Musings

Ok, Ok, this part is particularly self-indulgent and navel-gazing. But that's what the internet is for right? Telling people stuff they don't really believe and probably don't even want to know. So here's some musings on flamenco and how I got into it.

I was once asked by a Brazilian documentary film-maker who dropped in to one of the flamenco dance classes in Chicago; "why is a pale anglo-saxon like you interested in flamenco?". I had no answer at the time, but spent a lot of time looking at hospital ceilings over the past year, during my fun with cancer, and often pondered this question. So here's some attempts at an answer. Looking at the history, when I first started playing guitar I played a lot of folk and folk-blues music, which in the 1970s meant Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, etc. But I was drawn to flamenco by a record we had of Pepe Martinez - who was a great player that I ended up meeting several years later in Bristol. This was another kind of folk music, but with the really interesting twists of rhythm and heavy emotional content. Almost all popular music is in 4/4 time, a big chunk of flamenco contradicts this with groups of two 3 beats followed by three groups of 2 beats in various combinations and emphasis. So this was different, which somehow attracted me from the beginning. It also makes it really difficult to play when you start out! Also the guitar technique was essentially really advanced finger picking. I was better at finger-picking than plectrum playing so it seemed more natural to go down this road. Also I never really had the rebel in me to play lead electric or anything like that. I also never had the perfectionist attitude needed to play classical guitar, which I like to listen to but would not have the patience or will power to practice enough to really make that work. So I got more interested in flamenco, and was generously supported by my parents to have lessons from Juan Martin, which ended up being invaluable.

Over the years I have listened to a lot of this music and finally come to the conclusion that like any other folk music the real power is the song. The human voice is the most expressive instrument and conveys the real emotive side. In a flamenco 'cuadro' (group) the singer is always in charge, because they form the basis for the experience. The different kinds of flamenco songs range from happiness to abject sadness depending on what 'form' you are using. The whole art form was originated by the Gitanos (gypsies) of southern Spain (Andalucia) which remains the epicenter of this music. There is always talk that non-gypsies can never really play flamenco - but Paco de Lucia is a Payo (non-gypsy), so I think this is too traditional a view these days. But it also true that this really is an acquired taste for most non-Spanish people, since the singing has micro tones and is full of emotion (and is in Spanish!) it is not really accessible to people brought up on the Beatles and The Doors, etc. If I put this stuff on in the car my son usually complains 'I don't want to hear this guy shouting at me again..'. But this ends up being an attraction for me, since the raw emotion here is pretty intense - definitely in excess of electric blues singers for example.

I got into this viewpoint largely from the 1990s onward after I discovered (late-on!) the recordings of a singer called Camaron de la Isla (a nickname meaning 'the shrimp from la Isla'). He was a short gypsy from Cadiz, but could sing with emotion like you almost cannot believe. He became one of the most popular singers in Spain, his started off his real career in Madrid being accompanied by Paco de Lucia who said about him 'you could tell after 10 minutes he was a genius...' which is not bad coming from another genius! He was revered by the gypsy population of Andalucia. In his book 'Queen of the South' the Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte mentions how when the Mexican heroine of the book is in jail in Andalucia every Gitana has a medallion of Camaron around their neck. He fits into the description David Bowie produced of the fictional star Ziggy Stardust who 'really sang - with screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo..' and seems to put all he's got into every song. If you like you can check out many Camaron performances on YouTube and see what I mean.Tragically in later life he got into heroin and seems, along with Paco de Lucia, to have been a total chain smoker since his 20s. He died in 1992 from lung cancer and his funeral was attended by most of the big shots from Andalucia, estimates place attendance at his funeral at 100,000 people. He is also the only subject Paco de Lucia has ever sung about in a recording (on Luzia - the track 'Camaron' which was recorded after his death). When I saw PdL in Chicago once he opened with this piece without the singing bit (it is in a Rondenas form) and a guy in the row in front of me's cell phone went off and he started a conversation on it - errr, a good reason for justifiable homicide methinks? So, like I say, this music is definitely an acquired taste for us northern european types - so it's not for everyone.

On balance I think the best answer to the question of my personal interest in this art form is it expresses raw emotional human feelings without much constraint, but within some kind of framework. Probably more emotional than any other musical form I've come across. Since music is largely a player on the emotions, this seems a very important aspect to me.

Nowadays I still discover new stuff I'm interested in, at present I like Miguel Poveda 'Tierra de Calma', and also I like the singing of Estrella Morente. She is the daughter of the singer Enrique Morente (another payo!) who has been fairly famous since the 1970s. Here's a translation of the beginning of the track 'Moguer' on the CD 'Mi cante y un poema (2001)'. This is from a poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez who became an exile during the spanish civil war and lived in the US, Cuba and ultimately Puerto Rico. This poem is about how in sleep he can get back to Moguer, the city of his birth in Spain.

Sleeping is like a bridge
running from today to tomorrow
beneath it like a dream
as the water passes, the soul passes
passes the soul, the soul passes

Be careful when you kiss the bread, take care,
be careful whose hand you kiss,

my life was turned into a permanent shipwreck overnight

 

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