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Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Dinner al Flamenco

20 December 2007

Ostensibly this is about Christmas Dinner 2007 in a campground in Spain with a bunch of retired Brits and Finns and a sprinkling of Dutch and Germans (and 2 Canadians – us).

But you can’t be in Andaluzía without exposure to the incredible Flamenco of the region. The flash of eyes, the graceful, sometimes tortured poses, the swirl of the dresses, the underlying staccato rhythm that fires your blood – this is FLAMENCO.

Roger was first introduced to it in university as a student, of among other things, Spanish language and literature. Carlos Montoya was something of a rage in North America in the 1960s. Born in Madrid, by the age of 14 he was playing in concert halls around the world. By WW II he had settled in New York City and although he returned to Spain each Christmas he was far more accepted as a flamenco guitarist in North America than in his native Spain. His idiosyncratic playing style alienated him from traditional flamenco guitarists, primarily because he abandoned the compas that flamenco had developed over many hundreds of years. Many of his works do not keep perfect tempo, increasing and decreasing whimsically at times. Montoya was admired for the speed of his picados which brought him fame in the USA and other countries. But to the aficionado, speed without compas is like wine without fermentation – nothing. The core of flamenco, according to Montoya’s critics, is to play rapid, beautiful falsettas without straying beyond the framework of the fixed rhythm.

Nonetheless Roger was overwhelmed by Montoya’s guitar. His music seemed to breathe the airs of the sierras of Spain, to embrace gypsies dancing in smoke filled caves, tavernas and bodegas, to embrace the tragedy and spirit of the bullfight and the Spanish Civil War, to capture the duende – the mystical spirituality of this complicated country with its multifaceted roots. Probably if Roger had taken an exchange year at the age of 20 and been immersed in the Flamenco of Andaluzía he would never have left. But like most people his personality had two auras: the spiritual rebel who would have fit into the republican side of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the straight arrow dreaming of a career in the Canadian navy.

But – “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Did Roger choose fortune? Shakespeare has Brutus go on to say, “Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea [flood tide] are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar) Roger’s life has certainly not been “bound in shallows and in miseries” so he must have chosen fortune. The route was long and torturous but has come full circle - now here he is Spain.

So enjoy these few photos of this impassioned dancing by girls from 10 and up, and by young women of this town. Maybe you will experience the duende. At the end are an excerpt from and a link to a website with more information on the Flamenco.

A note on these pictures: when we arrived for supper we discovered that our table had been changed from one in front to one in the back. Therefore, the bulk of the Flamenco pictures were taken by Roger from under a table in the front giving the angles and resulting limitations of the photos.

The following is taken from a very good website on flamenco and will provide a more in-depth introduction. Interspersed in the excerpt are more pictures of the Flamenco Troupe of Conil.

Flamenco history has only been documented for the past two hundred years or so, and anything before this time is open to debate and speculation.

Much of what we know from before this time comes from stories and legends that have been passed down through family dynasties, in a similar way to the flamenco song itself.

One thing we can be sure of is that flamenco in its original form was only voice, a primitive cry or chant accompanied only by the rhythm which would be beaten out on the floor by a wooden staff or cane.

These styles are known as Palo Secos, or dry styles, and they are the oldest forms of song known today.

The Toñas are the family of songs which represent these style and they include the toña, one of the oldest known styles, the martinetes, which are the songs of the blacksmiths, the rhythm

being supplied by the hammer beating on the anvil, the carceleras or prison songs, and the debla, which at one time was thought to have had connections with a gypsy religious rite.

The saeta is a song of ardent devotion, which is sung to the scenes of the passion during Semana Santa, and is thought to have Jewish origins. Although the saeta is not strictly flamenco, it has all the spontaneity of flamenco, and has been added to the flamenco repertoire of many jondo singers.

Cante jondo means “deep song,” and these are the styles of which most of the other forms derive.

Flamenco is made up of four elements, Cante-Voice, Baile-Dance, Toque-Guitar, and the Jaleo, which roughly translated means “hell raising” and involves the handclapping, foot stomping, and shouts of encouragement.

It whichever way jaleo presents itself, it is performed by the audience as well as the artiste and anyone else who feels the urge to participate.

The handclapping or Palmas is an art in itself, and although it may look easy, it is not, and the palmeros will weave intricate rhythms around the bases of the song, and in the tablaos this is used in conjunction with the zapateado.

The zapateado is the tap dance style of footwork, the dancers show piece where he will demonstrate his skill with his feet, and the noise created by this and the palmeros will be ringing in your ears long after you have left the tablao.

The addition of the guitar is surrounded in apparent mystery as the exact date is not known, but gradually the guitar was introduced as an accompanying instrument for flamenco.

Another important component of flamenco is the element known as duende, and this is shrouded in as much mystery as flamenco itself. Writers and poets over the years have given duende a magical and mysterious meaning, a spiritual significance that goes beyond human understanding. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca romanticized duende saying, “Duende could only be present when one sensed that death was possible.” Many will say that duende can only be experienced in certain surroundings like an intimate flamenco session where a singer will be possessed by the dark tones of the song and the spirit will enter the mind and soul of anyone who opens up to it. “Duende a strange presence that everybody senses but no philosopher can explain , or, “All that has dark sounds has duende.” Whatever you believe, duende does exist, and to experience it, is one of the wonders of this mystical art.

The origins

Most of today’s flamencologists will agree that the baile flamenco has descended from the ancient dances of the Indian Hindus. Although the flamenco dance has shed many of the elements of the Indian religious dances that will unfold a story with set eye and facial movements, it does still have similarities with the Indian dance.

The early flamenco dancers, especially the woman, concentrated more on the upper body and arm movements, similar to that of the Indian Bharata Natya, where the dance is focused on arm movements and facial expressions. Also from India is the Kathuk, which is a dance performed by men and woman, where the very intricate footwork has similarities to the zapateado in flamenco.

These dances reached Spain as early as the Greek times, 500-250 BC, where Indian dancers where brought into Spain via the port of Gadir, today known as Cádiz, to entertain the royals of the time. The arrival of the Moors nearly one thousand years later, and also the gypsies, who brought with them, dance and music styles from Pakistan and Persia enriched the existing andalucian styles.

Many theorists lay the blame for the lack of footwork in the early female baile flamenco on the Muslim discouragement for women not to show their legs. The zapateado or intricate footwork displayed by the dancer was not introduced into the female dance routine until the early twentieth century.

The decrees of the 16th century, where Moors, Jews, and gypsies were persecuted, resulted in these outcasts going underground, and taking with them their music and dances, and this is where it stayed, and this is thought to be the very beginning of the formation of flamenco.

The style of dance we see performed today has changed considerably since these times, and now styles of flamenco song that were never danced are being taken up by modern dancers striving to find new directions for the flamenco dance.

The jondo dancer is today a rare commodity, and what we see is choreographed dance a lot more in the tablaos and commercial establishments.

But what makes a good dancer? His grace, his rhythmic skill, his duende, or his ability to perform spontaneously.

Spontaneous does not mean that a new dance be created every time the dancer takes the floor, but that the dancer will feel the music and dance what he feels for the music at that particular moment, expressing himself and letting his personality take grip of the dance, and not just going through the motions of a show that is rehearsed right down to the facial expressions.

Spontaneous or academic?

There is a phrase, which says, “When you learn to dance, you must also learn how to forget it.” All that he has been taught must at times be ignored, and the dancer will rely on the wisdom that flows in his blood, something that he inherited from an age-old tradition. He must feel the rhythm of his own heart beat and let that guide him with his interpretation, and with his natural instinct, and the knowledge of how to use the rhythm of his heart, he will unleash a mysterious force, searching the most inner depths of his soul to attain a certain high, when the spirits appear to guide him and the duende fills the dance.

This type of dance will not normally be witnessed in a commercial setting, but it is possible in an intimate surrounding where the person dancing is transformed by the flamenco, unaware of anything around him other than the rhythm of the song, drawing his inspiration from the genetic sediment that lies in his soul.

This is the best possible way to witness flamenco dance, on the spur of the moment when someone feels entranced by the music, since the purest of dance exists in the body of those who know how to listen to its rhythmical call, and the more simple the dance, the better.

Outside of its natural surroundings, flamenco can appear dull and weak, rather like an uprooted plant, but in an old taverna or the small backroom of a bodega, where the smokey atmosphere and the scorched, cracked voice of the singer combined with the passionate tones of the flamenco guitar accompanying the solo dancer can sometimes leave you mesmerized.

It is the belief of many, that you cannot be taught flamenco; it is something that you are born into, an age-old secret that the only gypsies hold in their hearts.

Dance is one of the most beautiful ways for a performer to express himself, letting his character shape the routine, if he is a good dancer he will not be interested in flashy techniques or showmanship, just intent in relaying what he feels for the dance at that particular moment.

In the commercial establishments it is most commonly the dancers that the audience is there to see, and anything the singer or guitarist is doing is considered unimportant, because they will most probably not understand what lies inside the music. Even if they have no knowledge of flamenco they can appreciate the grace and passion of the dancer, and the sensual, rhythmical, and graceful movements will normally be enough to satisfy the uninitiated.

If it is pure jondo dance you are looking for, then you will not normally find it in the tablaos, but if it is an enjoyable night’s entertainment, then the tablaos are good places to see flamenco dance.

There is a release in spontaneous dancing that does not exist in academic, choreographed dancing, and the two different styles are considered as separate arts, rather like the guitar soloists as opposed to the accompanists.

Flamenco dance was initially a solo act, but it was with the invention of the café cantantes that dance troupes were formed, and today many of the top dancers have their own companies. These companies can have up to twenty dancers on stage at the same time, and it would be with disastrous effects if the routines were not choreographed. Today these flamenco troupes take shows to the theaters and arenas not only in Andalucía, but to the rest of the world, and in London’s Sadlers Wells theatre, where they hold an annual festival of flamenco, you will have to book months in advance to obtain a ticket.

Today flamenco dance is becoming more popular world wide, but these styles are now mixed with classic Spanish dance as well as ballet.

To witness jondo style flamenco dance today you will have to seek out the peñas and flamenco recitals that are aimed at the purer side of this fantastic art.

The fiesteros, which are normally of the older generation of artistes who sing and dance, will show you that there is still room for both sides of this art, and whether it is the tablaos, the theaters, or the antiquated jondo style of dance you prefer, flamenco is one of the most visual and emotive forms of expression, and to witness a passionate display of flamenco dance will leave most people impassioned.