Sunday, January 4, 2015


 So the cliches go:
 It's a modern world. A little one. Interconnected. A global village.
 The iPhone the guy across the restaurant from me in Granada is tapping on is the same as mine. When the Venezuelan waiter brings me a glass of Rioja I gradually parse out, in my non existent Spanish and his broken English, the same terms any sommelier in the States would use to describe a good vintage.
  We do the same stuff. We dress the same. We shop the same. We hang together on a giant electric web, a nervous system for the lonely and the ambitious that takes the same texts the same emails the same emoticons, likes, vines and grinders the world over.
  Languages themselves are beginning to seem now almost like currency. Pre-euro. Quaint in their differences from country to antiquated country.
  But ….there are those things….those ways... which don't cross borders. Deep habits. Practices so culturally dyed into the skin they're hard to reproduce.
  Watch a Japanese team unload your luggage.
  Sit in a Gospel church in the States.
  Sit in an English stadium and listen when they take a moment of silence.
  Listen to a Russian recite a poem.
  Racist? I don't know..
  Listen to a Spaniard, well a Romany, play Flamenco.
  Very different.
  One could risk saying singular.
  If there's a practice, a habit, a way of life, an art form that to me doesn't "travel" it's flamenco.
  A kind of guitar playing? Folk music? A primitive thing?
  Put it this way: I had a guy tell me once that if what the Gypsy Kings play is "flamenco" than the shit you took this morning is the french cuisine you had last night at Daniel.
  I just got back from Spain - most of the trip spent in Andulasia - Flamenco's heartland and the experience made me dig around and find something I wrote down on a page and in my heart nearly a decade ago.
   One night - 2006 I listened to three professional guitarists talk - one a classical player who Id known at Juilliard, the other two his pals- talk about the best in the business, the players they admired most, and the ones who they wish they could have heard live, for hours in language I could only vaguely understand (major disclosure I PLAY NOTHING) and I was so transfixed by their segues, their emotional outbursts I took notes- Hendrix of course came up, a few delta blues legends, Richard Thompson they marveled at, Robert Cray, Sharon Isbin, and a series of session folks and classical legends Id never heard of- they swept out and talked about Sitar players, about odd one-stringed African banjos with tonal variety they didn't think possible, they talked about Oboes and bagpipes and why it's so hard to find a great balalaika player- and way at the far end of the conversation when I felt like it was okay to toss a question in and take the abuse I asked "What about the flamenco guys?" And they all, as one, more or less threw up their hands-
    "Oh forget it, what they do you can't even try. I mean maybe if you'd been kidnapped and grew up with a family but there's shit going on in there nobody but them can even HEAR."
   Can even hear?
   Oh you feel it, but you don't know what you're hearing.
   Wait what if like with what happened to Coltrane's solos there was some maniac who took a recording of the best flamenco players and transcribed it note by note? Couldn't you "figure it out" then?
   "Well first of all, recorded flamenco is not really flamenco. That's like saying the film of a tiger is a tiger. Im drunk- anyhow- it's a LIVE art form. Or it's a way of living that just happens to occasionally come out as "art". You can listen to it sure on tape and it can be amazing but it's mind blowing in person- I mean for a guitarist. A person who's a guitarist. But all that …phenomena aside…no you couldn't transcribe it all….I don't think. There's stuff I hear them do and I can't tell you what they're playing, seriously I can't tell what strings they're hitting. You hear me? There are only 12. For real, there are Django recordings no one can play. People have been listing to them for 80 years and nobody can play them. Nobody. And those are 6 minute songs, max. There are systems within systems, loops of tonal forms in Flamenco that repeat and half repeat and echo each other over and complete themselves in time registers and get mixed up in the time registers of the singers and the dancers and the next dancer and then there are the microtones created by the collision of all of them....there's no way to describe. It's geological man."
   Now yes this is me David Conrad writing dialogue - and right off let me say again I do not play the guitar-  but I can see this guy talking to me in New York in Swift's bar down near the Bowery 8 years ago. I can hear him. It stuck because he was saying stuff I didn't think could be true. And maybe some of it isn't. But it's brilliant. It stuck in my head because at the end of his speech he was crying.
   So I asked other people. Other musicians. Some don't know any more about Flamenco than you or I. Some say it's just great folk music. But the ones who've studied it treat it like it's - and I can't think of another word- otherworldly. That it comes from the same place that unicorns and Atlantis come from. Or where women lift up the car about to squash their kid and monks sit under freezing waterfalls all day. It doesn't add up. It's not a question of practice. Which I imagine to a musician must be like saying "I'm sorry you can't drink out of this fountain."
  So in our modern terminology wtf?
  So here goes- from my notes, from what they said, from what I've fashioned into sense, what Ive been told and since it's about a live thing we're talking about, a living thing, I thought you should hear this like I did. Out loud.  

   "Empirically yes, sure you could notate the music- a flamenco performance and there's a machine I'm sure could sonically imprint the notes and the counter tones etc and reproduce that as notation or even sound but in this music it's not simply what's being played which is mad genius enough it's why and when and how often it changes keys and rhythms and switches time sequences and doubles back on itself - it's not like Tchaikovskys violin concerto, which was originally thought unplayable, but which is THERE right?- it exists as an edifice you can figure out. 
  Imagine - okay and this is with a very good flamenco performer- a great one of which there are more than a few- you're hearing something at the level of the Tchaikovsky concerto, hearing that the week it came out, every single night. Every night. For years. 
   Listen to a great American guitarist that everyone knows and for your sake we'll chose a rock n roller: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Pick one of his best solos say the one in Dirty Pool where he strums at like 100 mph and all he's doing is changing chords and it sounds like he's humming you know humming the whole history of the blues- that's good guitar in 2D. 
  Flamenco is great guitar in 4D.
  I'll try to explain that and yeah I skipped 3D- let's call 3D what we imagine the cello or viola solos were like in the late baroque period or Coltrane at his best and a lot of folks will argue that great jazz lives at the same- many would say deeper- level than flamenco but I'd argue the exception.
   Coltrane or Ornette Coleman or Roland Kirk weren't playing for anyone. And by that I don't mean they didn't have an audience or didn't care about them what I mean is the flamenco guitarists play for  the dancers and the singer on stage with them. They tell a story together.
   It's a truism or a natural inclination to think this accompaniment issue would reduce the complexity of Flamenco the way ballet and opera orchestration aren't what we call the heights of "music" - Stravinsky the giant exception, sorry Igor- music fades in the hot house of narrative, it's not a denotative art, it doesn't play well with story. 
  But here's this Spanish - Islamic- Southern Indian- Jewish guitar stuff that's as primal as the bagpipe or Senegalese drumming and yet it thrives inside the little house built by a couple dancers and the story they tell. Somehow- contrary to usual musical logic Flamenco actually needs its narrative "other". 
    It's weird. But I'll go there. And I'll tell you straight out a lot of musicians won't follow me:
    A) because maybe this is what theater originally was. What it is or should be. The Ancient Greek theater was sung. So was the Indian. The chorus was on the stage. Those fricking boots the they wore the kothornai musta made some noise... What if that stuff- Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophones, the Maharabata- what if that drama was what the posh people went to see and the real shit was happening out at the edge of the woods with the servants and the slaves and the outcasts singing and dancing a people's ancient drama? And what if flamenco is the great and astonishing echo of that kind of thing? The thing we say drama should be able to achieve but rarely does.
    B) because the flamenco instrument is not the guitar. 
     The flamenco instrument is the guitar plus the feet of the dancers plus their hands clapping plus their voices. All of it. That's the musical instrument. Separate them and they die. You can wrap them up and package them you can them release as DVDs so people can have candlelit dinners on the Upper East Side with an appropriately seductive soundtrack, you can have outdoor sunlit festivals where fans eat lunch on a towel and clap at a 2/4 beat and have their cell phones handy to check up on- but ....
   You know after the first 6 moves of a chess game the potential moves after that are in the millions? 
   So with Flamenco u have like 50 palos- 50 forms of musical approach. Of which like 12 or 14 are played regularly. But if I have 12 strings and 19 Frets and four feet and four hands and two voices all of which can produce polyrhythms and tonal variations in reaction... How many moves you think we got there? 
    C) Flamenco songs- the works of art that are Flameco- are years long. Decades long. The "songs" are the successive performances of the players and the dancers- which yes have their tropes and systems- but it's the living interaction that expresses itself into music that is the tapestry we have to follow. 
   The Japanese call their finest performers and artists "living treasures". That's the lens you have to bring to flamenco- that's the paradigm. 
  And oddly enough as fetishized as flamenco is it hasn't been studied from this angle. Probably because people think it's an esoteric way to look at art or they think it's racially exclusive- that we're- I'm- exoticizing them- there aren't real metrics for the wider genius of Flamenco.
    It doesn't sit still long enough I suppose- or you'd have to compare the recordings or the performances over decades. Folks get it on certain terms and then move on. 
  So if it's a question of hearing, am I saying you'd have to be "one of them" to figure it out? IE you have to be black to really get Gospel or you have to be Russian to understand Ahkmatova? 
   I just think it's situational - Flameco culture has maintained a level of apprenticeship/ a truly unusual tradition of learning by rote by hand at the knee of someone else for centuries that very few cultures support these days. It just doesnt happen. We don't let it happen. We think it's crazy or ...primitive. 
   Do u have to BE Romani to be a great Flamenco artist? No. But you either have to be a one in a million genius like De Lucia or you have to tie yourself to a great player at a very young age and NEVER STOP. 
  We don't let that happen as a culture much anyone ...unless....unless the societal reward excuses the antisocial price- Midori practices 10 hours a day till she's 17- does she have a "normal" life? But she's an affirmed word class violinist playing music upper class people the world over pump millions into. 
  Archie Manning turns his three sons into a BF Skinner experiment to prove a point - are those "normal guys"? Does anyone care when we see them titles and millions? 
  You latch your child at age 8 say - if u wanna start late- latch them to a Spanish Gypsy in a foreign country - allowing the child to be surrounded by a culture that is seen by the world as quasi criminal, poverty stricken, not law abiding, misogynist, uneducated and you let them do little else but And what's the pay-off? Carnegie Hall?
  Who's gonna have your back there? Where are the societal pillars to support that decision? 
   Flameco is a sonic expression of exclusion. Art by outcasts. Those often labeled criminals. The unclean. It's pre-industrial, it's unproductive, it's violent, it's "sexist", it's dangerous really - it's the voice of all that's been pushed to the perimeters, the banlieus, the Sacramontes of our world. It still is. 
   It's a core sample of a people's resistance to mass culture, to societies that have hounded and pushed the Romani about the globe for centuries and to the demands made all the more firmly on all of us that we confirm buying and selling and renting and measuring, defending and conquering as the central senses of our being. 
  Flamenco is a simple man's Critique of Pure Reason. It's Kant by The Who. 
   And yeah I'm idealizing this "other", these people on the periphery who still make this music… doing so do I need them to be on the periphery? 
   Would Edward Said have said I'm orientalizing? And then say the same thing I did and say it's okay cause he's "from there"? 
   I don't know.
   But I feel what I'm saying is true. I feel it. 
   And ask any Flameco or Flamenca what the key to their work is - beyond playing every day since they could stand-  which to them really isn't practice so much as a condition of being and they'll say "You must feel it , here." 
  When that Voyager spacecraft got sent off beyond the Galaxy and they recorded whales and English and Urdu and Beethoven and Chuck Berry they shoulda sent some flamenco up there too. Having heard that any alien would've said "Now there's a people worth meeting." Or leaving alone huh?
  I think whales would like Flamenco. They'd get it. The feet like their constant clicks, the drone of the guitar like their hidden voices. Yeah. And wolves. 
   Although both species are so much kinder than we are - they'd miss the cruelty. In the beauty. Or vice versa. 
   Lucky I guess.
  He cried right around the selling and renting part. We'd had a lot to drink.
Greatness is exhilarating to be around. And exhausting. I always think of that scene in Searching For Bobby Fischer when Ben Kingsley goes into the young boys room ….he looks at the "mess" that are the boy's toys on the floor ...and steps carefully around them. Like there's some pattern in the scatter only a genius could figure out. 


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  4. Hello, I am Isabel, aged 47, from Portugal, and why not coming here, as you are so close?
    We have an ancient history to tell: from the discovery and dividing of the world, (did you know that we have a true Romeo and Juliet love story - Pedro and Ines in a town called, Coimbra) to our language spoken all over the place, portuguese are almost everywhere.
    Food, fado and Fatima are tourism marks, which are very well known abroad (as well as CR- Cristiano Ronaldo, our football player).
    As you, I am also very proud of my hometown - Porto.
    Hope to see you here, when you can.
    Have a nice stay in Europe and have a safe trip back.
    It was really a pleasure to write to you.
    Wish you a Good 2015 and that the Kings Day, that we celebrate tomorrow (and it was my grandmother´s birthday), make all your wishes come true.

  5. Wonderful to see you writing so much these days! I can't tell you how much it makes my day to see a new post on your blog.

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  7. Oh boy!
    Unstoppable on music and especially flamenco...
    See? That makes you a musician too, but at heart if you can't play.
    You can feel frustrated yet you serve the art just as well by supporting it with the passion it expresses (and you express).

    True, flamenco can be seen as a "shared 3-some expression of passion".
    As many amazing music "types", you'd have the same sort of cultural transmission with the so called "gipsy-jazz".
    The cultural wrap is likely a great matter to be a good player of these musical arts, just as well as the practice is.
    These two types of music require maestria in terms of dexterity, just like the violonists you mentioned, and you need to truly allow your soul to be transported to your hands/voice/body - and I mean a totally unleashed soul, with all the emotions running out, as if you were making a dance impro under drugs and on some tribal drums.

    Now to understand it, I still believe you should mostly have an open mind, open heart, be sensitive to music and let it hit you, like any painting for instance.
    Art should not HAVE to be understood in any intellectual way to be received and understood on an emotional level. Allow art to touch you at heart & soul, then go find out more about it and love it even more...
    Would you agree with that?

  8. Others have spoken about things that convey the portuguese essence.
    I will leave just this - the voice a 12 string guitar, speaking of memories and longing, in a language that does not require words or translation. All you need is to be silent, and listen with your soul.