Vancouver International Flamenco Festival lures phenom for two free shows

Iminah Kani first became aware of flamenco music from listening to the Gipsy Kings

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      Almost all of B.C.’s flamenco guitarists are male. And for the most part, they’re all middle age at a minimum, according to longtime Vancouver flamenco dancer Kasandra “La China”. But not Iminah Kani, a 24-year-old wunderkind from Victoria by way of Salt Spring Island.

      “Iminah Kani is a killer guitarist and she’s a woman and she’s really young, too,” gushed “La China” in a phone interview with the Straight. “She’s a protégé of [Victoria flamenco guitarist] Gareth Owen.”

      Kani is scheduled to play two performances with Peña Flamenca at Granville Island this weekend (September 4 and 5) as part of the free portion of the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival (September 4 to 26). The event nurtures the art form’s hybridized roots, which include Sephardic, Persian, Roma, and Indian influences.

      When reached by phone in Victoria, Kani said that she was first exposed to flamenco when she began listening to the Gipsy Kings, which popularized flamenco rumba around the world. But it was Paco de Lucía, a Spanish flamenco guitar virtuoso, who really knocked her socks off, particularly when he played his hit “Entre dos aguas”.

      She described it as an amazing song and felt compelled to figure out how to play it.

      “Flamenco is a huge undertaking to learn,” Kani acknowledged. “There are so many different styles and so much technique.”

      Cante jondo means “deep song” in Spanish. This term is often used to describe the deepest and most serious form of flamenco music coming out of Andalusia, which is the southernmost autonomous community in Spain.

      “I enjoy how expressive it is,” Kani said. “I feel like it’s able to encompass a lot of different emotions. A lot of the songs are very jondo.”

      Her mother was born in Kuwait and raised in Egypt; her maternal grandfather was a singer from Morocco.

      “I never met him but I’ve heard his music and I think that was also an inspiration for me as well, just the feeling of that,” Kani revealed. “I’m somehow culturally tied to this music.”

      Imanah Kani's grandfather sang flamenco music in Morocco.
      Tony Austin

      She likened flamenco music to a melting pot, encompassing a range of cultures. It’s a point also stressed by “La China”, who teaches this art form, which brings together guitar, singing, dancing, and hand-clapping, also known as palmas.

      “La China” said that flamenco actually has two broad lineages. One is the Spanish dance, which incorporates all the folk dances from all cities and regions of Spain.

      “The Spanish dance comes from aristocratic origins, so those dancers were trained in the conservatory,” she said. “They were fully trained dancers to perform for royalty.”

      Flamenco music, on the other hand, originated from marginalized races in Andalusia—and particularly from those with Roma bloodlines who traced their roots back to northern India. They made their way across northern Africa before eventually residing in southern Spain.

      “In Vancouver, we have a very hybridized form of what we consider to be flamenco,” “La China” noted.

      This hybridity will be reflected in the performances at Granville Island. “La China” will perform with her company, Mozaico Flamenco. She noted that this opening act will also feature youths dancing solos alongside legendary septuagenarian choreographer Oscar Nieto. “He’s going to be singing the show, and then, if we’re lucky, he might dance a bit.”

      Kasandra "La China" savours flamenco's multicultural roots.
      Sanka Dee

      Mozaico Flamenco embraces cuadro flamenco, which goes back to 1850s-era Andalusia. After that, it’s Kani’s turn on-stage, followed by Jhoely Triana, who has a background in modern dance and ballet. According to “La China”, she’s also into salsa, samba, and Brazilian dancing in addition to flamenco. “So it will be interesting to see her try to do a full show of pure flamenco to contemporary flamenco,” she said.

      An hour later, Jafelin Helten & Friends will perform. “La China” said that Helten sings a form of Latin jazz with Cuban musicians, describing their music as “quite a bit of fusion” that includes bolero. “It actually takes on a whole celebratory Latin American flavour.”

      The weekend afternoons of flamenco at Granville Island will conclude with Bonnie Stewart & Friends. Stewart, like “La China”, has been dancing for two decades. According to “La China”, members of Stewart’s group are all protégés of the festival’s executive director, Rosario Ancer, who hails from Mexico and is one of the first-gen flamenco artists in the city.

      “La China” pointed out that very few members of B.C.’s flamenco community are ethnically Spanish. She traces her roots back to China, hence her name. Nieto is Mexican-American. Triana is Colombian Canadian, and Helten’s roots go back to Venezuela. Guitarists Peter Mole and Kani are Canadian

      The Spanish think that flamenco is theirs, “La China” said, whereas the Roma argue that it’s their art form.

      “The truth is it includes three different religions,” she said. “It includes Judaism; it has Catholic and Christian roots; and it also has Moorish and Arabic and Islamic roots as well.”

      The Vancouver International Flamenco Festival’s free performances take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (September 4 and 5) at the Picnic Pavilion stage at Granville Island. For more information, visit the website.