Flamenco: Forget everything you know

I thought I knew what to expect from Flamenco.

Very quickly I had to forget my preconceptions. Being fed on a steady diet of stereotypes from Tv and Movies led me to expect some foot tapping, castanets, fancy fretboard finger work and some dusky vocals. Within moments the intensity of the vocalist and the fury of the guitarist had me pinned back into my seat.

The vocals were evocative of the Muslim call to prayer, the guitar notes were leaning more towards the Arabic scale and seemed to be inspiration for every metal riff ever.

The dancing had not yet started.

I will just pause there and rewind for a moment as to how I came to be there. My AirBnb host Maribel is an internationally performing and teaching flamenco dancer. If I was to see flamenco in Seville, who better to see. When I arrived I did wonder if the show I was going to see would be one geared towards tourists as many are in Seville that are. It was intensified was a large contingent of Asian tourists in the audience. I was beginning to have some apprehension about it being a paint by numbers show. If I was in any doubt by the time the dancers hit the stage it was expelled with force.

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In her flamenco costume and makeup Maribel had transformed. Appearing fiercely severe and stern-faced, she strutted onto the stage answering the singers mournful uttering with contempt in her form and steps. Maribel’s movements were expressive and explosive sending hair combs flying, this was interpretive dance far from, any by-the-numbers dancing I might have expected.

No translation was needed in the story unfolding, you could hear the singer’s heart breaking and the dancer was beyond pissed off. The male dancer at this point, still seated, was adding to the Flamenco dancers percussion with his own foot stamping, hand clapping and finger clicking. Together, the effect created was an intricately interconnected rolling rhythm.

 

I could see these performers were enjoying each others flourishes as much as the audience was, with calls of “Olé” to each other. It was clear this was a jam session of professionals.

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After the first performance finished and the applause had died down I was acutely aware of my pulse rate which had been furiously trying to match the tempo, Flamenco is literally not for the faint of heart.

I assumed these performers simpatico was from countless shows together. I was surprised to learn from Maribel this was the first time they had performed together and that this was a common occurrence. I thought of top session musicians brought together and told  “You are playing 12 bar blues, in D#’ watch for the changes.”

The next act started the male flamenco now showed his footwork as Maribel returned after a muy rapido costume change, filling his seated rhythmical accompaniment role from earlier.

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Possibly it was from noticing the enthralled Japanese tourists, I thought about flamenco’s similarities with Kabuki and Noh theater. Although slower and more ritualistic Kabuki shares the same levels of intricacy and intensity as Flamenco in my opinion.

Maribel who has toured globally, confirmed that Flamenco was indeed popular there with Japanese girls studying dance.

The last act was more free form with all of the performers having a moment in the spotlight and much to the tourists delight (and I admit, my own) the prohibition on photography was lifted. The show wrapped to much “Olé” and applause.

This is a form of music that to be fully appreciated should be seen live. I cannot attest to the authenticity and passion of every Flamenco show in Seville but the one I saw at Casa de la Memoria (rated #1 on Yelp) was fantastic.

The experience had redefined my expectations of Flamenco and given me a musical history lesson spanning thousands of years. I feel I have a much richer appreciation of Andalusian Spain as a result and I will be adding a few flamenco tracks to my playlist when exploring from now on.

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