Weakend in Habana, Not Flamenco

Spanish song & dance with Cuban spice

By Ed Young
Published on LatinoLA: December 18, 2003

Weakend in Habana, Not Flamenco

We recently received a long, anonymous e-mail, so herewith the first part of our correspondent?s post, for what it is worth:

?There is a land where there are no McDonald?s, no Starbucks, no SUVs; where ancient buildings are preserved and venerated; where shelters are provided for hitch-hikers, and state vehicles are required to stop for them; a land that exports doctors and dancers, not bombs and sugar-water; a land where poets are lionized, not vilified. ?If I get lost,? said Federico Garcia Lorca, ?Look for me in Cuba.?

Flamenco is a syncretic creed, with African, European and Asian roots. No land in the new world, and no country outside of Spain, has added more to this tradition than Cuba. It is hard to imagine a flamenco compania anywhere that doesn?t use various rhumbas, or essay a lyrical guajira.

The re-birth of flamenco in Cuba can be traced to the restoration of the Centro Andaluz de Habana, a moldering tablao almost one hundred years old located on the Calle Prado, the main thoroughfare running from the Malecon, or Habana?s harbor, to the imposing Capitolio, the former seat of government. The Centro?s flamenco program, which began about eight years ago, and an ongoing commitment from the National Ballet of Cuba to support Spanish dance, has created a pool of highly trained and gifted performers. The renaissance reached a crescendo when guitarist Reynier Mari?o released the first flamenco record ever on a Cuban label, Alma Gitana, earlier this year.

Many Cuban instruments are used in flamenco shows in other parts of the world, including the claves (two hardwood sticks), the hour-glass-shaped African bata drum; and the chequeri (seed filled gourds). Also heard on flamenco stages in Habana is the Tres Cubano, a smaller guitar with three double strings. All these would be misplaced where it not for the unerring sense of compas possessed by Cuba?s flamencos.

Guanguanco is a mix of flamenco guitar and African rhythms that is the mother of Cuban music, according to Christopher Baker?s excellent Cuba Handbook. Slaves transformed this into the rhumba, dance from the hips. In any event, the rhumba rules the stages of Cuba across genres, affecting not just flamenco, but son, pop, rock, salsa and other forms.

Reynier Mari?o?s album, Alma Gitana, is the most accomplished flamenco guitar debut of the new century, and one of the most exciting flamenco releases of the last ten years. He has the great technique of masters like Paco de Lucia and Vicente Amigo, but also, more importantly, a shot of Cuban testosterone and soul that cannot be exported. His pleasing use of dynamics rewards repeated listening, and the first number, Leyenda de la Luna, deserves to be the anthem of his generation of Cuban flamencos, and guitar lovers everywhere. He opens shows with this piece, and audiences are dazzled, held rapt by the end. An engaging man with an enthusiastic and friendly personality, this consummate musician has the world at his feet, and I look forward to hearing more in years to come.

Mari?o?s album was the first flamenco release of Cuban label Egrem, (indeed, first in Cuban history) and is available from Warner Brothers in Mexico and Japan. Flamenco fans are advised to search the web for this masterful album filled with passion and beauty. I also liked the singing, which, though un-credited on the album, sounds like Alena Iram, the vocalist in his group.

About Ed Young:
Ed Young is a writer and student of Spanish dance in Los Angeles.

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