Paco Peña

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester Tuesday 9 November 2010

On a windswept evening in a wintry Manchester setting, the altogether sunnier climbs of Andalucia and the tropical south-eastern coastline of Latin America came to town for just a few hours and lit up the inside of the Bridgewater Hall and thereafter entered our hearts with passionate rhythms. This was to be an evening in which Spanish flamenco and the folkloric rhythms of Venezuela came together in a most fascinating and intricate of musical fusions, hence the title ‘Flamenco without frontiers’. In fact for some time now, flamenco has been evolving within and outside its own political borders and this phenomenon is referred to as the ‘iba y vuelta’, or ‘coming and going’ style of flamenco. Simply put, the music leaves the Iberian peninsular and takes on other musical influences in Latin America such as Cuban and Mexican son for example and then comes back with an added layer that in turns results in a far richer sound. A whole new sub-genre has thus been created and flamenco, rather than being an obsolete art form that has stood still, has taken on a whole new creative and resolutely modern life of its own.

This was partly the idea behind guitarist Paco Peña’s latest project, to bring together the traditional rhythms of flamenco with the folkloric instrumentation of Venezuelan music that is strongly influenced by African rhythms and is now rightly called Afro-Venezuelan culture. The reason for this is linked to the period of slavery during Spanish colonisation when three centuries of slave trade had transported African migrants from the west coast of that continent (principally Senegal and Nigeria). Slavery ended in 1834, but one of its by-products was the importation of indigenous African rhythms and instruments and these have subsequently become part and parcel of the national musical landscape in Venezuela. The genius of Paco Peña was to envisage how these rhythms might co-exist with traditonal flamenco which, in itself, is heavily influenced by the Arabic rhythms of North Africa. This is especially the case for dancersof flamenco when it comes to the dancing technique of moving the arms, possibly a means, along with the eyes, of attracting the opposite sexes attention. It takes a great deal of skill to weave seemingly disparate musics together and that Pena succeeded so effortlessly is testimony to his unquestioned skills as an arranger.

With this in mind, the audience was in great expectation as to how this musical cross-fertilisation might materialise in practice. An intimate setting greeted the audience on stage with a semi-circle of guitarists. A male flamenco dancer entered centre stage and after a short shuffling of feet, the three guitarists to the left of stage (all dressed in black like the dancer) entered immediately and the musical explorations took off in earnest. Of note was the use of the percussion instrument, the cajón, which is an Afro-Peruvian wooden box that the percussionist slaps with his hand and has now become an integral part of the flamenco group instruments at their disposal, especially during the 1970s innovations of Paco de Lucia. At the end of this piece, the music then immediately focused on the Venezuelan musicians situated to the right-hand side of the stage, who alternated at various times between percussion and string instruments. One of the instrumentalists doubled throughout the evening as prinicipal vocalist and, as he began, a Venezuelan female dancer, dressed in white traditional dress for most of the evening, entered centre stage. In contrast to the flamenco dancer, this was a much looser style of dancing, with a sensual swaying of the hips, and a shaking of the arms often to move in unison with her ample dress hem, moving from side to side. Venezuelan folk music is extremely melodic on the ear and the audience immediately felt transported to the sultrier temperature of a steamy afternoon in the tropics. Integral to the lyricism is the use of the Venezuelan cuatro, a four-stringed instrument that serves a similar purpose to the cavaquinho in Brazilian samba and with a not dissimilar sound into the bargain.

By the third piece, a musical fusion of the two distinct styles was well underway with the Caribbean flavour of the Latin American musicians giving way to the Spanish guitarists and the sudden appearance of two flamenco dancers and one Venezuelan dancer. It is the commonality of the Spanish and Venzuelan music that Pena was eager to explore and they certainly combined well here. It has to be stated at the outest that the quality of the dancing was breathtaking. The dexterity of the male flamenco dancers and the expressionate emotion contained within the arm movements had more than one female heart a fluttering during the evening, while the two women dancers simply excelled in their art. In particular the female flamenco dancer managed to use her arms in such a way that she seemed to be controlled like a puppet on a string and the physical contorsions she weaved in and out of truly had to be seen to be believed. With so many musicians, singers and dancers on stage in various pairings, there was always something new for the eyes and ears to ponder and at one point the Venezuelan singer entered into a dialogue of sorts with the female flamenco singer. The Latin American expert sitting in the audience would undoubtedly have remarked that the dialogue between the two was mockingly flirtatious, but in a register of language that was most eloquent and not at all what Spaniards (women especially!) refer to as ‘piropos’, or flattery, something of a misnoma in English since the term is often a pretext for the most inelegant and bawdiest of suggestions by men.

During the second half of the performance the fusion of styles, both in music and dance, was becoming more intricate and the interplay between Spanish and Venezuelan musicians all the more memorable for that. For much of the evening Pena was unselfishly content to play a largely secondary role accompanying and allowing another guitarist to take solos, but at one point he finally came centre stage to engage in a riveting face to face duet with a Venezuelan guitarist, weaving notes together, before the band took off in an altogether different direction.

Pena is that most expressive of guitarists and has made a virtue out of bringing together contrasting styles. One of his most acclaimed albums being the 1991 ‘Misa Flamenca’ which reworked the Catholic mass in a flamenco context.

By the time the cajón player took a solo, the audience were starting to raise to their feet in appreciation and the temperature on stage became ‘demasiado caliente’ or red hot as the intoxicating rhythms of the Venezuelan band were equalled by the Spanish guitarists while dancers on both sides adapted to the other’s musical style.

Proceedings were brought to a fitting climax with dramatic interplay between musicians on either side of stage all playing at full capacity and all dancers finally entering centre stage with extended percussion. The frenetic pace was maintained, before suddenly ending to rapturous applause. A terrific way to end the evening and thus leaving the audience hungry for more. Finally, some mention needs to be made of the visual backdrop. A reddish sky convincingly conveyed the brightness of daylight that greets anyone in either Spain or Latin America. The apparent simplicity of the costumes contrastedperfectly with the rouge hues of the sky and moreover facilitated the audiences ability to distinguish between musicians and dancers of the two styles.

Tim Stenhouse

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