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Paco Peña’s adventurous flamenco

The guitar virtuoso returns to London

Michael Watts | June 3rd 2015

Declaring a liking for flamenco used to be problematic for the Anglo-Saxon temperament. We were rightly scornful of cod-Latin acts like Dorita y Pepe (who were Dorothy and Pete from south London) or the histrionics of the guitarist Manitas de Plata, who was born French and adopted a Spanish monicker meaning Little Silver Hands. But modern audiences are more discerning, performers more worldly and experimental, and flamenco more popular globally than ever before. Large numbers of Japanese women view it as a safety valve in a highly formalised society, while Spain’s huge influx of foreigners has invigorated flamenco’s native economy. There are annual flamenco festivals in the Netherlands, Chicago and London. And this year, Sadler’s Wells, an important innovator under its artistic director Alistair Spalding, has staged dance mash-ups of flamenco with hip-hop and Indian kathak.

Confirmation of flamenco’s pulling-power and ambition is that its foremost impresario, the guitar virtuoso Paco Peña, has sold out nine nights in late June performing at Sadler’s Wells, which holds 1,500 people. His recent shows have included a flamenco mass and a spectacular history of flamenco, staged by the British theatre director Jude Kelly. His new one, more simple and direct, is called Flamencura”—a word meaning, for Peña, flamenco's groove. It will feature a gospel song by Vimala Rowe, a British jazz-funk singer whose CV includes Hindustani classical music.

It’s a kind of adventure in my head, Peña told me, speaking from Córdoba, his birthplace. But I’m totally convinced that it will carry the same pathos, the same commitment, that flamenco has. Indeed, he has guaranteed authenticity by including in his troupe the dancer Carmen Rivas, also from Córdoba, who performs under the gypsy name La Talegoña.

I saw La Talegoña dancing only recently, in April, as part of a company of singers, musicians and bailaores (dancers) called Casa Patas. They were in the back-room of a flamenco restaurant, La Taberna de Mister Pinkleton, in the heart of Madrid. Pinkleton’s dining area has the usual touristy clientele and a cheesy portrait gallery of venerable flamenco stars. But there was no mistaking the loud clatter of drumming heels, handclaps and hoarse exhortations coming from the small, darkened tablao. Tak taka tak. Tak taka tak.

Inside, the atmosphere was dense and incendiary. Sparks were flying between La Talegoña and a male dancer called El Mistela. They looked physically taut but no longer youthful, everything revealed in circles of light, competitors in a love-war whipped on to ever greater feats of athleticism by a furious rhythm and the high, keening vocals of two cantaores (singers). La Talegoña’s hair shook free and flew around her face. Her torso spun and twisted. El Mistela’s footwork responded in frantic staccato. After each punishing burst, he yielded centre-stage to her with elaborate courtesy, his professional smile betraying the merest wince of pain in his knees and ankles. Here was proof of flamenco’s power to conjure the fabled duende, that essential Spanish melodrama of blood and earth, sex and death: part ecstasy, part melancholy, part romanticism concocted by Lorca and Hemingway.

Only in live performances like this do you get the point of flamenco; recordings don’t convey its peculiar intensity, the changing dynamics of the rhythm, the compás—that constant weaving of patterns by dancers and singers, the sharp percussion of hand-claps and feet, and the chordal role of guitar, which in orthodox flamenco is an instrument for accompaniment, not soloing. Traditions are embedded. All eyes may be on the dancers, but the singing, using a stick to beat time, is how flamenco took shape, 250 years ago, in Andalusia’s Petri dish of Sephardic, Moorish and Roma cultures. Singing, cante, is flamenco’s real focus, the inspiration driving the musicians and dancers. It’s said that all human emotion can be expressed in its three basic disciplines of cante jondo, intermedio and chico.

Today, flamenco music is regularly heard in the world’s concert halls. This is largely the achievement of Peña, 73, who is now professor of flamenco guitar at the Rotterdam Conservatory, and the late Paco de Lucía, arguably an even greater guitarist. De Lucía, with his mournful, El Greco face, was also idolised by jazz and blues guitarists like Eric Clapton. The connection is natural. Both blues and flamenco began as the suffering music of outcasts in predominantly white, Christianised communities: for the Mississippi Delta, read Andalusia, between Jerez and Seville. Each has been much copied and refined, yet its harsh truth endures and is passed on. As Peña says, Flamenco grips you and you can't get away.” 

Paco Peña’s Flamencura Sadler’s Wells, London, June 20th to 28th

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