A couple weeks ago I was listening to KPFK and their special guest was Manuel Agujetas, the flamenco master vocalist. The occasion was his performance that night in an intimate performance to be held in the Los Feliz neighborhood of greater LA. His singing was incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever heard, so rich and powerful it’d probably take several Gypsy Kings to equal it. I even considered going to the show, but that would have required an arduous ten-minute walk from my apartment. Who’s got the time these days? They also interviewed him and Sr. Manuel had some interesting comments to make, one of which was something like—and I’m paraphrasing—“these days anybody can call anything flamenco”…and apparently get away with it. He must have been talking about a band called “Caramelo”…and others, too, of course.
Caramelo is a band from Brooklyn and they’ve got a new album out called “Ride.” If it’s a flamenco band from Brooklyn, then you might figure right away that we’re not talking about deep tradition--maybe no deeper than a few well-worn LP covers at most. But that would be wrong. These guys—and girl—have gone to the well, drunk deeply and come back with mixed drinks. Sounds good to me. The band revolves around female vocalist Sara Erde, doing bilingual bilabials on songs that range from the tango-intensive drama of “Peligrosa” to the funky who’s-yo-mama of “Brooklyn.” What about flamenco? Alfonso Cid handles those male vocal chores, mostly on “La Luna.” They never claimed to be a purist flamenco group btw, but influenced, so no false advertising here.
The opening song, “The Girl is Gone” sets the hybrid pace, with a mosque-like chant “no te vayas, nina” (“don’t leave me, girl”), though most of the song is in English: “I won't be lying for my love today, Won't be crying about the way you play, Won't be waiting in an empty bed, And I won't go crazy from the words you said. High roller the deal is done, Game over, the girl is gone.” The song features a killer lead guitar solo, too, courtesy of co-founder Jed Miley. “Como Quieres” ups the lyrical ante, an upbeat ditty featuring a tongue-twister that had me looking for a lyrics sheet (thank you): Como quieres que te quiera, Si quien quiero que me quiera, No me quiere (“How do you want me to love you, When the one I love Doesn’t love me?). By the time we get to “Brooklyn” it’s obvious that this band has got some pure pop hooks, upbeat and very danceable: “That’s the way we get to Brooklyn, that’s the way we go now,” and featuring a trumpet killer solo, pure pop for kids of all ages…and races.
“Nico” proves they can do a slow ballad, too, and take bilingualism to a high art: “Nico, I need to take you home, Que rico, the sugar in your soul, Despacito, the way you lose control, Nico, I need your love.” Rico, indeed, tasty tambien I tell you, usualmente tienen que ir a south Texas to find un restaurante Mexicana serving up scrambled tongue como estas, tacos de lengua o de pura cabeza. “Peligroso” is tango-like, gypsy—per the theme—yet light on its feet at the same time: “Why don't you stay, Here on Avenue A? Don't go back to Buenos Aires.” “La Luna” is the one genuine flamenco song, complete with weeping wailing and gnashing of teeth: “Girl, your words, Pierce my soul. Girl, your questions, Without longed for answers. Girl, that light, In the moon of your face!!) The album is “Ride” by Caramelo. It’s good. It’s out now.
But is it flamenco? Is anything flamenco? Carlos Saura’s flamenco film trilogy (not to be confused with the documentary, which I have yet to see) is a wonder, thesis>antithesis>synthesis. If the first realization about flamenco is that there are guitars as well as voices…and verses, then the second is that there’s dance, equal if not more important than the song, and the third realization is that there’s a stage surrounding it all. Saura’s trilogy is not ABOUT flamenco; it IS flamenco, in the same way that dance is. In “Amor Brujo” the unreal is posing as real and the good guy dies. In “Carmen” the real is posing as unreal, and the witchy woman dies. In “Bodas de Sangre” the unreal is unreal throughout—and recognized as such—and both guys die, and the woman wails, BUT…it’s only a stage. In all three films the actors are the same…but different, the story is the same…but different, but none of that matters. What matters is the dance, the voice, the verse, the chord, the clap…the strut…the fret. It’s all a stage. Nothing matters, but honor, and dignity, and the dance, and the music. The characters, notes, movements, and sounds are just playing roles, and hopefully well.
But not me. I’m not a musician (unless the fellatio I used to perform on the business end of a trombone in high school counts as “music”). And I’m not an actor, nor dancer, nor singer. I’m not really even a critic. Have you ever heard me say anything bad about any piece of work? I’m a writer, so I look for stories. If I can’t find one, then I’ll make one up. I’m a philosopher, so I look for meaning. If I can’t find any, then…you get the idea. I want to know what’s real, behind the matrix and the makeup. World music is full of it. I’ve pondered mightily on “Afro-Cuban music,” but that’s nothing compared to flamenco. What is “flamenco?” Everybody agrees that it’s Andalusian music, but not much more. So why is it called “Gypsy?” It has nothing to do with the people known as Roma. You’ll have to read long and hard before you’ll find the word “Moor,” much less “Arab,” far less “Muslim,” in describing flamenco. But what is Andalucia? It’s that region longest occupied by Moors, of course, over 700 years. And what are the distinguishing characteristics of traditional flamenco, and traditional Spain, in general? There’s honor, pride and dignity, male dominance… Sound familiar? Ever notice the similarity of flamenco dance to some Middle Eastern forms of dance? Ever notice the similarity of flamenco vocals to the voice coming over the closest muezzin five times a day? So why do so-called “gypsies” get credit for something that 700 years of Arab-Spanish culture most likely created? You tell me.