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Flamenco with a Foreign Accent

An essay by Marie Jost (1997)

Flamenco has evolved in recent years beyond a strictly regional Spanish style. Musicians, dancers and even singers in many places around the world are embracing this artistic style as a favored means of expression. With the more ready diffusion of flamenco worldwide, especially through new technologies like CD, CD-ROM, video and Internet, the foreign presence in flamenco is bound to increase in the years to come. This is a brief examination of the international expansion of flamenco and some implications this may have for the future of flamenco, even in its traditional homeland of Andalucía. Flamenco has historically been open to outside influences, though perhaps never more so than during the last 20 years. But what is new today is the ever increasing number of foreign artists who are embracing flamenco, even as a preferred mode of artistic expression. Perhaps for the first time in flamenco's brief history, the art form is poised to be the object of intense artistic dialog between Spanish flamencos and foreign born artists.

A New Era in Flamenco

We are living in a new era of flamenco, a restless era in which flamenco musicians and dancers are searching for new means of expression. In the past 20 years, flamenco music has attempted to assimilate a multitude of artistic styles not native to Spain: jazz, rock, Latin, blues and pop. Typically elements of these foreign traditions are introduced into flamenco by Spanish musicians who have grown up with traditional flamenco.

In recent years, several dichotomies within flamenco are receiving much attention. Andalucian flamenco is distinguished from Madrid flamenco and, more recently with the rise of artists like Mayte Martín, Ginesa Ortega and Chicuelo, Barcelona flamenco is distinguished from Andalucian flamenco. The distinction between Gypsy and non-Gypsy flamenco, so central to the theories of Antonio Mairena, is also alive and well. Tradition is opposed to innovation with greater frequency in recent years, at least by those who hold high the banner of tradition. Finally, the conventional roles of women and men in flamenco are now being scrutinized with a keen eye.

In an era such as this, with flamenco performers reevaluating the past and reaching out to the future, foreign influences are an important stimulus. Perhaps not since the days of the creation of the cantes of "ida y vuelta" (leaving and returning) at the turn of the century, has flamenco been so open to an infusion of outside artistic elements. The cantes of ida y vuelta are derived from Spanish music that was taken to Spain's colonies. There it underwent a local transformation. Beginning around the turn of the century, certain flamenco artists discovered these colonial musical forms and used them as the basis for new flamenco palos (styles).

In recent decades flamencos, especially guitarists, have worked to bring elements of many different musical traditions into flamenco. In the process, they have taken flamenco beyond its origins as a strictly regional Spanish style and created a style with international resonance. One way flamenco has been expanded is by creating amalgamations of flamenco with other styles. An amalgamation is a combination of common or complementary elements from disparate traditions. The usual way to create an amalgamation is for individuals from different artistic backgrounds to contribute their native style to a collaborative performance. An amalgamation is usually ephemeral because the creation is external to any given artistic style and exists only as long as the artists are in active collaboration. A good example of an amalgamation is the Songhai projects featuring members of Ketama and musicians from Africa. Another way flamenco has been expanded is by fusing it with elements native to other styles. In a fusion, as compared to an amalgamation, different traditions are assimilated by an artist (or group) and are internalized, becoming part of the performer's own artistic vocabulary. A fusion represents a true hybrid of different styles. The work of Chano Dominguez, a flamenco jazz pianist, is a fine example of a successful fusion of flamenco and jazz.

Fusions and amalgamations of flamenco with other types of music are, with a few notable exceptions like Miles¹ Davis¹ "Sketches of Spain", refracted through a flamenco prism. In recent years fusions and amalgamations have created a new type of flamenco with multivalent artistic elements and international musical resonance. Perhaps the time is ripe for serious foreign flamencos to create their own fusions. Most of these non-Spanish artists are products of the very musical traditions that are currently inspiring Spanish flamenco artists. By exploiting their own musical background, these non-Spanish flamenco artists could create a flamenco style inflected with their particular artistic formation; flamenco with a foreign accent. I will return to the possible contribution of foreign flamencos to the emerging international flamenco scene after an examination of flamenco in America and Americans in flamenco.

Flamenco made in the U.S.A.

In this century flamenco has achieved international renown. In addition to the United States, current hot beds of foreign flamenco interest and activity are Japan and many countries in South America and Europe. There are many guitarists and dancers studying flamenco outside of Spain. A multitude of schools, academies and independent teachers have appeared to meet the growing demand for instruction. Flamenco is performed by foreign-born professionals and serious non-professionals worldwide. But since I am American and know much more about flamenco in the United States than about flamenco in other parts of the world, the rest of this piece will concentrate on that very strange beast--flamenco in the U.S.A.

Americans have known about flamenco since the early years of this century. In the 1920s and 30s records by La Niña de los Peines were sold in the United States as international folk music and joined recordings from a host of exotic places. During the Spanish Civil War, several talented performers fled to the Americas. Some settled in the United States, while others split their time between South America and the United States. Sabicas and Carmen Amaya were among the those who regularly performed and toured in the U.S. In the 40s and 50s, Carmen Amaya even performed in some Hollywood musicals. For many Americans, the live and celluloid performances of these Spanish performers was their first taste of flamenco.

In the 1950s, the U.S. produced its first homegrown flamenco star: José Greco. Greco was a Greek American dancer who, with his dance company, toured the United States to great acclaim. He also made television appearances, bringing flamenco into American living rooms for perhaps the first time. In the early 1960s, as a young child in Middle America, I remember seeing him on television. This was my first exposure to flamenco at the tender age of 4 or 5, watching José Greco's lightening heel work on the Ed Sullivan Show. The dancing came across as athletic, exotic and passionate. I don't know if the women danced with roses between their teeth, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did! Flamenco in those days meant flouncy costumes smothered in ruffles and polka-dots. Castanets were required, and non-Spaniards changed their names to exotic-sounding Spanish ones. It may have been a caricature of real flamenco, closer to Franco's tourist flamenco than anything else, but it was all we knew here in America. You saw José Greco, or you went to Spain and saw a tourist tablao show. The pueblo flamenco of the Gypsies was totally unknown.

In the early to mid-60s, a group of American guitar students "discovered" a Gypsy guitarist living in Morón de la Frontera, Diego del Gastor. He was at the heart of a thriving Gypsy pueblo flamenco scene. He also accompanied some professional singers who lived in and around Morón, most notably Fernanda de Utrera. The figure of Diego del Gastor became an irresistible magnet for many American guitarists. As word of him and Morón spread, more and more guitarists and even a few singers arrived in Morón from exotic locales like California and New York. As the tide of American flamenco seekers increased, Donn Pohren, an American guitarist and flamenco promoter, opened a center where foreigners (primarily Americans) could come and live the flamenco experience of Diego del Gastor and Morón. Morón was a different world from the flamenco of the tourist tablaos or the glittering international touring companies. This was the world of Gypsy pueblo flamenco, flamenco as a way of life, or so it seemed to the awe struck Americans who congregated around Diego.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the height of the Morón experience coincided with the American hippie search for authenticity in spirituality, in art and in everyday life. I can¹t speak for the spirituality of the Morón experience, but certainly many young Americans found a profound authenticity in the art and everyday life of Morón's Gypsy population. In some ways, the Morón experience may have functioned as a quest for truth and authenticity beyond the confines of a familiar industrial society. In the flamenco culture of the Gypsies of Morón, disillusioned American youth found a seemingly more genuine way of life that was strange, colorful and exotic, and that was practiced by a persecuted minority. Diego was elevated to a kind of guru of the guitar and was idolized by many Americans in a manner similar to the Indian gurus ensconced in their ashrams in India. Even today, more than 20 years after Diego's death, many who studied with him and had the full "Morón experience", continue to idolize their mentor. With Diego del Gastor´s sudden death in 1973, these American guitarists were orphaned. Many were not drawn to the technical flash of the younger non-Gypsy guitarists like Paco de Lucía or Manolo Sanlucar, artists who lived and worked in Madrid and were intent on building their reputations as solo guitar virtuosos.

Many of the American guitarists who studied with Diego del Gastor in Morón settled in California or on the West Coast when they returned to the United States. The fledgling flamenco scene in these regions received a vital infusion of energy and enthusiasm from these performers. Slowly, almost by word of mouth, flamenco gained aficionados and new students. But the impact on the general American public was imperceptible. Most Americans¹ idea of flamenco was still the product of tablao shows seen on vacations in Spain or of Spanish companies that toured the U.S. The record buying public was unacquainted with flamenco, except for the odd recordings by guitarists Sabicas or Mario Escudero released in the U.S. by their American record labels. This was soon to change and, in the course of a few short months, all of America was caught up in a flamenco craze. The year was 1988, when strains of the Gypsy Kings were first heard on these shores.

The Gypsy Kings and New Age "Flamenco"

Of course, most Americans didn't know that the Gipsy Kings were playing a form of rumba flamenca characteristic of certain Gypsies in Southern France. The Gipsy Kings were Gypsies, they played the guitar, the singing sounded rough and harsh, so of course this must be flamenco Americans thought. In many ways, the success of the Gipsy Kings was a fluke. They had been together for almost a decade playing parties on the Riviera for starlets like Brigitte Bardot and were barely known outside of the Camargue. One day they hooked up with a French record producer who brilliantly conceived of a different way to market these musicians. He showcased the catchy Gypsy rumba songs in slick pop arrangements, adding bass, synthesizers and Latin percussion to give the group a more polished, more pop oriented sound. Within a few months, everyone in France knew who the Gypsy Kings were. American record executives sat up and took notice at the sales figures. The record was released in the U.S. and within months was topping the Bill Board World Music charts with sales figures unprecedented for any "world music" act. With each successive release, the Gipsy Kings have sold an impressive number of albums, becoming far and away the best selling foreign language musical act in U.S. history.

Most Americans had never heard Gypsy rumba or rumba flamenca before, the music of the Barcelona rumba artists was unknown here, so perhaps it isn¹t too surprising that most people thought what the Gipsy Kings played was bona fide flamenco. The huge success of the Gipsy Kings created an entirely new genre in American music: so-called modern flamenco. In the past decade, a number of rumba lite musicians and groups have sprung up in this country. Ottmar Liebert is the star of this "modern flamenco" genre. "Modern flamenco" is nothing more than a solo guitar playing simple, repetitive melodies in strict 4/4 time, usually with bass, synthesizer and Latin percussion accompaniment. This "nouveau flamenco" has nothing of the rich melodic, harmonic or rhythmic sophistication that characterizes Spanish flamenco guitar. This New Age flamenco has been described by an American record label that releases this type of music as "rumba flamenco world beat jazz pop". Mostly it is background music for a yuppie brunch.

With the Gypsy Kings and "nouveau flamenco" albums, millions of people who had never attended a traditional flamenco performance were getting their first exposure to what they thought was flamenco. In the United States, the public's exposure to flamenco is primarily through recordings. There are very few flamenco performances outside of a handful of American cities, and most of these are by dance companies. Even Paco de Lucía performs in only a few select American cities on his otherwise extensive world tours. Flamenco is not shown on television, played on the radio, nor featured in films. Although technically Carlos Saura's flamenco film was released in the United States, it is showing at only one theater in New York City. For all intents and purposes, most American aficionados know flamenco only through recordings.

Madrid and the "Young Flamencos"

Concurrent with the explosive growth in the popularity of the Gipsy Kings and New Age flamenco, a second and very different wave of flamenco recordings was being released on this side of the Atlantic. These releases introduced a small but enthusiastic group of record buyers not only to traditional flamenco, but also to some of the brashest "nuevo flamenco" sounds.

In 1991 a relatively minor label, Rykodisk, released an American version of Nuevos Medios¹ first "Jovenes Flamencos" compilation. The record, while initially generating little interest in Spain, was quickly discovered by young Americans interested in world music. Mario Pacheco has been quoted as saying that the album sold better in Boston than it did in Barcelona. At the same time, Rykodisk released a compilation of Ketama's first two albums, Pepe Habichuela's solo recording "A Mandeli" and Pata Negra's "Blues de la Frontera". Within a few years Fantasy, Inc. released instrumental albums by Jorge Pardo, Chano Dominquez and Jorge Pardo, and Tomatito. One album in particular has been a catalyst in attracting a new American audience to contemporary flamenco. In late 1994 Ellipsis Arts, a small independent label, released a 3 CD flamenco compilation called "Duende". The first album showcased recent work by some of the most exciting modern cantaores, as well as giving a taste of the historical richness of flamenco song through carefully chosen selections by some of flamenco's all time greats. Many Americans were introduced for the first time to singers of the caliber of Camarón de la Isla, Enrique Morente and José Menese. These singers were accompanied by some of the top guitarists, and the arrangements were often influenced by pop music, offering a brighter, more contemporary sound than what Americans generally took to be flamenco. With the exception of the recordings of Paco de Lucía, flamenco, especially as it was transformed in the 1980s by people like Camarón, was totally unknown in the United States.

Another CD of the "Duende" compilation featured solo guitar. Here were the top flamenco guitarists performing some of the most complex and exciting guitar pieces most of us had ever heard, people like Gerardo Núñez, Rafael Riqueni and El Viejín.

The real eye-opener, though, was the third album that featured all sorts of unexpected fusions. We discovered for the first time musicians and groups like Chano Dominguez, Radio Tarifa and Tino di Geraldo. The CDs were accompanied by a booklet that featured lengthy discussions of the art form, the most important contemporary artists, and recent developments in flamenco.

There have never been more U.S. releases of flamenco and flamenco fusion than at the present moment. Several French labels are releasing their catalogs of flamenco recordings in the U.S. including the Chant du Monde series featuring historic performers, and the exciting new series called Flamenco Vivo that showcases many of today's top traditional flamenco artists. Nimbus Records has released two live juerga recordings featuring important traditional artists like Chano Lobato, José el de la Tomasa, María Solea and Paco del Gastor. Several multinationals are now releasing Spanish flamenco in the U.S. as well. In addition to recordings by Paco de Lucia, CDs by Vicente Amigo and Ketama are readily available. Ginesa Ortega's recent album was released in the United States even before it was released in Spain, and the recording documenting the 1996 Festival del Cante de las Minas, one of Spain's most important flamenco festivals, is to be released in Spain, Japan and the United States.

American record labels have also begun releasing original flamenco recordings of Spanish artists. Guitarist Carlos Heredia and singer Rafael Jiménez "El Falo" both had original releases on American labels in 1996, and Gerardo Núñez¹ next album will be released in 1997 on a U.S. label. Radio Tarifa's first album has just been released here and is receiving heavy promotion and wide distribution. As the American record buying public becomes more sophisticated, some have looked beyond the easy listening styles of the Gipsy Kings and Ottmar Liebert to more complex contemporary flamenco, to music with direct links to flamenco's past and future, be it Fernanda de Utrera or Vicente Amigo.

America Embraces Flamenco

In recent years, more and more Americans are becoming interested in flamenco, this vital contemporary art form which possesses such a rich past. Interest in flamenco dance and music continues to grow, and teachers are appearing to satisfy the demand for instruction. American and Spanish professionals are performing before enthusiastic audiences, and dozens of flamenco workshops are offered each year. The University of New Mexico has the country's only degree program in flamenco dance, and flamenco workshops are appearing in such unlikely places as Cleveland, Ohio and Durham, North Carolina. But sadly, few top Spanish flamenco artists perform outside of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The United States is a very large and diverse country, and in many places there are strong university and performing arts subscription series attended by sophisticated audiences curious about music and dance from other parts of the world. Certainly they would also be an enthusiastic audience for flamenco if they were exposed to performances by top professionals.

The informal network of American performers and flamenco aficionados continues to grow. Two flamenco magazines have been published in the United States: Jaleo during the 1980s and The Journal of Flamenco Artistry in the 1990s. A 37-part audio tape series, designed to teach English-speaking aficionados the history and characteristics of flamenco, was produced by an American flamenco scholar and guitarist. Flamenco is now a subject of study at a handful of American universities. An organization called Festival Flamenco holds a two week event every summer at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque featuring performances by top professionals and intensive workshops for singers, dancers and guitarists. In 1996, the first international flamenco conference to be held in the United States was part of Festival Flamenco. American scholars Timothy Mitchell and William Washabaugh are writing about flamenco from the vantage points of sociology and anthropology, and several Americans have written doctoral dissertations on flamenco topics in the past 25 years. There is even an American sponsored e-mail discussion group on flamenco, where currently over 300 members from around the world participate in daily e-mail discussions on a range of flamenco topics.

Flamenco with an American Accent

Even with the expansion of flamenco's artistic vocabulary in recent years, at its most fundamental level flamenco remains an Andalucian art form. It was created and developed in this underdeveloped and isolated region of Spain by poor and uneducated people during the past 200 years. Flamenco is intimately bound up with the language and life style of the Gypsy and non Gypsy people of this region. It draws on the speech, gesture, movement and music of Andalucía to generate the expressive vocabulary used in flamenco song, dance and guitar. Although flamenco has always been an art that thrives on a fusion of local and foreign elements, until recently such fusions have always been created from an Andalucian perspective. Any foreigner attempting to master a flamenco art form is immediately confronted with the foreign, intrinsically Andalucian nature of flamenco. It is like a foreign language: those not born and raised with the language will always speak it with a foreign accent.

Dance is the most easily assimilated flamenco art for foreigners, while cante is the most difficult. Guitar has been mastered by more outsiders than cante, but a "foreign accent" remains an issue for most foreign-born players. Perhaps it is time for the foreign-born performer to strive for more than convincing mimicry of Spanish artists. Perhaps it is time for advanced foreign flamencos to embrace the reality that they will always have a foot in more than one artistic tradition, and to exploit this fact in their work rather than seeing it as a liability.

Flamenco dance accommodates foreigner performers more easily than cante or guitar. Every culture has its own distinctive style of movement and gesture: walking down any street in any country, the observant foreigner is acutely aware of this fact. Before a single word is spoken, the astute native has spotted the outsider simply by his gestures and style of movement. Perhaps flamenco can absorb the alien inflections of foreign born dancers, once they have mastered the complex technical vocabulary of flamenco dance, because this type of dance places a premium on individual expressiveness and personal style.

Flamenco cante is the most difficult of the three flamenco art forms for a foreigner to master. First and foremost, language is a barrier. Flamenco is sung in highly idiomatic Andalucian Spanish with its own distinctive accent and an admixture of caló, the Gypsy language, and Spanish. This is not the Spanish you will hear on any instructional tape nor in any classroom. The only way for the non-native speaker to learn this variety of Spanish is to live in Andalucía among the people who speak it, particularly the Gypsies. It has been suggested that the rhythms and cadences of spoken Andalucian Spanish combine with the traditional compás patterns to create the vocal phrasing of flamenco song. In this way, it seems akin to the blues or jazz where the rhythms and cadences of African American English are an integral part of the singing style. Thus a foreign singer learning to sing flamenco is doubly handicapped. First the foreigner is struggling to eliminate a foreign accent in his or her pronunciation of the words of the song. But just as important, by not being a native speaker, the way the foreigner sings and perhaps even hears the internal cadences and rhythmic structure of the cante is affected. Maybe the best that can be hoped for with foreign singers is a close mimicry of Andalucian singers. A foreigner singing bulerías is a bit like a non-English speaker trying to scat like Ella Fitzgerald. The enormity of the challenge is, I think, quite apparent.

Flamenco guitar played by foreigners seems to fit uncomfortably between dance and cante in its capacity to be mastered by outsiders. Although the guitarist may not need to be fluent in Spanish to play guitar, there is always a foreign musical "ear" to contend with. Andalucian flamenco guitarists who grow up in a traditional flamenco ambient internalize the key elements of flamenco song, dance and guitar long before they pick up their first guitar. The characteristic elements of flamenco are assimilated at such a young age that they are part of the performer's native experience, and quite naturally are part of the guitarist's expressive vocabulary. This is never the case with foreigners. A foreign guitarist typically comes to flamenco later in life than his Spanish counterpart, often as an adult. An American grows up immersed in pop, rock, and/or jazz, depending on age, upbringing, exposure and personal taste. These non-flamenco styles form the basis of his cultural heritage and expressive artistic vocabulary. Perhaps it is somewhat ironic that Spanish flamenco guitarists are turning to just these styles for inspiration, while a small number of avid Americans are embracing traditional flamenco. But just as no Spanish guitarist will ever play the blues like a blues musician who grew up immersed in that style, no American will ever play flamenco exactly like a Spaniard. There will be a "foreign accent" noticeable in the playing.

The vast majority of foreign flamenco guitarists are content to mimic their Spanish counterparts. Even in Spain, most guitarists will never be big name soloists like Paco de Lucía. There are thousands of journeyman guitarists in Spain who are amateurs or play for dance performances, dance classes and the occasional solo singer. They represent the majority of guitarists, and they are the ones who maintain the traditions of flamenco and pass them on to the next generation. In the United States, this tradition speaks with an American accent when performed by American guitarists. It could hardly be otherwise, though most American guitarists work very hard to imitate Spanish players and try to minimize the foreign elements in their playing.

But for a very few highly gifted American musicians, masters of both a native American idiom like jazz, and flamenco, the "foreign accent" in their flamenco playing could be turned into an asset. If an American truly mastered both an American idiom and flamenco, new flamenco with an distinctive American accent could be created. Even when playing traditional flamenco, something of the non-Spaniard's ear would color the playing with a different feel and a different sound. Flamenco has engaged in a one-sided conversation for the past 20 years, even while fusing and combining flamenco with other musical idioms. It is time for a foreigner to answer, inviting Spanish flamencos to initiate a full fledged musical dialog.

No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.

NOTE: This is my own personal view of flamenco outside of Spain. Flamenco on foreign soil is a broad and diffuse topic, and any errors or misinterpretations are unintentional and are mine alone.

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