"El flamenco grita lo que mi alma calla". Though this colloquialism has no exact equivalent in English, the rough translation provided by the introductory speaker at the finale of the 2018 Chicago Flamenco Festival is, "Flamenco shouts what my heart keeps silent". Indeed, flamenco is not an affair for the faint of heart, as we are soon to discover.
Instituto Cervantes Chicago Transports Us to Spain
Originating in Southern Spain, flamenco is a traditional art-form that combines folkloric traditions from many disparate cultures. Over the past 200 years this Spanish region has acted as a melting pot for these traditions, producing what audiences around the world recognise as modern flamenco.
Opening the concert is Andrea Salcedo; Mexico’s first female flamenco guitarist. Bathed in a dramatic red backlight, the only source of light in the theatre, Andrea sits alone with her guitar. From the moment she begins, the audience are rapt. Her playing has all of the flair that one expects of flamenco music, while retaining a sort of intimacy that draws us in, hanging on her every note. She carries herself with an assurance that belies her youthful appearance, and her easy, conversational interjections between pieces serve to break down the barrier that can often exist between audience and performer.
She is soon joined onstage by her brother, playing the cajón (a percussion instrument of Peruvian origin), for what sadly proves to be her final contribution of the evening. The piece is at first dominated by the sharp, syncopated drumming of the cajón; giving the music a relentless drive. However, as the music develops, the drumming is so perpetually insistent that it begins to recede into the background, allowing space for the guitar to begin its exploration. Andrea’s playing has that improvisational quality that all great musical storytellers possess, and each meandering melody hangs briefly in the air, shimmering, before being quickly forgotten as we are carried along a new musical tangent of her choosing.
After the applause for the Salcedo siblings eventually dies away, a small, unassuming man in a well-worn leather waistcoat walks onstage and begins quietly noodling on a guitar. He settles on a chord of his liking, and without so much as a glance at the audience, he launches into a wildly virtuosic work for solo guitar, barely allowing us to catch our breath. This is Pepe Habichuela, one of the great living flamenco guitarists, who at 74 has lost little, if any, of his breathtaking dexterity. Like Andrea Salcedo, his playing has an off-the-cuff feel to it, but it’s immediately striking how different their sounds are. While Andrea favoured a rich, mellow tone, Pepe’s playing has a bite to it – an almost metallic edge – that instantly changes the atmosphere in the room. This is music of high-drama and high-stakes; there is an almost tangible sense of danger in the story his guitar tells.
The next artist whose presence we are graced by is Kiki Morente; singer, guitarist, composer, and son of legendary flamenco singer Enrique Morente. Kiki brings a rare charisma to the stage that makes him compelling viewing for the entirety of his performance. He begins with a keening lament, which brings to mind the Muslim call to prayer. His voice, like Pepe’s playing, has a distinct edge to it, cutting through the air like a knife. Non-spanish speakers, like this writer, may have worried that a lack of Spanish fluency would hinder our enjoyment, but if anything, it seems to add to the music’s exotic mystique.
The undoubted highlight of the evening comes when the pair are joined by Lakshmi “La Chimi” Guajira, an American flamenco dancer who travelled to Spain to perfect her craft. Shrouded in a blood-red shawl, La Chimi remains motionless at the center of the stage for what feels like an eternity, as Kiki intones a mournful refrain. Slowly the shawl is lowered, revealing her striking features, her hair pulled back tight to her head. A conversation unfolds, between singer and dancer, La Chimi slowly stalking Kiki across the stage. She moves with a deadly grace, every muscle taut, like a cobra ready to strike. As the tension builds, the highly stylized piece becomes increasingly sensual. Kiki’s singing suggests a subtext that is in turn mirrored by La Chimi’s movements.
For several moments after the piece reaches its climax, nobody moves; everybody afraid to break the spell. Eventually, the deafening silence gives way to applause; each person showing their gratitude for the unique sensory experience we had just received.
The Chicago Flamenco Festival is an annual event hosted by Instituto Cervantes Chicago. To find out more about next year’s festival and the ongoing cultural and educational events hosted by Instituto Cervantes Chicago bookmark the Instituto Cervantes Chicago website.
All photos courtesy of Instituto Cervantes Chicago and as credited above. Also, Kiki Morente photo in slider is by Marta Vila Aguila.
About the Author
Donal O'Shea is a musician and writer from Ireland. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Cork School of Music in 2016. Currently living in Chicago, Donal spends his time playing music, watching and playing sports, reading, writing, and exploring Chicago's restaurants and bars.