November 2, 2011

Beyond Flamenco: Modern Twists on an Old Genre

The previous entry made me realize, perhaps it's past time that I add a soundtrack to this blog, say something about Spanish music. Naturally, in the continued spirit of eroding stubborn stereotypes and clichés, I'm _not_ going to blog here about flamenco.

It's not that the famous gypsy genre isn't important and even popular in Spain. The legendary flamenco figures of Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía have left their imprint on popular musical culture here. Camarón, who died early at the age of 42, has become a local legend and was the subject of a movie Camarón (2005). Paco de Lucía, meanwhile, has helped raise the profile of flamenco in international music arenas. And flamenco is always _the_ dance step of choice of the Ballet Nacional de España. However, believe me when I say that most of Spain, particularly its younger generation, isn't playing flamenco on their car radio. (Clarification: my wife suggested to me a more accurate characterization by way of analogy. Just as country music is heard on the radio in the United States more in the South and Southwest than in the Northeast, flamenco music is listened to more in Andalucía, where it originated, than in the rest of Spain.)

The always entertaining Duquesa de Alba danced flamenco at her wedding.

Monument to Camarón in the southern
Spanish town, la Línea de la Concepción,
where Camarón lived much of his life.
But that doesn't mean you don't hear its echo in the music Spaniards are playing on the radio. In my opinion, even better than straight flamenco are all the blended forms in which flamenco has been infused into other musical genres here. Since the 1970s with "la fusión flamenca" and then "el nuevo flamenco", both movements promoted by Camarón and Paco de Lucía, artists have sought to fuse flamenco elements with other newer musical styles. I won't be systematic about describing this movement here, but I wanted to share some of my favorite examples of Spanish artists who've reinvented the genre by adapting it to their own. The four groups described below give you a taste of the ways that Spanish musicians, (willingly or unwillingly) fed flamenco their whole lives, have incorporated traditional Spanish elements (in particular Spanish guitar and the gypsy beat or hand clap) into more modern sounds.

Of the four, easily the "most flamenco" of them is Pata Negra, a group from Andalucía which released albums between 1981 and 1995 which blended blues with flamenco… or what they called "blueslería." Perhaps their most successful albums was "Blues de la Frontera" released in 1987, and two songs from it which are my personal favorites, and which nicely illustrate their bluesy flamenco style are "Yo me quedo en sevilla" [Click here to hear it on YouTube] and "Bodas de Sangre" [Click here to hear it on YouTube].

Kiko Veneno with his
soulful guitar strum.
Kiko Veneno, a musician from Figueres in the Catalunya region (note: not from Andalucía), is a product of the fusion movement in flamenco. He gained fame collaborating with Camarón on an album, "La leyenda del tiempo," in 1979, and has been releasing pop flamenco hits ever since. His style draws upon the guitar-drums formula of pop rock, but with a distinctively flamenco guitar strum, melodic wail, and fast-step beat. Hands down my favorite song by him is "En un mercedes blanco" [Click here to hear it on YouTube] from the album "Échate un cantecito" (1992).

Another group from Catalunya, specifically from Barcelona, is Ojos de Brujo, who specialize in hip-hop flamenco… or as they call it "jipjop flamenkillo." They're popular with a politically and socially more conscientious crowd, because of their vocal and public commentary on a variety of social issues, but their music is lively and great to listen to whatever your politics. A good sample of their style is "Sultanas de merkaíllo" [Click here to hear it on YouTube] from the album "Techarí" (2006).

"La Mala" on the cover of her album "Alevosía" (2003)
If a style of music, flamenco, could die and be reincarnated as another style, rap, then Mala Rodriguez would be its poster child. I used to find rap in any other language or dialect than urban street American to sound odd and a little forced, until I heard "la Mala". She grew up in Sevilla at the heart of its local hip-hop movement and in one of the spiritual capitals of flamenco, so she was well placed to blend the two. And she really has managed to bring these two genres together into something vibrant and whole, what one could call flamenco rap. What with her being young, attractive, with an amazing voice and an amazing lyrical ability to mix social messages with images about urban street life in Andalucía, all with a sevillano accent, she is the real deal. Two of my favorite songs by her are "Por la Noche" [Click here to hear it on YouTube] from the album "Malamarísmo" (2007) and "Lo Fácil Cae Ligero" [Click here to hear it on YouTube] from "Alevosía" (2003).

Mala Rodriguez is also making a footprint on the international Spanish-language hip-hop scene. What's funny is how national stereotypes can still trump regional ones even in this alternative "Hispanidad" community. When Mala paired up with Puerto Rican rapper Vico C in "Vamonos Po' Encima," Vico C couldn't resist introducing Mala as follows:
"Ando con la abusadora de la madre patria, sabe…Olé!"
Madre patria? Olé? Really? --Sigh-- Even a street-savvy Andalusian hip-hop artist becomes just another Castilian conquistador(a) when traveling in the New World.

FYI, while I personally like the Gypsy Kings _a lot_ you should be advised they are a very questionable unconventional group to be playing under the flamenco label. For starters, they grew up in France, and thus don't have the close ties to the Spanish gypsy traditions. (They have a good excuse, as their families fled to France to escape the Franco regime. Still, for those of you hoping to learn Spanish from their hit songs, my wife informs me that their lyrics are a mishmash of Spanish-like phrases, not a good source for proper language learning.) Second, to call them flamenco is to call Kiko Veneno flamenco. They just aren't. They are pop rock, with a flamenco twist.

Spanish artists have started to promote this new "Flamenco fusión" movement
and related events in Spain through this MySpace page and a web forum.

But the point here isn't to initiate a debate over what is the "authentic" flamenco and what is just the latest pop fad. Music is always changing, and what is most impressive about these groups is that they make great music drawing on old and new traditions. So perhaps it's time to say, "Flamenco is dead, long live flamenco!"


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