Wednesday, October 1, 2014

BBC documentary: The spirit of flamenco.

Tony Bryant has recently assisted the BBC with a documentary called ‘The Spirit of Flamenco’, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in June and here the Englishman shares his experiences of the recording of the show; which took place in Utrera, Seville and Córdoba.

The show was to be made in two parts and the first section was based around the life and work of the Cordovan guitarist Paco Peña.
The second section was to focus on the gypsy-flamenco way of life and how flamenco assists their daily routines: it was also to focus on the role of flamenco during Semana Santa.
I was to organize a meeting of various singers and a guitarist in order to record them talking about their flamenco, and also capture their art during a spontaneous juerga.
I had to arrange a venue where this could all be achieved, and this location had to be in a town that had some kind of spiritual connections with the gypsies and their music: the one town where I could almost certainly accomplish all of this was Utrera.

The recording was to start on Tuesday the thirteenth of May, which for a superstitious Englishman living in Spain, is not a good day to engage in anything that requires leaving the house, let alone the province.
I was to meet the producer at Malaga airport, after which, we would travel to Seville in a hire car supplied by the BBC.
The producer was a tall, wiry, bespectacled chap who more resembled a university professor, but he turned out to be an interesting fellow who has worked for the BBC for almost thirty years.
A senior producer for the BBC’s religion and ethics department, he had worked a varied sphere of subjects including religious-themed topics in Afghanistan, Iran and China, to hip-hop documentaries in New York.

He was in Spain to record ‘The spirit of flamenco’, an episode of BBC Radio Two’s ‘Guitar Season’; a series of programs based on the role of the guitar in the history of world music.
The documentary was also to focus on the role religion plays in flamenco, or more to the point, if it has any role at all!

There was also a priest to find; not just any priest, but one who was an aficionado of flamenco that would be willing to be questioned about flamenco and spirituality.
This was obviously going to be a little more difficult for me to organize, but I was astonished to be informed of a priest who would be delighted to participate.
The priest lived in Cordoba, and although I arranged the meeting, I did not partake in the interview, because my participation was confined to Seville and Utrera.

We arrived in Utrera in the early afternoon and the temperature had soured to 35º, and so we headed to a small bar opposite the hostel.
The appearance of two lofty Englishman intrigued the four or five undersized locals that were spread along the bar, but once the courteous ‘holas’ had been exchanged, they soon returned to their conversations.
There are numerous small bars tucked away in the side streets of Utrera and they all rely totally on the custom of the local people, and for this reason, you will always be served good traditional local fare at a more than reasonable price.
They are basic cafes and are void of any ornamentation, and yet they are often so cheap to eat and drink in that one feels embarrassed when paying the bill. 

After lunch we retired to the hostel for a short siesta, but there was little time for any shut-eye for me, because no sooner had my head hit the pillow, my phone began to buzz.

I had previously, but unsuccessfully, attempted to contact the people I had lined up for the interviews, but with the exception of Dani de Utrera, I could get no answer from any of the others.

Dani had informed me that his habitual accompanist, Amador Gabarri, would not be able to assist, but I was not to worry, said he, because he had arranged another guitarist from Moron de la Frontera.

Although I assured the producer that everything was going to plan, I had still to find a location, and, of course, track down the absent artistes. Even though I have known these people for many years, I often forget that they are andalusian gypsies, so there is often little chance of them arriving on time; if indeed at all.
But everything eventually went to plan, and so once the other artistes had been located, we set off to the center of the town, where I was to take the BBC on a quick tour of Utrera’s flamenco hot-spots.
We wandered down the Calle Nueva and through the tiny back streets where so many flamencos had been born, or had previously lived. We then went to the beautiful bronze monument of La Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera, and on to the small memorial park that honors many of the town’s most celebrated artistes.
Whilst recording various bits and pieces in the park, the bells of the Santa Maria church began to clang, and this interruption gave me the idea of where we should interview the artistes and record the juerga; and what a wonderfully picturesque corner of Utrera this proved to be.

Andalusia is particularly beautiful in the spring, and the streets and plazas of Utrera were saturated with the aroma of differing blossom, and the purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees covered the floor like a carpet of confetti.
The Santa Maria church became the backdrop for our documentary, and the small plaza opposite the church had the most perfect ambience for a little bit of gitanerias.

Luis el Marquesito and Dani de Utrera arrived looking fresh and keen to get started, but we awaited the arrival of the guitarist: he eventually appeared resembling the emblematic flamenco-dude; trilby hat, dark shades, and with his guitar thrown over his shoulder.

Paco de Amparo, the great-nephew of the late Diego del Gastor, is part of one of the most important guitar dynasties in the history of flamenco, and he certainly possessed the same quality that his celebrated great-uncle once had.
Spirits were high, and the producer was anxious to get things started, and so he began giving instructions as to what it was he wanted them to do; which proved harder than the he had obviously expected.
One of the things the director had trouble coping with was the natural ambient of flamenco and he seemed concerned that he could not get silence when he thought he needed it.
He asked on several occasions for El Marquesito and Dani to refrain from interrupting with the jaleo whilst Paco was performing a solo piece on the guitar, but he eventually realized that this was not going to happen.
During a break in recording I informed him that if it was the ‘authentic’ form of this art that he was seeking, then he would find no better opportunity to capture it with his microphones.
He obviously wanted a crystal clear recording of the guitar, but what he actually canned was something far more astounding than he could have ever imagined.
The flamencos were relaxed and happy, which is a fine combination for a juerga, and after the initial interviews, they began to perform in the manner that I had hoped for.

The small plaza was soon reverberating with the wonderful voices of El Marquesito and Dani, and Paco’s guitar sounded at its most beautiful during the recording of a buleria, when he incorporated the tolling of the church bells with the rhythm of his song.
Dani demonstrated why he is considered one of Utrera’s most talented young flamenco singers, when he effortlessly recited a chilling saeta on the steps of the church: the sorrowful tone of his ghostly voice seemed to hover like a mist, which was then blasted away by the fury that rose from the soles of his feet, and out of his mouth with the wrath of a demon.

El Marquesito was on fine form singing the cantes of his birthplace, and his face beamed with pride as he sang of his great-grandfather, the legendary ‘Fernando El Pinini’.
As I stood in the wings watching these gypsies simply doing what comes so naturally to them, I felt content that we had indeed captured, for all prosperity, a little bit of andalusian gypsy magic.

As the sun set down behind the glowing Santa Maria church, and the microphones and equipment was neatly packed away in their chrome-cornered boxes, a sense of camaraderie prevailed.
These people are, without doubt, the most welcoming community I have ever encountered, and as we chatted and joked under the oranges trees in this attractive corner of the town, I was overcome with sentiment: I had set out to promote Utrera, and on this occasion, the andalusian gypsies demonstrated the reason why I had taken the documentary to Utrera.

After the final photographs had been taken, and promises had been made, we all strolled down the hill to sample the delights of the bodega Doña Juana; all at the expense of the BBC of course!  

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