There’s a story which says flamenco music has its origins in the 1500s when the Iberian Peninsula was being reclaimed by the armies of Spain from the Ottoman Empire. Muslims weren’t the only ones fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition who followed the armies hunting down heretics and infidels. Jews and gypsies who had lived relatively peaceful lives under Islamic rule were also being forced to either convert to the one true faith or die. It’s said a group of Sephardic Jews and gypsies managed to elude the Inquisition for some time by hiding in caves surrounding the city of Catalonia. During this time they shared much with each other, including their music, and out of this exchange of musical ideas was born flamenco.
While the majority of those hidden in the caves were eventually caught, some escaped and took with them the ideas and sounds they had learned. Stories like these, while romantic, are hard to verify. However, a new release from the Rough Guide label, part of the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Flamenco offers at least the suggestion that there’s some truth to this story. One of the artists included on the disc is a Sephardic Jew singing a flamenco tune in the Ladino language of her people from the time of the Ottoman Empire in Spain.
Israeli born Yasmin Levy is only one of 13 different flamenco performers included on the disc. While each of them come from the same tradition of music, their songs are as distinctly individual as they are. From the family groups who continue the traditions of their Andalusian forebears to the modern groups who combine elements of pop, hip hop, Balkan, Latin and even the music of India with the familiar staccato rhythms of the genre, listening to this disc will show you flamenco is much more than you thought it was.
The first four tracks on the disc, “Buleria Menor” by Son De La Frontera, “Por La Mar Chica De Puerto” by Mayte Martin, “Cielo Azul” by Lenacay, and “El Faro (Rumba Songo)” by Jorge Pardo and Agustin Carbonell (El Bola), take the listener from a Cuban flamenco mix, through traditional Andalusian to modern club beats and finally an exploration of jazz and flamenco. However, no matter if it’s the club stylings of Lenacay or the soulful voice of Martin, at the heart of each song resides a passion and intensity you’d be hard pressed to find in any other music. Each of them seem to be built like a coiled spring which could explode at any moment, yet never does. The secret power of flamenco is the emotion it hints at roiling just beneath the surface, like a hidden undertow beneath the seemingly calm surface of an ocean which could suck you under in a matter of seconds.
Yet at the same time, in spite of the passion and rawness inherent to the form, the music is also incredibly elegant. It suggests a certain amount of poise and formality no matter how it’s presented. Perhaps it’s the tightly woven rhythms of the music and the importance they play in each song which creates this impression. As we listen to the steady tattoo maintained by the strumming of guitars, accented by hand claps (and in some cases boot heels) and percussion accompanying the majority of the songs, one can’t help but imagine the rigid pride and dignity of those performing. It’s the kind of pride in who you are which creates an air of formality seemingly out of nothing. It’s easy to picture individual performers in your mind’s eye, holding themselves straight and proud as they create this incredible sound. They might not be wearing fancy or elegant clothes, but there’s nothing classier than hearing music which speaks of a people’s history.
However, the elegance also comes through in how the music is performed. One of the best examples of this is the solo guitar of Carlos Pinana playing “Tarantilla”. A third generation flamenco musician, Pinana is a classically trained guitarist. His work combines the raw passion of flamenco with the smoothness and agility of his classical training. For just over four minutes his fingers strum, pluck, and fly over his guitar’s fretboard. One moment he’s carefully picking out notes as if they were delicate flowers plucked from a vine and the next he’s exploding into the fantastic flourishes which are the signature of flamenco. It’s a remarkable display of virtuosity and artistry.
Of course for sheer passion and pride, you can’t beat the contribution of Carmelilla Montoya. Performing since the age of seven, she is both a singer and a dancer. Her contribution to the disc, “Carmelilla”, is probably the epitome of what most of us think of when we hear the word flamenco. Her voice is raw emotion and she sings like her every word comes directly from her soul. Accompanied by guitars and hand claps, and what appears to be the sound of dancers stamping their feet as they move to the music, one moment her voice sinks into the earth’s depths and the next its soaring among the clouds alongside the birds.
Just in case you fail to appreciate how diverse modern flamenco has become, the people at Rough Guide have also included a bonus CD by the Argentinian band Al Toque Flamenco, Buena Estrella. They combine flamenco music with their own country’s tango to bring an extra bit of spice to what is already quite a flamboyant genre. Somehow or other they manage to bring this mixture off without it seeming like its too much or they’re trying too hard to be different. In fact, the combination of the two brings out the best in both genres and makes for lively listening.
The Rough Guide To Flamenco provides a great introduction to the genre for those unfamiliar with the music. It will also be interesting for those who have any preconceived notions of what flamenco sounds like as it shows the variety of ways in which the music is being performed today. While the traditional music continues to thrive, there are also those who are keeping the genre from stagnating by experimenting with form and style. Not every track might be to everyone’s taste, but you’ll be surprised at just how many different ways there are to play flamenco music. However, no matter how you play it, there’s still something wild and untamed about flamenco which will get your heart beating and your pulse racing.