Archives for December 2017

Non Spanish People in Flamenco

Non Spanish people have been involved in Flamenco one way or another for a very long time, perhaps not from the very beginning but certainly from about 1950.

The subject of non- Spanish flamenco can be rather sensitive and I therefore woud like to approach the discussion sensitively.

Here in Britain where I am currently living there is still a very strong feeling that flamenco belongs to Spanish people and that performers of flamenco need to be Spanish.

I have repeatedly witnessed people ask performers if in fact they are Spanish and this has not been simply out of curiosity; it has been because the people posing the question have thought that if the performers were British for example, somehow they would be less worthy, less authentic.

I would like to first consider authenticity in Spanish flamenco performers.

There is a generally accepted and not very accurate or complete idea that flamenco comes from Spain. Yes it does but not from all over Spain.

Flamenco originated in Andalucia in the South of Spain and as it grew it became popular throughout much but not all of Spain.

Notably: Madrid, mainly because flamenco performers from Andalucia moved to Madrid for flamenco work opportunities and stayed there and set up their own schools of flamenco.

Flamenco also became very popular and developed in neighbouring regions such as Extremadura and Murcia, especially La Union and Cartagena. Again partly due to people from Andalucia moving to those regions for work, although that said the many of the people from those regions are not so very different from Andalusians.

However, it would be somewhat inaccurate to think that the majority of people from Andalusia are interested in flamenco and are active participants of flamenco. The reverse is closer to the truth. Flamenco has always been a minority cultural expression and although it has been so very popular all over the world it still originates in a particular Andalusian sub culture.

So, I am saying that flamenco is not a generally Spanish art form and as such simply being Spanish does not mean that one has an interest in this kind of music.

But what of the people who are Spanish and are interested in flamenco? Are they any better than non- Spanish flamenco practitioners and if so how to they acquire and develop the ability?

The short answer is yes, the Spanish and especially the Andalusians are the very best flamenco performers in the world. This has always been the case and always will be.

This leads people to use the expression: it is in the blood. It is not and ability at flamenco cannot be transferred genetically. There is no genetic component.

People acquire flamenco as a consequence of their interaction with their surroundings. So, when we hear so much about flamenco performers being the children of other much respected flamenco artistes the family connection is very important culturally but not genetically.

If this is true then it would seem that all the non- Spanish flamenco performer would need to do is move to Andalucia, surround themselves in Flamenco culture and they could be just as good as the Andalusians. Actually in my opinion this has never been the case and I think that it is very obvious why.

People who follow that path do so as adults when they can.

An adult is already a part of the culture where they were brought up and has already not had that time in a flamenco environment. Even if a non-Spanish person we taken to Andalucia as a baby by their parents they still would to a certain extent receive cultural influence from their parents.

This could lead to I think an incorrect conclusion.

Based on what I have said above an organisation here in Britain wanting to book a flamenco act for an event might think that they would be on safe ground in they insist on booking only proven Spanish performers. It may be so but not necessarily.

Spanish people are coming to Britain nowadays and looking for work. In many cases they have never had much interest in flamenco.

To be precise parents in Spain have often looked for after school activities for their children, as much as anything to help to keep them in a positive and safe environment if they had to be at work and because in Spain we think it is good for children to have a hobby or activity apart from their academic school life. Oh, and we can show off to our friends about how much we spend each month on our children!

The local dance academy is one option that is available, usually has enough space to take many students and organisesd a couple of performances a year so it is a popular choice. Flamenco or more exactly Spanish dance is taught at these academies as well as classical ballet. The dance classes alone are not enough to acquire a real deep knowledge of flamenco.

Once the aforementioned ‘flamenco dance students‘ become adults they may travel to a country such as Britain looking for work. Sooner or later someone tells them that they might get a little pocket money from flamenco and they cannot resist the offer. They have black hair and look very Spanish and know how to behave on stage in a certain charismatic way. All good but that is not being a professional flamenco performer.

Does that mean that all Spanish flamenco performers in Britain for example are just amateurs? Absolutely not! Many of them are exceptionally good and I am eternally grateful that they are happy to work with me.

Are any of the British of other non- Spanish flamenco performers in Britain any good? Oh yes they are and I am  most certainly happy  work with them.

My conclusion is the old expression that we should not judge a book by its cover.

We should judge people by how they do their work. In this case we should judge flamenco performers by their flamenco performances and nothing else.

 

 

 

 

Female Flamenco Guitarists

Recently I am seeing attention in the media to female flamenco guitarists and I feel that I want to offer a few of my own ideas on the subject of women playing flamenco guitar.

My first reaction is why are people talking about females who play flamenco guitar as though this were a separate issue to flamenco guitar players in general.

Before I discuss my own ideas here is a list of female flamenco guitarists for anyone who would like to do some research.

Antonia Jiménez

Laura Gonzalez

Celia Morales

Davinia Ballesteros

Belen Novelli

Noa Drezner

I have absolutely no interest in what size or shape or anything else a flamenco guitarist is. My joy is in listening to the music that they play but in this world, it seems that not everyone feels the same way.

I saw an article in Spanish media fairly recently in which a female flamenco guitarist said that she kind of perceives that there are those who feel that it is not her place to be playing flamenco guitar; that it is a man’s world and that men should play flamenco guitar.

Now, I am hoping that this is just some misunderstanding, something the journalist doing the interview misunderstood or some kind of personal perception not based on reality.

I say this because back in Spain I do not know any people men or women who would dream of suggesting such a frankly absurd concept.

Spain and Spanish attitudes have changed and matured and evolved massively. One would have to seek out a very elderly individual living isolated in a very remote area to hear any such idea.

More than a 100 years ago when flamenco started apparently it was not uncommon for people in general and men in particular to say that women could not sing flamenco as well as men because it was thought that the typical female voice was not suited to the profound emotional expression necessary for the singing of the deeply tragic songs known as “cante jondo”.

Women proved repeatedly that this was not the case and the idea of man dominance of flamenco singing and of flamenco in general has vanished.

As a side comment anyone who imagines that bullfighting is popular with most Spanish people is reading the wrong sources of information.

Coming back to flamenco guitar playing I am quite sure that just about everyone in Spain cannot see any advantage to playing flamenco guitar in being  a man.

Special emotions that women don’t have? Is this a joke?!

Physical strength? Yes but , not but.

There are two observations here.

As much as I may become unpopular with certain very politically correct people I think that men seem to usually develop some kind of upper body strength, have bigger hands and a stronger grip that most women.

I am refering to people men or women who do not play any particular kind of sport that develops these kinds of characteristics.

If women train then they can be as strong or stronger than men and some are stronger simply genetically. But by and large men seem to get this  physical muscle thing which I think I read somewhere is partly due to the presence of testosterone.

As you can see I don’t pay lip service to political correctness.

So the question is how important is physical strength for playing flamenco guitar and how is this relevant to female flamenco guitarists.

My thoughts are that if we are using a lot of power in our hands when playing we might be doing something wrong.

There are times when accompanying flamenco dance that we really have to produce a very powerful “rajeo” also known as “rasgueo” or “rasgueado” but except in these very special cases I don’t think that strength is a pre- requisite for flamenco guitar playing.

All the women guitarists I have met have had an abundance of strength in their hands and I have seen them produce exceptionally powerful playing.

So where I am going with all of this is: why do we need to discuss female flamenco guitarists at all? Is this helpful to gender equality?

I am not sure.

I think what matters is people and their right to live the lives they want and develop the careers they want and I think I would be happier seeing a few less articles and a few more flamenco guitarists of any gender or anything else performing more often.

 

 

Flamenco Guitarist accompanies Flamenco Dancer

I work with flamenco dancers a great deal and provide here some observations on the skill of accompanying flamenco dance.

Flamenco Dancer and Guitarist for Spanish Party

The way flamenco dancers work is very different to almost all other forms of dance. The flamenco dancer does not dance to a piece of music and that must sound quite strange to anyone who is not familiar with how flamenco performances are put together.

In just about every other kind of dance that I am aware of the dancers select a piece of music that they like and then go about building a choreography around that piece of music.

In flamenco the opposite is the case.

The flamenco dancer is boss so to speak and the flamenco guitarist is there to accompany the dancer.

Flamenco Dancer Spanish Celebration Booking

 

In practice what this means is that the flamenco dancer wants to feel free to improvise and make changes to the dance as they go along. The guitarist is watching very carefully and in my case also listening very carefully.

This is because the flamenco footwork is an essential element of this kind of dance and as such the guitarist will want to play rhythms in accordance with the dancer’s footwork.

That absolutely does not mean to say that the flamenco guitarist will always produce exactly the same rhythmical sections that the dancer is producing.

The dancer may often want to produce a counter rhythm and as such will want the guitarist to maintain the straight rhythm precisely so that the counter rhythm can be heard.

Likewise flamenco dancers tend to produce very complex patterns with their feet and they often prefer the guitarist to keep things simple which effectively gives them a kind of security on which to build their intricate footwork.

 

Hire a Flamenco Dancer for Spanish Themed Events

Flamenco dancers also want to feel free to either develop a section or to abbreviate their dance according to their mood: sometimes they feel great with a particular section of the dance and they want to extend, vary and build that section.

In this case the guitarist has the responsibility to support the dancers creative spirit and as the same time the opportunity to perhaps play a new chord sequence or to improvise some new cadence in the hope of both helping and inspiring the dancer.

Of course if it goes the other way and the dance wishes cut things short you have to be very attentive and to almost try to predict that and the make the guitar music stop when the dance stops.

This is not at all easy and generally works better when two people know each other well and have worked successfully together on a number of occasions.

Flamenco Dancer and Guitarist at Spanish Event

 

It is very rare for a dancer to change the order of the sections of the dance without prior discussion because there is no way that a guitarist can possibly guess what is going to happen next.

What might happen is that if there is also a singer participating in the performance and the dancer feels very inspired by the singer they may want to dance another verse (letra) before progressing on to the footwork section (escobilla) which is not sung.

In this situation the guitarist can understand from the body posture that the dancer is not going to progress as planned to the footwork and can consequently play the chord sequence that is correct for the verse.

The singer will also realise what is going on and this can be a very happy experience: a group of three people understanding each other and happy to work together to provide a new and exciting artistic expression.

For all these reasons a flamenco dancer does really need the accompaniment of a flamenco guitarist and although clients who have to organise an event at a venue such as a restaurant or hotel will quite rightly look for ways to save on expenses by perhaps asking the dancer to dance to a recording they risk ending up with much the same as frozen food which has never really been heated up.

Flamenco Dancer Spanish Celebration Booking

 

A professional flamenco dancer accompanied by a professional flamenco guitarist are going to give not only a very enjoyable performance for all those present but are going to compliment the venue’s own high standards.

Guitar for a Funeral

Playing the guitar for a funeral is a very particular and specific skill and the guitarist needs to be very aware of what is needed and able to respond to the client’s needs.

Flamenco Guitar Player

Sometimes the family of the deceased feel that it would be appropriate to have music at certain moments during the funeral service.

If they have chosen guitar this will be because guitar music has been important to the deceased in one way or another. They may have been a guitarist themselves, or simply enjoyed guitar music or perhaps the sound of the guitar has a specific reference in the hearts of the family.

It is then important to discuss the type of music with the client. It is not just a matter of selecting repertoire although certainly there may be certain pieces that they would like to be heard. It is also important to talk about the moods for each piece. Although a funeral makes us immediately think of a sorrowful mood there is rather more to it than that.

Tomas plays Guitar

Some people will want a restful mood while other people may need something a little stronger and perhaps uplifting at a given moment.

In my case I am sometimes asked to accompany a reading with guitar music. In this case it is helpful to meet with the person who will recite the text so that I can understand their pace and flow as well as the elements in the text that they want to emphasize.

Very often I will play music as the mourners arrive and again as they leave and again these are chosen carefully to provide the correct background atmosphere.

A funeral is a time of tears and lament and the readings are often most touching. Additionally I find that I become aware of and influenced by the sadness around me and it is at this point that it is most important to remember that we the musicians are providing a service to the mourners and that the purpose of our work is to be helpful to them.

As such composure is required.

Flamenco Guitarist

I will chose music that will be especially lovely as well as the right choice for each funeral and naturally the situation will be moving for the guitarist as well but being professional we understand decorum and how to behave appropriately.

On this note we the hired guitarist must always be impeccably dressed and I always ask if there is any particular colour that they prefer or that they wish to not have. At one funeral it was very clear that black was not wanted and that this was in respect of the deceased’s wishes.

Acoustics in churches often means that amplification is not needed but if it is I arrive very early to set up in advance of the start of the funeral and not until the last person has left do I begin to put the guitar away and collect my things together.

The early planning with the family member who officiates the service as well as a member of the clergy where this is the case should mean that my guitar playing should go smoothly but I am always very attentive to what is happening and ready to make changes should they be needed.

Flamenco Music

Finally, when it is the right time I leave quietly and discretely.

Flamenco Guitar Strings Opinions

In response to so many requests that I receive to recommend a make of flamenco guitar strings I offer some guidance below:

 

First everything I write here is my own personal opinion and the result of my own personal experiences.

There are no absolute truths and I advise each guitarist to try out all the available strings and try to decide which strings suit them, their own particular playing style and their guitar best.

At present I am using Luthier set 30 in the blue package and D’Addario Pro Arte set EJ 45 normal tension; in both cases silver wound basses and standard trebles.

Before going on to all the other guitar strings that I have used I would like to discuss these two in a little detail.

Luthier set 30 Classical Guitar strings:

Pros:

Endless life: Make sure you check and change them when needed because they will continue to sound and feel very good almost for ever. I run a finger nail under the bass strings and if I feel the string is beginning to break up at the frets it might be time to think about changing. I do the same for the treble strings but these have less obvious wear to the touch. If the treble strings are beginning to feel a little too inflexible this might also mean the tone is not quite as lovely as it was when they were first put on the guitar, although time on guitar does not seem to dull their brightness at all.

Feel on the fingers: For me these stings are perfect in terms of string tension. They are neither too stiff nor too floppy. The last thing you want is a string that you have to do battle with or conversely a string that seems to not stay in its place. Although of course as guitarists know this has a lot to do with the guitar itself and I have absolutely fabulous guitars but that is a subject for another blog post.

I find these Luthier strings are exactly where I want them and they help all techniques.

Tone: Very bright, very flamenco, somewhat percussive.

They are labelled as classical guitar strings and I do hope that they work well for classical guitarists. Their tone is very flamenco and I find that these strings can help to brighten up some of the entry level guitars that people usually play when they are starting off.

Affecting the inherent tone of the guitar: They do not colour the tone of the guitar. I mean to say that they do not change the way the guitar sounds; they just bring that sound out, helping volume and sustain.

Cons: Expensive: I am finding these strings somewhat more expensive than say some others but as indicated above one changes then much more seldom and they sound and feel great.

Luthier Sets 20 and 50.

I have tried both of these sets but they did not work for me and my guitars. I found the 20 to be too soft and the 50 to be too hard and in the case of the latter the sound was much more rounded, less percussive, less flamenco.

D’Addario EJ45 Normal Tension Classical Guitar Strings:

Pros:

Tone: Rich and deep and satisfying, especially good for serious ‘cante jondo palos’. Very good sustain and warmth.

Feel on fingers: Very comfortable, a little thicker than the Luthier above, but never lumpy.

Affecting the inherent tone of the guitar: They do not do this at all. They are absolutely neutral and this is exactly what I want.

Price: Consistently very reasonable priced. I hope that the manufacturers will not read this and then increase the price.

Cons: These strings last well but not as long as the aforementioned brand. This is especially the case with the basses and I think it is possible or has been possible to buy sets with the three extra basses. Having said this, I think the frequent changing of strings is more associated with giving concerts where of course we need our to guitar to sound at its absolute best.

Other D’Addario Guitar Strings

I won’t list them all here. I think I have tried every string in just about every string tension that they have ever produced as they came out.

They were all good, all slightly different although I am aware that some guitarist think that the same string can be provided in different sets with different identities. For example, you might get the same treble strings across different set names but with the different basses or perhaps vice versa.

The feel and tone can be different to the standard

It was fun to try them all out and I would advise anyone to try them, give it a go and see what works for you.

Savarez Classical Guitar Strings

This is where I started when I was still a child and got my first guitar.

Savarez were the standard and one was almost always  recommended to use Carta Roja, Red Card. That is how we called them. We identified them by the colour of the packaging. Red was kind of firm but not too hard but you could get harder by going for Yellow Card.

In those days it was quite typical to combine either different Savarez tensions or Savarez basses with La Bella trebles. In theory, the idea was that the Savarez made treble strings using a system called rectified nylon which perhaps felt just a tiny bit rough or shall we say not absolutely smooth to  the touch.

Personally I loved that feel but the idea around was that La Bella was smoother and gave a more flamenco tone. Perhaps the guitarists of the day were right but I suspect that a good few of them loved the Black or Red trebles that you could readily get from La Bella.

These black and red strings looked cool and of course looked “muy flamenco”!

I always loved Savarez the moment I put them on. They had a kind of well, very Spanish tone, they made ligado very easy, they were both bright and warm. But they did not last very long at all. I found that the basses especially lost their brightness and strength quite quickly.

I have tried most of the other strings that Savarez have produced and liked them all but found pretty much the same characteristics as described above.

Perhaps they are different nowadays. When I get time I may well try them again and see if they have been modified or developed.