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.