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- Posted on Jun 17th 2008 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
But it was also more than that. It was a living map of this group's approach. Think of Paco de Amparo's guitar as Andalusia, the home of Son de la Frontera. On the other side of the stage, Raúl Rodríguez's stringed instrument, the Cuban tres, represented Latin America, the true frontier of this Son. Flamenco didn't stop at the edge of Spain, of course, but came along with the exploration and settlements of the New World. And between these two geographic stand-ins, singer Moi de Morón, dancer Pepe Torres and Manuel Flores -- all of them contributing the compás (clapped and stomped beats) -- are the passage across the Atlantic, reaching even across the Americas into the hills of Mexico and to the Pacific coast of Peru and Ecuador in sounds that echo in this night's music.
Too literal? One fan doesn't think so: "They figure the tres was invented in Cuba by Andalusians. There was incredible traffic from Southern Spain, where flamenco is from, and Havana. It was like a bullet train or something."
That fan is Jackson Browne -- yes, that Jackson Browne -- who co-hosted this particular concert and is a passionate and knowledgeable flamenco fan who can and does expound on the subject at length. And he is finding this a particularly exciting time to be a flamenco aficionado, a time when tradition and innovation are being embraced with equal fervor, young people continuing the creative spirit of the form's greatest figures by applying their own distinct creativity.
"It's sort of the young guys from the tradition who are holding it up and saying, 'This was the s---! This was an amazing moment!' " says Browne, who has traveled extensively following this particular obsession. "It's like that moment in time when Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield said Chicago blues was the s---."
His assessment is born out in a crop of recordings that are taking new approaches to traditions, and in the process reaching new audiences -- from the tropical twists of Mexico-based Rodrigo y Gabriela (who have been pushed to prominence by Dave Matthews, who signed them to his ATO Records label) to the techno-ecstasy of the vibrant Spanish ensemble Ojos de Brujo.
But the views are as varied as the aesthetics. Three of the acts bringing distinction to flamenco each give a different perspective on what they're doing, befitting their different backgrounds: Son de la Frontera representing the Andalusian roots, American acoustic guitar legend Peter Walker personalizing the classic foundations and Vancouver-Peruvian hybrid Pacifika. Talk about frontiers:
Son de la Frontera
Son de la Frontera grew out of the band accompanying Martirio, Rodríguez's mother, and, he says, "a master class in mixed musics in herself." It was during a tour of Latin America that the concepts for the current project took root, and in fact it was on that trek that Rodríguez bought his tres in Havana. The notion had already been brewing.
"I always thought that the relationships between Spanish and American music has to do with the common history," he says. "It was while studying cultural anthropology and history at the university in 1993 where I noticed that Sevilla and Cádiz were the principle ports for the American commerce and trade, and La Habana was the other point of the triangle. From 1492 until 1898 these three cities were very close brothers, so it's not crazy to think about the musical relationship. We can see this in food, talk, jokes so ... why not music?"
Inspiration has come from many sources.
"There are too many artists in both flamenco and American music who have turned on the lights on this road," he says. "I could feel the proximity with the music of Compay Segundo, Arsenio Rodríguez, the Cuban guajira music and the Repentismo, the Mexican Son Jarocho, Chavela Vargas, Venezuelan joropo . But also in Spain in Chano Lobato, Fernanda de Utrera an all the old flamenco ways for taking the American songs into the compás, especially Diego del Gastor's way of doing it and the aire of Morón and Utrera, keeping all the flamenco essence and flavor and at times playing with the music from the 'old brothers,' the American and especially the Caribbean people. And, of course, one of the most important influences to 'take back' the American music here is my mother."
The results are astounding, both on the group's 2004 album 'Son de la Frontera' and the even more ambitious 2006 release 'Cal' (both issued in the U.S. by World Village Records), and especially in concert with the physical element in full effect. But Rodriguez says it was not easy to achieve and involves maintaining a fine balance.
"You have to do it carefully, with real love," he says. "I had to work really hard to make it sound flamenco with the Cuban tres. So this is the real work: Play flamenco music, in its openest sense, back to the past and going into the future, or 'backing to the future.' The guitar and tres are like old family that got together again after 100 years."
The sensibility and roots Peter Walker brought to the art of the acoustic guitar came from India and Pakistan, the ancient source of much of flamenco's roots -- but not, he says, as is often believed via the migration of the Rom (Gypsy) people over the centuries. Rather, he notes, the Gypsies who settled in Andalusia were Calos.
"They are also called 'gitanos de Casa' -- Gypsies who live in houses," says Walker, whose '60s folk-raga style, a force in the Cambridge, Mass. and Greenwich Village scenes, was developed from his studies with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and served him well in his role as musical director for Dr. Timothy Leary's acid celebrations.
"The Calos were originally residents of Bengal and Madras in India and were brought to Spain in the mid-eighth century by the Muslims as prizes of war. When the Muslim expansion reached central India, they rounded up the most beautiful women and talented artists and musicians, and brought them as slaves to Granada."
It was there, he explains, that flamenco developed using Karnatic rhythms and scales. It was then natural for Walker himself to develop an interest in flamenco, which has been his primary pursuit in the 40 years since he released what was until recently the second and last of his albums. In recent years, he's become a cult hero to several generations' worth of guitarists, including Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Jack Rose and English hotshot James Blackshaw, all among those featured on the recent tribute album 'A Raga for Peter Walker.' But his own long-awaited return to recording, the just-released 'Echo of My Soul,' is the product of his decades of dedication to flamenco.
"I am particularly inspired by Paco Peña, Paco de Lucia, Manolo Sanlúcar -- mostly Spanish players at this point in my development," he says. "I am still a student of many musical things, particularly currently learning to accompany Spanish singers in the traditional way."
While he's "oblivious and surprised to hear of my influence on others," he is thrilled to be seen as an explorer of the roots and tendrils of flamenco and to help trace its place in the Western hemisphere.
"I have been lucky enough to find the 'smoking guns' and love putting the pieces together as the clues fall into place about the story of the expansion of the Eastern musical systems to the rest of the world," he says.
Pacifika has the Western hemisphere pretty well covered. Singer Silvana Kane was born in Peru, bassist Toby Peter was raised in Barbados, and guitarist Adam Popowitz grew up in British Columbia. Between them they have experience in and love for music covering the gamut from pop to hip-hop to metal to dub reggae to jazz to Armenian folk. But it was in a Vancouver nightspot that they found the sounds that bind them.
"Pacifika was born with a cajon and a flamenco guitar in a small Vancouver café where traditional flamenco groups play every week," Popowitz has explained. "Silvana had tapped into her Spanish roots and [I into my] early flamenco schooling. The shows were very much about getting the audience to clap and dance and chant to out music. The room was hot. Very hot. And it felt like we were playing Barcelona."
From their, though, the trio wanted to make something more fully reflecting the members' full musical character, and in the process came up with something on 'Asuncion,' its debut album, just released by Six Degrees Records, that keeps the flamenco grounding within a personalized context. The result is seductive, a calmed complement to Ojos de Brujos' wild excursions.
"As Pacifika evolved into the sound of 'Asuncion,' we decided to strike a balance between the raw passion of flamenco with an electronica-edged chill approach," he says. "Use the beating of the cajon, the rhythm of the guitar, the pulse of the palmas, the gypsy of Silvana and then incorporate the more progressive sounds we heard in our heads."