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Posted Friday, November 23, 2007
Ramón Giménez is a flamenco guitarist who break dances. That may seem an unlikely mix, but in the case of Giménez, a self-described ''tremendously urban'' musician of gypsy heritage, it makes a lot of sense. Proof is in the music of his group, Ojos de Brujo (The Wizard's Eyes), a diverse collective of players and DJs who combine the acoustic rhythms and dusky vocals of flamenco and other international styles (like Cuban rumba and reggae) with rap, scratching, and the ambient digital effects of trip-hop to make a cosmopolitan 21st century sound with roots in the transatlantic ghetto.
Giménez grew up in a marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of Barcelona populated by gypsy families who had immigrated to Catalonia from Southern Spain. ''It's a place where you're living with all your cousins and your friends and you pass the time making music,'' he says of his barrio, called Trinidad. ``When I was a kid, flamenco was my lullaby.''
Rap music, too, was heard in the streets of Barcelona, and when Giménez was a teenager, he put his guitar aside in favor of a boom box and started spinning on cardboard. He spent about five years as a competitive break dancer, going all the way to the national championships in Spain. When he later started jamming on guitar with the friends who would form Ojos de Brujo, the fusion just flowed.
''I grew up with hip-hop and flamenco,'' says Giménez, on the phone from Barcelona. ``It's just like you can be into both Metallica and Grandmaster Flash, and they might not have anything to do with each other, but they both have to do with you.''
As the music of Ojos de Brujo confirms, flamenco and hip-hop elements make for a harmonious mesh, despite disparate histories that originally placed them centuries and oceans apart. Rap's rhyming over repetitive recorded beats echoes pure flamenco's poetic chanted song style, which is accompanied only by stark guitar playing and the beats of a cajón (wooden box), or simply hands clapping. Both styles came from the streets, emerging as music that gave a voice to the disenfranchised -- in the case of flamenco, Andalusia's impoverished communities; rap, black kids in the Bronx.
They've also both been typically equated with the underworld: flamenco developed as late-night party music in the Spanish slums and countryside, and was historically performed for the prostitutes and johns who gathered in roadside taverns in the 19th century. Flamenco retained its seductively decadent demeanor even as the music became a staple of tourist spots and was embraced by international concert hall audiences.
Flamenco has long been emblematic of Spanish culture, as hip-hop today is of youth culture (albeit on a much larger scale), and both have been appropriated by artists worldwide. Like the hip-hop nation, the flamenco world is divided into factions with stylistic differences, all who claim the music as their own.
In Spain, the debate over the definition of flamenco never dies, simply because flamenco has never stopped evolving. Guitarist Paco de Lucia, who has been something of flamenco's international ambassador (he appears in concert at the Jackie Gleason later this month), famously revamped the music's sound with the late, great singer Camarón de la Isla starting in the '60s and experimented with jazz fusion in collaborations with American players. Flamenco rock bands have existed almost as long as rock. The so-called ''new flamenco'' movement of the '70s and '80s further loosened things up, bringing electric guitars and blues improvisation to the mix.
Wide-ranging examples of flamenco fusion once were seen as aberrations of the traditional genre. Today, many accept them as simply the sound of contemporary flamenco, as authentic as the original.
Ojos de Brujo, who will perform Thursday night in Miami, have referred to their chilled out electro-flamenco mix as ''hip-hop flamenquillo,'' which could be translated as either ''flamenco light'' or maybe -- and this would be Giménez's preference -- ''urban flamenco'' (quillo is a term for someone who is street smart; basically, a punk). Essential Ojos de Brujo sounds, logically enough, like a flamenco group for the hip-hop era. The band would prefer to stay away from categorizing themselves altogether. But Giménez does explain that the band's name hints at the band members' allegiance to flamenco roots and the music's power.
''Flamenco is the base of our music because of its strong personality'' says Giménez. ``It's music that bewitches people.''
Ojos de Brujo performs 8 p.m. Thursday, February 12, at the Artime Theater, 900 SW First St., Miami. Tickets are $20 advance, $22 at the door, and available through Rhythm Foundation at 305-672-5202.
Afro-Peruvian folkloric song and dance troupe Peru Negro comes to the Joseph Caleb Center Saturday, February 14. In the 1970s, the group spearheaded a renaissance of Black Peruvian music, which evolved from the rhythms that slaves brought to Peru in the 17th century. Cuban drumming was later incorporated into the style, which originated on Peru's Pacific Coast and migrated to Lima's black neighborhoods. Peru Negro's 26 members perform with traditional instruments including the quijada de burro -- a donkey jawbone with rattling teeth intact used as a shaker and scraper -- and the cajón (a wooden box). Their repertoire of rich sounds includes music both celebratory and mournful. (Peru Negro performs many of the same traditional songs as Susana Baca, the popular Afro-Peruvian singer who has appeared in concert in Miami on several occasions.)
Peru Negro takes the stage 8 p.m. Saturday, February 14, at the Caleb Auditorium, 5400 NW 22nd Ave., Miami. Tickets are $20-$30. For more info, call 305-636-2350.