Archive for March, 2010

Habichuela Viejo and la Tía Marina


The mystery has been solved. My co-flamencophile Arye El León has very kindly informed me of the origins of this image that so caught my eye when I first saw it. He first found it, he says, sold as a postcard in Granada. He has written to say that:

‘I was moved by the same thoughts as you when I bought the postcard: who were they, what were their lives like, does anyone any longer remember them or is their identity lost to posterity?

Every time I used to visit El Corte Ingles, I would make for their book department to look through the beautiful pages of the Diccionario Enciclopédico Ilustrado Del Flamenco and then, one year, I eventually forked out the £120 and proudly carried home the two hefty volumes to peruse at my leisure.

What riches lay within those two tomes! Then one day, as I was turning over the pages and dreaming of flamenco past, suddenly, there it was, the very photo, enlarged in clear detail, in sepia tones, with the couple looking very much alive, and subtitled “Habichuela Viejo con su hija Marina”. I cried out in triumph and my eyes filled with tears of happiness – happiness for the old man and the young girl.

They each have their own entries on pages 358 and 360 respectively in volume I of the Diccionario Enciclopédico compiled by José Blas Vega and Manuel Ríos Ruiz and published by Editorial Cintero, Madrid, 1988.’

Marina was not only Habichuela’s daughter, but also the aunt of the present-day guitarrists Juan and Pepe Habichuela, themselves respectively the father and uncle of Juan and Antonio Carmona of Ketama… And so yet another flamenco dynasty goes on…Thank you, Arye, for sharing this information! ¡Viva el arte!

March 28, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More

Festival de Jeréz 2010


Thank God for digital proximity! If it weren’t for the insights that the electronic age afford us, we would be limited to the flamenco that is locally on offer. The click or two of a mouse has taken me recently over and again to the 14th Festival de Jeréz where some of today’s best performers displayed their art from the 26th of February to the 14th of March. A veritable feast for us flamencoholics!

Of course, there are limits to what we can see or hear online, but it is still enough to let the imagination/memory wander, especially if you have seen some of the performers before. Amongst my top favourites are the siblings Adela and Rafael Campallo in the latter’s show ‘Puente de Triana.’ Rafael handles the most complicated footwork with ease and humour, playing all the while the audience’s sense of astonishment. This is no dark or brooding male dancer. On the contrary, Rafael brings a very positive energy to the stage and his dancing is alive, almost electric. It reminded me of the time I saw him dance one night in Granada —  he had been exchanging jokes then with the cajón player, all the while holding the audience breathless with his zapateado… His feet flew so fast they were almost invisible, but the smile was broad on his face.

You can access the festival site here.

March 22, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More

Terremoto Hijo: In Memoriam

Terremoto Hijo is no more… The news that Fernando Fernández Pantoja, better known as Terremoto Hijo, heir to the gitano singing dynasty from Jeréz de la Frontera, died on February 13th 2010 came as a shock. He had been in the prime of his life. The last time I saw him was some years ago, by chance, as we wandered into the South Bank, not knowing that he was in London that day and about to perform at the Royal Festival Hall. True to their name, the Terremoto (earthquake) father and son held a wide repertoire of cante that they could shake the world with. This simple man from Jeréz had a voice like thunder that turned at times almost ephemeral and cloud-like. Though his genius was in evidence that night in London, he appeared out of place, far from the Peña Terremoto of his hometown that commemorates his father. Afterwards,  we went to a bar for drink, but it was nothing like the bars of Spain. He complained of the cold, both in terms of the temperature and the silence of the restrained London audience. It was not that his magnificent voice had gone unnoticed: it was most likely more that the English language did not have the words with which to respond adequately to the heart-wrenching cry of his siguiriya… British audiences always seem to respond more overtly to flamenco dance than to the cante. Deep song often leaves them at a loss for words.

Earlier, perhaps some ten or more years ago, we had first met Fernando in a much warmer setting, in a bar in Jeréz, surrounded by his entire family. His sister Luisa Fernández Pantoja had participated in a research project of mine on the identity of women from the gitano dynasties by video-recording aspects of her life. Luisa proved herself to be an able film director. Fernando had been at the centre of one of her videos, as he was at the centre of her life. In the film, he sings bulerías in celebration of the birth of his son, as their whole community dances one by one, Luisa and her daughters included.

That, no doubt, is how he is best remembered.

March 20, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More

Flamenco at its finest


Sara Baras danced at the Royal Albert Hall tonight. Together with her company and the guest dancer José Serrano, she managed to fill the vast, circular space of this concert hall. Not long after the show had started and the music had begun to swell, I began to feel that the dome-like ceiling above had turned into the star-filled sky of Baras’s native Andalusia. From the choreographies, to the music, the lighting and above all, the quality of the dancing, the performance was impeccable. Most reassuring of all, though, for those of us who may still have the touch of the flamenco purist in us, was the fact that each piece was narrative-based, locatable within the repertoire of flamenco palos, whilst also imaginative and totally creative.

José Serrano is  a fine match for Sara Baras when it comes to style and finesse. It has seemed to me for a while that, with the passing of Antonio Gades, flamenco has somewhat of a dearth of truly memorable male dancers these days. Serrano may well be filling this gap. This is one male dancer to watch out for.

As for Baras… well, it has been said of her that ‘she dances like the clouds, like a storm, like the sunrise, like the sunset.’ Normally, I’d say that was rhetoric. In the case of Baras, however, it seems to me a typical instance of the way in which words can at times fall short of the dance.

March 14, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More

Lost in time

I recently watched excerpts from Tony Gatlif’s film Lacho Drom (1993), which attempts to construct a visual, albeit fictional, history of the Rom people through a series of sequences that focus on the wondrous and diverse musical expressions of this ethnic group. Interestingly, the film begins in India and ends in Spain. This is a journey that has continued over nearly a millenium. Along the way, it stops off in Turkey, Egypt (the word ‘gypsy’ is etymologically linked to ‘Egyptian’), Hungary, Romania and the south of France… It begins with folk dancing in Rajasthan, from where the Rom are said to originate, and closes with a flamenco tangos. There is, of course, widespread belief that the Rom are the descendants of a community exiled from India back in the 11th century. Anthropologists point out the lingering ethnic customs, beliefs and practices that distinguish the Rom and connect them to their Indian roots. Medical scientists also insist that certain genetic traits persist that confirms their Indian origins. Whatever the case, I think anyone seeing this short dance sequence at the start of the film will see something in common with flamenco and also with the close-knit gitano communities of Spain:

March 8, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More

Back to Roots


I’ve just come across this wonderful photograph on the web. I have no idea who took it or who appears in it. It is merely entitled ‘gypsies,’ but, after two weeks of high-flown flamenco, it comes as a welcome reminder of the little-known and largely undocumented origins of the art. It also reminds us that flamenco emerged out of the backstreets, half-paved patios and bars of southern Spain where the poor  — too often gypsies ( did this term,  one wonders, come to designate all those whose ethnicities were not readily identifiable?), sailors, impoverished peddlars of the art — forged the art in the midst of struggling to make ends meet. And, like this photograph, the origins of flamenco are lost in time… Little is known about where exactly it came from, what the exact influences are or who the very first proponents of this art form were.  The official history dates back to the nineteenth century. Yet, we must assume that flamenco in its earliest manifestations started some centuries earlier. After all, Cervantes in his Novelas ejemplares writes of La gitanilla, who was skilled in music and all sorts of folkloric dances.

Flamenco has indeed moved from the street to the stage. It is now, as we well know, a classy art form. However, it may not be a bad thing to remind ourselves every now and then of the rustic and communal origins flamenco, where it has long been the artistic expression of a particular ethnic and social identity. It is an upwardly mobile music and dance form, one that now inhabits the upper echelons of art and is best known as stage performances, but here is a wonderful memory of its improvised and often spontaneous emergence in the cobbled patios of southern Spain.

Of course, what I like best is the fact that this photograph  casually dispenses with one of the most basic gender assumptions of flamenco: namely, that flamenco guitarists are always men…

March 3, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More

Gala Flamenca

Sadlers Wells’ flamenco festival ended yesterday with the aptly named ‘Gala flamenca: todo cambia (everything changes).’ Indeed, in light of the previous two performances that I had seen, this last one was quite different. In contrast to the carefully choreographed colours and visual richness of what had gone before, the stage for the Gala was decidedly dark, drab and muted. So too was the lighting. It was as if the choreographers had wished to deliberately downplay the visual vibrancy of flamenco. Instead, they made up for this by focusing largely on footwork. This meant that the dancing turned into showmanship, albeit of a high standard requiring many years of arduous practice, where footwork and technical skill (lightning turns, rapid arms, the thunder of taconeo) mattered more than any kind of artistic quest or even a tangible dance narrative to hold the choreography together. Certainly, all four dancers, Rocío Molina, Belén López, Manuel Liñán and Pastora Galván are very fine dancers in their own right. However, the lack of a coherent thread through each of their performances, together with yet more attempts to incorporate contemporary dance into flamenco, meant that even as generously inclined an audience as these festivals tend to receive could take only so much and no more. Perhaps it was notable that, of the occasions when I was there and although the weekend audience was clearly in very high spirits, this was the only performance that did not receive a standing ovation. What was memorable about this show, though, was in fact the relative lack of flamenco costumes. Rocío Molina came on stage at the start in a brown leather skirt and jacket … The thought that crossed my mind when I saw her was that it would be a shame if flamenco came to lose the dramatic force of its colours and costumes, as well as the wonderful rapport between dancer, singer and guitarist that has so often characterized the communal and entirely social dimension of the art form and gave way instead to muted colours, introspection that verges onto narcissism and an obsessive focus on the quasi-acrobatic skills of one performer. Perhaps the one exception to this was Pastora Galván, graceful in her handling of the bata de cola.

Did I regret going? Not really… the singer Rosario Guerrero, La Tremendita, was well worth listening to and, if anything, the performance helped me realize what I do like and value in flamenco: art, beauty, dialogue and a sense of communion between performers and with the public.

March 2, 2010 Posted Under: General   Read More