Friday, April 20, 2012

 A Time Defying Heritage
Tony Bryant
Ediciones Flamenco Sapiens
ISBN 13:978-84-9727-429-6 

Another invaluable read for flamenco aficionados!

Books on flamenco, in English, are few and far between and Tony Bryant generously shares his vast knowledge of the subject with his readers.
In a complete change from “An Englishman’s Passion”, this latest book is based on a family tree for some of the most important flamenco families in Utrera (Seville) and it centers on a personal hero of Tony’s, the great Fernando Peña Soto - El Pinini.
Tony has unearthed a wealth of information by delving into the lives and histories of the people of Utrera, and these people have taken him under their wing and shared their memories with him and opened their hearts to allow Tony to put pen to paper.
The book opens with an account of a flamenco event in Utrera, “4 Dinastias”, which paid tribute to the four greatest flamenco families, and Tony explains the background of the event, as well as an explanation of who was there and what part they took in the proceedings.
This is an excellent opening to the book, and throughout the rest of the book we get a vivid insight into the world of Utrera flamenco through the eyes of an Englishman, and we can only imagine the generosity of these close knit families in allowing Tony to gather so much information.
The book is full of rare old photos of performers and family members, past and present and actual family trees are charted in the pages. There is also an extensive biography section that includes all of Pinini’s family that have somehow played a part in this family’s on-going flamenco legacy.
The book culminates in an interesting and valuable discography to allow the readers to experience the sound of flamenco as it should be heard – not the flamenco of the tourist traps.
Tony has also included a guide to Utrera, so that future aficionados may search-out the wonderful wealth of history that this small gypsy enclave has to offer the flamenco fanatic.
A great and interesting read, and a veritable bible for those eager to learn more about this great art called flamenco.

Terry Clear Málaga April 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A passion for Andalusia

Understanding Flamenco, a complicated emblem of Spain

In any word association game concerning Spain, the same few words are bound to come up and they are, of course, Flamenco and bull fighting - with perhaps sangria as an afterthought.  This must infuriate the Spanish, not least because Flamenco has nothing to do with most of Spain and is restricted to the culture of Andalusia – just one of Spain’s 17 different regions.  Certainly, few Spaniards outside of Andalusia would think of Flamenco as being emblematic of their country.

However, Flamenco is set deep within the psyche of most foreigners, when it comes to the identity of Spain, which is not surprising, given the exotic flamboyance of Flamenco.  This is undeniable and must have been a PR man’s dream when the Costa del Sol was first being promoted as a holiday destination for foreigners in the 1960s.

But what is Flamenco really all about?  Where did it come from and why does it encourage such passion, both for and against it?

Certainly, Flamenco is complicated and pure flamenco (Cante Jondo) is brutally hard to listen to.  In fact, author Tony Bryant in his book Flamenco; an Englishman's passion (available from Books4Spain) describes the perfect Flamenco voice as being burnt, cracked and dry like the Andalusian terrain’.  This is hardly the melodic sound that naturally appeals to most Europeans.

Meanwhile, pure Flamenco dancing can be almost as harsh as a Flamenco singer’s voice and yet combines an extraordinary combination of movements.  The upper body of the dancer has the fluid movements reminiscent of a Hindu dancer, whilst the lower body is like that of an Egyptian belly dancer, albeit one able to tap dance to incredibly complex rhythms.  Meanwhile, the face of the Flamenco dancer is stern to the point of being ferocious and notable for lacking the happy smile so common to Western dancing.

Of course, Flamenco is a gypsy art form and one sustained and developed by Andalusian gypsies for centuries.  Indeed, almost all the finest singers, dancers and Flamenco musicians have come from Andalusia, with few Spanish outsiders ever becoming notable performers.  This probably has much to do with the history of the gypsies in Spain and the fact that, until recently, they lived in tight communities, difficult for outsiders to penetrate.  This meant that Flamenco was, for a long time, kept distilled in a very pure form.

In fact, gypsies first came to Spain around 1425 and were itinerant traders of horses and cattle, whilst also earning money as blacksmiths.  Unfortunately, they were not popular with the authorities and a series of restrictive laws were passed from 1499, one measure being to remove their right to trade in animals and another stating that they were only allowed to work on the land.  The gypsies were also stopped from ‘wandering’, which goes a long way to explain why gypsies in Spain are not itinerant but have been settled for hundreds of years in the same places.

Finally, in 1783 a law was passed calling gypsies in Spain the ‘New Castillians’ and providing them with equal rights to other Spaniards – although they were still forbidden from wandering and were not allowed to wear gypsy costume or speak their own language (Cali).  Indeed, it is thought that the very name Flamenco comes from the Arabian word ‘fellah mengu’meaning fugitive peasant.
Needless to say, the gypsies in Spain have been oppressed and it is this oppression that comes across in the music.  Indeed, in his book, Tony Bryant sums this up well, when he says that most songs are about ‘suffering, persecution, hunger, lost love and death’, which accounts for the brutal harshness of pure Flamenco.

Interestingly, Flamenco has become more commercialised over the years with ‘fusion Flamenco’ the sound (and sight) that most people see.  This is because pure Flamenco (Cante Jondo) is too difficult for most non-aficionados to enjoy, at least for any length of time.  Certainly, at its most pure Flamenco is just about the voice – so much so that Flamenco was not accompanied, even by a guitar, until the latter part of the nineteenth century!  

In any event there are now four parts to Flamenco, namely Cante (voice), Baile (dance), Toque (guitar) and Jaleo (‘hell-raising’).  Whilst the first three may be pretty obvious, the fourth is less so.  However, Jaleo is the interaction of an audience with the performers by clapping, foot stomping and shouting and is an intrinsic part of a performance – although it is something that most Western audiences shy away from.

Of course, no mention of Flamenco is possible without saying something about duende!  This is a word used to describe the perfection or ecstasy that is felt by either a performer and/or audience when the Flamenco being played or performed reaches a state of sublime perfection. 

So where should you go, if you want to see Flamenco?  

Well, Tony Bryant maintains that the finest Flamenco occurs spontaneously in Andalusia as a jamming session (Juerga) and is best witnessed in the natural gypsy environment of a smoky tavern or the backroom of a bodega.  It is then that Flamenco comes into its own, in a way made impossible within anaemic halls or theatres.  However, to feel and see duendeis not something that many people will ever experience, even though it is clearly worth searching for.

Finally, if you want to know more about Flamenco then do get Tony Bryant’s excellent book: Flamenco – An Englishman’s Passion (available from Books4Spain).  Tony is a professional musician (a drummer), who brings Flamenco alive in a uniquely effective way.  He knows his subject intimately, together with the history of Flamenco and its performers and he writes in a style easily accessible to anyone interested in the culture of Spain – or should I say the culture of Andalusia?

Written by Nick Snelling: Culture Spain.