Isabel Rivera Cuenca was born into a family who lived Flamenco. When her parents moved from Seville to Barcelona they took the music with them; opening an Andalusian cultural centre. Wonderful musicians soon filled their Barcelona home, dancing, playing guitar and singing day and night. Among Isabel’s earliest memories is feeling the rhythms of Flamenco seeping through the walls of her bedroom. Flamenco was the breath of her young life. As a little girl she began to dance and she never stopped.
“The dancing filled me with joy and it put a big smile on my face. When I took my first proper dance lesson my Gitano Flamenco teacher saw me smiling and said, ‘You mustn’t smile during this particular piece because it is about loss and suffering’. As I grew, I learned to express the emotions appropriate to the piece, but the joy never left me. My teachers were all dancers and musicians but there was no academy as today. When I was old enough I boldly declared to my father that I had only one goal in life. To embrace La Baile Flamenco and live the life of a dancer. He looked at me for a while and said, ‘this is a hard life with little financial reward’. I told him that I understood that better than most, because I had lived this music since birth”. He knew that she would not be deterred and he did not stop her.“To this day, every time I dance the happiness and passion returns; that is what I want to share. When I was older I decided that I must travel the world to share this happiness with people who cannot go to Spain. Since making that decision I have travelled almost continuously. Out of this I learn from other musical cultures (especially Jazz) and many collaborations and experiments are possible. With good musicians the traditions are always respected while experimenting. I have met many fine musicians in New Zealand like Jonathan Crayford and Chris O’connor. At the beginning of my travels I simply drew a map and from that I decided the countries to visit, especially those very far away from the home of Flamenco. New Zealand felt like a good place to go. It was 20,000 kilometres from my home and so I thought, if I can succeed there it will work in other places. Now I have returned with some guitarists and a singer and we will share our passion.
I like New Zealand very much as the people are warm and friendly. The climate is also nice and the natural areas are vast and beautiful. There are similarities in the way the Kiwi’s speak and act as well. When I travel in Mexico or South America people say to me, ‘You speak Spanish in a very direct way – without formality – unlike us’. If someone says, would you like this or that, I look them in the eye and say yes or no. The older polite forms of answering such a question are still evident in the Latin Spanish-speaking countries. They might say, ‘we are grateful for the offer and it would please us to accept’. I found this comment interesting because Isobel is an extraordinarily gifted communicator. Her expressiveness exceeds that of anyone I have met. She is a wonderful talker, but the breadth of her expressiveness is particularly found in her hands and eyes. Her hands gesture endlessly and her eyes sparkle like fire when she is enthusiastic about a topic. It is as if the Flamenco dancer in her occupies the facility of speech. She is certainly a direct speaker, but there is an unusual fluidity, warmth and depth to everything she communicates. I have seen this before in improvising musicians and recognise it. It is a proof that they live in a world where their art matters beyond everything else. They have swum so far from shore that the coast is mundane and irrelevant.
We talked for hours about the forms, history and evolution of Flamenco. We shared a view that the Moors were a profound and benign influence on the world (and Flamenco) – the Vandals of the reconquista Espanola not so much. Flamenco history was not recorded in print until the late 18th and 19th centuries and there is conjecture about its origins. What appears certain is that cante (singing) came first. This was soon accompanied by rhythms beaten on the floor by a cane. The toque (guitar) and Baile (dance) came later. The music is ancient and mysterious and most strongly associated with the Spanish Gitano (Gypsy or Romani – originally from India). Into that mix add the displaced Morisco (Moors) as a prime influence. Also the music of the Jewish Sephardic diaspora. It is possible that the Gitano may have picked up Greek and Turkish influences on their way out of India. After the reconquista the persecuted minorities dropped out of sight and developed a culture in their isolation. Flamenco was not shown as a public performance until the late 19th century.There are many Tonas (families of song), most derive in some way from Cante Jondo (deep song). The last element is Jaleo (hell raising by means of hand clapping, foot stomping and like Jazz, yells of encouragement). When we talked of the Tonas Isabel always put her hand over her heart and said. “Whatever the mood It is always about expressing and communicating deep emotions, passion”. She demonstrated some rhythms for me using hand-clapping.
There is a common 12 beat rhythm in Flamenco which accents the 2nd and 4th beats for three bars and then finishes with a surprising ending on the 3rd beat of the fourth bar. Like Jazz, the music is all about tension and release and the way she described the Buleria (to mock) illustrated that particularly well. The Buleria is fast and has 12 beats. There are a number of ways of counting the beats and one form goes 123, 456, 7 8, 9 10, 11 12. She describes this as a friendly conflict between equals. The participants constantly challenge the others to do better or sometimes they just cause the other participant to back off. Out of this ritual comes a lot of tension and release. There is a high degree of improvisation allowed and the foot tapping here is intricate and complex. Of the 50 Palos or Styles around 20 are in common use. There is a distinct Flamenco scale which is the Phrygian Mode (Modo Frigio).Isabel expressed a particular liking for the Saeta, possibly of ancient Jewish or Aramaic origin and widely used during Holy Week processions. The date of its entry into the Flamenco repertoire is uncertain. It is a mournful form with great power and emotional intensity. On Miles Davis ‘Sketches of Spain’ he performs much of this over a drone. As the drone has a particular association with Indian music I discussed this with Isabel. It was not a concept (in English) she was familiar with, but upon further examination she decided that there are certainly implied drones or ostinato passages in Flamenco.
Before going to the interview I watched a You Tube clip of her performing and I asked if her performance was closer to Classical Flamenco than the Flamenco Puro of the Gitano. She declared her self not a rigid purist. “A dancer can interpret and mix forms to a point. In my view some experimenting is OK as long as you treat the traditions with respect”.
There are a number of interesting fusions of Flamenco and Jazz; some being closer to one genre than the other. The ever lovely ‘Maids of Cadiz’ (by Delibes), later performed by Benny Goodman and Miles Davis may hint at Flamenco but it is not an example. It is actually an old French tune. ‘Flamenco Sketches’ from a kind of blue is closer to the spirit of the music and the ground breaking ‘Sketches of Spain’ even closer. More recent explorations such as those by the Jazz Flamenco pianists Chano Dominguez and Alex Conde have a more authentic feel. Dominguez replaces the leading guitar with piano and creates space for piano improvisation. The Cante (song), Baile (dance) Palmas (hand clapping) and Toque (guitar) otherwise remain. I also like the Jazz/Flamenco fusion group ‘Jerez Texas’ who come from Jerez in Western Andalusia (where the famous Arab horses and the Bulerias come from). Both Cadiz and Jerez are stunningly beautiful, as is all of Southern Spain.Once I was lucky enough to spend time in the Flamenco regions. The Moors called Southern Spain Al Andalus. Nowhere has more light and colour and nowhere feels the weight of history more keenly. Over thousands of years many ethnicities have passed through and the residual beauty remaining is mirrored in their arts. Architecture, songs and dances; speaking of beauty and suffering – in equal parts
The first thing I noticed when I watched the video clip was just how musically aware the troupe was. They exploited musical space as a collective and in the way a Jazz combo does. Conversing, pausing, reacting; then unleashing the power again. Behind the singer you could hear the guitar – those voicings – filled with a beautiful dissonance like the history of the music.
On this tour she has Albert Cases ‘El Gatto’ Flamenco singer, Paul Bosauder on Guitar plus NZ Artists Ian Sinclair (yes the well-known investigative reporter) and Claire Cowan on guitars.
Like Jazz, Flamenco was recently classified by UNESCO as a cultural heritage treasure for the world. In UNESCO’s words ‘a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. No argument there.
Book for the shows at the Q Theatre or at Tickefinder – 23rd & 24th February at the Q Theatre Queen Street Auckland (above the Town Hall). The pictures are mine except for the poster.