Monday, February 28, 2005


The moon was on late shift and the night felt young, when escaping their shivering shadows and arctic snowflakes, Paco, Marcos, Javier and AL quietly climbed into their red colour coded ford fiesta. Lodging himself behind the wheel was designated driver Marcos, while in the bucket seat to his right sank honorary stereo operator, Javier. With safety belts fastened, engine purring and windows rolled down, Cool and the Gang then set out on their pilgrimage through the narrow city back streets. All this time not a single word was uttered as none could be found to suit the moment. Or rather, not a word was spoken as none could be heard above the flamenco beats that boomed from their trembling transport. It was image, style and street cred that pumped out their exhaust pipe and pedestrian heads turned as "Flamenco Puro" and "Gypsy Spirit" cruised through the neighbourhood.

The destination on that particular night was a gathering known as EL Mago (The Magician). This name stems from the fact that the musicians who take part in are not there to play music...but rather to create magic. Indeed these are no ordinary buskers and El Mago is a tight-lipped event that is held each week in a regularly changed venue so as to avoid the philistine crowds. Only the most accomplished, talented or promising of flamenco play and the informal line up depends simply on who happens to be passing through Madrid on the night. Often sitting on crates in a cellar, other times in rooms above a bar, the artists experiment and attempt to reinvent the styles, but always of course within the strict rules, rhythms and structures "that are flamenco". Naturally, just as in Ballet, Irish Dancing or even Tango there are always the purists who condemn the mixing or introduction of outside influences. Hence on the occasion that I was present my friends made sure to point out a notorious rebel. Innocently, on hearing this I expected to see him break a guitar over some poor unfortunates head after a whiskey too many. However it seems that my imagination was getting carried away with itself and they merely meant that the young guitarist in question believed that the composition rules were there to be broken. And thus as a result of the differing schools of thought, it is not at all uncommon for the more traditional of aficionados to storm out in protest at the evening’s compositions.

Surprisingly when I moved to Spain my first flatmates gave the impression that Flamenco was highly uncool territory. So much so that one early acquaintance who had gone on Erasmus to Letterkenny even placed the music in the same category as Ireland’s Daniel O’Donnell. It was only with time that I began to realize that the complete opposite was the case and that it was in fact my friends who were suffering from the image crisis. The truth, of which I am now well aware, is that Flamenco has never before been so popular either at home or abroad. It could well be that Flamenco is at this very moment in time entering it’s Golden Age.

I don t wish to give the impression that you can only go to a speak-easy type venue in order to enjoy flamenco. However it is increasingly difficult to find good casual flamenco being performed purely for the sake of personal enjoyment, and not for the sake of a few tourist dollars. Such precious places, while they may be rare, do indeed exist and are an absolute treat to visit. The haunts where I frequent are of this nature and usually take the form of a cross-generational jamming session. Both young and old sit around tables that are dotted with whiskeys, wines, olives, flutes, guitarists and percussion boxes. A person will normally strike into song with the musicians following cue seconds after. In a way you might dare to say that it is not unlike a group of improvising rap artists. An individual might sing an entire song or perhaps only a verse which strikes a personal chord with them. Someone will always take up where the other leaves off with the changeover being punctuated by the ritual grunts, shouts and cries of Ole!. Understandably I find the whole scenario intriguing. There are not many places where you can witness tattoos, suits, walking sticks, dreadlocks, stilettos and nose rings intermingling happily together.

The atmosphere on these evenings is really something else. So much so that at times I can often not resist letting slip the odd cheeky Ole! myself, although I’m always very careful not to be the first or loudest!! It is also usually the norm for those not singing to clap out the rhythm, something which I gladly refrain from. This is not only because my brain can’t get the hang of the lightning half beats but also because there are skilled professionals known as Palmeros who do exactly that, achieving both fame and fortune. What is more it is said that Flamenco has over 700 rhythms so I think I’d be best leaving them to it.

Like all things Spanish, Flamenco is most definitely a fusion of the cultures that have passed through the Iberian lands. In the case of Flamenco, the only real ingredients that we speak of are the legacies of the Gypsies (Los Gitanos) and the Arab Moors from North Africa. The Moors who settled in Spain for almost eight hundred years were fond of poetry and sung verse, usually crying Wa-allah! (Oh God!) at the end of each stanza. This custom most probably led to the modern day cry of Ole! as praise for good flamenco . This Arab people also brought with them a stringed instrument known as the Lute which years later in southern Spain evolved into the guitar. It is also the case that Persian and Moorish song of the time had strong similarities to modern Flamenco and is undoubtedly due to these many common roots that the two musical styles are found to be so compatible, with numerous Flamenco musicians now incorporating Arabic music and vocals into their work. The two styles gel so well that you would at times be forgiven for thinking that you are listening to pure traditional Flamenco.

Los Gitanos arrived in Spain around the fourteenth century and quickly became known for the deep wailing song of a persecuted and marginalised community. It was of course only a matter of time before the mournful and tormented verses of Los Gitanos became influenced by North African rhythms also present in the region. And so it was that flamenco developed out of this fantastic collision of styles. By the eighteenth century towns with a strong Gypsy presence such as Cadiz, Cordoba and Sevilla became famous for this Deep Song. It was later in the 1790´s that a gypsy named Pages added the sixth string to the guitar and then three quarters of a century later that a man from the same parts gave the instrument its modern shape and sound.

Unsurprisingly Flamenco does not enjoy great popularity among parts of the upper classes who try to distance themselves from their Gypsy and Moorish roots. I admit that it is never good to generalise but this is an observation that is to quite difficult to refute. However at the same time it would be very wrong of me to suggest that Flamenco is solely music of the poor man. It is an integral part of Spanish history and culture and is enjoying an ever growing appreciation throughout society. Interestingly the reverse side of the coin is that those most guilty of snobbiness are the gypsies themselves who believe that flamenco is not the real deal unless performed by one of their own. Many talented artists struggle in vein to receive the recognition and respect that they deserve due to their lacking Gitano blood.

Curiously the name Flamenco came about in the 1500´s during the reign of the first French Bourbon King, Carlos IV. He was born in Flanders and without a word of the language, was crowned King of Spain at the age of sixteen. For some reason the Flemish courtiers who he brought with him quickly came to be identified with anything flashy or extravagant. And so despite the fact that Carlos detested Spain and for forty years attempted to make it more French, he and his court somehow gave their name to Spanish traditional music.

Many would regard the guitarist Paco de Lucia as the greatest Flamenco musician of all time. No doubt many will already be quite familiar with his plucking from the time he prostituted his skills by accompanying Brian Adams on the song "When you know that you really love a woman". Most curious of all however is the fact that Flamenco musicians enjoy some of their greatest fame and adoration in Japan. For this very reason it is not at all unusual to spot a Japanese musician amongst the other participants in a performance.

Only last week while falling out of yet another flamenco gig in the late of hours of the morning, my friend Javier turned to me and swore that the music had started to make my skin turn dark. However he was drunk and wearing a pair of shades that he had just found. I, quite taken aback by such an observation, and equally inebriated could think of no appropriate reply other than...Ole!!!

Recommended listening.
Paco de Lucia- Antologia, ******
Camaron de la Isla-Antologia******
Lagrimas Negras *****
Camaron and Tomatito
Camaron & Michel Camino (Jazz Flamenco)
Chambao- Chill out flamenco
Ea! (Fusion)
El Ojo de Bruja (Hip Hop Flamenco)

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