I was introduced to flamenco as one of the Latin dance forms one could learn in dance schools. I did a crash course in Latin dancing during a summer break a few years ago. I learnt some salsa, some merengue, some (tango-ish) rumba, some others and the sum being I didn’t know much of anything. This was corrected a couple of years ago by my sister-in-law who has been a salsa instructor for more than a decade and so now I manage to look not so flabbergasted when that infectious music plays. But I didn’t learn anything about ‘real’ flamenco – ever. All I knew was the polka dot dresses, red and black colours, dark make-up, slick hair tied up and adorned by a conspicuous flower, handclaps and the Spanish guitar.
As many things in my life, it is the memory of a book that has kept flamenco as something I needed to experience. I have forgotten the book and its author but I remember the imagery it had evoked like it was yesterday: Friends destined to be lovers but the timing had always been bad. Decades passed by and one evening they met (again) as friends but single. Neither of them had the courage to challenge their relationship. They chose to watch a flamenco show. It was an intimate setting with little seating and minimal lighting. The melody and rhythm of the guitar, the soulful mourning of the vocals, the desperation in the dancer’s feet and arms all reached a pitch of such intensity that the friends turned lovers. It was magic! Magic that only soulful art can create.
My next encounter with flamenco came in the form of a classmate and good friend, when I was doing my Masters in England. He was learning to play the flamenco guitar. He could see I didn’t know much about it, but knew I liked rock music and suggested I give a listen to Rodrigo y Gabriela. I borrowed the CD of their self-titled album from the library. CD? Library? Serious? I can’t get into that right now. I was amazed by what I had heard. I was a fan instantaneously. It was the genre flamenco rumba, the half-sister of flamenco. I loved every song. Apart from their own brilliant compositions, their cover of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is still the best I have ever heard. My friend insisted that if given a chance I should catch them live. I finally got to see them at Rock Oz’Arènes (2011) at Avenches in Switzerland. A Roman amphitheatre amped up to accommodate rock concerts. Rodrigo, Gabriela and a guitar each. 8000-10,000 of us. I had never seen just two instruments control a crowd of such size with such ease and with such power. It is one of my favourite concerts of all time.
I got an opportunity to travel to south of Spain a few days back. Now after collecting these varied and tenuously connected memories of flamenco I couldn’t just sit by and not go to an actual flamenco show when in Andalusia – its birthplace. We were advised to visit Casa de la Memoria in Seville for an authentic experience. It was rated as Top Choice in our Lonely Planet guide and recommended on TripAdvisor. I was a bit worried. Such high ratings could only spell tourist trap.
We were told that it was in intimate experience. We were not lied to. It was minimally lit and there were only two rows of seating all round the stage. We were about half a meter from the stage; front row and centre. I felt like I had walked into my memory.
It was chilly and so we had to cuddle up a bit. The introductions were made in three languages and the Spanish speak all languages like they speak Spanish: fast. So all I could get was that the guitarist for the evening is Antonio. We were reminded to not record the performance until told.
The stage is set.
Antonio and The Singer walk in and sit a meter away from us, sharing one spotlight. Antonio starts playing and his each note carries perfection. The Singer starts off. I don’t know Spanish and I can’t understand what he is singing. But I know he is in pain and he is crying for someone to hear him. I cry with him. I sit there, right in front of him with tears streaming down my face. The last time I cried at a concert was when I was nine and my parents had taken to me a private performance by the renowned Ghazal singer Pankaj Udhas in Delhi, India. I now felt as vulnerable and affected as I did twenty years ago. Flamenco at Casa de la Memoria had awoken another memory.
The music had such rich authentic eastern feel to it that it brought me closer to home. Flamenco I learn is born out the fusion of Andalusian and Romani (gitano) music. The Romani people originated from North India. They emigrated from the subcontinent a long time back. I maybe shouldn’t be surprised then to find that every fibre of my being reverberated that night as though it was my music, my people, my mourning, my song.
It has been claimed that the word ‘flamenco’ is derived from the Hispano-Arabic term fellah mengu translated as ‘expelled peasant’ and that this applied to the ostracised Andalusians of Islamic faith (the Moriscos) who joined the Romani newcomers.* The music seems to encapsulate this sense of loss: of love, of identity, of land and of faith.
We are witness to two dancers – a Man and a Woman – who dance separately. The dances are improvised. They communicate with The Singer and Antonio with their body and in return the music carries their emotions further. It is a beautiful and real exchange. The Man – who happens to be crafted like the perfect Spanish prince – is incredible. His performance is strong and he epitomises masculinity. There is a dignity in his sorrow; as much power in the movement of his eyes as his arms. The Woman steals my heart. She is dressed simply. She doesn’t wear red or black. She shocks me when she comes on for she looks nothing like what I expected. Then she dances and I realise why she doesn’t look like the others. It’s because she isn’t like them.
Since I have no idea what the songs are actually about what follows is my interpretation of her performance. Her first dance is a happy one. If I could show you how I feel inside, or how anyone feels inside, when happy – how one’s ‘soul’ would dance; if the emotion itself could be danced – it would be her dance. Her hands and legs move with such exquisite reckless abandon that I sit there thinking how truly wonderful it feels to be happy. She moves from joy to the depth of frustration effortlessly in her next dance.
It is a one-hour show. An hour I easily lose everyday; an hour that slips by without a trace. Just how much emotion and life can be put into an hour I scarcely knew until that evening. My heart broke by being pushed to the limits of feeling. I come away noting that the name – Casa de la Memoria – is so appropriate. The House of Memory now keeps safe my collective memory of music.
For lack of a Pensieve, I give you a 50 second video that I made at the end of the show once we were told it was OK. It doesn’t do justice to The Singer or Antonio.