When I recently interviewed visiting Flamenco dancer Isabel Rivera Cuenca she told me that she had met some wonderful New Zealand improvising musicians and, in particular, she mentioned Jonathan Crayford. They met at a party and briefly discussed doing a project together. As they had not been able to make contact since I supplied email addresses and the project quickly took shape. A talented sensuous Flamenco dancer from Barcelona and a gifted Kiwi improviser; irresistible.Jonathan Crayford has long been one of my favourite musicians and any project of his I will follow with enthusiasm. The thought of him doing a Jazz/Flamenco project filled me with joy. It takes a particular type of musician to reach across genres, and to do so with authenticity is a challenge. If anyone could pull this together at short notice it was Crayford; with his open ears and extraordinary musicality, he ticked all of the boxes. In recent years, he has performed in Spain, but only on Jazz projects. When I spoke to him two weeks before the gig he told me how pleased he was to work on this project, but that he knew little of Spanish music; I had no doubts that he would locate a pure essence and work with it and Isabel Cuenca was the perfect foil. As soon as they appeared on the bandstand the chemistry was obvious. There is a real synergy between Jazz and Flamenco; they are musical cousins. Both musical forms fuse North African Rhythms with unique harmonic approaches, both created out of harsh repression. Underlining the driving rhythms of Flamenco is pure passion, contrasting a sad but beautiful dissonance. The musicians and dancers frequently call to each other in encouragement and this is not so different from the call and response in jazz. That they are similar in essence is hardly surprising – when the chants, dance and polyrhythms of Congo Square met with Creole melody, fed by a multitude of European influences (including Spanish music), Jazz was born.
Early in the first set, Crayford played a variant of his composition ‘Galois Candle’. This appears on his ‘Dark Light’ album nominated for a Jazz Tui award last year. This memorable tune although rhythmic is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of danceability. The synergy between dancer and pianist soon located a sweet-spot in the heart of the tune. I recall Cuenca telling me that everything else in Flamenco was subordinate to honest deeply felt emotion. That is where the Duende resides. A little later we heard an innovative and compelling version of ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ (from El Amor Brujo) by Manuel De Falla. Not the brooding version that Gil Evans used on Sketches in Spain but a paired down version. Stripped to the barest essentials of melody and rhythm. Crayford dampened the strings with one hand and created a simple clipped strumming effect, while Cuenca sang gently over this, softly clapping all the while. It could not have been more effective. After that came a tune by Fredrica Garcia Lorca, the poet who died at the hands of Franco’s Nationalists. This tune ‘Los Cuatro Muleres’ sounds pretty, even jaunty, but it hides a deep sadness as with all Lorca poems and tunes. Again done movingly, and both Crayford and Cuenca sang verses.During the second set we heard tunes which moved closer to the Flamenco idiom. In these free-ranging highly improvised tunes Crayford has few peers. Towards the end of the evening, the two were in absolute lock-step; Cuenca reacting to every nuance of the music and bringing her fluid kinetic brilliance to bear, dancing her way into the hearts of everyone there. The communication was simply electric.
I have posted a video clip from the first set (Galois Candle [Crayford]) and an audio clip from near the end of the second set. I hope that Crayford records some of these tunes as they were magical. Cuenca has many fans in new Zealand and she says that she will return here soon. I hope so because more of this project would please us.
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 moodIt 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.