Romance and rhythm
Those who consider flamenco merely a dance miss the point, Maria Bermudez says. Flamenco is more than flashing eyes, rippling castanets and staccato steps, insists the dancer, who is bringing her nine-person flamenco troupe, Sonidos Gitanos, from their native Spain for a U.S. tour.
'Knowing the singing (called cante) is essential,' she says. 'I stress this adamantly. The dancing is an extension of what is being sung. '
And what is being sung, Bermudez says, is Spanish blues.
Flamenco consists of three parts: baile is the dance; cante, the song and guitarra, the accompanying guitar. Rhythmic hand clapping also is frequently added. There are hundreds of different dances within flamenco Ñ soleares, alegr’as, fandangos, zapateados, ronde–as, malague–as and seguiriyas Ñ which have specific rhythmic and harmonic structures.
The music traces its roots back to 1492, when the gypsies, Jews and Moors were forced to accept Christianity, face the Inquisition or leave Spain. As an oppressed group, the gypsies developed their own form of blues, which blended with local folk songs. Guitars were added in the 18th century and the first 'cafe cantante' opened in 1842 in Seville.
Antonio de Torres is credited with inventing the flamenco guitar in the 1850s Ñ smaller and lighter than the classical guitar and made of Spanish cypress instead of rosewood. The strings are set closer to the frets, and there's a tap plate for the characteristic drumming. Ramon Montoya (1880-1949) is considered the father of modern solo flamenco guitar.
It was a long musical journey from Bermudez's childhood in Los Angeles to southern Spain. Born into a large musical family (nine brothers and sisters), she was drawn to flamenco by an older brother who also was a dancer. Fifteen years ago, she moved to Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia Ñ the birthplace of the art form, much as New Orleans is to American blues.
In Jerez, Bermudez was mentored by Farruco, 'the best male flamenco dancer of all,' she says. Jerez is surrounded by sunny, terraced vineyards (it's also the home of sherry). Every home has a flamenco performer, Bermudez says. Flamenco is played in penas Ñ little clubs where patrons pitch in money to bring in favorite singers and dancers, and nobody talks when the music is playing.
As Bermudez continues to study flamenco, she also shares her knowledge of American blues with her husband, Pele de los Reyes, whose American-style blues band Navajita Platea has had Top 40 pop hits in Spain.
'When we hooked up, he showed me the music he'd grown up with, and I'd put on Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana,' she says. 'We just had a documentary group here filming our lives. They're interested in how I've integrated into this society as an outsider. Here I am doing traditional stuff, and he's next door in a rehearsal room with his band and a lot of electric guitars.'
Bermudez brings two guest artists on this tour Ñ Antonio de la Malena, a major star in Spain, and Jose Vargas 'El Mono,' a singer-dancer or festero in the rare buleria tradition.
Flamenco is ageless in more ways than one. On Sonidos Gitanos' last tour, one of their biggest hits was a dancer who was over 60.
'She danced traditional songs, and then with my husband's rock 'n' roll group. I wanted to show the artistic spirit passes through the line no matter what time of life you're expressing.'
Although Bermudez has played venues as big as the Hollywood Bowl, she prefers more intimate spaces.
It's the romance of flamenco that Bermudez wants to convey: Imagine it's midnight somewhere in the south of Spain, when there is nothing but the voice, the guitar and the body of a dancer moving in the moonlight.
'OlŽ! That's beautiful,' Bermudez says. 'I hope you get a sense of that at the show.'