By Mike Zwerin
SEBASTIAN, SPAIN, 23 August 2002 - It has been said, only partly
tongue in cheek, that you have to love misery to be moved by flamenco.
Something similar was said about the tango. Whereas Astor Piazzolla's
new tango was influenced by Gil Evans, Duke Ellington and Stravinsky,
what is called "new flamenco" uses such crossover elements
as drummers, improvising horns, altered chords, blues form and
prominently mixed bass-guitar.
About the same time as new
flamenco began to flower in the late 1970s, "Jazzaldia," the
San Sebastian Jazz Festival, started to display Basque-language
posters identifying this dignified city only as Donostia, its Basque
name. It was no coincidence. Both events occurred after the death of
General Franco, as Spain democratized. Minority languages such as
Basque had been banned, and the dictator's regime had discouraged pop
culture. In the early 1980s, with the new social openness, Jazzaldia's
promotion became bi-lingual and, thanks largely to the distributor and
record company Nuevos Medios, new flamenco, a predominantly Gypsy
endeavor, burst onto the world stage.
Celebrating its 20th
birthday, Nuevos Medios has released Coleccion, an eight
volume best of selection from their catalogue. (Already available in
Spain, they will be distributed in Western Europe in September.)
Members of its stable of musicians - including Tomatito, Carles
Benavent, Ketama, Pata Negra and Diego Carrasco - were featured during
the 37th Jazzaldia last month.
"The company was founded
by Mario Pacheco in Madrid in 1979. His partner, the late David
Fernandez Miro, convinced his grandfather the painter Joan Miro to
design their logo. "It's an original," Pacheco said. "Not
just a piece of some other painting. It's one of the last things he
did. I'm very proud of it. You know, when you are involved with
flamenco, you have the feeling that the music is more spiritual food
than a product. It's like a language getting passed on from one
generation to another. New flamenco has not grown at American speed.
Everything goes more slowly in Spain. But you have to remember that 20
years ago, flamenco was just one Gypsy singing with an acoustic guitar
and maybe some hands clapping. Now it has become a real music that can
be played on all kinds of instruments by any musician anywhere."
Bass-guitarist Carles Benavent, among the most popular and
influential of Nuevos Medios's artists, also composes using a pallet
including electronic and folk (mandola, steel drums) colors. Benavent
has recorded with Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Gil Goldstein, and
Peter Erskine and others. Benavent and, on the following evening, the
African-French bassist Richard Bona both spotlighted the electric bass
through a world music spectrum; further evidence of the instrument's
current revival. Corea, whose tasteful solo piano set opened for the
Nuevos Medios all-stars, stayed to sit in with "my friends."
They danced together.
Other concerts featured Elvin Jones,
Dave Douglas, Charles Lloyd, Misha Mengelberg and Abdullah Ibrahim.
Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and his "Rhythm Kings,"
including such aging English rockers as guitarist Alvin (Ten Years
After) Lee and Georgie Fame on organ, played blues written by Little
Walter and Muddy Waters and such early R&B hits as "You Put A
Spell On Me" and were obviously overjoyed to be mining their
roots. The festival closed with James Brown's patented combination of
volume, funk and vulgarity. His famous groove ("I Feel Good")
was constructed by two drummers, percussion, two electric basses,
three electric guitars, four horns, five singers, and two female
dancers draped in and out of American flags. The audiences for both
Wyman and Brown included a high percentage of Spaniards in their 40s
and 50s. A local journalist explained that, because of the Franco
regime, people in this age group had largely been bypassed by the
heyday of rock in the 1960s and 1970s and they were still busy
Pacheco said that on the other hand, the
audience for new flamenco is growing younger: "When we started,
not even young Gypsies listened to flamenco. It was only old people in
the south of Spain, and tourists. From my experience as a distributor,
I find that our audience is now even younger than that for independent
rock. Young Spanish musicians are influenced by Carles Benavent like
he was influenced by Jaco. Twenty years ago, when the new flamenco was
born in the Gypsy quarters of Jerez and Seville, most of those guys
couldn't read or write - words, I mean. They started by playing
battered up old instruments they found in the street or in the
"The social jump for the most successful ones
has been tremendous - from not having enough to eat to owning two
Mercedes. They have been playing at international festivals in France
and the Benelux countries, but flamenco is often too expensive by
world music standards. Their price is higher than others playing world
music because the new flamenco is so popular in their own country."
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock
critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years.
He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin
is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair"
for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of