The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 6, 2010


These days, any cultural outing entails a massive blow to the wallet. Not only are good tickets somewhat expensive, but no night out on town is complete without a decent meal. Add to all this the cost of babysitting the tyke, and the wallet is lightened enough to be used as a flotation device.

The other day, wife and I headed to Sadler's Wells. This is the big centre for dance and performance arts in London. Every year they organise a week of Flamenco, and as we can yell Olé! as ardently as any Andalucian, we were keen to catch at least one show. (In actuality, of course, it turned out to be at most one show as well.)

Flamenco has not remained a static form over the decades that tourists have congregated in Seville to see long-gowned fiery women and dashingly angry upright men tap dance and clap. In recent years, it has merged movements from modern dance, hip-hop even, to become an amalgam of fresh energy. No longer do you see only the cliche of the long dress. Women, too, now tap-dance as furiously and energetically as the men. No less than the passionate gypsies of yore, we now see others of the Spanish nations in this artistic form, all presenting their own nuanced appreciation for Flamenco.

For me, the dance has always been secondary to the fluid and exuberant guitar. I'm interested not merely in the pop versions of Flamenco guitar (listen to the Gypsy Kings in Djobi Djoba to get an idea), but also in the virtuosity of the folk method. The virtuoso guitarist plucks the strings and wiggles his fingers with such panache! The dance, for me, provides only the percussive beat to accompany the excellence of the guitar.

But the pinnacle of Flamenco expression has to be the vocals. These are the blues of Iberia, filled with longing and pain and misery. The voices start sweet and low, and rise and fall in melismas so familiar to us from Hindustani music. Inevitably, though, the suffering that prompted the song bursts out of the throats of the singer, and the voice turns raspy, shredding the listeners' ears and hearts with all its pain. By the time the shriek of sufrido reaches its crescendo, the frenetic tapping of the feet and the rhythmic clapping has ripped our emotions raw. See El Lebrijano, for example, in this video.

Not far from the touristy and sunny Flamenco spots in Seville are the rough and run-down parts that outsiders scarcely know of, and those that do tend to avoid. Here, amidst alcohol and drug-fuelled and broken families, is where the true masters of Flamenco live their music. From Giles Tremlett's wonderful Ghosts of Spain, I learn of Camarón de la Isla, considered the greatest of modern Flamenco cantaors. He had the usual meteoric rise and flaming fall of the galaxy-class rock stars. Between drugs and violence, he fashioned songs of exquisite agony, and together with the firebrand guitarist Paco de Lucía, began the trend known now as Nuevo Flamenco.

Some of the finest cantaors today are found behind bars, in gaol. Tremlett tracks them down and listens in on Flamenco competitions where they participate, and comes away with a sense of awe. Their renditions are distant from those beloved by the traditionalists, and yet every beat and every frisson is fueled by the same power.

Check out the following articles:

1. Belén López's struggle to become a flamenco master.
2. Rocío Molina, bailaora.


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