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October 31, 2011

[LISTENING GUIDE] Flamenco is a Living Art: Your Guide

By Joseph Pratt

On November 5th UMS will be presenting Diego el Cigala: one of  today’s most exciting flamenco singers and musicians.

I’m  Joseph Pratt.  For 20 years I’ve  performed flamenco and classical guitar at the Amadeus Restaurant in Ann Arbor and I’m delighted to be your guide to this extraordinary music. Though I grew up in Maine and was first introduced to flamenco through television and recordings—my initial exposure was on an episode of Captain Kangaroo–the music left a lasting impression.

Flamenco is a living art form with enigmatic antecedents. This means that while it has roots with Gypsies and other ethnic groups from Andalusia, the area of southern Spain that abuts the Mediterranean, the palette of flamenco has been enriched by hundreds of musicians and dancers from many ethnic origins. This distinctive music has been the soundtrack for the complex and often violent history of the Andalusian underclass. Also, this compelling art form will sound to the listener as though two different times or eras were superimposed: a rich cultural past inspiring a dynamic, fast changing present. Flamenco musicians have learned from the traditions of their cultural past and use those rhythms and voices in their outreach to other musical forms. Where and with whom did this all start?

During the years Spain gorged itself on Aztec gold, an underclass of Arabs, Jews, Roma, North Africans and South Americans poured into the ghettos of Seville bringing  with them each their own musical heritage. Not invited to partake of their host country’s riches, the oppressed sang and danced their sorrow in the same spirit as African slaves in the New World. There was a strong current of fatalism in the people who made this music. They generally had no political recourse and were limited in the choices they could make about their own lives. Sorrow, anger, and frustration came out through the music of flamenco: a collective autobiography of hated despots, hopeful lovers, broken men, and distressed women. All the while flamenco incorporates beautiful costumes and cunning virtuosos in it’s  juxtaposition of  good and evil, just and outlaw which makes flamenco a compelling dynamic experience—one that never fails to raise hairs on the back of my neck.

In many ways then, flamenco was a ‘world music’ before critics coined that term for sounds that bridge form and culture. In recent years Diego el Cigala, an artist originally born in Madrid has added more twists.

Diego el Cigala is particularly good at interpreting what is  known as the ‘solea:’ a  form of song that expresses the feelings of deep spiritual hardship and is thought to derive from Romani songs carried over generations, from the Indian subcontinent. In a New York Times interview El Cigala says: “Flamenco has to be suffered” and this is very much the tradition of the solea song form. This is not called as ‘cante jundo’ or ‘deep song’ for nothing! While listening, notice his raspy style of singing which is a characteristic flamenco vocal sound known as the ‘voz afilla’. Some would say that voz afilla is the sound of the ripping and tearing of the soul of the singer.
Did you notice how he occasionally claps his hands? Flamenco is a music very rich with rhythm and it has a unique system of accents and beats that can sound unusual to ears conditioned to hearing the music typically played in North America.

Listen to this next video of a song called Flamenco por Lorca . This type of song is called a ‘bulerias’ and is rhythmically similar to the solea but is played at a greater tempo.  Take in the floating aural sensation of the flamenco beat. The percussion instrument that that looks like a box is called a ‘ cajon’ which is Peruvian in origin. It was discovered by the great flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia in the 1970s when he was given a cajon as a gift while on tour in Peru. Paco de Lucia is hailed to be the greatest living flamenco guitarist and has given several UMS sponsored concerts.  He liked the sound of the percussion instrument so much that he incorporated it into his own music. The appreciation of the cajon caught on and is now part of the sound of contemporary flamenco. Notice, also, that many hands clap out rhythms called ‘palmas’ and additionally notice the percussive effects played out on the guitar.

Now to  Diego el Cigala’s new contribution to the fusion of flamenco where he explores tango. In this video, El Cigala applies voz afilla to the chords and beat of Argentinian tango. While the sound is beautiful to listen to, purists would find this selection not to be authentically Andalusian.  Still, its spirit maintains a heat and passion for the flamenco singer to identify in his soul.

Currents of time and history will decide if the tango form will become intertwined with the genre of flamenco. In that spirit, the November 5 performance, which promotes the artist’s new album (Cigala & Tango) may act as a catalyst for an entirely new arm of flamenco – yet another twist in the continuity of a spectacular sound.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph C. Pratt studied classical guitar with Covelle. He has been performing in since 1989 and is available for hire at events in S.E. Michigan. Mr. Pratt performs flamenco and classical guitar every Friday evening at the Amadeus Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has studied flamenco and flamenco guitar for 20 years hanging out with flamenco artists and aficionados, reading widely about flamenco and listening to the best performers for technique and the most authentic performers for feeling.
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