Granada and Flamenco

Granada has a rich history, especially during the years of Al-Andalus, when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived for the most part peacefully together thanks to the convivencia and developed a rich and erudite culture. There are too many scholars for me to even begin to cite them, and it is also thanks to them and their translations that the works of Greek philosophers became known in Western Europe, facilitating if not enabling the Renaissance.

This all came to an end with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Los Reyes Católicos, who took Granada by force, promising to let Muslims and Jews to continue to live there in peace only to do just the opposite, expelling them, having them murdered or imprisoned, or forcing them to convert to Christianity and initiating the Inquisition. They destroyed the most advanced civilization in Europe at the time and set the stage for the decline of Spain that culminated with the Franco regime centuries later. (For a detailed description of this, I highly recommend the book Granada, The Light of Andalucía by Steven Nightingale.) There is a statue of her in Granada with Columbus representing her permission to him to set sail to discover the Western Hemisphere. She borrowed the money for the expedition from a Jew who she latter expelled, so that she did not have to pay back the loan.

And from Mr. Nightingale’s book, “Upon the side of the *Cathedral* of *Granada*, you will find, even today, a chiseled name—the only citizen to be so honored on the entire face of the cathedral: José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falangist Party of Spain.”

One of my Spanish teachers at the excellent school in Granada, Carmen de las Cuevas, explained that many in Spain abhor the Catholic Church and/or are even anarchists due to the Church’s collaboration with Franco and his fascist reign as well as the Inquisition.

However, Granada for me is primarily related to flamenco where it flourishes today and where I have seen many fantastic performances and attended flamenco guitar classes.

Even some small alleys are named for flamenco greats; here the alley named for the great dancer Mario Maya.

I started learning to play guitar as teenager, and—like most—I wanted to play rock music, especially that of my favorite group of that time, the Youngbloods, of whom practically nobody has heard of today. I started lessons with a teacher, but he was a jazz guitarist and soon had me learning jazz chords and scales, i.e., very interesting but not what I wanted. Years later, I decided that playing a few rock music pieces could be fun, but again my teacher quickly had me learning jazz guitar, which is very complex and for which I had neither the time nor the ability.

In college, I started learning classical guitar and only played that and the lute for many years. I played in Renaissance and Medieval music group, the highlight being once when Renaissance costumes were made for us and we accompanied Tudor singers from the music college when they performed for a few Christmas dinners. I was fortunate to attend two concerts each by Andres Segovia and Julian Bream, perhaps the two greatest classical guitarists of the 20th century. Segovia first learned to play guitar from a flamenco guitarist and even performed at the Concurso de cante jondo, in Granada in 1922. He was quite a fan, liked playing sequiriyas and greatly admired one of the most renowned singers in the history of flamenco, La Niña de los Peines. However, Segovia later derided modern flamenco guitarists such as Paco de Lucia, saying that their playing was not flamenco, that they had lost touch with “real” flamenco music.

“…la revista Music and Musicians de noviembre de 1973 escribía: Cuando se le pide que se pronuncie sobre los guitarristas de la “nueva ola del flamenco” –Serranito, Manolo Sanlúcar, Paco de Lucía- quienes dominan habitualmente los tablaos, Segovia contesta: Nunca se ha visto un surtido de guitarrista parecido. Cada uno de ellos, son maravillosos. El problema es que ninguno de ellos toca flamenco. ¿Qué puede esperarse de ellos, quienes no tocan flamenco? ¿Qué entienden por flamenco? Este arte es interpretado y entendido por un pequeño grupo de andaluces –ni siquiera encuentra Vd. que lo entienda el término medio de los españoles- y fuera de estas audiencias, ciertamente no se tiene remota idea de qué es el flamenco. (Citation in ANDRES SEGOVIA: SUS RELACIONES CON EL ARTE FLAMENCO. Publicado en: XXX Congreso de Arte Flamenco. Baeza. Del 9 al 14 de septiembre 2002. Memoria, ponencias, actos…, Federación Provincial de Peñas Flamencas de Jaén, Jaén, 2003, coordinador: Francisco Viedma Vílchez with a reference that this in turn is from the book New Look at Segovia Vol 1 by Garno, G/Wade, G.

On Julian Bream’s double DVD, The Guitar in Spain, there is a video of a woman dancing flamenco with palmadores in the background while Bream plays a classical guitar piece to accompany the dancing, giving the impression that she was dancing to classical guitar music, which was surely not the case.

The third great classical guitarist of the 20th century, whom I am aware of, was John Williams. On my first trip to Europe, I was almost totally broke at the end of the trip and staying hostel in London while waiting for my flight home. I decided to play guitar at a subway exit to get some money (I played classical guitar at that time), and a man and his wife stopped and listened to me for a long time, giving me a few hints about playing. I could swear it was John Williams, because he looked just like him, and am angry at myself for not asking. Typical, I always think of something good to say when it is too late!

I also tried learning flamenco guitar and found a teacher who said he taught it, but actually he was a violin teacher and could hardly play guitar. He had me buy a book Flamenco without Tears, which had one-page flamenco pieces. Each week I would learn to play one piece by heart, though far from perfect, and instead of working on it, the teacher said, “Good, now the next one.” The book and lessons were really a joke, and I soon gave it up and returned to playing classical guitar. I only had a cheap guitar and no money for lessons, i.e., I was not making any progress grew bored with that and stopped playing guitar all together for several years.

Years later, I attended a flamenco concert where Rafael Cortés played. I was flabbergasted and immediately decided that I wanted to learn flamenco guitar. I am still struggling with it, although I have had guitar lessons and attended workshops with numerous great guitar players, among others, Santiago Lara, Amir Haddad, Geraldo Núñez, Jorg Hoffmann, Mariano Martin, Rafael Cortés and Oscar Herrero as well as guitar teachers at Carmen de las Cuevas Alfredo Mesa, Jorge El Pisao and Kiki Corpas.

With Maestro Oscar Herrero at his home near Madrid during a three-day workshop: I have also learned a great deal from his books, CDs and DVDs. I met a Chinese flamenco guitarist in Beijing, who played quite well and said he had learned to play flamenco guitar simply using Mr. Herrero’s didactic materials and without a teacher.

Spanish restaurant in Beijing where the Chinese guy how learned from Mr. Herrero’s didactic materials accompanied an accomplished Spanish guitar player.

There was a weekly meeting of flamenco aficionados in Beijing, i.e., the scene was just getting started there. A Spaniard, who had never sung flamenco in his home country, was emboldened to sing there, but was the worst singer I have ever heard.

With Geraldo Núñez when I attended his week-long guitar workshop in Sanlucar, Spain. He is a great musician as well as a very friendly and likeable person, but his didactic abilities are somewhat lacking. I have the impression that most people attend the workshop for the good parties and events that he arranges every evening during the workshop.

I am very lucky in that Freiburg, where I live, is a great place for flamenco. The German Amir John (El Amir) Hadad comes from there, a great flamenco guitarist who has performed at many festivals in addition to playing oud, bouzouki (he performed Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major for Mandolin on the Greek bouzouki with musicians from the Spanish National Orchestra), electric guitar, etc., just about any string instrument imaginable. CNN filmed a short documentary of him where he plays oud and flamenco guitar and explains the relationship and influences of Arab music on flamenco. He now lives in Spain, but he comes back to Freiburg to visit his parents now and then and sometimes also conducts workshops when he is in town. (Digression: Amir once related how he was at a flamenco locale in Madrid when two Gitanos came in and asked who he was. He replied, “Yo soy aleman,” whereafter they gave him a disparaging look and turned away as if to say then you can’t play flamenco. Although Gitanos have suffered terrible discrimination and persecution in Spain, many often discriminate against non-Gitanos – just try dating a young Gitana from a traditional family! The great flamenco guitarist Chicuelo said that when he was young, he could not have imagined marrying a non-Gitana, but he did. The renowned flamenco guitarist Tomatito said after recording a CD with George Benson that he had not imagined that anyone who was not a Gitano could play like that.)

Probably the best flamenco guitar store in Europe if not the world is in Freiburg, Mundo Flamenco. The proprietor, who also plays flamenco guitar quite well, has developed a great network with guitar builders in Spain and other countries and consequently has guitars not available anywhere else. Even Spanish flamenco guitarists patronage his store!

Johannes Inhofen, proprietor of Mundo Flamenco with the Italian jazz/flamenco guitarist Manual Randi during a visit in my office.

After having seen and heard Rafael Cortés perform, I found my first real flamenco guitar teacher, Tony, from whom I had lessons a few years before he moved away. He in turn introduced me to Illona, and for years I played for the dance classes in her basement where she taught me a lot about basic flamenco rhythm.

Freiburg is also lucky to have a fantastic flamenco school, La Soleá, run by a fantastic dancer Sybille Marklin and a great guitarist Jörg Hoffmann. Their flamenco ensemble, Ensemble madrugá flamenca, has won several prizes and their (all-too-rare) concerts are always sold out. They are not only masters of their trade, but also great teachers. They also have classes with a mixture of dancers, singers, percussionists and guitarists, a rarity among flamenco schools, where we learn to perform together. I am often surprised when I take flamenco guitar classes in Spain to discover that Jorg has already taught me very similar things. Even when we have a group class with five or six guitarists, he notices the mistakes of each person although we are all playing at the same time. His playing is so precise that sometimes I think I should just give up, because I will never be able to come close to replicating it.

Sybille Marklin and Jörg Hoffmann in their studio

When I took classes in flamenco guitar in Spain years ago, teachers simply played something and then said, “Now you.” One my teachers there related that when he started learning flamenco guitar as a teenager, his teacher gave him a cassette with a piece by Paco de Lucia and told him to come back the next day playing it. This has changed greatly over the years, at least at Carmen de las Cuevas in Granada. My first guitar teacher there, Alfredo Mesa, starting studying in Cordoba where he is now a professor of “Flamencology”, but which also meant a more structured approached to the music, i.e., explanations and notes. As a result, the next teacher Jorge “El Pisao” also wrote down some of the pieces he taught us. However, the trend seems to be going back in the other direction with more emphasis on rhythm.

Jorge El Pisao in his younger days and today with his new hair style

Flamenco is associated with Andalusia in general, and there are several centers of it there such as Seville, Jerez and Cordoba, although Madrid seems to be the main center of flamenco these days. But for me, Granada was the place for flamenco, not only due to the many musicians, dancers and singers who come from there, but also thanks to the great flamenco and Spanish school Carmen de las Cuevas.

The school Carmen de las Cuevas is located in Albayzin, one of the oldest districts in Granada located on a steep hill directly opposite the Alhambra. It has been inhabited since ancient times, but reached a peak during the Nasrid Dynasty (approx. 1200-1492) and it characterized by winding, narrow streets where it is easy to lose your bearings and get lost. Many of the homes have “carmens”, which are garden courtyards beside the homes and enclosed by high walls.

Typical entrance to a carmen

The district suffered terrible under the Inquisition, since many of its inhabitants were not Christians. Centuries later with a much lower population, the district was falling into disrepair, any many Gitanos took advantage of the low rents to move in, perhaps one reason why there is so much flamenco there. Today, housing prices in Albayzin are skyrocketing, something that started when the district was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984 and these days apparently mainly due to Airbnb rentals as well as gentrification. In the lower part, it sometimes seems like the ancient times of Al-Andalus have returned, since there are streets with almost only Moroccan souvenir shops, tea house and restaurants, although I wonder whether the souvenirs are not really made in China as are most reproductions of European paintings sold to tourists in Europe that are produced in Dafen Village in China.

The writer Steven Nightingale, who had previously known nothing of flamenco, wrote: “We were being drawn irrevocably into life in the Albayzin, and the joy of it was beyond anything I could have conjured. I simply had never been in a place of such tough, enveloping beauty, and I began to think that the Albayzin had some hidden power, that against all the odds it had been able to deflect the darkness and terror seething in the history of Granada, that it had suffered near devastation, but through some genius for survival, some singular life force, it had risen again with its hidden traditions and raucous energies.

“We came to understand, in part, how such a thriving might be possible because of flamenco.” (Quoted from Granada, The Light of Andalucía by Steven Nightingale)

There is also a mosque in Albaycin now, which opened in 2003 after many years of planning. The Inquisitors are probably turning in their graves!

Garden of the mosque

When I attended classes at Carmen de las Cuevas for the first time, a teacher David gave one-hour tours of the city every morning before classes. He was such a wealth of knowledge that I endeavored to get up early every morning and sometimes was the only one on his tour. These tours were unfortunately discontinued several years later simply because not enough students were willing to get up early for them.

The Spanish classes are so good that even my girlfriend, who was taking her first Spanish classes, was able to follow the Spanish on the guided tours in the morning. Originally, classes could be held on the terrace in good weather with a fantastic view of Alhambra. Years later, a German bought the house next door and—in the tradition of the Inquisitors—tried to suppress local culture, going to court to attempt to forbid the school from holding Spanish classes outside and flamenco classes all together. After years of litigation and a lot of soundproofing measures in the school, flamenco classes are permitted in caves in the back of the school and Spanish classes only inside in the classrooms.

Two teachers at Carmen de las Cuevas, Rosa and Jesus, with whom I have had many classes over the years. Great teachers!

Terrace at the school

View of Alhambra

The school also provides rooms in shared apartments nearby with great views of Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada.

Flamenco was long considered a plebian pastime of “Gitanos”, not worthy of respect, but Federico Lorca’s support of a flamenco festival in 1922, the Concurso de cante jondo, in Granada, made flamenco presentable for many. However, most Spaniards today do not like or know flamenco, and some have even told me that they hate it.

Digression: the “gitanos” migrated from Rajasthan in India in two groups, a northern and southern route. The northern route took them to Europe, and the southern one via Egypt and North Africa to Spain. They were called “tingitanos”, which perhaps gave birth to the Word “Gitanos” people coming from Tingis, today’s Tánger. Another theory is that the word “Gitano” comes from “egipto”. Other theories exist, one claiming that the word entered from the north into Spain. The English word “gypsy” has fallen into disrepute in favor of “Roma”, but gypsy was always something positive for me. It has an air of romance and adventure as well as passion exemplified in the short novel of D.H. Lawrence The Virgin and the Gipsy.

For many people, the rhumba band Gypsy Kings exemplifies flamenco, rhumba being a sub-group of flamenco that many purists claim is not flamenco at all. We had an amateur flamenco group for a while and once were hired to perform at a restaurant for a company event. The proprietress was very angry and stated that we had not played flamenco, since she had probably expected a rhumba band. She even claimed that the mother of the DJ, who was there, was from Spain and knew what flamenco was, and that was not what we played. However, I had spoken to the DJ before we performed, and he told me that his mother knew nothing of flamenco.

The film director Tony Gatlif shot a documentary called Latcho Drom that follows the path of the Roma/Gitano from Rajasthan to India, mainly based on their music and dance. However, his film only follows the northern route.

Those who took the northern route to Europe and settled there prefer to be called Roma today. They are very different from the “Gitanos” (and this term seems still to be in use in Spain for these people) who are sedentary and usually live in one place, while the Roma are known often to be traveling from one place to another. The Spanish government tried to settle Roma in the same area as Gitanos one time, but they did not get along at all and the experiment was a disaster.

In Ireland, there is a similar ethnic group known as “Travelers”, although they call themselves Minkiers or Pavees, and some people use the derogatory term “Pikie” to refer to them. They are depicted in the humorous film “Snatch”. However, genetic research has determined that they have no relation to the Roma or Gitanos and that they are of Irish origin.

Although the flamenco school in Freiburg is excellent, I still like to go to Spain for the flamenco ambiance now and then. And because I also like learning Spanish, there is no better place than Granada and the school Carmen de las Cuevas. In addition, Granada is quite a lively city, not as expensive as many places in Spain, and has many good bars where the tapas are still free when you order a drink. There are numerous venues where you can see professional flamenco performances apart from the tourist traps groups of Japanese, Germans, Americans, etc. are horded into to see a “genuine” flamenco performance, often in the converted caves of the Sacramonte district where Gitanos formerly lived before the government moved them to high-rises in the city outskirts. The number of flamenco performance venues has been increasing in Granada to satisfy the great number of tourists who flock to the city. This provides work and income for a lot of flamenco artists, which in turn helps to keep flamenco alive and foster its development.

These and other places where you can see a flamenco performance for a fee are called tablaos. There is a great number of Japanese who love and practice flamenco, and it is claimed that there are more tablaos in Tokyo than in all of Spain. My theory is that the Japanese find a way to express their emotions in flamenco, which traditionally has a strict framework, in a way that they cannot in their own culture.

Casa del Arte Flamenco, which now also has a gourmet restaurant.

Flamenco in the restaurant Jardines de Zoraya

There are also peñas, clubs where flamenco lovers and practitioners would meet to play, dance and sing or just watch as a spectator. Originally, only members were allowed to enter, but sometimes they allow anyone in, as is the case during the Jerez Flamenco Festival when one peña each evening lets anyone enter. The Peña de la Plateria in Granada, is the oldest one. As of recently, they starting holding performances every Thursday evening open to the public and charging admission fees to make money and consequently ensure the further existence of their club.

Entrance to Peña de la Plateria (photographing is not permitted during the performance)

Granada and Albayzin in particular seems to be home to a large number of vagabonds masquerading as hippies. They share the outward look of hippies from back in the 1960s, but not the ideal of a better world filled with love. Instead, they just want to live their lives in their own style and seem to have the tribalistic custom of avoiding interaction with people practicing different live styles. Many have dogs as seems to be the custom of their brethren in other countries (a being to which they can give commands and control?). Clothing styles from India and the Arab world seem to be a must as is smoking marijuana or hashish. You see them in many places there, but since they seem to have tribal customs that limit their association with outsiders, I have never had any conversations with any of them. Having said that, Spain seems to be one of the last countries where lots of men have long hair (Digression: crew-cuts became the fashion in the USA after the Second World War, because the soldiers all had them. Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers to cut their hair, because their Persian adversaries were pulling it in battles. In other words, short hair was associated with martial endeavors, although the opposite seems to be the case in Kung-Fu movies. Some US American soldiers starting letting their hair grow long and grew beards while in Afghanistan, but that was quickly banned despite the fact that it made them look quite fierce.)

Some people seem to be attracted to flamenco because they think that it encompasses a life of drugs and partying, but no professional flamenco artists that I know of would concur. They need to be sober to practice for hours on end and perform artistically. El Amir once related that he had not seen a friend of his, who was a very good guitar player, for quite some time, and when he did see him, the friend related that he had given up the guitar and flamenco all together because there were just too many drugs in the flamenco scene where he was. It was the only way he could keep from becoming an addict. There have also been very gifted flamenco artists who destroyed their careers after becoming involved with drugs.

Flamenco is changing these days, perhaps best exemplified in the documentary Bailaores, in which four artists of contemporary flamenco dance, Rafaela Carrasco, Israel Galvàn, Andrés Marìn and Belén Maya, demonstrate and talk about their interpretations of modern flamenco: a fascinating film!

Traditionalists such as Matilde Coral, one of the “grandes dames” of flamenco, said their innovations were like a worm in an apple. (Digression: at a performance at the Jerez Flamenco Festival, I had a seat in the middle of a narrow row and accidently brushed against her as I was going to my seat—she was sitting in the row in front of me—and she screamed that I was hitting her.)

Flamenco guitarists are also experimenting and creating new sounds, using chords otherwise only heard in jazz. Some guitarists experiment by mixing flamenco with other music genres, an excellent example of which is Vicente Amigo on his album Tierra where he mixes flamenco with Celtic music and is supported by members of Dire Straits and the Celtic music band Capercaillie, an album produced by Guy Fletcher. Flamenco purists were appalled, but it is a great CD, and I consider Vicente Amigo to be the best composer of flamenco guitar music in existence.

The guitarist Jose Monton is one of the most imaginative composers and has recorded CDs, among others, with Tomasito (rap), Ara Malaikan (a Libanese violinest of Armenian ancestry, Hossam Ramzy (Egyptian percussionist), Maria Berasarte (fado singer), and Gorka Hermosa (accordionist, tango argentine) in addition to his “pure” flamenco recordings.

The group Chambao expanded the limits of the genre with its groundbreaking recording Flamenco Chill. And, of course, Granada’s own Enrique Morente, the singer, must be mentioned who often experimented, once performing with the Bulgarian Voices, combining traditional Bulgarian music and flamenco. Mr. Morente was the first flamenco singer to be awarded the Spanish National Prize for Music by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

The home where the great flamenco singer Enrique was born.

Rocio Molina, who incorporates many other styles, received the Spanish National Dance Award for her contributions to flamenco. After she performed at the New York City Center, the renowned ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov came to her dressing room and went down on his knees in front of her. Many of the best flamenco dancers today have classical ballet training, and I have seen great flamenco performances by both the National Ballet of Spain and the Andalusian Flamenco Ballet.

There are many other flamenco fusion recordings and projects, too many to enumerate, with jazz, rap, Arab and Indian music, rock, etc., etc. In other words, musicians who do not believe that flamenco is something for museums, but instead a living art that is changing and progressing with the times.

However, flamenco remains a relatively unknown music genre, and few people know more about it than pictures in their minds of sensuous gypsy ladies dancing in bright, gaudy “carnival-like” costumes and playing castañetas. Except for aficionados and in places such as Granada, almost nobody knows the name of one flamenco singer, dancer or guitarist with the possible exception of Paco Lucia (known mostly for his concert with Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin). Although that is unfortunate for the many great flamenco artists and their possibilities to be financially rewarded for their art, I actually like being involved with something that is not mainstream such as music, inter alia, to which advertising and the mass media try to direct our habits and minds (is that a prejudice?).

Bar Aixa for breakfast every morning, where the waiters are so fast that you wonder from where they get the energy and already know what I want before I even order thanks to my many years of patronage there. However, they no longer have the sign there “Singing Prohibited”, which was probably from the days when locals decided that they wanted to show off their flamenco singing skills at the wrong times. Apparently, this is no longer the case: a sign of the changing times?

Then off to school, Spanish in the morning and flamenco guitar in the afternoon, and often great flamenco performances in the evening or even with my friend Miguel, who lives in Albayzin and whom I met years ago in Zanzibar, to a local tapas bar to watch a Champions League game with a bunch of his friends: an exhausting few weeks in Granada that fill me with energy!

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