Bárbaro of Seville
On a rainy January morning in a bar open to the sidewalk in Sevilla's riverside neighborhood Triana, a construction worker stomps a freshly laid ceramic-tile floor in boots stained with orange-colored clay. He is clapping, marking the rhythm of a flamenco song with palmas. Cigarette clamped between his teeth, he sings absently. With a reverbing ay-yi low in his throat, he serenades the office-bound traffic maneuvering past him down a narrow, centuries-old street.
The construction worker singing to himself in this upscale bar is a reminder of the neighborhood's past. Traditionally a center of the Café Cantantes, where flamenco flourished in the Nineteenth Century, Triana was once known for its congenial mix of Gypsies and white Spaniards, most of them laborers. Until the neighborhood was gentrified in the mid-Sixties, flamenco also was nourished in Triana's low-income housing complexes, called corrals -- level buildings with an open-air patio in the center where there was a communal sink and family members found relief from the hot nights. The Triana style of singing, now largely forgotten, was cultivated while washing, cooking, and passing the night hours in the patio.
"We lived with 28 families," says Paco Taranto. Now a teacher at the flamenco school Fundación Cristina Heeren, Taranto remembers the smell of spearmint and jasmine in the patio -- and the neighbors who threw an extra handful of rice into their pots to feed those who had none. When city bureaucrats resettled the corral dwellers to low-income apartments outside the city, Taranto refused to go. "I was the last to leave. They had to take me out by force," he recalls. "They did a lot of damage to the songs of Triana. And they wiped out a way of life."
Although no one is certain of its origin, flamenco today embodies both the most hackneyed tourist-trapping clichés and the real spirit of life in southern Spain. Once established in Andalusia, the genre was developed over the centuries by bricklayers, prisoners, and miners, in bordellos, cantinas, patios, and parties in marginal neighborhoods in the towns and countryside of the region. Flamenco can still erupt suddenly at any gathering, as palms press together at a pause in conversation and rouse traditional verses about lost love, hard luck, or, likely, the beauty of Sevilla itself.
What is clear is that the powers that be have always had a hand in shaping flamenco and the lives of the people who make the music. Since the fall of Franco, the democratic government -- eager to integrate Spain with Europe and the rest of the world -- has actively promoted flamenco by distributing recordings, sponsoring song and dance competitions, and hosting events like the Bienal de Flamenco in Sevilla, while also supporting the promotion of a more contemporary image of flamenco abroad.
All day long the Fundación Cristina Heeren de Arte Flamenco is thronged with guitars, clattering heels, and chanting song, at turns melodious and slightly off-key, accented by random thumping and triumphant shouts. About 200 students take flamenco guitar, singing, and dance classes in this three-story, seventeenth-century house on the border of the old Jewish quarter of Sevilla. Although the foundation offers beginner courses and dance for children, this is primarily a professional school, teaching advanced flamenco technique to mostly college-age Spaniards as well as foreigners from Japan, Holland, the United States, and elsewhere. Like characters in a flamenco version of Fame, guitarists and dancers practice and flirt in the interior patio between classes or convene at a nearby café. Instructors, in addition to coaching their charges in technique, give real-world advice, like reminding them to take the gum out of their mouths and put it behind their ears before they sing.
"We're creating a method over a world of anarchy," asserts Cristina Heeren, an American who has lived in southern Spain since 1978 and opened the foundation six years ago. Next month the school will begin presenting flamenco performances in a theater in the center of town. "Flamenco is such difficult music. It requires so much knowledge. That's why we decided we have to teach it as flamenco culture. Our students know all the different styles and the names of the artists who invented those styles."
There are nearly 40 basic flamenco palos, or types of song, encompassing laments, work songs, romances, and songs of celebration representing different areas of Andalusia (with Cadiz being the widely acknowledged "cradle" of flamenco). Since flamenco is an oral tradition, no musical notation is allowed; students bring tape recorders to class.
Singer Javier Hidalgo is a docent at the school, and one of a quartet of artists affiliated with the foundation who will perform at the Centro Cultural Español in Coral Gables tonight. Unlike most of Spain's post-Franco youth, Hidalgo always preferred flamenco to rock and had little interest in foreign bands or the flamenco fusion popular in the Eighties. (In many cases those experiments were based on rumba rhythms -- think Gipsy Kings -- which purists do not classify as flamenco, but they nevertheless made audiences in Spain and abroad more open to the flamenco sound.)
"Flamenco is just the music that I like, and it's being from here, the land, that nurtures that," Hidalgo, who worked in construction before joining the foundation, explains over mint tea in the corner café. A tall, attractive 26-year-old with a ponytail and scruffy beard, he is a graceful, not guttural, singer, who lends the improvisational stylings of a jazz vocalist to the traditional lyrics he performs. "I'm open to experimentation, but you have to have a solid base in flamenco before you can do anything else. If you have a house with only a roof, that's not going to work. You have to build the foundation first."
Rafael Campallo, age 27, a compact dancer with short spiky hair, joins Hidalgo in Miami this week. "I have another life apart from flamenco; I'm a young guy," he says with a grin. "But when I put my boots on, that's when I really express who I am." Campallo, who has become known for his subtle footwork and commanding stage presence, has just returned from New York, where he was working with a tap dancer from Harlem on a piece for Sevilla's Bienal de Flamenco in September.
The Bienal, a "flamenco marathon," according to director Manuel Herrera, is sponsored by the Andalusian government and conceived as a showcase for various forms of flamenco in theaters, bars, and the patios of city institutions, formerly grand homes. "Flamenco is an art, and like every art it evolves," says Herrera. "Young people today have the advantage of living in freedom, freedom of expression and social freedom. Youth involved in flamenco now choose what they like best for them. Flamenco is a living art that can develop and adapt with the times."
"This is flamenco," proclaims Chico Ocaña, the smoke-and-gravel-voiced singer of the group Mártires del Compás, who refers to his band's urban contemporary music as "flamenco billy." He settles on a wooden bench outside El Chiringuito, a bar hidden away on an ancient winding cobblestone street. Benches arranged to face each other fill up comfortably, and tables in the center are covered with beer bottles. Other members of Mártires del Compás are already warming their feet by a pile of hot coals. "Flamenco is hanging-out music; it's spontaneous," Ocaña observes. "You have to be in a place like this to really experience the strange and marvelous thing that is flamenco."
Contemporary flamenco legend Cameron de la Isla blares from the stereo inside the small bar as Ocaña, who says he is versed in 37 palos, explains his art. "Flamenco is like the moon on the water," he says. "It's there, but it's not there. It's a surrealist vocation. The facts we have don't tell us where, or how, or why flamenco; if it's Gypsy or if it's not Gypsy. Where is the thread that leads to a beginning? Flamenco is simply a way of life; it's a true feeling."
The Mártires have created their own style of flamenco feeling drawing from, among other influences, Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols, Miles Davis, and Hector Lavoe. Their latest disc, Mordiendo el Duende, as well as three previous albums, have dealt, variously, with African immigrants in Spain, domestic violence, and Ocaña's experiences in New York and Cuba. As singer and lyricist, he says that although they incorporate rock, jazz, tango, and other rhythms into their music, theirs is not flamenco fusion but a contemporary form of pure flamenco.
"We defend our mix," says the singer. "We always build on a base of flamenco and always follow its philosophy. I think flamenco is a lot more flexible than what the orthodox people would lead you to believe. In every era flamenco has always been affected by the sociopolitical situation, as our music is. Before, flamenco was marginalized by high society, by the church, by the government, because it comes from the underground -- bad living, drink, prostitution, Gypsies, people who spent the night partying, wrapped in alcohol and sex.
"If this had been during the Franco era," he adds, sipping his beer and pointing to the open door of the bar, "there would have been a sign here saying “no cante' -- no flamenco singing -- allowed."
Now, as Europe fumbles to make sense of the new common currency, Spaniards claim flamenco -- in all its forms -- as a symbol of national pride and personal identity. Outside El Chiringuito, smoke hangs in the night air. A girl with a pierced nose starts to sing. The bartender joins her. Later, a tiny woman with bleached hair, who looks like a character out of an Almodovar movie, comes in off the street. She pounds on a guitar, shrieking her own hilarious versions of popular Spanish songs. In recognition for her innovation, she demands euros.