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