Thursday, June 5, 2014

Niño Josele - (self-titled)

Niño Josele
(self-titled), Sony BMG

Although many Americans having found their way to Ottmar Liebert, Jesse Cook, or Strunz & Farah via PBS specials or the purchase of a discount cd, it is lamentable to think that probably a good number of them stopped developing their understanding of what flamenco music is not long afterwards.  The trouble is that the above artists often don't use much of the flamenco traditions.  The "rumba" for example, a rhythm that is often associated with flamenco (and which Liebert, Cook, and S&F use to exhaustion), is actually a Cuban rhythm.  Although some pure flamenco guitarists *might* use it (surely, Paco de Lucia got worldwide attention secondary to his release of a rumba tune in 1976 called "Entre Dos Aguas"), it is known to be on the periphery of flamenco.  Alongside their severely limited use of true flamenco forms and rhythms is their severely limited hand techniques: despite the art being largely noted for complicated techniques utilizing the fingers (a variety of rasgueados, picado, golpe, alzapua) Cook and Strunz & Farah use guitar picks.  And so, the actual "flamenco experience" offered by the above artists is somewhat comparable to one thinking they know what Italian cuisine is, on the grounds that they just ate an Oscar Mayer "Lunchables" pizza combination.

The problem for New Wave, New Age, and neo-pseudo-quasi-flamenco guitarists is that one knows little of flamenco by a guitar alone.  Without the guitarist's counterparts of the cantaore (singer) and the bailaores (dancers), much of the guitar work lacks purpose.  The singers and dancers of flamenco give the guitar its true utilization, and these vocal and dance forms are a large part of the reason why there is such a solid and long-held tradition for the guitar.  The flamenco experience was about families, gathering together in their cave homes in Spain.  If you couldn't play guitar, you might play percussion; if not percussion, then perhaps palmeros (a rather sophisticated rhythmic accompaniment through clapping, often involving 2 different patterns played simultaneously by two or more people).  If not las palmas, perhaps you could sing, and if not singing, perhaps you could dance.  If you can't dance, well then... there are always dishes that need to be done.

Another consideration is that a good number of purest flamenco rhythms are based not in the 4 beats, as a rumba, but are understood as 12 beats -- a system referred to as Compás. The 12-beat forms often have subdivisions of 2's and 3's, and specific emphatic points within that, making it much more complicated than what New Wave flamenco artists often attempt.  So much of the true color of flamenco music is in these forms and the purpose of the forms to the art collective (musicians AND dancers AND singers).  For example, the Siguiriya is often considered a tune where the cantaore should pour out his or her most heart-breaking revelations and sorrows on living, and the structured progression of different parts that is traditionally in an Alegria (a different 12-based rhythm) is largely a formula that flamenco dancers know and are familiar with.

Other characteristics outside of the guitar-work include the singing style.  The "stressed" or broken sound in the voice bears an element of tonality, and also an element of fray or abrasiveness.  Although the historical reasoning for this being part of the flamenco tradition is plain to see (expansion and influence of the Umayyad empire and migration of the Romani people), it is uncanny how much the often-revered voice in flamenco is comparable to that of the styles of Pakistani Qawwali singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or Egyptian singers like Yasin al-Tuhami.  Look for yourself:

 Egyptian, Sheikh Yasin Al-Tuhami
 Pakistani, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
 Spanish, Duquende

 Referred to as "gorgorito," this fractured (or "gorged") yelling quality of the voice is sought after in children to inherit the vocal tradition.  It is also important to note that, like many folk traditions, the music is not so much about making sounds in accordance with perfect adherence to an algebraic principle, but rather that the passion, the execution, and the convincing sentience of the artist -- the communication of emotion -- is what is valued. As examples, much-loved flamenco cantaores like La Paquera de Jerez and José Mercé are seldom singing in tune with the guitar chords that surround their voice, but this is their style, and it is not seen as a drawback by very many:

If there's one thing to admire about the tradition of flamenco players, it is the unmasked sincerity in their expression -- which is what seems to be the most-rewarded characteristic by the audience.  Non-musical elements of emotion end up making it into the mix of the art, and it is not uncommon for the style of many singers to utilize a sobbing quality while transitioning through a series of notes.  Some examples are Enrique Morente and this Jesusy-looking dude (El Torta) in Carlos Saura's "Flamenco":

With all that in mind, Niño Josele is one who has proven himself to be both a strong bearer of the traditions of flamenco (via the now out-of-print album "Calle Ancha," back in 1995), and a notable pioneer.  This 2003 self-titled album shows his willingness to work with elements that have influenced flamenco in both the near and distant past -- namely Arabic culture and jazz. Many flamenco artists have been utilizing really dense jazz chords over the years, and the brilliant pianist/guitarist/jazzist producer Javier Limón has been passed around among flamenco artists more than a joint at a Led Zeppelin concert. On the other side of the influence scale, from the Arab world, one might say the whole history of flamenco music as it is owes its sound to the Arab world:

With the Umayyad expansion across north Africa and into Spain, they brought their instruments with them.
Umayyad expansion at its greatest, 661 - 750 AD

Of course, the Arabs didn't have a guitar, they had an oud: the fretless round-backed wonder of the Arab world.

So the Arabian term "al oud" got translated to Spanish as "La Oud,"; Europeans take La Oud (and some of the design) and make the fretted instrument called the "lute" -- which would eventually be the guitar.  There were many other luthier experiments in between, and at the same time, so it's hard to qualify a direct lineage.  The manufacture of the lute and guitar seems largely of Arabian origins, but the word guitar comes from the old Greek "kithara" -- even though the composition of a guitar resembles nearly nothing of the harp-like nature of it's ancient Greek namesake.  The seemingly most-immediate predecessor of the guitar was called the vihuela in Spain and Portugal, and it was essentially what you called a lute with a flat (or mostly-flat) back.  Notice that the tuning pegs of a vihuela are driven through the back of the headstock, and not from the sides.  This is unlike many modern guitars, and unlike the oud itself.  Flamenco guitars acquire this from its lineage of the vihuela, and I've even seen some luthiers here in Colorado building flamenco guitars with the pegs in this traditional fashion.

Put quite simply, every redneck raving about a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune's guitar solo should, in a way, thank an Arabian woodworker -- historically speaking.

In addition to physical woodworking or manufacturing history, another important Arabic element of flamenco (besides instrumentation, and besides singing styles) is the musical scales.  From its gypsy roots, flamenco artists have largely harped on what they call the "Freygish" scale, or phrygian dominant scale: a scale common to the musics of Persia, Greece, Jews, and the Arab world.  There are variations, but largely, the Freygish scale is one with a flattened 2nd, as well as a flattened and 6th and/or 7th.  Probably not by coincidence, one of the Arab world's most-played scales is a maqam (their equivalent term for a scale) called 'hijaz'.  Again, though there are variations, most variations of hijaz include the flattened 2nd, as well as a flattened 6th or 7th.  Aside from scales, consider the palmeros: those layered hand-clapping styles mentioned earlier.  A brief trip to the musics of Morocco can show you that there just might be some relationship between the palmero function in flamenco music, and the function of the qarkabeb (massive metal castanets) in Moroccan music.  Although the rhythms have different feels and lengths, their 'place' within the music is very similar.  Look for yourself:

Qarkabeb in Moroccan music of the Gnawa people.

Palmeros in Flamenco music of the Spanish people.

So then, ... it should be of little surprise that a flamenco artist, in messing around with influences, invites into his album both "modern" jazz tunes, as in this rendition of "Beautiful Love," re-titled, "Miel, canela y yerbagüena," with Israel Sandoval on electric guitar and Paquete on mandolin: well as old Moroccan folk rhythms, for a tune called Zawiya:

Some of the truer flamenco moments shine through on his self-titled album, including "Cosas de Amores," a tune with master vocalist Enrique Morente, citing words apparently by early 20th century Spanish poet Manuel Machado.  The song isn't performed without a touch of jazz sensibilities: Niño's solo fires through passages stunningly, utilizing the peculiarity of the whole-tone scale (starting at 53 seconds in this excerpt).  This is a scale utilized by Josele also in his 2001 release, "El Sorbo," with jazz producer Javier Limón:

Leaning on the more flamenco side of things is, "Llanto de Sal," which has wonderful moments of jazzy approaching chords and a wanderlust in its chord progression, as shown in this clip...

...and "Estirpe," a buleria featuring another wonderful cantaor, Guadiana:

Josele's experimentation with jazz would find him doing whole jazz albums, like "Paz" in 2007, which shows him working with a large portion of jazz pianist Bill Evans's repertoire.

Depending on which side of the fence you're on, the strength (or the fault) of Niño Josele's self-titled album may be that he worked so much out of the context of traditional flamenco.  This may be received as a problem for someone wanting a traditional repertoire from a great player, but one has to consider: all the new ideas that players might later incorporate into their tradition in a more natural way need to come from somewhere.  Certainly the success of Paco de Lucia's work "Cositas Buenas" with Javier Limon is an indication that audiences loved the new approach in the traditional context.  Perhaps then we should appreciate what the musical explorer does in their journey, and enjoy watching them go along their way, rather that cling to our own expectations of what their individual art is.  Besides, if the album seems too unapproachable... there's always Ottmar Liebert.

--Seth Premo