Songs of the Gypsies
The Los Angeles Flamenco Festival launches in the South Bay
by Mark McDermott
It began as a wandering song of sorrow. It became music of shared suffering and defiant survival.
Flamenco may be the world’s most mysterious music. It is not so much a musical genre as a wild river of song, one that traces its origins back to India, perhaps as far back as 1,000 years ago. Historians believe that the Roma people – Gypsies, as we would later know them – found their way to Spain around the turn of the 10th century. Some believe they came from the caste of the “untouchables” in India, and by 1492 they were outcasts once again, on the run with the Moors and the Jews as the Inquisition sought to wipe out the non-Christian peoples of Spain.
The music that began to emerge from the hills of southern Spain around that time had elements of Jewish laments and Moorish singing while some of the accompanying dance movements were reminiscent of Hindi dances of South Asia.
The river that is Flamenco has been meandering ever since.
And so it should come as little surprise that the 1st Annual Los Angeles Flamenco Festival has come to Redondo Beach by way of a Korean from Hawaii and includes a Japanese guitar virtuoso named Jose, a master player from Israel who studied in the ancient caves of Andalusia, and full-blooded gypsy dancer whose name is Flamenco royalty.
Flamenco, after all, is about movement.
It was 1996, and Mitch Chang was studying classical guitar at the University of Hawaii when his professor, Lisa Smith, asked him if he’d accompany some Flamenco dancers as they practiced.
“I don’t think I even like it,” he told her.
She insisted. “Knowing your personality, your style, and your temperament, I think it would fit you,” Smith said.
“Huh,” Chang said.
If Chang didn’t know the power and passion of Flamenco yet, he caught a glimpse when he arrived at the rehearsal and discovered the guitar player who preceded him had run off to Vegas to marry with one of the Flamenco dancers. Later, the guitarist he trained to take his place with the Flamenco troupe would do the same.
“So I was kind of the left-out loser,” Chang said.
But Flamenco gave him flight in another way, perhaps no less romantic: in it, Chang found a new freedom of expression. When he played Flamenco, everything he felt seemed somehow to pour through the strings of his guitar.
“For me, all my happiness, sadness, my anger, it all combines into one and that is how it makes me feel,” Chang said. “Not to sound corny, but I think it just kind of makes me feel, period.”
Chang became one of the better Flamenco players on the islands, and began promoting shows that brought Flamenco performers in from all over the world. Over the next few years, he produced three concerts, culminating in a big show at the revered 1,400 seat Hawaii Theater. He had a revelation as the sold out crowd lined up outside.
“The highlight for me was walking around outside that theater and seeing old people, young people, all kind of races, surfers…It was amazing,” Chang said. “Flamenco really touches people, you know. I think there is something about the mystery and the power of it. Even if you can’t understand the words, it’s very captivating, very intriguing.”
The call of Flamenco eventually took him to the mainland, to San Francisco, where a rich Flamenco community exists. Later, he moved to Southern California. Over the past two years, he began promoting festivals again – in particular, the successful Hawaiian Slack Key Festival at Redondo Beach. This week, he has put together what he considers an historic gathering of Flamenco artists for a three day festival that features workshops, two shows at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, and a meet and greet with the artists and intimate performances at Sangria in Hermosa Beach.
The gunslinger, the master, and royalty
It has been said that Jose Tanaka has the fastest right hand in the West. But he came from the Far East.
Tanaka grew up Flamenco in Kyoto, Japan. His parents were both Flamenco artists – the reason why he was perhaps the only native born Japanese kid named Jose when he was growing up. His family ran a guitar shop, which they lived above.
“Every day, going to school, I would go through the store to go outside or to come home, and I was always exposed to not only Flamenco but jazz and blues players, and of course all the guys working for my dad,” he said. “They were all showing me things.”
As a teenager, he was drawn to the electric guitar, and after high school he moved to Los Angeles to study at the Musicians Institute and pursue a rock n roll dream. But after a few years, he was drawn back to the music that he’d grown up with. He saw the legendary Paco de Lucia perform and had an epiphany. Flamenco, he realized, was the music that was deep inside him.
“I thought, I should do something with the music that only I can do,” Tanaka recalled.
He rededicated himself to Flamenco, and as he began immersing himself back in its rhythms, he made a decision.
“I felt like I was home,” Tanaka said. “That is it. And after that, I quit my teaching job and everything, and I went to Spain.”
In Spain, he took formal lessons, but most crucially, he sought out one some consider the deepest home of Flamenco – the intimate backroom gatherings called “juergas.”
“It wasn’t an easy thing to get into those juergas,” he recalled. “Sometimes it’s something they want to keep among themselves, so it’s kind of hidden…So you have to make friends and you have to be respectful in the way you do things in order just to be there.”
He watched, and listened, and learned. He returned to the United States as a Flamenco artist. Tanaka has since toured the world as both a soloist and an accompanist and released a critically acclaimed recording called “Gypsy’s Dream.” He is known for his fast, percussive style of playing, and for a somewhat subtle American influence he has brought to the music.
“In my case, I took American music into Flamenco,” he said.
Adam Del Monte was born in Israel but spent two years as very young child in Spain where he heard the music that would become his life. He knew it from the beginning.
“It was incredible,” Del Monte said. “For that very reason, my cultural identity is Flamenco…I completely identify myself through Flamenco – that is my true voice of expression.”
Del Monte returned to Spain as a young man and studied in the famed Sacromonte caves of Granada – a Gypsy district where the old traditions are passed on. Among his teachers was the legendary Pepe Habichuela. He also studied more formally at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. The combination of both his training has enabled him to stride through two worlds that are rarely bridged – he is an accomplished classical guitarist as well as a Flamenco artist.
Omayra Amaya’s name alone sends shivers down the spines of those who live in the Flamenco world.
She is the grandniece of a woman many consider the greatest Flamenco dancer who ever lived, Carmen Amaya. She was an artist who both revolutionized the dance form itself and brought it to the largest audiences it has ever known, starring in Hollywood movies and on Broadway in the 1940s and performing for the likes of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
Carmen Amaya died young in 1963, but her family carried on her tradition. Omayra Amaya was born on the road with her parents, both Flamenco artists, and the first time she was on stage she was literally crawling, interrupting her parent’s performances as a very young child who wanted to join in the movement.
She doesn’t crawl anymore. Omayra’s dance company is at the forefront of the Flamenco world, and has further broadened it, bringing together strands of jazz and even modern dance while remaining true to the deep Gypsy traditions.
The Boston Globe has called her performances mesmerizing. “I dare anyone to take his or her eyes of Omayra when she is performing the Flamenco she was born to dance,” the Globe wrote.
Amaya remains deferential to the memory of Carmen Amaya, however, stopping short of indentifying herself as carrying on such a vaunted tradition.
“I am definitely carrying on a tradition, but I wouldn’t dare to put myself in her company,” Amaya said. “She was really a genius, and she really reached a higher level than we can imagine….but I definitely feel a connection to her, because Flamenco is my way of life.” ER
For more information or for tickets, see www.laflamencofestival.com. The festival begins Friday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center