Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who Are The Real Flamencos?



  It's a strange thing to pursue something that lies outside one's cultural experience.  If I decided to become a mariachi tomorrow, I'd have access to people that do it, that practice it, and that live it.  There's a big scene here in Tucson, and Mexico is about an hour down the highway.  I have grown up in a region of the U.S. that familiarizes me with mariachi culture just by virtue of  my being here.  Even in not knowing a thing about playing the instruments or the being able to recite most of the lyrics of their songs, I am drawn in when I hear a good quality ensemble, and I "get it."  I'm comfortable being in the middle of that culture.
  When I consider the present, I realize just how much of our lives Mele and me have spent seeking out flamenco and pondering the complexity of embodying it as outsiders.  I look around and see people who seem to be pretty convinced they've done just that, and I'm not saying they haven't, but speaking for myself, I'm not sure a journey toward legitimacy, in of itself, is a worthwhile venture, not without the right perspective.
  As we often discover in flamenco, there are dualities, contradictions, and sometimes, paradoxes.  One such paradox, in my view, is this practice of policing flamenco.  At this stage in the game, I'm a bit tired of looking around at the scene in this country and giving my personal opinions to friends and colleagues about who is and isn't flamenco.  In fact, I do my best to keep my mouth shut, if for no other reason than to keep the peace.  It's especially easy to refrain from judging when I consider how much I used to think I knew, only to discover how little I currently know.  So what is one left to do....watch as people come and go, doing with the name "flamenco" as they wish?
  This is where I see the paradox.  If I refrain from considering the quality and authenticity of that which comes in the name of flamenco, it seems I become guilty of complacency.  I see ignorance being sowed and reaped, and I see the exploitation of that ignorance.  How can I claim to love the art of flamenco while I do nothing to combat it's misuse?  If I do engage in considering the legitimacy of any given artist or performance however, I run the risk of presumption, convincing myself that I am some sort of authority on the matter. 
  As with most things, maybe we have to honestly reflect on our motivations.  It seems to me that we experience within ourselves a duality of motivations.  On one hand, we have the desire to be flamenco and to experience all the benefits that come with that distinction.  On the other hand, we (presumably) have a genuine affinity and/or love for flamenco.  These two motivations can find themselves at odds because we may not be certain which of these is being best served by our actions.  People will jealously protect their image and place as legitimate artists, whether or not they are truly flamenco.  Some want to be truly flamenco while others want to be seen as being truly flamenco.  It may seem an exaggeration to some, but there have been lawsuits over this kind battling and bickering.  The quarreling can be pathetic and the results can be ugly. 
  I think the best approach is to study and to lead by example.  Let's study to minimize our ignorance.  Let's lead by being good stewards of that knowledge and information and use it with benevolence and wisdom.  We can't stop others from using flamenco for personal gain, but we can shine to such a degree that there is an undeniable difference between the work that is valid and the work that is lacking.  A flamenco dancer from Sevilla, Torombo, has often said, "Flamenco es servir."  Study, work, serve others, be selfless, and you will be a real flamenco.     
        

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

This is how I can dance

by Mele Martinez

Thinking about, writing about, talking about this body
will numb me. 
I will be partially vacant
and this void will flicker  
tangling intangible me 
with woven corporeal.  

Even before birth
my aging instrument I played,
and somehow it is a stranger to me.  
I don’t know why.
Dancing, I can’t say that I really “feel”
this body.  I am aware of it, certainly
Yet it is non sense
at least, it is not how I feel 
the sun, my child, the waves, desire. 

This vessel is just that 
a home for me. 
Dancing, it breaks
And I burst through the cracks
Dancing, I don't command much. 
I don’t know how this works. 
I know that it happens.

In this way, my body
doesn’t matter too much.  The fact
that it exists is pretty important, but the form
it takes 
less so. 
I am short,
I am round,
I am crooked.
these descriptions fade into
empty. nothing.   

The meat is in the message– not the flesh. 
Not the fat. 
Not the things that might attract or disgust. 
This biology of me
is the runner, the gone-between me and you. 
The words.

And this is how

I can dance.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Be Still and Know..."

   

Flamenco doesn't stop because we do.  It goes on and grows and is reborn through generations, both old and young.  Though our lives are dotted with events that we consider distractions, or worse yet, tragedies, flamenco is ever-present, waiting like a loyal friend.  It doesn't demand anything other than what we demand of ourselves, and what you offer it, it gives back (and then some).
  A  mistake I've made is to see flamenco like a fruit which will one day over-ripen.  It may seem as though there is an ideal time to harvest it and take it into our being, and if we wait too long, that time will pass us by.  This goal-oriented thinking however, disregards the more important part of flamenco that truly feeds the soul: the process of being.  Who I am today will surely change with each passing moment, and these moments will inform my flamenco experience as much as flamenco, in turn, informs my life.
  Mele and I have had life-changing moments this past year in droves.  Our baby girl, Gloria, was born in March.  Our dear friend and flamenco guitarist, Ricardo Anglada, suffered a stroke at age 29 and despite an initially bleak diagnosis, has come back to do things he was not supposed to be able to do.  I've had to put off developing flamenco skills to work a 40 hour week and finish my undergrad degree online at night.  These events are packed with lessons and experiences to draw from, and the change in us will cause change in our understanding of flamenco whether or not we are able to be in the studio 8 hours a day.
  Our current state has caused growth for Mele and I in many ways.  Mele has taken over teaching for a few sessions now, and she is settled back into something she had been away from for quite awhile.  It has added a depth to her art and renewed her enthusiasm for the creative process which is a driving force in her journey.  I've experienced a surprisingly rewarding mixture of humility and intellectual stimulation which has taken my focus toward developing a deeper love for flamenco.  We've both looked to Ricardo's hardships and have recognized them as flamenco in of themselves, living, breathing and struggling while speaking truth.  We are inspired by his unshakable climb back into the light, all the while experiencing the very discovery of the light and all it reveals through the eyes of our sweet baby girl.
  There are many things which are obvious characteristics of flamenco such as the energy, the sound, and the humanity.  What we're seeing today however, are those things which are much more subtle than all that, so much so that they're easy to miss.  Flamenco is as much in the hospital room as it is on the stage.  Flamenco is as present in the lonely moments of the work day as it is in a juerga with friends and family.  Flamenco doesn't stop because we do, and it doesn't cease to be a part of our lives because it can't, though we may seek to distance ourselves from it.  Flamenco is the story of the gift of life that God has granted us all.  May our ears be opened so that we may listen and comprehend it.  May we be still and
know.  (see Psalm 46:10)      
                   

Monday, February 11, 2013

Those Steps To Come


By Mele Martinez

I’ve seen a phenomenon of fearlessness in many young people, but I’m pretty sure that I never suffered from that condition.  I was born scared.  Ask anyone who knew me as a kid, and they will confirm it.  I was always scared to jump in the pool, scared to go down the slide, scared to ride my bike down the hill.  What I considered being cautious was actually an unwillingness to “go for it.”  In essence, I was a big baby. 

When it came time for me to stop being the baby and actually have a baby of my own, things got chaotic.  As Jason and I found out that we were going to have our first child, Lola, the fear that had always lived in me played itself out like a drum set.  I had horrible nightmares.  I had daily anxiety.  I was terrified of carrying, bearing, and rearing a kid.  I know I’m not alone in experiencing this phenomenon.  Even for the most adventurous woman, becoming a mom is pretty scary stuff.

Likewise, flamenco can be pretty scary for me too.  Though I’ve never been completely disabled by a fear of dance or being on stage (ironically enough), I face the challenge the art form presents to each and every artist. Sometimes, choosing to do flamenco can feel like you’ve dropped yourself into foreign waters without a life preserver.  And though teaming with the most amazing and beautiful creatures, forces, and experiences, those waters can look pretty dark from shore.

As most of you probably know, Jason and I have drifted from yet another shore.  We are about to have our second child.  The fact that this one comes nearly nine years after our first should be testament alone to the kind of fears I’ve had about being a mom.  But the way in which we came to have this child is not the same nightmare-riddled encounter that we had the first time.  Things are different this time, and I want to tell you why.

I have something now that I didn’t have much of just years ago.  I have something now that makes everything unlike before.  Somehow and somewhere through this past decade I have acquired a glorious thing – faith.  Even though I knew Jason and I weren’t in a financial situation to have another baby, even though I knew I was getting older and there could be complications, and even though I knew it would probably turn our day to day lives upside down, I knew we could have another baby.  I had faith that God would see us through it – from beginning to end.  Jason and I made the decision to go out on this shaky limb – not because we were looking to fall, but because out on a limb is where the fruit is.  Someone was talking to my heart, and wouldn’t let up.  I listened this time, and instead of walking away with my tail between my legs, I accepted the proposal.  In just a few weeks, we get to see that proposal in the flesh – in the form of a baby girl.

As joyous as this whole thing is, I don’t want to begin to sugar coat it.  Though I’m very happy to be expanding our family, I’m not exactly walking on pillowy clouds all day.  In fact, walking has literally become one of my biggest challenges.  Now that I am pregnant, it seems like every single step counts for so much more than it used to.  Each step is either a testament to my strength or an example of my imbalance.  These days, I think twice about every step I take; I pay so much more attention to it than I ever have.  If I could be dancing right now, I know that each of those steps would take such careful consideration, I might not be able to do more than the simplest of movements.  But isn’t that the labor of flamenco for everyone? 

When we step out onto the stage or into the studio, we have already made the decision to go out on that limb.  It took courage just to take that first step.  Then, when we begin to move or play or sing, we have to make split second decisions about how much we will keep under our control, and how much we will risk.  The balance, when found, is such a sweet and savory thing to behold.  I’ve seen dancers do it.  I’ve seen singers and musicians do it.  It is such a miracle in the making that I often weep with adoration for the artist who can take care of each step and still manage to take risks.  It proves their faith, and faith is a wondrous thing to watch in action.

In about a year, when this new daughter of ours starts to take her own, I hope to teach her to carefully choose her steps and to exercise the wisdom of a seasoned chess player with each move she makes.  But I also hope to teach her that sometimes she will need to do more than take steps on solid ground; she will need to realize that fear can literally cripple her, but that afflictions can be relinquished by leaping out boldly in faith.  Her reward, I know, will be sweet. I relish in the promise of those baby steps to come, and the proof that faith is for everyone.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Enter His Gates With Thanksgiving...."

by Jason Martinez

Today is the day before Thanksgiving, 2012.  I feel elated and joyful upon pondering what the real meaning of this holiday represents, yet I can't escape a sense of humility bordering on sadness, which is even now setting in.  I do wish to make it known however, that this sadness is a positive thing, because it springs from a source of everlasting truth; I am blessed beyond all that is reasonable or even fathomable.

  Whatever happens from this moment until the end, I can say with a true sense of amazement that I have found that which has captured my imagination and have been honored, probably even commissioned, to learn it, to live it, and to impart it.  Flamenco is something that exists in a different hemisphere; something which comes to our side of the world in its pure form, not easily digested but alluring all the same.  Why on earth should I be in Tucson, AZ teaching, studying, and indulging in an art form so far removed from its birthplace?  The answer is two-fold: grace and mercy.  I say "grace" because I've done nothing to deserve access to such an abundant source of soul sustenance.  I say "mercy" because what I have, in fact, earned is a fool's inheritance, a fate I've been spared.

  It's incredibly easy to complain as an artist and as a flamenco.  It makes one feel somehow justified and unique, as though we've undertaken some righteous cause that no one understands or appreciates.  We can start to feel like unrecognized geniuses, so full of art that our very existence is a work in of itself, colored and textured with irony, pain, and profound complexity.  Why no recognition?  Why so much work and no compensation?  These are things I'm ashamed to say have run through my mind, and I know I'm not alone.

  Perhaps it's to our benefit to take a few steps back, wipe away the tears, and see clearly what we have before us.  We have a connection to the rest of the world that no one could have predicted just decades ago.  We are able to experience the art and the artists right before our faces in our own hometowns.  We have many opportunities to learn from them and to transplant flamenco here, so that it becomes part of our culture and part of us.  With love and cultivation, this art takes root in our soil and flourishes.  Anything else we gain in addition to these things is the proverbial cherry on the sundae.

  Some of us will develop strong skills in this.  Some will gain fame and maybe a little money to go with it, and in rare cases, a career.  Some will earn artistic respect and acclaim from their peers.  Some will go through their flamenco journeys with very little growth and a good deal of frustration.  Each one of them should be full of gratitude.  This is my plea to the reader, and a reminder to myself.  We can't take joy in this endeavor without a grateful heart and a renewed mind.  Recognize your blessings and use this awareness to feed your art, your soul, and each other.  Anything outside this is a useless waste of time.  Happy Thanksgiving and God bless.

Monday, July 30, 2012

"Count the Cost"

by Jason Martinez


What makes a successful flamenco studio?  What makes a successful flamenco artist?  No, seriously, I'm asking.  To be both is one of our greatest challenges.  I have answers in my head that sound right, but I wonder sometimes if they are my answers or someone else's.  One thing I feel fairly certain of is that there is an even bigger question to be pondered; one that encapsulates both questions: What does it mean to live a life of integrity?



What characteristics are necessary to describe the person of integrity?  If we can just get to the heart of that question, it seems we may find some clarity.  Until then, we have to consider the banter going on around us.  Some would have us believe that the ability to be a businessman and a flamenco artist simultaneously is an illusion.  One can label oneself as he or she pleases, but ultimately we gravitate toward that which our inner-most desire dictates, though this is likely a subtle, even unconscious shift.  We choose money or credibility.  We choose popularity or respect.  One could argue there are but a handful of people who ever achieve all of these.  We are led to believe that sooner a later, a line must be drawn, and we will have to make a choice. 



It seems a compelling argument.  Sometimes it's as though we're explorers seeking to prove or disprove the existence of this elusive flamenco ideal that we've heard so many stories about.  We've met folks that could be said to be successful both financially and artistically, but because we don't interact with them regularly, I don't trust we know the full story, behind the scenes.  Is the person satisfied on both fronts, or do they still feel an internal tug of war going on?  I feel that at this point, Mele and I understand enough about flamenco and the American mind to run a successful studio.  We know enough about the art of flamenco to be successful as artists.  We are on the same page regarding our goals.  We have sampled enough of what life has to offer to know what we want and what we don't want.  This helps, but until we've explored both the charted and uncharted territories, we'll never know if this fusion of freedom and security is a reality or a myth.



We are in the midst of a great experiment, which entails great risk, all to find out if this dream could be a reality.  We've knocked around ideas and have done our best to be open-minded about the possibilities.  We've taken advantage of free business consultations, and indulged the advisers words to us even if they could find no root in our hearts.  It has seemed the only rational choice is to refer back to our mission statement to stay grounded.  Anything that violates it cannot be considered.  It states: "Our mission is to offer students the most authentic flamenco experience possible in the studio, on the stage, and through the culture of flamenco."  For anyone who doesn't already know this, it's quite a task to stay true to one's values when you're also concerned with putting food on the table.  This can be especially true when considering our culture: the Great Melting Pot.  Who of us can say we've experienced genuine culture here without some catering to the masses taking place?  It's as though homogenization pervades everything sooner or later.  Do we have to trick students into appreciating and listening to cante? 



At the end of the day, it seems living the life of integrity has to be the reward in and of itself.  I don't buy the idea that this necessitates a life of struggle, but I do believe most people committed to this will struggle often.  But don't we all struggle consistently with something?  Perhaps we choose the struggle we dislike the least, and take comfort in the fact that we've counted the costs and made a decision.  It could be that our freedom to choose is a luxury we can't underestimate.  We don't know if all our business efforts will yield the type of financial success we would need to make our studio a worthwhile venture, but if we consider our studio a worthwhile venture for reasons beyond that which is seen, we're guaranteed success no matter which way the wind blows.  No matter what happens, we can be thankful that we are able to do what we love.  It's easy to say we should be thankful, but if we understand thankfulness as an action rather than a feeling, much like love, we are rewarded the very moment we act.  In this moment, we are granted a perspective which opens our eyes to see things as they are, but it only happens when we trust not in ourselves, but in Him.



 "For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it-- lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish."  Luke 14:28-30


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Callejón Flamenco


by Mele Martinez

The last few months have been a flurry of flamenco madness – workshops, travel, shows, performances, artists, photo shoots, parties, patadas, flamenco, flamenco, flamenco!  It has been so many blessings in such a short amount of time, I can barely wrap my mind around all that I’ve seen and felt for weeks now.  It’s a problem I like to have! The best part is that it is not over – we have some wonderful things to look forward to just on the horizon.  Though not long ago it seemed we might actually have to rethink our dreams of a flamenco studio in Tucson, God has instead taken us in a new (and better) direction.  While we make plans, He gets the last word – just as it should be.

The biggest flamenco project that Jason and I have worked towards in the last couple of months was the renovation of our studio.  Actually, we can finally now call it a studio!  Before, in all honesty, it was just an old garage/storage space with little hope of inspiring the creative expression flamenco demands.  We studied there, we taught there, and we grew as artists in that old space, true.  But it needed serious work.  I’m convinced our practice was hindered by the horribly uneven floor, cluttered pilings of our studio belongs, cracked mirrors, mix-matched awkward furniture, unruly electrical lines . . . well, you get the picture.   But things have changed.  And change can be very good.

We cleaned the slate of that old garage, and with the help of some great people, we were able to transform it to a simple and lovely place to study what we do - flamenco.  The ironic thing is that this pleasing new studio looks so much different now on the inside even though it is exactly the same on the outside.  Right outside the door, absolutely nothing about the place has ever been impressive, and it still isn’t.  Our door opens to an alley that is unkept, and many of the buildings lining it (along with dumpsters) are covered with graffiti and littered with broken glass.  Paper trash and alley cats meander down the path.  The cratered road of the alley is not inviting, and many times, neither are the individuals who walk that road late at night, early in the morning, and even in the heat of the mid-day.  Any business-minded person would tell us that our location is not ideal for attracting anyone – especially women.  And yet, it is the location that we have been given.   It was definitely not the kind of location we had in mind when we planned for a studio, but it has been God’s answer.  And knowing that, I also know that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.

I haven’t always felt that way.  I’ve gotten very frustrated in the last few years with the state of our alley.  I’ve called 911 more times than I care to admit.  I can’t stand the look, the sound, or the smell of that alley.  And no matter how hard I’ve tried to figure out how to make it different – how to “beautify it” - I’ve had to take a deep breath and realize… there are some things you just can’t change. 

I can’t change my face, I can’t change my color, and I can’t change most of what people see when they look at me.  But I can be renewed inside.  I can clean the slate, I can get rid of the clutter, sweep out the dust, and make a new, simple, and satisfied person on the inside.  I can do that.  Sometimes we don’t get what we ask for; sometimes we just get what we get, and what we get can be the beginnings of something wonderful, something true, and something special just to us.

Maybe God wants us doing flamenco in a dark alley.  Maybe we are supposed to be bringing that light, that rhythm, that smell of sweat and fresh paint and newly stretched guitar strings to a place where no one would have ever thought to put them.  Maybe this is what flamenco is all about - abrasive outside, spirit inside.