Celebrating New Flamenco in the Basque Country

Celebrating New Flamenco in the Basque Country

by Mike Zwerin
copyright © 2002 Mike Zwerin

San Sebastian: It has been said, only partly tongue in cheek, that you have to love misery to be moved by flamenco. Something similar was said about the tango. Whereas Astor Piazzolla's new tango was influenced by Gil Evans, Duke Ellington and Stravinsky, what is called "new flamenco" uses such crossover elements as drummers, improvising horns, altered chords, blues form and prominently mixed bass-guitar.

About the same time as new flamenco began to flower in the late 1970s, "Jazzaldia," the San Sebastian Jazz Festival, started to display Basque-language posters identifying this dignified city only as Donostia, its Basque name. It was no coincidence. Both events occurred after the death of General Franco, as Spain democratized. Minority languages such as Basque had been banned, and the dictator's regime had discouraged pop culture. In the early 1980s, with the new social openness, Jazzaldia's promotion became normally bi-lingual and, thanks largely to the distributor (ECM, Fantasy) and recording company Nuevos Medios, new flamenco, a predominantly gypsy endeavor, burst onto the world stage.

Celebrating its 20th birthday, Nuevos Medios has released Coleccion, an eight volume best of selection from their catalogue. (Already available in Spain, they will be distributed in Western Europe in September.) Members of its stable of musicians - including Tomatito, Carles [not Carlos] Benavent, Ketama, Pata Negra and Diego Carrasco - were featured during the 37th Jazzaldia last month.

"The company was founded by Mario Pacheco in Madrid in 1979. His partner, the late David Fernandez Miro, convinced his grandfather the painter Joan Miro to design their logo.

"It's an original," Pacheco said. "Not just a piece of some other painting. It's one of the last things he did. I'm very proud of it.

"You know, when you are involved with flamenco, you have the feeling that the music is more spiritual food than a product. It's like a language getting passed on from one generation to another. New flamenco has not grown at American speed. Everything goes more slowly in Spain. But you have to remember that 20 years ago, flamenco was just one Gypsy singing with an acoustic guitar and maybe some hands clapping. Now it has become a real music that can be played on all kinds of instruments by any musician anywhere."

Bass-guitarist Carles Benavent, among the most popular and influential of Nuevos Medios's artists, also composes using a pallet including electronic and folk (mandola, steel drums) colors. Benavent has recorded with Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Gil Goldstein, and Peter Erskine and others. Benavent and, on the following evening, the African-French bassist Richard Bona both spotlighted the electric bass through a world music spectrum; further evidence of the instrument's current revival. Corea, whose tasteful solo piano set opened for the Nuevos Medios all-stars, stayed to sit in with "my friends." They danced together.

Other concerts featured Elvin Jones, Dave Douglas, Charles Lloyd, Misha Mengelberg and Abdullah Ibrahim. Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and his "Rhythm Kings," including such aging English rockers as guitarist Alvin (Ten Years After) Lee and Georgie Fame on organ, played blues written by Little Walter and Muddy Waters and such early R&B hits as "You Put A Spell On Me" and were obviously overjoyed to be mining their roots. The festival closed with James Brown's patented combination of volume, funk and vulgarity. His famous groove ("I Feel Good") was constructed by two drummers, percussion, two electric basses, three electric guitars, four horns, five singers, and two female dancers draped in and out of American flags.

The audiences for both Wyman and Brown included a high percentage of Spaniards in their 40s and 50s. A local journalist explained that, because of the Franco regime, people in this age group had largely been bypassed by the heyday of rock in the 1960s and 1970s and they were still busy catching up.

Pacheco said that, on the other hand, the audience for new flamenco is growing younger: "When we started, not even young Gypsies listened to flamenco. It was only old people in the south of Spain, and tourists. From my experience as a distributor, I find that our audience is now even younger than that for independent rock.

"Young Spanish musicians are influenced by Carles Benavent like he was influenced by Jaco. Twenty years ago, when the new flamenco was born in the Gypsy quarters of Jerez and Seville, most of those guys couldn't read or write -- words, I mean. They started by playing battered up old instruments they found in the street or in the garbage.

"The social jump for the most successful ones has been tremendous -- from not having enough to eat to owning two Mercedes. They have been playing at international festivals in France and the Benelux countries, but flamenco is often too expensive by world music standards. Their price is higher than others playing world music, because the new flamenco is so popular in their own country."

Mike Zwerin first published this article in the International Herald Tribune.

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