sun 31/05/2020

theartsdesk in Madrid: Nuevo Flamenco Comes of Age | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Madrid: Nuevo Flamenco Comes of Age

theartsdesk in Madrid: Nuevo Flamenco Comes of Age

How a traditional old form of Andalusia got modernised in the capital

I am far from the first - and in very good company - to worry about the over-commercialisation of flamenco. As far back as in 1922 Manuel de Falla and Federico Garcia Lorca, respectively Spain’s greatest composer and poet of the time, decided to organise a singing competition in Granada in which only singers from the villages were allowed to enter. The polished, preening urban stars of the Café Cantantes were ineligible. My resistance to the genre was partly to do with the Gypsy Kings, amusing enough when you first heard them, but irritating beyond words when heard for years in every wine bar in the world.

Then there are the legions of performers in overpriced restaurants, the dancers with garish, flouncy dresses and bored musicians clapping in a desultory kind of way in front of crowds of bussed-in tourists.

estrella_morentes_cAntonioCamposAs well as the more trad stuff, since the Seventies the old flamenco of southern Spain has been reinventing itself in different ways, mixing with rock and jazz elements, and forging a new hybrid that came to be known as nuevo flamenco. Its torchbearers were Lole y Manuel, Juan Carmona, Tomatito and Miguel Poveda. The latter two appear in the annual Sadler’s Wells Flamenco Festival starting on Tuesday - which also features interesting new work from the dancer/choreographer Eva Yerbabuena, the singer Estrella Morente (pictured right) and the stunning dancer Mercedes Ruiz.

Above all the torchbearers of nuevo flamenco were the guitarist Paco de Lucia and the doomed romantic singer Camarón de la Isla, who died of a heroin overdose in 1992. But it wasn’t just the dazzling guitar work of the new flamenco maestros, or the vertiginous heartrending wail of the best singers that was captivating. It was the fact that nuevo flamenco reflected a new attitude, a new sharpness in dress and look, a new rebellion of the soul, a new Spain.

Paco de Lucia and Camarón de la Isla perform "Bulerias"

Carlos Saura vividly captures the essence of this rebellion in his film Deprisa, Deprisa (Hurry, Hurry) which came out in 1981. Its story follows the adventures of two young car thieves called Pablo and Meca who put together a gang and terrorise the suburbs of Madrid before being gunned down after a botched bank robbery. The film encapsulates the spirit of a country emerging from the cultural and social straitjacket of Franco's rule and into a new dawn of liberal democracy with its sweet and sometimes dangerous freedoms.

The music that serenaded the libertine adventures of Pablo and Meca in Saura’s film was a mix of nuevo flamenco and the heavier, more rhythmic flamenco rumba of groups like Los Chichos, Los Chinguitos and Los Marismeños. “The soundtrack of Deprisa, Deprisa was a bible for us,” the singer Manu Chao told me in a café in Madrid, after I'd taken the train from Seville.

Manu introduced me to a couple of the prostitutes - and activists for rights for working girls - he befriended on the video for his flamenco-tinged hit "Me llaman calle" (used as a soundtrack to the film Princesas, about the life of hookers in Madrid). Manu's earlier band Mano Negra mixed in flamenco with Latin elements and more straight-ahead rock music to great effect and millions in sales. "Nuevo flamenco was the rock’n’roll of Spain, listened to by the bad guys of the neighbourhood. And these guys hadn’t even listened to rock’n’roll.” Manu still wears a tattoo of the words "Deprisa Deprisa" on his arm.

Manu Chao performs "Me llaman calle"

Flamenco had taken some wild turns and mixtures and I wanted to see some more modern forms of flamenco, hoping to track down some new examples in Madrid. Certainly, some of the best world music groups of the last decade have had, to varying extents, flamenco elements, notably Ojos de Brujo and the peerless Radio Tarifa. DJ Martin Morales has pushed a mix of electronica and flamenco on his Futuro Flamenco compilations, and there are plenty of attempts at modern flamenco fusion, from the “chill-out flamenco” of Chambao, to the Digitano style of DJ Juanjo Valmorisco and the appallingly named Electrolé! Music. I had a fantasy of discovering some hard, urban club of gangsta flamenco full of tough street kids.

In fact, and in spite of some tireless research in a couple of nightclubs of Madrid, most attempts at hip hop and flamenco fusion I heard are not nearly as interesting as the new breed of flamenco-jazz ensembles. The group La Botica Flamenca, under the direction of a fabulous jazz pianist called Pedro Ojesto, whom I saw rehearsing, have taken some of the power of flamenco and instilled it in his music. Ojesto’s piano playing is both cerebral and passionate and it seems a fertile direction.

In any case, sipping a sherry as the light faded, listening to great music being invented on the spot, with me as the only audience, seemed a good a way of passing an afternoon in Madrid as any I could imagine.

Pedro Ojesto performs "Tarifa Estambul"

The next day, after a quick whizz round the Prado - stopping at the hallucinogenic Garden of Delights by Bosch and the Goyas - I saw an ensemble that has played to packed audiences worldwide called Nuevo Ballet Español (who have appeared in a previous Sadler’s Wells season). I saw the company work up a sweat in a rehearsal studio, which felt like actually being inside those other superb Carlos Saura flamenco films of the Eighties – Blood Wedding and Carmen (surely two of the best music films ever made).

While we respect and love pure flamenco, we wanted to do something that reflects the modern world

Carlos Rodriguez and co-choreographer Angel Rojas explained what is nuevo about them. For one thing, while they say they are staying true to the eternal spirit of flamenco, they have incorporated elements of contemporary dance, ballet and even “funky dance” into their choreography. The fact that the company have two joint choreographers is highly unusual, but reflects their collective nature, as opposed to the previous wave of flamenco idols like Joaquin Cortés, where everything was to show off the qualities of a usually egomaniac star performer. They told me that they had experimented with using electronics and world music groups like Radio Tarifa, but in the end found more freedom with an acoustic score which could “breathe” with the performance.

When I saw them they were dancing to the music of modern flamenco composer Gaspar Rodriguez. “While we respect and love pure flamenco", Rodriguez said, "we wanted to do something that reflects the modern world.” When I told him of the dancer I’d seen in Seville he said, “The only thing is that is a pose in a way – I mean, a 19-year-old girl in modern Spain probably wouldn’t kill you for being unfaithful. We are also reflecting a different reality of the relationship between the sexes in our show.”

Personally, though, I look forward to returning to Andalusia, especially after meeting a true aficionado on the train from Seville who told me, with halting but poetic English, “For the true flamenco, be with a small group of friends in a juega at midnight somewhere in southern Spain where there is nothing but the voice, the guitar and the body of a dancer moving in the moonlight. Then you may feel the duende, the spirit of flamenco, and the world will become enchanted again.”

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