I recently went to see a flamenco show at Hollywood's Barnsdall Park Gallery Theatre, Forever Flamenco, which is playing again on December 19. As I watched the electrifying performances by Yaelisa, Vanessa Acosta, Fanny Ara and handsome Timo Nunez, Jason McGuire on guitar and Jesus Montoya, a full-lunged gypsy cantaor from Triana, belting fierce gypsy laments, I soon found myself wildly enthused, shouting "Oles" and "Vales" with the crowd, at first timidly and then more boldly. I was at once enthralled and possessed by a sudden, reckless urge to sell my soul and everything I own for one unforgettable night in Seville.
Timo Nunez at concert. Photo courtesy of Bruce Bisenz.
You may ask why I, a guy from the depths of Brooklyn, with no discernible Spanish roots, was wildly clapping and cheering along with the crowd. It goes back a long way, to the days when I was executive producing movies for Cinerama and ABC Films, many of them westerns. There was a village in Southern Spain now called "Mini Hollywood" near Almeria, an entire Western town built as a movie set where many famous "spaghetti westerns" were shot in the sixties and seventies.
Yaelisa in concert
One night, pals from my Spanish crew took me to Seville, to a traditional flamenco club, not a touristy one with clicking castanets, and when I heard the first cry from the flamenco singer, a harsh, exquisite, modulated shriek of anguish and despair, almost animalistic and yet so human, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was roused. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, as if something forbidden and long ago locked away, centuries old, had been ripped open, and I wanted more. And when the guitar cinched in and the dancer unleashed a furor of heels and delicate hand twirls with scorn and nonnegotiable pride, spurred on by the percussive hand clapping of the "palmeros," I was hooked. I had unwittingly stepped into duende territory and have been a flamenco aficionado ever since. Little did I know, the gypsy cantaor was a legendary singer by the name of El Chocolate.
Last Tuesday, UNESCO declared flamenco a global world treasure, an "intangible heritage," and included it in the Urgent Safeguarding List. A flamenco expert, Jose Manuel Gamboa, said "While flamenco is most often associated with gypsy culture, it draws its flavor from all of Spain. The grandeur of the music is that it is an art which has managed to bring in influences from every corner of our culture and recreate it with a language which is more powerful and newer."
This summer First Lady Michelle Obama went to Spain and she became an instant flamenco fan. I saw a clip of her dancing to the beat of a zambra with Juan Andres Maya and his family in a traditional cave in Granada. It has been reported that Michelle invited Juan to play at the White House. This would not be a first. Hot-blooded Joaquin Cortes danced in 2004 at the White House.
While some would say that flamenco is thriving in all its modern permutations, from flamenco fusion to flamenco hip hop, others would contend that flamenco puro or real flamenco is an endangered species, with handmade guitar shops closing and the great maestros from flamenco dynasties dying off faster than new ones can be groomed.
One sure thing, in my travels around the world, I have found a passion for flamenco everywhere. The Japanese are avid aficionados, the Europeans treasure it, and in Latin America it is a phenomenon. Venues sell out weeks in advance when top stars like Yerbabuena or the Farruco family tour the world. Flamenco artists like Camaron, Paco de Lucia and Tomatito are revered, some have won Grammys. I recently came across a YouTube video of Marc Anthony (yes, the hubby of Jennifer Lopez) doing a concert in Tenerife accompanied by flamenco guitarist Antonio Carmona (formely Ketama) to a crowd of thirty thousand fans waving their arms to the beat, and when Farruco and his posse of male dancers took the stage by storm, the crowd soared to a unanimous roar. Marc Anthony and flamenco. Who knew?
Jason McGuire in concert.
Coincidentally, I just read a magnificent script Duende, written by Rose-Marie Turko, a passionate adventure between an American woman and a gypsy virtuoso set in southern Spain, the cradle of flamenco. I could not put it down and read breathlessly from start to finish. Rose-Marie lived with the gypsies in Andalucia to research the screenplay and gave me a crash course on the history of flamenco.
In her script, a young American woman goes to Spain and encounters a flamenco virtuoso who sings with so much fire she immediately wants to sign him and make him a star. What she does not know yet, is that she has trespassed into the land of duende. Duende and dollars don't mix. So he lures her into the back roads of his gypsy world so she can discover first hand the blood and roots of his duende, the true flamenco, as it is lived, free, spontaneously, under the wide open sky, without money, passports or credentials, a world unto itself, of astonishing beauty and contrasts, unknown to most, about to be lost forever to the onslaught of modern progress. It's a wild ride across Andalucia, like entering the land of Oz, with fabulous characters.
As Rose-Marie explains, "Most people think flamenco is a dance, but actually the root of flamenco is the "cante jonde," a song of great power and purity equivalent to that of the 'blues' which evolved from centuries of persecution. The gypsies were expelled from India and appeared in Andalucía around 1425. Andalucía was then under Moorish rule, had been for 800 years. When Catholic monarchs reconquered and the Spanish Inquisition followed, the gypsies (along with the Jews and the Moors) were forced to convert and give up their language, culture and lifestyle. Those who refused suffered widespread atrocities and genocide. Consequently the gypsies fled to remote mountains along with the Moors and the Jews, and the intermingling of their cultures gave birth to flamenco."
"Eventually, persecution and censure relented, gypsies reappeared in local towns and pueblos. Their bold, haunting songs and fierce, erotic dances were contagious. Writers penned legends about them. The rich caught on, captivated by this new sound, and hired gypsy singers to perform for them at private fiestas. The era of the 'cafes cantantes' or singing cafes followed. Dancers and guitarists became a formal part of the art. Ironically this also marked the demise of the 'cante jondo' in favor of more festive fare. The gypsies refused to perform on cue, like parrots to choreographed acts and bailed. They were replaced by non-gypsies. By the end of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, flamenco nearly became extinct, till the 1950's when flamenco contests spurred a revival and a second golden age. Then came the jet set and mass tourism. And now MTV. But it's a survivor and keeps reinventing itself."
I ask Rose-Marie to define Duende, the title of her screenplay and she laughs: "We have no word for it in English, but in Andalucía everybody argues about it, because if you don't have duende, you don't have anything. It is a flash of genius which reaches down to the primal core and produces a cathartic explosion of soul between artist and audience. Flamenco is highly spontaneous and interactive and the first cry of the singer is more like a call, an invocation, a search. The duende dwells in the untamed regions of the soul. It is the heart of the song rather than its art. It comes and goes as it wills to those brave enough to risk it and rarely lasts very long. It is not about beauty, talent or technique. A fat, old woman who suddenly drums her heels, thrusts her hands up and sits back down might get a standing ovation over a formidable, gifted young dancer because she nailed it. She spoke her truth and no more can be said. Some singers say that when the duende comes, they open their mouth and a dead man sings for them. It's orgasmic, anarchic, and knocks all your doors wide open. It might cause you to weep, toss all your jewels at the stage, or not return home for a week. You can't buy it, learn it, fake it, or mass produce it."
Rose-Marie then shows me a quote from the great poet Federico Garcia Lorca: "That which has black sound has duende... it is the power, the struggle of creation in the face of death... the duende must be awakened in one's blood, in the marrow of one's bones, from head to toe by risking everything."
"It's what the script is about," she adds. "It's a journey of self discovery and a love story, a heart duel to the core between his world and her world. And in the end, when the duende comes full force, she gets it. It brands her soul and ours forever."
There is a silence, then Rose-Marie laughs: "Are you gypsy yet?"
I'm in. Where do I sign up?
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