By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
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By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
On a rainy January morning in a bar open to the sidewalk in Sevilla's riverside neighborhood Triana, a construction worker stomps a freshly laid ceramic-tile floor in boots stained with orange-colored clay. He is clapping, marking the rhythm of a flamenco song with palmas. Cigarette clamped between his teeth, he sings absently. With a reverbing ay-yi low in his throat, he serenades the office-bound traffic maneuvering past him down a narrow, centuries-old street.
The construction worker singing to himself in this upscale bar is a reminder of the neighborhood's past. Traditionally a center of the Café Cantantes, where flamenco flourished in the Nineteenth Century, Triana was once known for its congenial mix of Gypsies and white Spaniards, most of them laborers. Until the neighborhood was gentrified in the mid-Sixties, flamenco also was nourished in Triana's low-income housing complexes, called corrals -- level buildings with an open-air patio in the center where there was a communal sink and family members found relief from the hot nights. The Triana style of singing, now largely forgotten, was cultivated while washing, cooking, and passing the night hours in the patio.
"We lived with 28 families," says Paco Taranto. Now a teacher at the flamenco school Fundación Cristina Heeren, Taranto remembers the smell of spearmint and jasmine in the patio -- and the neighbors who threw an extra handful of rice into their pots to feed those who had none. When city bureaucrats resettled the corral dwellers to low-income apartments outside the city, Taranto refused to go. "I was the last to leave. They had to take me out by force," he recalls. "They did a lot of damage to the songs of Triana. And they wiped out a way of life."
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Although no one is certain of its origin, flamenco today embodies both the most hackneyed tourist-trapping clichés and the real spirit of life in southern Spain. Once established in Andalusia, the genre was developed over the centuries by bricklayers, prisoners, and miners, in bordellos, cantinas, patios, and parties in marginal neighborhoods in the towns and countryside of the region. Flamenco can still erupt suddenly at any gathering, as palms press together at a pause in conversation and rouse traditional verses about lost love, hard luck, or, likely, the beauty of Sevilla itself.
What is clear is that the powers that be have always had a hand in shaping flamenco and the lives of the people who make the music. Since the fall of Franco, the democratic government -- eager to integrate Spain with Europe and the rest of the world -- has actively promoted flamenco by distributing recordings, sponsoring song and dance competitions, and hosting events like the Bienal de Flamenco in Sevilla, while also supporting the promotion of a more contemporary image of flamenco abroad.
All day long the Fundación Cristina Heeren de Arte Flamenco is thronged with guitars, clattering heels, and chanting song, at turns melodious and slightly off-key, accented by random thumping and triumphant shouts. About 200 students take flamenco guitar, singing, and dance classes in this three-story, seventeenth-century house on the border of the old Jewish quarter of Sevilla. Although the foundation offers beginner courses and dance for children, this is primarily a professional school, teaching advanced flamenco technique to mostly college-age Spaniards as well as foreigners from Japan, Holland, the United States, and elsewhere. Like characters in a flamenco version of Fame, guitarists and dancers practice and flirt in the interior patio between classes or convene at a nearby café. Instructors, in addition to coaching their charges in technique, give real-world advice, like reminding them to take the gum out of their mouths and put it behind their ears before they sing.
"We're creating a method over a world of anarchy," asserts Cristina Heeren, an American who has lived in southern Spain since 1978 and opened the foundation six years ago. Next month the school will begin presenting flamenco performances in a theater in the center of town. "Flamenco is such difficult music. It requires so much knowledge. That's why we decided we have to teach it as flamenco culture. Our students know all the different styles and the names of the artists who invented those styles."
There are nearly 40 basic flamenco palos, or types of song, encompassing laments, work songs, romances, and songs of celebration representing different areas of Andalusia (with Cadiz being the widely acknowledged "cradle" of flamenco). Since flamenco is an oral tradition, no musical notation is allowed; students bring tape recorders to class.
Singer Javier Hidalgo is a docent at the school, and one of a quartet of artists affiliated with the foundation who will perform at the Centro Cultural Español in Coral Gables tonight. Unlike most of Spain's post-Franco youth, Hidalgo always preferred flamenco to rock and had little interest in foreign bands or the flamenco fusion popular in the Eighties. (In many cases those experiments were based on rumba rhythms -- think Gipsy Kings -- which purists do not classify as flamenco, but they nevertheless made audiences in Spain and abroad more open to the flamenco sound.)
"Flamenco is just the music that I like, and it's being from here, the land, that nurtures that," Hidalgo, who worked in construction before joining the foundation, explains over mint tea in the corner café. A tall, attractive 26-year-old with a ponytail and scruffy beard, he is a graceful, not guttural, singer, who lends the improvisational stylings of a jazz vocalist to the traditional lyrics he performs. "I'm open to experimentation, but you have to have a solid base in flamenco before you can do anything else. If you have a house with only a roof, that's not going to work. You have to build the foundation first."