Friday, May 25, 2012

Master of the baile flamenco

                                   Vicente Escudero.

He was to make a considerable mark on the history of modern Spanish dance, yet Vicente Escudero Urive was probably the most controversial flamenco dancers ever: His refusal to conform to tradition and his disregard of the compás made him the subject of much criticism.
It is a fact that if you do not possess compás, then you will not perform good flamenco, but Vicente Escudero had compás, only he refused to be restricted by rules and regulations.

Born in Valladolid in 1887, Vicente danced what he termed his ‘dances of life’, which, as he claimed, was to dance to the sound of the wind or to the rhythm of machinery: One of his specialities as a young lad was the ‘Train dance’.
He frequently toured with young bullfighters and this dance was inspired by the many times he travelled as a stowaway listening to the rhythm created by the varying speed of the wheels on the track.

It was said that the young Escudero had little knowledge of the flamenco rhythms and this caused problems for him because he could not perform the palmas in correct time. Many guitarists refused to work with this lad, because although he had determination, he lacked respect and often showed it.
Vicente fought constantly with guitarists in these early years, often obnoxiously declaring that he did not need the guitar because he could perform better without them.
A superstitious man who believed that a hat placed on the bed would bring imminent death, Vicente was also in constant rebellion against dancers who performed to a routine sequence. “He who dances knowing in advance what they will do is more dead than alive”, he would say.
He believed that to copy was simply stealing and he criticized many dancers for not having personality or the ability to improvise in their dance; referring to most of his contemporaries as “Mechanical bailaores”.

It was this arrogant attitude that made him unpopular with other artistes, but in the minds of the general public Vicente was a prodigy.
Regardless of the opinion of numerous dancers of that time who scorned what he did, Vicente Escudero was one of the most natural dancers to ever grace the art of flamenco; his stubborn, non-conformist attitude to the dance made him the very substance of true flamenco. He was a pioneer in every sense of the word.

Although he himself was not gypsy, he spent much of his early childhood in their company and this gave him a similar attitude towards the dance. This was to dance how you feel at that particular moment with little or no respect for polished academic rules. He was a strong believer that men should dance as men, as he felt that the male dance had become too effeminate.
He drew up his own set of rules that related to the posture and gesture of the male dancer and these rules became known as the ‘Ten Commandments of flamenco’

He toured around the country performing his unconventional style of dance in cinemas but, although he worked rigorously, he was still yet to be taken seriously in Spain.
Vicente left Spain and went to Portugal in order to evade military service and after this he went to Paris, where he appeared at the Olympia theatre.
He was an admirer of Antonio de Bilbao, but it was an introduction to the dancer La Argentina that would set him on the route to national stardom. La Argentina was the one who channelled his drive and trained him as an artiste.
In 1924 he presented his Spanish ballet company in Paris along with Carmita García, his leading dancer, with whom he would be attached, on and off stage, for the next forty years.

He began to frequent the cafes of the Montparnasse district of Paris and he soon became submerged in the surrealism that dominated the artistic world of Paris and he quickly began to live the life as the authentic local bohemian.
It was at this time that Vicente got the inspiration to paint and draw pictures that reflected many of the aspects of his dance.
He lived in the ‘atmosphere of pure art’ for three years and he was strongly influenced by the work of Picasso, a man he regarded as his friend and “the most interesting painter of modern times”.
It was during this period that Vicente rented a small theatre from the French courtesan and cabaret dancer, Emilianne d’Alencon, which he called the Curve theatre, but the venture was short lived. Although he had gained a cult following from the artistic circle of Paris, he said that he felt as though he was dancing for his own benefit because the seats would rarely be filled. 

In 1925 he was called upon by La Argentina to dance in her production of Manuel de Falla`s El Amor Brujo and over the next decade he became one of the most important male dancers of his time.
In 1930 he returned to Spain where he tried to establish himself in the hearts of the Spanish public.
He had spent the majority of his career outside of Spain, because like many artistes of this period, his art was little understood in his native land.
In 1934 he went to America with La Argentina and her sister Pastora Imperio, where he conquered the American public with his genius.
The Americans considered him the greatest dancer in the world and it seemed that from this point forward Vicente could do no wrong.  
In 1940 he created some controversy by becoming the first person to ever dance a siguiriya; the deep song of the gypsies considered, at that time, too sacred to be danced. Vicente Escudero believed that all styles of flamenco could be danced so long as they were performed with feeling and understanding.

Vicente’s dance was influenced by the environment in which he moved and when he danced his body became almost feline.
During the farruca his long fingers and nails would ferociously snap at the rhythm, his long arms would be held high above his gnarled face as he glided across the stage with the subtlety of a cloud.
When dancing alegrias his arms would rise up like the minaret of a mosque, his hands moving gracefully; his feet precisely accenting the rhythm.

However, Vicente’s life was divided between dance and his love of art and he used painting and drawing as a way of creating his dance: “I paint it and then I dance it” was how he once described his work.
In 1947 he wrote the first of two books on the subject of flamenco dance: Mi Baile is an account of his life that tells of the struggles and triumphs of one of flamencos most controversial figures.
In 1950 he produced his second book, Pintura que Baile and he also tried his hand at acting, appearing in several films both in Spain and Hollywood.
He performed in the film With the east wind, along with Antonio Gades and Imperio Argentina, although he believed that on film a dancer could not express himself spontaneously.
Antonio Gades was one of many who followed Vicente’s style of dance and the two became personal friends and worked together on numerous occasions.

After the death of Carmita Garcia in 1963 Vicente started to wane because Carmita had been his constant companion and she was one of few that stood by Vicente throughout his career.
Vicente gave his last public performance in Madrid in 1969. He retired to Barcelona; a city that he found artistically inspiring and a place where he continued to paint until his death in 1980 - at the age of ninety-three.
He was said to have valued only three female dancers of his era - Carmen Amaya, Regla Ortega and Pastora Imperio, and only one male - himself!

Vicente was also a competent singer of flamenco and, as with his dance; his cante represented his own personality. He recorded at least one long-play disc and several 7inch singles; although today these are extremely hard to come by.

Vicente Escudero will be remembered as the boy who could not clap in time that went on to become one of the most legendary figures of modern Spanish dance.
He was responsible for developing a high level of sophisticated dance, a dance that did not always conform to the tradition of flamenco and a style that was, for best part of his artistic life, hugely criticized.

El Pinini's wedding certificate

Notes for the wedding certificate of Fernando Peña Soto – ‘El Pinini’ and Josefa Vargas Torres.

This wedding certificate shows that El Pinini and Josefa Vargas were married by Don Joaquin de Piña in the church of Santiago El Mayor in Utrera, Seville, on July 27 1881.
El Pinini’s date of birth is shown as 1873 and Josefa’s 1874, but these dates are obviously incorrect because Pinini was born in 1863 and Josefa in 1864. If these date were correct, then Pinini would have been only eight-years old when he married Josefa; who would have been seven!
The note on the left hand-side of the document refers to this discrepancy.

Fernando de la Peña y Soto, born in Lebrija, Seville. Son of Benito and Antonia.
Profession and home address is not noted on the document.

Josefa de Vargas y Torres, born in Utrera, Seville. Daughter of Diego and Luisa.
Profession not noted. Home address –Calle Nueva 7, Utrera.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Passionate Englishman

DESTINED FOR SUCCESS                                                                                           by Vera King 
How often does it happen that a first book not only goes to a reprint within two years but that the author’s second book goes to press at the same time as the reprint? This is the achievement of former drummer Tony Bryant, all the more admirable that it is in – howevermuch we aficionados of flamenco do not like to admit it – a minority interest.
Tony’s first book,  Flamenco - An Englishman’s Passion – is now in reprint under the Sol y Sombra Books imprint and available through the new online bookstore His second, A Time-Defying Heritage, available soon, charts the genealogy of one of the biggest flamenco families from the 18th Century until the present day.
His books are destined for the bookshelves of every aficionado and researcher. He cannot supplant Donn Pohren because Donn was the first to open up the subject to many starving nationalities using English as a first or second language. But his research, and plans for future projects will put him on the same shelf.
What a story he tells as the musician from Kennington, South London, who had backed such bands as those of Charlie Watts, found he could not follow the rhythms he heard in Spain.
Andrew Lynn, an informed Costa del Sol writer on flamenco who completely re-edited the new version, with fresh pictures and a new cover, writes in a foreword, “Try as he might (he) 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 uses Phrygian mode (modo dórico in Spanish).
 ”Indeed, theses have been written about the flamenco beat. The 12-beat cycle is unique to the art form.”
The author, he says, has a gift for drilling down into the history of this great art with a perception and enthusiasm bordering on the academic – and possessing a sense of humour that sets him apart.”
Tony Bryant himself contends that flamenco is a passionate and seductive art form, a mysterious and misunderstood culture that has been brewing in Andalucía for about five centuries.
“One needs to encounter the spontaneous, raw emotion of pure flamenco and compare it to the commercial flamenco that dominates today’s scene.
“It is wonderful to see the emotion on the face of someone performing with intense enthusiasm, especially if he touches your soul while the song rises from your feet and your emotions are churned from the depths of sorrow to the heights of ecstasy.”
He has been fortunate to encounter that “raw” flamenco many times, and recounts a number of them. Of Farruco, one of the great Montoya dynasty, whose style was pure gypsy baile: “His overweight frame gave the impression that he would probably do as little as possible as he slowly moved about the stage dragging his feet, faking a turn and snapping his fingers. But in an explosive frenzy that lasted for just a few seconds he became as if possessed by daemonic forces that controlled his every move.
“The duende and emotion that filled his dance has rarely been equalled and his timing and knowledge of the rhythm was impeccable.”
Flamenco – an Englishman’s Passion, £14.95,
, the new online book store dealing subjects such as the Spanish Civil war, Camino de Santiago, Federico García Lorca, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Franco, flamenco …

Vera King is a former Fleet  Street journalist who edits Flamenco News, magazine of the Peña Flamenca de Londres.  Flamenco News  is available by post for £4 including postage. It is free to members of the Peña.

Caption: La Fernanda de Utrera and Miguel Funi, 1973 feria de Moron. Picture by kind permission of Mark Johnson

Sunday, May 6, 2012

                                    The Imitable Carmen Amaya

                                                      Painting courtesy of Diego Ramos

Carmen Amaya, born Barcelona 1913, was one of the most outstanding female flamenco dancers of the twentieth century and she was also one of the most imitated.
Her hard masculine style of dance was often copied, but she was inimitable and to this day there has never been a female dancer to match her ferocious style of dance.
Her fast rattling foot work became her trait and it is said that on several occasions she actually put her foot through the stage whilst performing.
Carmen Amaya created a deeply personal style of dance that was so individual and her manly image and legs of steel became her trademark: She was also famed because she wore the Traje corto, a tight fitting suit normally only worn by men.
She revolutionized the female flamenco dance and broke many of the rules and traditions of the old style dance; but she was criticized for her non-conformist style and accused of de-feminizing the female flamenco dance, which, until then had concentrated more on the movement of the arms, hands and upper torso.

But Carmen Amaya was not the first female dancer to pursue this mode of flamenco dance and it is quite possible, or even probable that Carmen had been inspired by a 19th century dancer from Málaga called Trinida Huertas – La Cuenca.

La Cuenca was born in Málaga in 1860, and she was the first documented female dancer to wear masculine clothing and dance in a very manly way.
La Cuenca caused quite a tremble in the flamenco world with her extreme zapateado during a time when the female dancers of the café-cantantes like La Malena and La Macarrona were concentrating on the more elegant styles.

La Cuenca was the first bailaora to incorporate the zapateado into the soleá and and in 1887 she caused quite a stir at the Seville feria with her revolutionary style. Fernando el de Triana declared that she danced like a torero and that she executed the male style dance marvellously; “with the purest art and rhythm”.
There were people who believed that she vulgarised the female dance and that this style should be left to the men, but history is made by people who divert from the orthodox methods, and La Cuenca and Carmen Amaya were two examples of this.

However, Carmen Amaya’s dance style went through two stages and later in her career she dropped much of her manly image and concentrated on the more traditional style.
The change from masculine to feminine came as a great shock to her adoring public who were so used to her wild and turbulent style: Her snapping pitos and rattling zapateado would equal any male dancer of her era. 
She danced with the flowing ease of a serpent; twisting and arching her body as she turned with such speed and perfection.
She became an icon for thousands of imitators who attempted to copy her unorthodox style, but it was not just the dance that made Carmen Amaya so great, but also her sharp gypsy wit and jubilant personality.

Carmen Amaya was born in the run down gypsy barrio of Somorrostro, where at the age of four she started dancing in the waterside taverns and bars.
She was born into a long line of gypsy flamenco performers that included her grandfather, the dancer, Juan Amaya Jiménez (credited for the initiation of the baile por jaberas)  and her aunt, La Faraona, another flamenco dancer from the equally gypsy district of El Sacromonte in Granada.
Her father, El Chino, was a guitarist and he set the stage for her complete domination; and she came rolling out of Barcelona ready to set the world alight with her overwhelmingly ferocious style.

It was with La Faraona that Carmen first went to Paris and even at the age of just ten she demonstrated that she was going to change the tradition of flamenco dance.
Her mother was also a dancer, although she never danced professionally because of El Chino’s protectiveness, and with ten children to look after, she could barely find the time to pursue a career in flamenco.
Carmen’s childhood dancing was spurred on by distressing hunger but she would remember these days with much happiness and there are many anecdotes that recall her first forays into the professional world.
During one theatrical show in Barcelona, which was raided by the police, a four-year old Carmen was forced to hide under the overcoat of the singer José Cepero, who, it is said, had to shuffle the young dancer out of the side door whilst the police searched in vain for underage performers.

Another occasion tells of how, when she was sixteen, she had danced at the Spanish pavilion during the international exposition in Barcelona in 1929.
The job of the artistes was to entertain the guests of the pavilion, for which they would be duly rewarded with gifts or money, but Carmen had entertained a lowly looking man who appeared down on his luck; much to the amusement and heckling of the other artistes.
However, it was to be Carmen who would have the last laugh because soon after this gentleman had left the pavilion, Carmen received a luxurious hamper containing thousands of pesetas worth of delectable things.
The man, who was obviously disguised, was none other than Don Carlos de Borbon, brother of the King of Spain!      

Carmen became known as La Capitana, and went on to perform along-side such legends as Tomás Pavon, Manuel Torre and La Niña de los Peines and in 1929 she toured Spain with Manuel Vallejo, winner of the second Golden key of flamenco.
In the same year the Mirador newspaper described her as “soul, pure soul” and from here on her legend grew increasingly where ever she went.

During the early 1930s she went to South America, where she spent more than ten years living in Buenos Aires and on her return to Spain she was a rich and very famous woman.
She had formed her own flamenco troupe, made up mainly of family members, who toured extensively moving from town to town like a travelling circus; conquering everyone with her gypsy beauty and her magical presence.
Her troupe would travel to Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela, where she mesmerized audiences with her unbelievable magic and contagious character and she was treated like a gypsy Queen wherever she went.
She is said to have spent money as fast as she earned it; reportedly having no interest in material things, she lavished friends and family with expensive gifts and money.
But the many months on the road took their toll on Carmen, and numerous family fights and disagreements eventually forced Carmen to disband her troupe and fly off to Mexico City.
It was here that she would meet the guitarist Sabicas, who had been exiled in Mexico since the start of the civil war in Spain. She would spend many years performing with Sabicas; a man who she was also romantically linked, although this is something that she played down as just a professional friendship.
In 1941 Carmen and Sabicas went to New York where she would continue to gain hoards of fans, including President Theodore Roosevelt who invited her to perform at a party in the White House.
After years of partnership with Sabicas, she eventually married Juan Antonio Agüero, a guitarist from Santander who cleaned up her financial and personal problems, and took over the reins of her career for the rest of her life. 
Carmen Amaya spent a considerable time in Hollywood appearing in many films making her a world-renowned artiste. Her last film was La Historia de los Tarantos in which she appeared along-side another legend of flamenco dance, Antonio Gades.
Even though Carmen completed filming Los Tarantos, she never saw the finished result because she had contracted a kidney related disease which prevented her from dancing and after a short illness she died at her home in Bagur, Barcelona on November 19, 1963.
Few personalities of the flamenco world have been so widely mourned and so greatly missed as has Carmen Amaya, because she was a highly talented phenomenon whose style revolutionized the flamenco dance.