Women in flamenco

Women, feminism, gender equality: trending topics of 2018.

What about women in flamenco? Well, it is most certainly an intriguing story!

Traditionally, flamenco was rather masculine. There are female artists who were popular and became famous in the first half of the twentieth century, like Carmen Amaya and La Niña de los Peines, but the majority of flamencos – especially singers and guitarists – were men. In the countryside, particularly in villages, the flamenco scene was almost entirely male dominated. In every village, there were one or two family-friendly establishments where women could go with their husbands, and of course in any private home they were welcome, but in the bars visited by men – where flamenco was mostly played – in hours after dark, in an environment with drinks, smoke etc. a respectable woman did not want to be seen. Not the best environment for a woman, anyway, they used to say. The women living in these villages were the first ones to call any woman visiting these bars: a whore… Female presence in these bars was just as uncomfortable for men as for women. Donn Pohren experienced this himself when he arrived to Morón de la Frontera at the beginning of the 60’s, and started going out with the flamencos as part of his flamenco research. His book “A way of life” talks about this and much more, while he lived among the flamencos in the 50-60’s Andalusia.

The story of La Chana – a Catalan gipsy dancer from Barcelona – has recently become  widely known outside of the flamenco world. This is also due to the documentary of the Croatian director, Lucija Stojevic, which won an audience award on Amsterdam’s International Documentary Festival. When Antonia was a young dancer, full of potential and a bright future ahead of her, her husband did not like her being on stage, and forced her into early retirement; only to come back to stage now, in her late sixties. She can only dance sitting down, but she has a footwork that any young dancer would envy, and so much emotion in her performance what makes people cry. I feel lucky to have seen her during the Flamenco Festival in London in February this year. She was helped on stage by two other dancers, sat down in a chair, and the rhythm of her ‘zapateado’, the footwork and the intensity of emotions, left the entire theatre speechless. It was quite moving. One can only hope that we now live in an era where men don’t take decisions about the lives of women anymore, and these stories won’t repeat.

There is still a long way for gender equality to become reality (if possible at all!), but things are changing and the flamenco world is no exception. It welcomes more and more female artists in singing, dancing and also in the guitar! I was happy to hear a few months ago that there is already one known female guitar player (from El Puerto de Santa María): Antonia Jiménez. This doesn’t mean there are no others, but up until recently, I have never heard of any!

As Holly Branson very well said on an international women’s day talk in March 2018 in London: “only sperm donors and surrogate mothers are gender restricted jobs, nothing else should be”. So let women become train drivers, IT specialists and flamenco guitarists, if they want to be. And vice-versa, let men become midwives and nurses, if they want to be. Freedom of choice. For all!

There is a radio program on the national radio in Spain, run by José María Velázquez-Gaztelu, a gentleman with incredible knowledge on flamenco (‘flamencólogo’), writer and poet from Cádiz. It’s called ‘Nuestro Flamenco’, Our Flamenco and it is on RNE Clásico every Monday and Wednesday at midnight CET). They now have a series dedicated to the women in the flamenco world, presenting artists of old times but also contemporary ones. It is called ‘La mujer cantaora’, the singer women. Highly recommended! Podcasts available online.

My women in flamenco are:

Cristobalina Suárez

Fernanda de Utrera

Inés Bacán

Pastora Galván

Mercedes Ruiz

Marina Heredia

La Lupi

María Terremoto

Lucía Ruibal

Discovering the guitar

The other day I have realised – almost by accident – that the flamenco I have lately listened to, is fully dominated by guitar albums. This is probably an after effect of having just read a book about Paco de Lucía…

Throughout the years, as I have been discovering flamenco and it’s artists, I first found interest in getting to know the dancers (‘bailaores y bailaoras’). Without doubt the visual experience of the dance is the most catchy, especially for new audiences. Then my attention turned to the singers (‘cantaores y cantaoras’), trying to understand the words, recognising the different ‘palos’. Flamenco is the collective name of the art but there are many different forms within. It was an adventurous journey getting to know these forms: starting from the more joyful alegrías, bulerías, tangos, cantiñete, to the more sorrow soleá, malagueña, seguiriya, martinete, toná and so on. There are lots of different categorisations and names of the ‘palos’ (‘cante grande’, ‘cante chico’, ‘canciónes de ida y vuelta’, ‘quejío’ etc.) but I don’t think it is necessary to know these to be able to enjoy the music.

Only after the dancers and singers, I am now exploring the guitar players (‘guitarristas’) and I am discovering excellent artists and albums.

Just to mention a few:

  • The last album of Rafael Riqueni: ‘Parque de María Luisa‘, María Luisa Park ‘es una delicia’ as the Spanish would say. Delightful. The guitar imitating the sound of the birds is astounding.
  • The last album of Vicente Amigo ‘Memoria de los sentidos’ is amazing but the song ‘Requiem‘ dedicated to Paco de Lucía is just breathtaking.
  • ‘Palo Santo’ is the latest album of Dani Casares and the atmosphere of Easter (‘Semana Santa’) is wonderfully transmitted.
  • I really like Manuel Molina , although I wouldn’t categorise him as a guitar player only, he sings and he writes his lyrics, as well. If you listen to his songs, he is a true poet!

I haven’t listened so much to the old maestros Ramón Montoya or Niño Ricardo but more to Diego del Gastor and Sabicas accompanying singers of their time. I recently bought an album of Enrique Morente and Sabicas and it’s also wonderful. And without trying to list all of the guitarists, just a few I like: Pedro Bacán, Moraíto, Diego del Morao, Antonio Rey, Manolo Sanlúcar and Santiago Lara.

The first guitar album I was ever able to appreciate on its own was ‘Sentimientos’, Emotions from Santiago Lara. Santi is married to the dancer Mercedes Ruiz and they create and perform together. I have always been a big fan of Mercedes and her traditional dance from Jerez and through her, I got to know Santi and his music. Very pleasant on a Saturday afternoon while reading on the couch and listening to the raindrops on the window (yes, I live in London).

And even though I haven’t mentioned the other instrument players present in today’s flamenco, I haven’t forgotten about them! Artists like the pianist, Dorantes, drummers like Piraña and Javi Ruibal and the saxophonist Jorge Pardo are also important. Since the revolution initiated by Camarón and Paco de Lucía, flamenco is not restricted to the trio of singer-dancer-guitarist and other, new instruments have greatly added to the beauty of this music.

“Paco de Lucía, the son of the Portuguese”

IMG_0319Three weeks ago I finished reading my first proper book in Spanish (if we don’t count ‘La tesis de Nancy’ as a proper book…). ‘Paco de Lucía, el hijo de la portuguesa’ by Juan José Téllez . The author is a writer/journalist from Algeciras (where Paco is from) and is married to María de los Ángeles Carrasco, currently head of ‘Instituto Andaluz de Flamenco‘. I got the book from A. dedicated to me (!): ‘Para V., estas palabras hechas de música y poesía como Paco’, “For V., these words made of music and poetry, just like Paco”. When I got the book I thought, if he doesn’t know about flamenco and Paco, who does? The book proved to be very interesting, full of anecdotes with Paco and artists of the flamenco scene, and I truly enjoyed reading it. Even though I found it difficult at the beginning because the story line doesn’t follow a perfect chronological order – what made it harder for me to understand – as you read on, the fascinating facts and stories make up for the jumping around in history.

Earlier, I didn’t really understand what’s all the fuss about Paco de Lucía. He is an excellent guitar player but there are many others, aren’t there? When I first started listening to flamenco,  I listened to him a lot and because I never learned how to play any instrument, I couldn’t really distinguish him from others. Ten years later, and also by reading this book, I understood that he was not only a guitar player who made the guitar sound like no one, but his innovations in the music and instruments, his incredible personality and his personal touch changed flamenco forever. It is his merit that the ‘cajón’ is used in flamenco, a box-shaped percussion originally from Peru. It is his merit that the flamenco guitar started a solo career from being only an accompanying instrument. Now there are numerous guitarists performing solo and releasing albums but back in the day, the function of the guitar was to accompany the singer and the dancer.

Listening to his albums, ‘Almoraima’, ‘Cositas buenas’, ‘Luzia’ or the latest ‘Canción andaluza’, if you close your eyes, you will be transported to Andalusia, to the shade of the orange trees, sipping a cold beer with some olives on the table next to you. Isn’t that just wonderful? Not to mention the albums where he accompanies Camarón (‘El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de Lucía’, ‘Canastera’, ‘Calle Real’ etc.) or his collaborations with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola or his encounters with jazz. For more than 20 years he toured and performed with his Sextet sharing flamenco and his virtuosity with the world. Paco has been and could be praised so much more but I don’t think it is necessary. He is undisputedly a flamenco legend.

Juan José Téllez tells the story of Fernando Iwasaki, a Peruvian writer, who didn’t know until arriving to Seville that the music he has known as the music of Paco de Lucía is actually part of a bigger phenomenon called flamenco and there is an entire universe out there of this music.  I love this story. It says all about the greatness of Paco. Just imagine the face of Iwasaki when he heard about the existence of flamenco…

Hello Flamenco

This story starts on the 29th of February 2008: the day I took a plane and moved from Budapest to Madrid. With all my savings  hidden in a bag of tissues (a thousand euros…), I wanted to find out whether the burning love I felt was true love or just a flame that may be put out by the next big wind (as the good old Hungarian saying quotes). I could go back even further in time and start with the glorious old days of the European Union when smoking was still in fashion and we all believed in a better future together, and I could tell you about how as an exchange student in Paris in September 2005 I was introduced to Antonio from the south of Spain; a place called El Puerto de Santa María. But that’s a different story. This story starts on the 29th (!) of February 2008 when I arrived in Spain.

I first heard about flamenco when A. played songs of Camarón in our tiny flat in Lavapiés but I only started to find more interest in it when we went to see Sara Baras dance in her show ‘Carmen’. Spectacular. I believe everyone would find the flamenco dance moves, rhythm and energy fascinating. I also think that the production behind the shows of Sara Baras have exactly this intention: to amaze the non-professional audience. The stage, the lights, the choreography, the dresses, the colours are simply astounding but leave little for improvisation or for personal touch. The same show is repeated over and over again during weeks or sometimes months in one location. Mass production for the mass, says my mind now. However, it serves perfectly the purpose of introducing people to flamenco all around the world (may this be her purpose or not). It shows the essentials of flamenco.

In my new Madrid life I soon found myself with plenty of free time in the evenings. I was interested in flamenco and in ballet at that time, but I knew little about both. So I asked my sister-in-law, C. -who knew both  art forms well- what should I do. Shall I start taking flamenco lessons or sign up for beginner’s ballet? Most politely she said that starting ballet at the age of 25 may not result in much success, but I might enjoy flamenco. So I signed up for classes in ‘El Horno’ in Tirso de Molina and started to learn about compás, contratiempo, moving my arms and legs in different directions at the same time…

Years passed by since those hot afternoons in ‘El Horno’. I have listened to lots of flamenco since, have been to many concerts, participated in many classes learning to dance alegrías, bulerías, tangos, guajira (or tried at least…) and my admiration and love for flamenco is still going strong.

I would like to share my passion for flamenco with all of you out there who still read blogs and are interested.