It was 17 years ago when flamenco dancer Celia Fonta and her husband, guitarist Paco Fonta, organized the first Siempre Festival de Cante Miami. Their mission was to present the best dancers and musicians in traditional flamenco dance and music to Miami audiences.
The festival grew out of the Fontas' yearly trips to Andalusia, Spain's southernmost region and the birthplace of flamenco, to visit Paco's family and relatives in the town of Jaén, Spain, where the musician learned flamenco singing and guitar from traditional musicians.
"Paco and I would travel every summer to visit his family and would attend many festivals in all the small towns nearby," says Celia Fonte. "The festival was originally conceived and created to present a traditional singing festival like the ones we went to in Andalusia in the summer."
The couple knew they wanted their festival to capture the magic of those small-town festivals that often presented five singers over a four-hour period. While they were aware that they had to tweak the format length to fit the attention spans of an American audience, their commitment to presenting traditional flamenco dance and music would not change.
Over the years, the festival has grown, and its length has expanded from a single evening performance to four performances over three days at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
Celia Fonta says that the festival's format has proven successful and has stayed the same.
First, three guest singers perform a solo accompanied by a guitarist, then there is a guest dancer, and then Celia dances. "The opening and closing [is] where all artists participate."
"Her singing is very different from generic flamenco singing," explains Celia Fonta. "[She] has a very particular style of marking the rhythms, and we have never had anyone from that region with us before."
The flamenco tradition in music stretches back to when the Roma (originally Doma) migrated from Rajasthan and the Punjab in northern India between the 10th and 11th Centuries. In the 13th and 14th Centuries, the nomads arrived in Western Europe, bringing their musical instruments – castanets, hand clapping, feet rhythms, drums – and their voices.
In Spain, many of those Romani families settled in the province of Andalusia at the southernmost tip of Spain, where their musical practices absorbed native Spanish, Moorish, and Jewish influences. Europeans believed these arrivals were from Egypt and called them "gypsies." The Spanish called them "gitanos" (from "Egiptano").
Originally meant as a slur, the term "gypsy singer" in flamenco has come to describe a prized quality and unique style in a singer's voice. It also locates the vocalists as someone who traces their origins to gypsy families that settled in the chain of little Spanish towns linking Cádiz to Sevilla.
"A lot of flamenco shows a lot of influence from many of these gypsy families," says Celia. "Not every singer comes from one of these important families from a town with 200 years of flamenco singing in their family. There are several important musical families in Andalusia, and [Mari Peña] comes from an important one, Utrera."
Born in France to a family of Andalusian immigrants, Moya has accompanied some of flamenco's great singers, including Bernarda de Utrera, Pepa de Benito, Gaspar de Utrera, Enrique el Extremeño, and Tomás de Perrate, among others.
La Lupi's festival invite originated last summer when Paco Fonta performed with her in Chicago at the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater Festival sponsored by Northeastern Illinois University.
Celia Fonta says it's the close-knit creative work of the husband and wife team that makes them so exciting.
"Her husband [Curro de Mari]) is a wonderful guitarist who writes all of their music. La Lupi adds the choreography to his composition," says Fonta. "It is a collaborative process between the two of them."
When asked about the three husband and wife pairings (which include Celia and Paco Fonta) that fill out this year's program, Celia says: "It is pretty common in flamenco that you have a singer and a dancer or a guitarist pair off together."
This year's festival goes a step further and showcases the family roots of the flamenco art form. Peña and Moya's 20-year-old daughter, Mañuela Moya — an up-and-coming flamenco vocalist in her own right — will perform as part of her parents' festival set.
– Sean Erwin, ArtburstMiami.com
Siempre Flamenco's 17th Annual Festival de Cante Miami. 8 p.m. Friday, September 15; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, September 16; and 4 p.m. Sunday, September 17; at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $50 to $68.