood.’ There was no magic last night, indeed, just the feeling of being short-changed. Perhaps, then, it is best that flamenco not be ‘in the blood’ but rather, that it be truly sought, struggled for, desired and dreamt.

February 10, 2012 Posted Under: General   Read More

The London Flamenco Festival — Vicente Amigo!

 

Calm and centred as always, the gifted guitarist Vicente Amigo launched London’s Flamenco Festival last night. Together  with a a small team of percussionists, singers and a dancer, Amigo offered the packed theatre a panoply of flamenco palos with the melodic grace that has come to be his signature style. Amigo’s guitar is strong and gentle, faultless at all times. He plays the most complex of pieces with apparent ease, as if it were a kite lifted by the air. Grace, style, gentleness, skill… Vicente Amigo really does know how to bring them all together.

Amigo is a guitarist who rose to fame in the 1990s, a time when Spain had made the transition to democracy and had established itself as both modern and distinct, yet totally stylish, on the European scene. Amigo’s guitar reflects those times. He takes the traditional palos and moulds them, easing them out of the grip of tradition without ever losing their moorings, so that a tangos or a bulería remain recognizable but are lifted to new heights. Last night, he was aided by a gifted team, the voice of the singer Rafael de Utrera floating above the guitar. The young dancer Dani Navarro was, as the lady sitting next to me said, ‘very cool’ in his rendering of bulerías. To make what is difficult and complicated appear calm, gentle and graceful is what Vicente Amigo always does.

Music has a way of taking us back to the places and times that we associate with it. Last night, Amigo’s guitar took me back to the place where I had heard his music first: a small bar on Calle de Moratín in Madrid, in the artistic barrio de letras, where, in true flamenco style. it spills over on to the more gritty Lavapiés. That must have been back in the early 1990s… I remember being there, rooted to the spot, in the grip of a guitar that spread from the speaker into the soul, over and above the clatter of glasses, tapas and conversations in that busy Madrid bar.

February 8, 2012 Posted Under: General   Read More