Archive for February, 2012

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