Flamenco puro arrives straight from Spain
Flamenco is much misunderstood outside of Spain. For those unfamiliar with the art form, it’s become almost synonymous with Spanish dancing, but as Martín Santangelo, artistic director of Madrid’s Noche Flamenca company, points out, its popularity is largely confined to the country’s southernmost province, Andalusia.
He lays much of the blame for the marginalization of flamenco culture on Francisco Franco. The fascist general—who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975—despised flamenco’s Arabic, Gypsy, and Jewish roots, and repressed its defiant and independent spirit.
“Franco really wiped out the culture in Spain,” says Santangelo, reached in northern California, where Noche Flamenca is on tour. “Little by little it’s being accepted, but it’s curious that we go to Buenos Aires and find the majority of people know more about flamenco than when we perform at home. In Andalusia there’s tons of love for flamenco, but outside, no. There are little pockets of people, but not many.”
One of the largest, however, is in Madrid, where Santangelo and his wife Soledad Barrio formed Noche Flamenca in 1993. Barrio came from a working-class family in the city and Santangelo was born in New York to parents of Argentine descent. The two would eventually meet at a Madrid dance school. “I walked into a class and saw this girl doing turns and I was just blown away,” Santangelo recalls. “Then I courted her for about two years!”
Both Santangelo and Barrio share a passion for flamenco puro, the core of a tradition that came not from dance but the impassioned singing of generations of outcasts—Spanish Muslims, Sephardic Jews, Caló-speaking Gypsies, and others who were abused for centuries by a ferociously Catholic state. This cante (song) was eventually accompanied by guitar, and interpreted in dance.
“The guitar exists to express the song, and the dance exists to express the guitar and the song,” says Santangelo. “In recent times the dancers have become more and more the protagonist, and they aren’t. They and the guitarists should be egoless and just let the song take over. Flamenco is very much bigger than any individual. It’s the story of a people, not one guitarist or one dancer. The essence is giving liberty to the singer. That for me is the purity of it.”
But who will sing the main solo when Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca perform at the Vancouver Playhouse this Friday (February 6)? It may be either Manuel Gago or Emilio Florido, both from Cádiz. Flamenco is truly a living art—and the experiences and emotions of the day decide which artist will sing. The factors can be as basic as who got the most sleep or has the least sore throat, or as poignant as who has a sorrow that needs voicing. “The father of one of the singers just passed away,” says Santangelo. “And the other night he asked me if he could sing because he’d been thinking a lot about him. That night he sang extraordinarily well.”
For Santangelo and Barrio, flamenco at its purest is not just an art but a language of the soul.