¡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

Flamenco Paraphernilia

Beyond the core triad of song, guitar and dance in flamenco is a very wide and varied range of paraphernilia. I am referring here not merely to the innumerable CDs and DVDs, not to mention VHS videos and old-style cassettes, acquired over a lifetime of afición, but also to the many vital accessories that accompany flamenco passion. A mere glance at my dressing table and cupboards will clarify what I mean: flowers for the hair, mantones, fans (several colours and sizes), a hat, several very worn pairs of shoes and skirts with flounces and frills of all kinds –and as for a particularly unsightly orange dress with red polka dots that was used for one show, banished forever more to the inner depths of the bottom drawer of a cabinet, the less I say, the better!. Flamenco comes with many frills. Indeed, the near and dear ones of a flamenco lover are never at a loss when it comes to figuring out what to buy at Christmas or birthdays.

By the same token, visits to any city in Spain are never complete for me without a visit to the local flamenco shops. The cities of Andalucía are particularly rich in these. Take, for example, Azabache in Granada. Enter it and you are in a crammed frenzy of frills, colours and polka dots of all sizes. The tiny dressing rooms are inevitably busy and business is brisk. Shoes sit on counter tops, alongside fans and mantones. Mannequins, leotards, practice skirts and ornate dresses compete for space. The shop changed venue a few years ago, but here it is in its former site, on the square leading up to the university campus, with the owner in front:

Having said that, my favourite flamenco accessory has to be the mantón. I love the way mantones grace so many shop windows in southern Spain. Why? Because it is so versatile and speaks so eloquently of Spain’s colonial past, trade routes, cultural crossings and stereotypes. The mantón de manila  harks back, as the writer Benito Pérez Galdós reminds us in his wonderful novel Fortunata y Jacinta, to Spain’s colonial intimacies with the Phillipines and this is why it bears the look of oriental embroidery. Nowadays, it adds a vintage touch to any stage performance, adding a shade of stereotypical, timeless Spain to any choreography. It also lends itself to so many different uses. Beyond its role as an accessory for performance, it can also be thrown round the shoulders as a shawl, tied around the waist to accentuate the figure or simply folded and turned into a scarf. Lately, I have even come across some ingenuous flamenco tops stitched out of mantones with just a couple of shoulder straps and a zip attached. You may get some good ideas from this video:

January 15, 2012 Posted Under: General   Read More

Por el flamenco (2009) — a film by Shem Shemy

 

One of the distinct benefits that I gain from this blog is receiving news about flamenco and flamencophilia from readers around the globe. So I was delighted to find a stash of emails recently of which I had been oblivious and that had lain unopened for a long while — my sincere apologies to all those who had to wait to receive replies. Amongst these was a message from Shem Shemy, an Israeli filmmaker who has charted his own emotional journey through flamenco. Generously, he sent me a copy of his film Por el flamenco, a title that defies translation into English, for it could mean both ‘Through flamenco’ and ‘For flamenco’s sake’. The truth is that the film fits both titles, because although the filmmaker finds emotional catharsis through flamenco, in fact, flamenco, versatile, unique and bonding, is an equally real protagonist here and so too flamencophilia. There are many of us out there, like Shemy and his friend Yoel, hooked by flamenco, obsessed by it day in and out, night after night, desiring always to catch the palo on its crest and willing to forsake it all to pursue flamenco trails. So this is a film that not only speaks to a global flamenco community, but also represents us.

This is really a film about flamenco as a journey. It is also a conversation that the filmmaker has with his father, who was badly wounded in his youth and whose pain is transmitted over the years to his young son. However, over and beyond the personal or autobiographical elements of this story, this film is rich in glimpses of flamenco as a way of life for so many in southern Spain. Shemy successfully eschews the flamenco of tourist traps and Andalusian stereotypes and he also avoids flamenco as high art or studio rehearsal. Instead, he traces flamenco as a way of life. Set in Granada, the film charts a series of flamenco encounters there and in other parts of southern Spain that culminate in a visit to the home in Jeréz de la Frontera of none other than Dolores Agujetas. If ever deep song could expose the raw, jagged nerve of loss and sorrow, it must be through the haunting voices of the Agujetas family. Back in the day, I did some extended research on flamenco through the figure of her brother Antonio Agujetas, and his rendition of a seguiriya, sung in the chapel of a prison, still rings in my ears. His sister is also a mesmerizing singer, indeed, surely one of the most powerful female singers of deep song alive.

There is an absolutely singular moment in the film, when a waiter in a restaurant somewhere in the south of Spain sings. This is a scene of real flamenco magic. As this man sang, my heart stopped in wonder. Here was someone whose greatness could match the Morentes of this world! How many andaluces, one wonders, go about their daily business, harbouring within them a rich vein of arte?

My thanks to Shem Shemy for sending me his film. I hope that someday there will be a roving international festival of flamenco films that we all get to see. Por el flamenco deserves to be up there with the best.

November 21, 2011 Posted Under: General   Read More

Anoushka Shankar: An evening of Raga-Flamenco music

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Center, London

Anoushka Shankar sitar
Sandra Carrasco vocals
Pirashanna Thevarajah Indian percussion
Sanjeev Shankar shehnai
El Piraña flamenco percussion
Melon Jimenez flamenco guitar

Following previous sell out performances in Queen Elizabeth Hall, Anoushka Shankar returns with an evening of Raga-Flamenco music featuring pieces from her first CD on Deutsche Grammophon.

Traveller brings together the passionate and diverse music of Spain and the vibrant, ancient forms of the Indian classical tradition.

The project was inspired by Anoushka’s desire to trace the historic links between Indian and Spanish musical traditions brought to Spain by the Rajasthani gypsies.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank , London

5 December 2011, 7:30pm

November 13, 2011 Posted Under: Events, Flamenco Performance   Read More

Flamenco Fix — weekly flamenco radio programme on Reel Rebels Radio

It has been a while since I last updated this blog, but the silence has in fact been flamenco-rich. Apart from several research trips to Spain, replete with flamenco encounters, some just enthralling, about which I shall blog later, I also had the honour this summer of being invited by my friend Alicia to appear on her weekly radio programme, Flamenco Fix. This is a weekly internet radio programme that is hosted by Reel Rebels Radio, broadcast from London every Sunday between 12pm and 2pm local time. Several past programmes can also be accessed via Flamenco Fix‘s webpage by scrolling down.You can find the programme with me here.

The show advertises itself as the UK’s sole flamenco programme. This is undoubtedly so; however, I do wonder whether Flamenco Fix might not actually be THE sole flamenco radio programme in English… I certainly have never come across any other radio show in English devoted solely and entirely to flamenco. Programmes offer a mix of Alicia’s pick of music with those of invited guests. There’s no doubt that having shows accessible online is a wonderful gift to flamencophiles worldwide, as it allows us to listen as and when we can, wherever we are, rather than only at the times when the show is aired.

Doing the show with Alicia was hugely enjoyable. It gave me, of course, the perfect excuse to spend the entire weekend before trawling through my life-long flamenco collection in search of my ‘desert island discs’! There is something quite mesmerizing about two eighteen hour days spent just listening to deep song… Any nerves I felt about doing the show quickly dissipated as soon as I was in the studio under Alicia’s expert guidance. Her relaxed manner and the warm welcome that she gives people in person and on air are part of what makes her voice and the show so attractive. I also learnt a lot from her and the many flamenco stories we touched upon.  To listen to the archive of shows of Flamenco Fix is also to educate oneself in the many permutations, styles and historical moments of flamenco through the decades. Alicia and Flamenco Fix definitely have their finger on the pulse of flamenco, in terms of past, present and future.

I am working on another programme for Flamenco Fix right now. This one is going to be on Spanish poetry set to flamenco… Watch this space in the weeks to come!

November 6, 2011 Posted Under: General   Read More