Flamenco Fusion & Antique Music

I love writers who are prepared to cross boundaries and defy categorisation  to create the new.

That is true in all art forms, particularly music. The best ´new´ music almost always sounds to me like the gurgle of new wine being poured from old bottles. In fact even that expression is a twisted hand-me-down from TS Eliot and Angela Carter.

What we refer to as fusion music is invariably created by musical alchemists who know all the old ingredients and are not afraid to mix them with new but unproven instruments, styles and almost indiscernible influences. Not only have jazz and rock musicians advanced their own art forms in this way but also, too, have performers of specific music genres such as flamenco.

On these pages we have recently celebrated the fusion music of bands like Orquesta Catacumbia, and we have previously commented on the extraordinary sounds of veteran flamenco musician Antonio De La Rosa with his new (and still fluctuating) line up of Flamenco Fusion.

His band, with him leading, on classical guitar, consists of a  sensuous sax player, a violin virtuoso, two beat-box players and percussionists and two males and two females as extravagant backing vocalists as well as a furious flamenco dancer.

Together, under Antonio’s proud, even whilst ever watchful, eyes they are re-contextualisng the flamenco movement that has been so overwhelmed by parody in the world’s homogenous tourist industry, back into a deserved and legitimate part of the new world music order.

Antonio De La Rosa is steeped in that flamenco tradition, and is currently touring the island with his own fusion group, proudly asserting itself by its name as Flamenco Fusion, seeking to restore the music to is previous levels of popularity.

Their concert contained show-case beat-box challenges in which the two percussionists would compete with, but always complement, the rhythms of the other, The four backing singers seemed to be playing characters in a night club or public bar audience at an evening of flamenco music making spoken and sung insertions that surely spoke of gender issues. The saxophone and violin seemed to me unlikely bedfellows in a flamenco outfit, and indeed the violin player reminded me of Bobby Valentino who once played swing fiddle with Hank Wangford And The Lost Cowboys. Yet these musicians seemed to perfectly blend with the beat-box rhythms and also with the perfect picking and sometimes staccato strumming of Antonio on his guitar.

Being familiar with Punjabi singing, at least as delivered by musicians in Rochdale’s Asian population, I could distinctly hear its echoes in this flamenco fusion and, too, the Jewish synagogue chants I used to hear in the Cheetham Hill (Shabby Tiger) area of Prestwich whilst growing up around Manchester in the UK. I have even become used, over here, to some of the regional folk forms of Andalucia and they too could be identified in the mix, though I lack the awareness to have recognised the more classical sounds form the Andalucian Orchestras of the Islamic Empire, that experts tell us are also part of flamenco music.

Nor would I know a Persian Zyriab song form if I heard it, or Mozarabic musical forms such as Zarchyas and Zamba. The flamenco sound carries Fandango rhythms and there are also Western African influences from the slave colonies of New World Caribbean and Central and South America.

It is not known with any certainty when and where dance became so centrally incorporated into flamenco music but it is thought that in Cadiz, during the Phoenician Empire, Hindu dancers would be hired as festival entertainers and that aspects of their dancing were incorporated into local processions and religious celebrations. Elements of the dance of that era, such as sharp angles of the body and arms, splayed fingers, rapid turns and, of course, the incessant percussive foot movements are certainly still evident in the flamenco of the modern day.

The body sway and shimmy that is such a feminine element of Middle Eastern dance is non-existent  in flamenco and would seem to be the very opposite in attitude to the much more masculine characteristics of flamenco even as delivered by feminine exponents of the art.

Certainly the lead female dancer of Antonio De La Rosa’s flamenco fusion delivered her steps with a sense of defiance and dominance that were surely making a statement.  With the elegant outfits worn by the female flamenco dancers being so figure-constricting as to disguise their feminine form, the frequent signs of anger, even if a contrived expression, surely reflect in some way on a patriarchal community.

What Antonia De La Rosa is creating with his flamenco fusion colleagues is a new, modern sound that can exist contemporaneously with much of the world music being created today. With his love of the music, the energy he brings to it and his obvious careful recruitment of like-minded musicians, he is advancing the flamenco of over a thousand years ago into a new world, to a new audience, to be pro-active and reactive with not only other music but also other art forms.

It might well prove a long and arduous journey, but he has prepared his music for light years of travel. It is bright, breezy, energetic and sometimes beautifully subdued and moody.

No audience member could help but be enthused by the obvious enjoyment of his musicians and the new wine they are pouring already has a vintage taste.

As well as artists who resurrect the ancient to create the modern, though, there are musicians like Vicente Bru i Soler and soprano singer Cristina Barecelo Borges, who seek to perpetuate, by breathing new life into, what they call Antique Music that has long lain dormant. The singer and instrumentalist were presented at Casa Benito Perez Armas in Yaiza last month by Coro de Yaiza, the members of which were out in force to support the duo.

Altogether there were more than sixty people already in the hall when we arrived and it was only a few minutes before the musicians were introduced to the audience by Nuvy, the choir’s musical director.

Vicente then took over the announcements and explained briefly in Spanish, slightly more briefly in German and then considerably more briefly in English, (there were only two of us in the audience) how the concert would be of alternate songs and instrumentals. As he talked about the instrumental movements he lovingly laid his hands on the light coloured wood and relatively small keyboard instrument in front of him. He explained that it was a quite new item he had purchased in Edinburgh that had cost him more than I pay for a new car. He told us it was a close replica of an instrument that was centuries old and I think he referred to it as a clavichord.

My friend Wiki Peadia later confirmed that for me, telling me that the clavichord is a European stringed rectangular keyboard instrument that was used largely in the Late Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was mostly used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition, not being loud enough for larger performances. The clavichord produces sound by striking brass or iron strings with small metal blades called tangents. Vibrations are transmitted through the bridge(s) to the soundboard.

As soon as Vicente started to play the first instrumental piece it was clearly a work that was, as would be the rest of the material tonight, by a couple of hundred years, deserving of being described as antique. The sound, though, of this instrument was breath-taking, somehow managing to sound like several acoustic guitars being played at once.

This was surely down to both the beautiful setting of the instrument and Vicente’s articulate playing, and perhaps even the acoustics of the room.

We learned later that he and Cristina had deliberately set the instrument at ground level in front of the audience rather than on the raised stage as apparently the wood and strings are slightly temperamental and susceptible to warmer air, and as warm air rises they felt at stage level they might encounter difficulties. Certainly the instrument behaved itself perfectly well throughout the evening.

After his first offering Vicente then introduced Cristina to the audience and she stepped forward to sing in a strong, soprano voice another piece of old classical music. Dressed in a simple black dress and large, twinkling ear rings, she sang this number in a lightly coquettish manner. Her delivery and musicality were crystal clear and the pin drop silence of the audience evidenced how the two performers were holding our attention.

Vicente tried his best at the English introductions and, although we occasionally struggled to catch every word and pronunciation, we did gather that his next instrumental performance had originally been written for four voices, and he suggested that within the music we would be able to differentiate the changing tones and attitudes of each voice. He was right. We could, and that again was great testament to his playing skills.

Somehow, even on an instrument intended for much earlier, gentler times Vicente also framed its sounds perfectly below Cristina’s crystal voice and somehow, on her next number, a very old almost aria-like piece sounded, albeit in a very different way from Antonio De La Rosa and Flamenco Fusion, similarly as if it were new wine being poured from old bottles.

As if to emphasise this, the next instrumental work again somehow sounded as complex and contemporary today as it must have when first written, and the song performed afterwards by Cristina was supported by a two-bar motif to which Vicente had added some new variations so as to fully underscore her beautiful voice.

When Vicente then played what he said was one of his very favourite pieces he did so with such simplicity and so little adornment that it felt, to this Englishman at least, that I was in some Tudor court listening to minstrels entertaining their monarchs. There was something regal, too, in the stately way in which Cristina sang. She was very still with head held high, as if in the presence of some medieval queen.

There were clear top line melodies to several pieces as Vicente ascended and descended the scales and at one point he played a song he had specially re-set for the clavichord. It was originally written by Jose Maria, described by our instrumentalist as a seventeenth century singer guitarist, and on this instrument that re-setting sounded really effective.

Another piece that he described as being originally from Spain around the middle of the sixteenth century sounded to me like the old musical styles that were delivered on the English folk scene as recently as the nineteen sixties by groups like Fotheringay and Fairport Convention. How I would have loved to hear this instrument and Cristina’s voice perform Who Knows Where The Time Goes. They didn’t perform anything quite that modern but the love song with which Cristina closed her set, whilst sounding very Elizabethan, felt  also as modern as the new day.

Their encores included a musical piece with a repeated refrain and a song delivered in a quicker tempo than anything so far.

And then, something magical happened. Instead of drifting out into the night, several of the audience gathered round the instrument, that not only had sounded so lovely but that on closer inspection was also aesthetically beautiful. Vicente was only too delighted to talk about his pride and joy and he gave us all a quick, potted history of the part that instruments like this have played in the development of the kind of music he loves.

He clearly feels that if he presents that music and this instrument, in all its glory, playing it perfectly and sympathetically, accompanying a wonderful voice like Cristina’s and contextualises for his audience every piece they perform, then contemporary society might fall in love with the charm of the clavichord all over again, here in the twenty first century. On the evidence of the reaction of this audience tonight, he may well be right !

By the way, please note that due to unforeseen circumstances the next in the series of Camel House Concerts has been postponed. Scheduled originally for 20th October the recital by Murray McClachlan will now take place at a later date and we will keep you informed as we receive new information. There’s still plenty to look forward to, though. The art never stops beating here on Lanzarote.