Thursday, December 15, 2011

Flamenco; an Englishman's passion. New edition - Books4Spain 2011
                                                            
Flamenco is a hard church.
Of all the minority musical forms it is the one where even the most casual aficionado needs a certain level of familiarity to enjoy it. It is not easy listening and without the most basic awareness of styles and rhythm, is meaningless.
On the plus side it has to be admitted that many musical forms that are the preserve of racial minorities are almost impenetrable to people not belonging to that minority, mainly due to the desire for the music to be kept exclusive to the minority in question.
The Romany music of Eastern Europe for example is a zealously-guarded area where outsiders are not welcome, and often actively discouraged. But since the emphasis is on instrumental adroitness it is hard to see why a non-Romany should be considered as a less talented player than a gypsy. It must be a purely business-related consideration.
Spanish flamenco is rather different. In spite of what is commonly believed - that the dance is the pivotal endeavour, as some readers of this book will discover, flamenco can and does thrive without dancers, and indeed even without guitarists. In some modest get-togethers there is no guitar available and the singer will be accompanied by nothing more than rhythmic hand-clapping or discreet table-tapping.
Tony Bryant makes this point well, and also leads the reader elegantly from what is generally known as commercial flamenco to authentic cante jondo, with stops in between. And he has been fortunate, as indeed I have, because Spanish gypsies that live from flamenco do not try to dominate the art, having realised that non-gypsies can perform as well as gypsies, certainly in the vocal department. As Tony documents flawlessly, there have been many great singers who did not possess the voz afillá, the gravelly hoarse voice of the true gypsy cantaor. And non-gypsy guitarists and dancers are common.
All this may make it easier for a non-gypsy Spaniard to enter the fray, but what about an unusually tall Englishman with a limited knowledge of the language?  The book contains some very honest and self-deprecating accounts of Tony’s occasionally fraught attempts to get through the small door that leads to the garden where he wanted to be. Full marks for not being afraid to be laughed at, but the overriding question is why?
As an ex-drummer in an English band, Tony was initially baffled by flamenco rhythms (nothing new here; every newcomer is), and try as he might could find no connection with the world of rhythm and blues. As he astutely points out, Western music uses only the major and minor scales, while flamenco also uses the Phrygian mode (modo dórico in Spanish). Indeed, theses have been written about the flamenco beat, and there is nothing more absurd (or in bad taste) than a spectator at a flamenco party trying ineffectually to mark time. The twelve-beat cycle is unique to the art form.
There have been other books by foreigners, usually Anglo-Saxons, who attempted to enter the flamenco world with various degrees of success. The American, Donn Pohren, was the first with his ground-breaking works, The Art of Flamenco (1962) and Lives and Legends of Flamenco (1964); Gerald Howson, a proficient guitarist, still alive and well and living in south London, wrote the classic Flamencos of Cádiz Bay in 1965 (I followed him a few years later in the same area and with the same dramatis personae but I never wrote about it, probably because I was a rotten guitarist), and Duende by Jason Webster has been a much more recent success on a predominantly similar theme.
Tony’s book is different – mainly because he has been an intelligent spectator with a gift for drilling down into the history of this great art with a perception and an enthusiasm bordering on the academic – and possessing a sense of humour that sets him apart. He strives for nothing more than the fulfilment of a burning desire to learn as much about flamenco as any human being on the planet, and I doubt very much that this will be his first book on the subject.

Andrew Linn. Marbella Nov 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Englishman's obsession

Flamenco; an Englishman's passion.   
I have been a musician for many years and during this time I have been involved with many different musical genres, but none so magical as flamenco.
My first experience with flamenco happened in Seville when I stumbled head first into a culture that was so very different to that of my own. I was intrigued and confused to say the least but I soon found myself being drawn into this mysterious and colourful phenomenon.
That was many moons ago and since then I have become engrossed in one of the most majestic cultures within the world of music.
In the beginning, the only thing that I understood to be true was that flamenco was relatively misunderstood and this was not confined just to the foreigners; the Spanish seemed to have little knowledge (or interest) in flamenco either.
I was assured that anyone who did have knowledge of flamenco would be unwilling to share its secrets with an outsider, especially a gacho.
So, totally unprepared and armed with all this non-information, I decided that I would try to see for myself what all the fuss was about. What I did not set out to do was write a book about it, this was something that happened along the way.
I soon began to realize that there was much more to flamenco than just song and dance; it was ‘a way of life’. 
Certain towns and villages in Andalucía have a magnetic attraction to flamenco aficionados, so I decided to bus and train hop my way around some of these antiquated old towns to try and get a true understanding of flamenco.
Jerez de la Frontera is the most regal of all flamenco territories, especially the neighborhood of Santiago.
This sleepy old gypsy district seems to have stood still in time and I wandered around tiny back streets full of small white washed houses with uneven walls and rotting window frames.
At every turn I found old bars and taverns, packed with memorabilia of Jerez’s huge contribution to flamenco. The corner shop was the main meeting place where the older locals met daily to chat and watch the world (and six foot three Englishman) go by.
It took me a while to get used to the unusual looks I received from the locals, especially the gypsies who seemed to treat everyone with extreme caution, even if you were an avid flamenco fan.
But I found that when people realized that I had a penchant for flamenco they were most friendly and forthcoming, although not always with information concerning flamenco.
One day whilst chatting with a guy about flamenco in a bar in Utrera, the topic of conversation was diverted in the direction of an approaching game of football between Chelsea FC and Real Betis. As I was English, I must also be crazy about football?
The old guy was dumbfounded that this Englishman had no knowledge of football, yet knew more about flamenco than the average Spaniard.
One thing I have found is that all those people who shared my passion for this art offered any amount of help that I may need.
I was once introduced to an old lady called Dolores in Seville, who wanted to tell me stories about the old flamenco days. She had been a lifelong friend of La Fernanda de Utrera, one of the most famous flamenco singers of the 20th century. Unfortunately Dolores died a short time after my first introduction and with her she took so many wonderful tales and memories of the flamenco way of life that I was searching for.
On another occasion, at a tribute concert for Manuel Montoya, I was introduced to La Chispa, the widow of Camaron de la Isla, as well as other members of this most celebrated singers family.
I managed to get back-stage to speak with this huge gypsy clan because I lived next door to one of the daughters of the Montoya’s.
It seemed that where ever I went I was introduced to someone who knew someone who could help in some way. 
On another occasion I had heard that the flamenco singer Fosforito. was to give a private flamenco recital the Castillo el Bil Bil in Benalmadena Costa.
On arriving at this small venue in Benalmadena, I was informed that the seats were reserved for a select audience of family and personal friends of the singer and of course the big-wigs from the town hall.
As I walked away, bitterly disappointed at my refused entry, I saw the singer in question entering a small bar opposite. I quickly followed him into the bar and asked for a photograph, to which he politely agreed. He asked if I was going to the recital but I explained that it was impossible to gain entry. A short while after explaining that I was researching a book and that I was also an avid fan of his, I found myself in the front row, along with some of the more important hierarchy from the town hall.
But it was not only flamenco performers who were monumental in the investigational research I was attempting, I also had a great deal of help from everyday people who all seemed to have a story or tale to tell.
I was once given a sack full of old Lp records by a lady in a bar who said that I would probably have more use for them than she. Some of the sleeve notes on these old records proved to be more than informative. I have been given black and white photographs of old flamenco artistes and these photo’s are priceless because many of the people in them have long since died.

I also met many of Spain’s top flamenco performers and I found them to contain a certain casualness that is lacking in most other professional musicians that I have met.
On the train journey from Seville to Málaga I once found myself sitting next to Remedios Amaya, one of Seville’s most respected flamenco artistes. We chatted and exchanged phone numbers and she also offered any help I may need the next time I was in Seville.
On another evening I met the singer Pansequito in a small back street bar in Arroyo de la Miel, which resulted in a free entry to a concert he was giving later that night. I had a chance meeting with Falette in a shoe shop in Seville, I met José Mercé in the bullring in Málaga, but one of the most rewarding times was when I interviewed the guitar maestro Daniel Casares after a concert in the old castle in Fuengirola.

I have had my camera confiscated after photographing the flamenco dancer Eva Yerbabuena in concert; got drunk on brandy with El Carrete, one of Málaga’s finest bailaors and been reprimanded by a woman who was infuriated that I had said, in a radio interview, that Cameron de la Isla had gained an almost Elvis status in Spain after his untimely death in 1992.
All in all, getting involved with flamenco has been one of the most rewarding periods of my life.
I have witnessed flamenco in some of the most romantic and beautiful settings and I have become acquainted with some of the most colourful and interesting characters involved with this art.
One thing I have learnt from all of this is that flamenco is not about being a star or an artiste; it is simply a way of life.
It is a contagious dance that is so passionate it will leave you spellbound or an outburst of duende fuelled song that tugs at your deepest emotions, or a light hearted bit of fun where nothing seems to matter and time is unimportant.
Long may it continue!


Flamenco; an Englishman's passion. New revised edition coming soon. Also available as e-book. See www.Books4Spain.com