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What ever became of fusion?

Is it the same kind of pleasure you have listening to Fernanda or Luis el Zambo or Chocolate? Flamenco is alive and well and living in pockets of intensely cultivated tradition.


Remember when there used to be so much talk about “fusion”? Just 25 or 30 years ago, any unusual music sounding remotely like flamenco, we’d say it was “fusion”. Maybe it incorporated instruments or percussion not normally used in flamenco, or perhaps some of the musicians weren’t Spanish which for those of a certain age meant they weren’t the real deal, the concept, now mostly discredited, of pureza, purity. The word pureza now mostly provokes rolling eyes. It’s been a difficult birth, but little by little the concept of “fusion” has fallen by the wayside

 

Paco left us too soon, but he gave us the keys to open the flamenco treasure chest without qualifiers – neither flamenco pop, nor fusion, nor Latin, nor anything else. Now, people talk about flamenco without qualifiers, and if you prefer Niña Pastori to Pastora Pavón, no one is going to complain. Most older flamenco fans had thought that after a certain amount of time, a few years perhaps, everything would return to “normal”, to the now discredited purity, and men with berets would again argue in the flamenco clubs of Andalusia, with the background noise of clicking dominos on tables, who was a better singer, Antonio Mairena or Pepe Marchena.

 

But it didn’t come out like that, the great wheel of time pushed us firmly and directly towards an environment of sounds and movements that quickly became the new normal. Now, for example, no one is surprised when a guitar recital includes six or seven musicians, the famous sextet format popularized by Paco. More than fusion, it’s been a graft to the core of flamenco in guitar, singing and dancing. If now there are extended chords that can be called contemporary, some guitarists go further yet, accompanying singing with novel dissonances, and you start to doubt the previous rigid system…but not because it sounds bad! Novel accompaniment, which may work surprisingly well with modal singing, consists of dissonances that accompany the voice, teaching our ears to assimilate new musical landscapes. Guitarists Paco Jarana and Juan Antonio Suárez Canito among others, manage dissonance with sensitivity and good taste.

 

I remember when not being able to tell one flamenco form from another marked you as a beginner. Now it means you’re a veteran because unusual harmonies camouflage the identity of the music. This presented a dilemma for mainstream Spaniards. On the one hand they had struggled for decades to lose the flamenco-bullfight stereotype image of their culture. On the other, as flamenco enjoyed new-found popularity, they were in the global spotlight as never before, and the whole world was happily poised to indulge their fantasy image of a Spain that had never really existed. That was when you began to see flamenco in ads for luxury cars and perfumes, and Spaniards beyond Andalusia were sending their little girls to dance school to learn sevillanas (which for most non-Andalusians is the same as flamenco).

Flamenco didn’t used to be so susceptible to generational tides, and artists got better, not older. Today’s elder generation still reveres Ricardo, Sabicas and others who were at the tail-end of their careers when we were just starting out. Young interpreters basically follow a classic line, but their recordings may make extensive use of contemporary harmony in the accompaniment. It’s like listening to Antonio Mairena accompanied by Kenny G.

In Utrera a young generation worships Fernanda, Bernarda, Perrate and Gaspar, and there is strong interest in traditional flamenco. Yet, young interpreters have complained to me that when there’s proper funding for a job, the most contemporary interpreters are summoned, but when resources are limited or non-existent, traditional artists are sought out, reflecting scant loyalty to an art form able to create the intense experiences we remember and cherish.

The changes in dance are even more striking. As much as we might enjoy flamenco dance, it was largely a contrivance that came about to lure customers to the cafe cantantes and theaters, in Spain and elsewhere. I think most of us accept derivative flamenco for what it is: pop music with flamenco elements, sometimes extremely well-done. Am I and others so out of touch that we are unable to hear flamenco in a jazz guitar accompanied by flute, violins and windchimes? Excuse the facetious tone, but the question is valid. Is it the same kind of pleasure you have listening to Fernanda or Luis el Zambo or Chocolate? Flamenco is alive and well and living in pockets of intensely cultivated tradition. It’s not a question of revival – the thread was never broken, it’s just become a little frayed.

 


Jerezana de adopción. Cantaora, guitarrista, bailaora y escritora. Flamenca por los cuatro costados. Sus artículos han sido publicados en numerosas revistas especializadas y es conferenciante bilingüe en Europa, Estados Unidos y Canadá.

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