My Flamenco Experience in Paris

'Au Chat Noir' sketch drawn by Allison Iwata.

Ok so, you’re a 20-year-old student with an opportunity to write for an online publication, what subject would you chose? I had this question linger with me the whole flight to Paris, my hometown.

Sharing a passion for both my anthropology studies and music, I was looking for a topic that mended both. Having landed with no clearer indication as to the subject I’d choose, I felt that taking a walk in the lively streets of the “11ème arrondissement” of Paris might help inspire me. With all of its bars, cafés, shops, theatres, and concert halls, this neighborhood is a home for all sorts of hipsters, workers, artists, fortune-tellers, travelers, tourists and anyone feeling the Parisian-Bohemian spirit. Still walking around, trying to figure out what to write, a bar named the Black Cat (“Chat Noir”), stood before me with answer: they were hosting a flamenco show a few days later. And there it was.

A few days later, with beer in hand, a friend and I decended to the bar basement, and arrived to the cozy, intimate show room. Inside the warm atmosphere, Laurent Noel and Niño de Gambetta had already started the show. While we tried to sit down quietly—not to disturb the other spectators— we could hear a soft murmur of guitar over Spanish and Arabic intonations. Their performances were wonderful, and thankfully, they later agreed to an interview. Announcing what was next to come, Niño de Gambetta started to chant an Alegría; one of the many sorts of chants in flamenco. Flamenco combines three practices: singing, dancing and playing the guitar. In the beginning, singing (cante) was done “a palo seco”, which means without accompaniment. Many sorts of singing flamenco exist, they differ according to the singer and the geographical location. The lyrics are organized in several verses (coplas), the theme of which varies both according to the type of singing, and the language (Gypsy or Andalusian).

Who are Laurent and Nino, and how did they come to discover flamenco?

As Laurent Noel, the guitarist, tells it: “I have classical music experience from the conservatory; I played classical guitar and only began playing flamenco late, at the age of 30, by listening to Paco de Lucía and Vicente Amigo, two great guitarists. The more interested I got, the more I understood that flamenco is primarily the accompaniment of singing and dancing to the guitar. I started to play, doing round trips between here (Paris) and Andalusia.

As for Niño de Gambetta: “I started by doing contemporary dance until the age of 27, and then one summer, I went to Granada and I saw several flamenco shows. I really felt for the singing. Then I went to live in Madrid where I took courses of flamenco dancing and started, on the side, to sing and play the guitar. As I went along, I started to have problems with my hand, which pushed me to study more the singing part of the dance. I eventually became impassioned by it.

Larent and Nino— photo by Harry Danon / PirateMTL

We talked about how the flamenco guitar did not become an integrated part of flamenco before the eighteenth century. In its origins, only the singing supported the dancing. As flamenco gradually gained popularity, the guitar became inseparable from song. The flamenco guitar is played according to a well-defined musical structure, the “compass”; the tempo according to which guitarists construct their own melodies and harmony. With time, the melodious and rhythmic foundations got increasingly complex. The guitar became a mode of expression in itself, that could be separated from the other arts, and flamenco compositions become the subject of solo concerts.

Flamenco dance (baile) is the extension of the music in a style, equal parts solemn and sensual. It is an interpretation of the melody through gesture. It distinguished itself from the other Andalusian types of dance. Flamenco, therefore, attracted audiences precisely because of this oblique from such popular group dancing as can be found in the “jota” or the “sardane”.

Performing flamenco requires attention, dexterity and communication. Dancers, guitarists and singers must have the capacity to play according to each other’s moves. The steps of the dancer hit the floor at the pace of the guitar’s rhythm which stretches and carries the voice of the singer under harmonizing sound. It’s what made Laurent leave the classical repertoire to start playing Flamenco.

Laurent : “Before, when I was in classic(al music) and I always played as a soloist; I was alone in the world. I wanted to reconvert myself and start playing with people, which is very difficult in classical music. Now I do concerts, play with people. Accompanying is what I especially like; being at the service of the singing and the dance. Moreover, it leaves space for improvisation. In classical music the partition is a bit sacred. In flamenco there’s really an interaction. As Brice (Niño de Gambetta) was saying earlier, I don’t know what he’s gonna sing. For any singer, you don’t know what he’s gonna sing, and same for the dancer, you don’t know if he’s gonna do a llamada, if he’s gonna stop, do steps… It demands that you be really attentive and chase the step or the note to play the right chord. It’s very difficult but also very fascinating. You have to listen because anything can occur.”

What attracted Niño de Gambetta towards flamenco singing: “The first thing that attracted me was the emotional involvement in the singing. It’s an expression of human suffering, on a global, metaphysical (level). It’s a cry, a primitive song about human fate in this world: it can absurd, tragic… It’s really the expression of emotions that is really strong. And it’s also the expression of a political and social suffering. The gypsies created the singing part, (…) but it’s them that gave flamenco this dimension.”

Before it reached the Parisian nightlife, flamenco was a form of folk music present in Andalusia. Before the Christian Reconquista in the fifteenth century, the region was home to Judaic, Arabic and Christian cultures. All three of these cohabited in relative unison, which made the region fertile ground for cultural cross-pollination. Thus, from Arabic melodic structures and Judaic and Byzantine musical influences—themselves stemming from Persian and Indian musical influences.

The first coplas were most surely written in Cordoba where the Omeyyades caliphate ruled. That said, it is hard to pinpoint the geographical birthplace of flamenco. Later, the rise of so-called ‘modern’ flamenco, came to be when the European gypsies trickled in. The first waves of migrants entered Spain in  the year 1425. Their progressive integration into Andalusia refined the artform. Even though flamenco singing already existed in a certain form within the Andalusian population, the gypsies contributed to the proliferation of this practice and were the prime inventors of the “bulerías” and the “siguiriyas” (alternative song patterns). They also brought to the dance that dual sense of solemnity and sensuality, discussed earlier.

Shot of the Café Chat Noir. -Photo Credit : Harry Danon / PirateMTL.com

In this little cave of a Parisian bar, my friend and I could feel the gypsy resonances run through our limbs. It’s not only the dulcet and plaintive sounds of Niño de Gambetta’s voice and Laurent’s guitar that brought us back to eighteenth century Andalusia, but also the content of Niño’s songs. It is not surprising that this region aroused the Romantics’ curiosity and inspiration. Indeed, flamenco music inspired numerous writers like Cervantes, Hugo, Gaultier and Mérimée. Unfortunately the Romantic literature that depicted these times of cultural turmoil tended to omit the many reasons the flamenco performers suffered.

Upon their arrival in Spain, the gypsy populations didn’t have to wait long until they experienced social, spacial and racial segregation. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Spain, marked by a strong movement towards centralization, left many disempowered. The south of Spain suffered economic and political inequalities with the rest of the country. Andalusian and gypsy populations underwent hunger, violence, poverty, and misery. The social, racial, political and economic fracture that conditioned their daily lives became the raw material for the artform.

Today, Flamenco is widespread and performed all over the world. From being initially confined to the family circle, it gained popularity in the “cafés cantantes” that developed during the nineteenth century. Flamenco artists began to make a living from their art. Despite the social, economic and cultural repercussions of the popularization of Flamenco, this art fatally became more and more bourgeois. Artists had to respond to the expectations of an ever-growing demand, and the Romantics of the time integrated Flamenco in their new aesthetic canons, putting aside its prime soul: the expression of suffering. In the beginning of the twentieth century, artists like Antonio Chacon made this art enter the realm of opera and theatre. Flamenco became increasingly technical, formal and academic. What was sought was the beauty of the form and structure rather than the profoundness of the content. This drift divided Flamenco between an authentic branch marked by tradition (and still played within small communities), and a sophisticated one that won over the bourgeois and intellectuals.

Is the original soul of Flamenco lost today?

The lineup has already started— Photo by Harry Danon / PirateMTL

For Laurent, “There is today a strong return to tradition. In the 80’s and 90’s, artists experimented fusing it to jazz with more complex chords but I still find that there is a return, a trend to play traditionally. In certain cities you cannot do whatever you want with Flamenco. I remember a guitar course in Jerez de la Frontera where one of the students began to insert a chord a bit modern, a bit jazzy. And suddenly the professor stops and says to him: “No no no, you can’t do this, some people could break a chair on your head!” Every city has its own style. In Jerez it’s very traditional whereas in Sevilla it is more modern.

For Niño de Gambetta, the particular frame in which Flamenco arose makes it very difficult to seek newness in it’s origins: “What is sure is that we’ll never find again the social conditions of the times that created Flamenco. Today with the new technologies, you go to Jerez and the youth also listens to rock and rap music. This hurts Flamenco culture. At the time it was the only music, the only medium of expression. Although life is not evident today, it was even harder back then. You cannot have the same singing as before. You’ll never find again this way of singing. You won’t find the original soul as it was… Today with the Americanization of culture and pop culture, a lot of things are lost and you realize that there are a lot of Flamenco artists that start playing jazz without really knowing what they’re doing. Even Paco de Lucia, he really made fusion and integrated jazz within Flamenco. To hear real Flamenco, that is the expression of a suffering that corresponds to a reality, if you can’t find this reality it’s not Flamenco anymore, it becomes a stationary music. The question is even asked of us: As white occidental French people singing flamenco, are we authentic? It’ll never be the Flamenco of the origins. We can still get inspired by its source and seek its roots, otherwise we would lose something.

But wouldn’t we also lose something if we cast away the history of a by-now well-traveled Flamenco? And what of it’s inclusions in other mediums?

Again, de Gambetta: “It’s another style. Flamenco opera is another aesthetic, another view of life. You can sing it but you cannot call it Flamenco. Now did it enrich Flamenco? I’m not sure… Musically speaking I don’t think so. Some people were able to do something fruitful, but if you sing Flamenco without attending to the tradition, without respecting the codes, it’s not Flamenco anymore…

Si yo tendria mas de una vida no me importaria ir por las ramas, pero como tengo sola una, me alonjo al tronco de la pureza. It means that if I had multiple lives, it wouldn’t bother me to explore the leaves of the Flamenco tree, but since I’ve only got one, I prefer to seek for the roots, the purity, the essence.” This nugget that Niño told me at the end of the interview sums up the attitude that Flamenco draws on: an attitude predicated on an honest and natural representation of reality, without artifice or showy effects. An attitude borrowing fate from fatality, drawing its protest, without complaint, as the cry felt by the downtrodden, through music, dance, and song. Even more than that, and as Niño shared, Flamenco is a practice that spreads to all aspects of life: “For me, now, Flamenco is everything. As we say, Flamenco is a manner of living, it becomes an aesthetic of living. It brings me joy and moments of trance…”.

Words by: Harry Danon
Paris-Montreal 2017