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. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"...With Humility Comes Wisdom"

As stated in our last blog, Mele and I took a trip up to Phoenix in April with great excitement.  We would be seeing Paco de Lucia with his ensemble that night.  First of all, it was to be my first time seeing him live, and second, here in Tucson we rarely have the opportunity to see high level flamenco, direct from the source.  We were enthusiastic to put it mildly, and not without reason.  As we'd expected, it was a very satisfying show, but this trip was to be more than just a night out.

  It was truly a full day's event due to the fact that Farru, of the famous/infamous Farruco family dynasty, was offering a workshop that Tuesday morning.  I must say however, before going on about that, that I admit experiencing some apprehension going into that day.  Farru is a young man, with somewhat of a history here in the southwestern United States.  He has made an impression on many a person here, in the way that teenage, talented, good-looking boys with fame and money tend to impress people.  See Webster's Dictionary for a full and accurate definition of the word "impress".

  I've never met anyone or heard from anyone that has studied with Farru before.  I imagined a workshop of his to be fast paced, nuanced, and complex, as I think most people who have seen him dance would likely have been led to believe.  Would he be teaching or simply patronizing us?  At the end of the day, would I take away a nugget of wisdom, or perhaps some new tool that would inform the rest of my flamenco studies?  The good news is that he did indeed impart some valuable information to us, or at least, I can speak for myself in saying that I am already a better flamenco now than I was before his workshop.

  I've been taught before that day that growth in flamenco isn't hoarding material, like a dense falseta, a new step, or some rapid-fire tongue-twister of a letra.  It's humbling the self enough to go back to the beginning to see if we really understand what we have assumed we understood.  Perhaps it may be the mere layering of a simple concept of which we had some limited grasp.  Amusingly, as a side note, this very idea itself qualifies under its own definition, or in other words, I'd understood this idea before listening to Farru's words, and my understanding itself has become layered in the same way one might layer a simple dance step.  He spoke words I've heard before, but I came to understand them in new ways.

  I found myself in complete agreement with Farru as he explained how important it is to study cante, and to develop the ability to use basic steps with flavor and understanding.  These are things I've tried to impart to my own students, yet here I was hearing it from a young man who, as I came to see, had greatly matured in recent years.  He didn't just say it, by the way; he subsequently demonstrated it through a little patada he was given as a child to study.  He showed us the steps, ran it a few times at the end of class, and we were done.  90 minutes flew by. 

  This all said, I'm fully aware of the fact that Paco's tour has gone to many neighboring cities this Spring, and that Farru has probably given the same exact material to each group he's taught along the way, regardless of the overall level of the dancers.  I'm also sure there have been those who have rolled their eyes as they watched the clock, realizing that they wouldn't be leaving the studio that day with a new siguiriya to dance later that week.  I bring this up not to make fun of anyone, but to point out that it appears to me that yes, we really do need to hear what he had to say, and he had a genuine reason for saying it.  We are paying, consuming, money-making proof of that.

That night as I watched the show, I smiled a little to myself, looking down from the back of the theater at Farru.  He was dressed just like Maestro Paco; a white shirt, black pants, black vest, black shoes.  He was out there with all the musicians doing palmas, not like a rock-star, but like a student.  Once again, he didn't just say it, but lived it.  What a day that I won't forget.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Front Row Seats

By Mele Martinez

While sitting in the nosebleed section of the Mesa Arts Center Theater a few nights ago, I had a fantasy.  I fantasized that the man who was playing was not dozens of rows and hundreds of feet away and below on a vast black stage, but that instead he was sitting right in front of me.  He was playing the same song, same notes, same inflections, but he wasn’t so far away.  He was close. I could see his fingers individually, I could hear his breath between chords, and I could smell his cologne.

Tuesday was not a normal day.  As far as extraordinary days go, Tuesday was right up there.  It is not often that Paco de Lucia comes to Arizona.  It is not often that he brings artist the likes of Duquende  and Farru with him.  It is even less often that someone like Farru would offer a workshop to a group of just 10 people in a small studio in Arizona, and that he would take the time in that studio to teach us what he personally believes flamenco is.  Yet, that is exactly what Tuesday was like for us – that and much more.

On Tuesday morning, with a green towel draped around his neck, Farru stood unimpressively in front of a group of students. He premised the class by declaring that he didn’t consider himself a “Maestro del Flamenco.”  He spoke patiently and calm, and it was his quietness, along with this startling comment, that captured the ear of everyone there. His reason was simple:  in his life so far, he didn’t have to do much of anything to become a flamenco artist – he just had to be born. Farru remembered waking up as a child, sucking on his pacifier, and walking into the living room to see Paco de Lucia playing his guitar.  From infancy, the most important flamenco artists in history had come to his home on a regular basis, and he simply sat by, listened, watched, and suckled.  He said in that particular situation, who wouldn’t become flamenco?

I often wonder what life would have been for me if I had grown up in a flamenco family.  In a way, I was wondering that while fantasizing that Paco was playing his guitar - not in a thousand seat theater, with me in the third to last row - but in my presence, close.  Very often, I feel so far away from flamenco.  Even when I get to shake hands with someone as admired in the flamenco world as Farru, there is something left wanting.  I so badly want to communicate, but I don’t have the words.  Perhaps my expectations are too high, or perhaps it is a childish desire, but the truth remains that  “Los Maestros” are far away, and they don’t know me.  I have been literally surrounded by them before, and yet I was invisible.  Did I make myself invisible?  And if so, can I make myself visible instead?  In the middle of flamenco, I’ve known that I was right where I was supposed to be, even while I knew I didn’t exactly belong.  The feeling has made me wither before.  It has made me feel a unique kind of loneliness – a special kind of isolation.  I guess this feeling is true for anyone who has one foot in one culture, and the other foot in another.  Though at times a struggle, it really is a special place to be.

Here in the states, it isn’t hard to feel a bit alienated when it comes to flamenco.  Sure we can visit Spain.  Sure we can watch flamenco YouTube videos for hours on end.  But we Americans simply don’t have the convenience of living in the cradle of flamenco.  There is a vast ocean and (for some) an even vaster body of land between us.  And yet there is such a strong desire for many of us to be accepted as legitimate flamenco artists and to share fully in the inheritance of the culture.  But perhaps we don’t fully appreciate the beauty of watching flamenco from afar.  Perhaps, as Farru seemed to suggest, there is an honor in becoming an artist because one actively seeks out flamenco.  Indeed, that is exactly what Jason and I did when we bought our tickets, took the day, drove one hundred and five miles and walked into the concert hall with everyone else who sought out flamenco too.  In fact, we were necessary parts of flamenco that night.  Paco wouldn’t have been in that theater without an audience, so we all had our parts to play.

And it turned out that we were all so incredibly rewarded in our roles.  Paco and his troupe of artists (all notable in their own right) made music that could magically transport us all, even if just momentarily, into a close-knit flamenco family.  When I listened, I was neither far away nor anonymous.  When in my wild imagination I saw Paco close-up, I wasn’t estranged.  How does flamenco do that? Regardless of what the answer may be, for than one and half hours of time – a time so seemingly insignificant in commitment - we were all blessed when we listened. Listening allowed us to take part in the harmony.  And who knows?  Maybe even Paco fantasized someone to be near as he played, someone whose far-away whispered oles he could subtly hear.

Of course after those moments in concert, the harmony was replaced with clamoring once again, and as we stepped outside the theater the air was warm, but the sun was long gone.  Though we didn’t see Paco again, at the restaurant across the street from the theater a tablao was presented and most of the other musicians from the troupe came for dinner.  The flamenco that could be presented for those great artists in return was your basic American fare, but Farru himself, was most gracious.  I learned something from him, not just in the studio, but in real life that night when he humbled himself (artistically speaking) to play guitar for the least of us.  In that graciousness, he didn’t act foreign and he didn’t treat us as foreigners.   In my guilt, I realized that I am usually far away from flamenco because I have chosen to be.  Most often, it is because I’ve crawled into myself and have made the focus my own insecurities.  But just maybe if I were to focus on others, to think of serving them instead of myself, to think of their feelings before my own, then I might find that flamenco is no further away than the person standing right beside me.  I’m grateful for this lesson.

The rest of that Tuesday night was usual and even unusual in the usual ways.  But we all eventually went home to quiet rooms separated by very long highways.  And some of us would dream of Wednesday morning, and some of us would dream of sitting in the front row.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace ... 1 Peter 4:10

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"A Man Who Isolates Himself...."

There is a struggle within myself which has eased with the passing of time. I like to believe it has become a less strenuous battle because of the wisdom I've picked up along the way, but it could be that with age comes fatigue, and with fatigue comes a lack of desire to struggle and fight. All I know is I'm not too concerned with this internal conflict anymore.

I'm now convinced (for the most part) - there is no "I" in flamenco. With all my preaching about flamenco as a communal art form.....I think I am starting to actually believe it. It only took thousands of hours in an empty studio with a drum machine or ipod to start the thought process. Maybe you really DO need others to do flamenco. Perhaps it does make sense to focus more on fostering growth in others than in myself. It could be that ultimately, it's more to my credit to put out solid dancers and musicians than to throw my name up on a marquee or my face upon a poster.

This will, no doubt, be our least popular blog entry. I do want to be clear however, I'm not pointing the finger at anyone. I've just come to realize that flamenco can be a very lonely world unto itself if we don't reach outward. We cannot own flamenco, or hide it in a corner, or bury it under the porch. It has to be given freely to those who respectfully seek it out. I believe what singer/dancer Paco Valdepenas quipped in Tao Ruspoli's film, Flamenco: A Personal Journey, "Flamenco is one person singing and one person receiving it.....and the two have understood each other, and there is nothing else..... ." If we take away that which is at the very core of flamenco, expression from one human being to another, we lose it all.

And now, let me begin the process of alienating my American readers. We, in this country have it backwards, you see. We see the opportunities to gain from flamenco and we start marketing ourselves before we can even put on our shoes, tune our guitar properly, or sing a letra of tangos. I know all this because, while I've never been one to adamantly seek the spotlight, I've always sought personal growth and gave nothing in return. It was a one-way relationship with flamenco. It took walking a far distance along that selfish path to realize there was no prize in sight. It was just an illusion, and this ended up being an unfulfilling journey.

But there's a different, more narrow path - one that doesn't dangle a picture of fame or money in front of you to keep you moving, but instead, offers a refreshing drink of water, a cool breeze, and the company of genuinely beautiful people. Along this path, you come to the realization that once you take the focus off the self, there are amazing things happening all around you. Suddenly participation in the process of teaching and learning, itself is the reward for one's travels. The ecstasy of being one part of a group that comprises a single flamenco entity is something that cannot be rivaled by an artistic breakthrough or a well-received solo performance. Along this path, as with the selfish one, there is also no end in sight, but I don't mind at all.

Now I don't want to give the impression that I expect to be commended for coming to these conclusions. In reality, there are people all over the world who grasp this idea during their very first flamenco lesson or their accidental exposure to a spontaneous juerga in some one's backyard. What I'm saying is, if a mule like myself can understand this truth, there is hope for us all.

Take my advice, for what it's worth. I have plenty more to learn, sure, but I've stumbled upon some great things, much like the senior citizen who hits the lottery. To understand flamenco as an intimate exchange, in its truest form, is freeing, and you'll sleep better at night. I wish success to all those who love flamenco and dedicate themselves to studying and teaching this art form.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Code

by Mele Martinez

“Jason and I are on tour.”

I don’t get to say that phrase very often, but when I do, I always feel a bit strange. I’m afraid that some may think I am making myself out to be a lofty artist, deserving of recognition. I’m also afraid that people will think being “on tour” means that I am somehow more important than all the artists who are not on tour. All during this particular tour, I wanted to avoid saying that phrase (all together) to anyone who might wonder where Jason and I were all this time. But I’ve decided that I will say it. And furthermore, my own worthiness is not the reason for pronouncing that phrase.

Jason and I are not dancing on this tour. Not at all. Well, maybe a little, but that is not why we are here. We’ve actually been hired as musicians for the CBJ Flamenco Ensemble; Jason is on cajon, and I am singing. It is a nice change for us – a way to flex our “other” flamenco muscles. It is both a blessing and a joy for us to do this kind of work. We get to travel to different places, we get to hang out with friends, and we get to do flamenco. It’s like a dream.

But as I reflect in this dream world, a little voice inside my head tries to bring me down, as is often the case when dreaming. Some of you know that voice – the one that convinces you that you have no business doing your art form, the voice that tries to convince you to quit, tries to make you feel guilty for trying to be a performing artist. It can persuade you to believe that you are inferior, that you are inadequate, and it preys on your every insecurity. This voice is something I battle, and sometimes it is a voice coming not just from inside of me, but from outside too.

Many flamencos believe that only certain individuals should be “allowed” to perform professionally (which usually means for money). I get it. I even speak in agreement. Flamencos want to live by a special code; the code makes it clear that you have to “pay your dues” before you can be respected as a professional. Ironically, most flamencos I know believe they personally are on the right side of this rule, while other artists require more payment of dues.

I agree with the code, but I also understand that this man-made code is not always in line with a higher code that I try to live by – God’s. In God’s plan, “… the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Our personal standards of WHO deserves WHAT don’t always apply. For me, the final word is God. For me, He is the One who blesses us based on His grace – not based on what we might think we have or haven’t earned.

That being said, I know many flamencos would probably put me in a category that is completely undeserving of touring as a flamenco singer. I haven’t earned those dues – especially in the most respected aspect of the art form: cante. And yet, here I am, on a plane to a big city where people who fill a 1000 seat theater will hear me sing. In this case, I sort of agree with all those who think I am undeserving of this. I do not call myself a cantaora. I probably never will.

But just because others may believe that, and just because I will probably never call my self a FLAMENCO SINGER, doesn’t mean that I don’t belong here, in this crowded plane, floating my way thousands of feet in the air to that gig. I may not be a flamenco singer, but I certainly will be singing flamenco. I know it is part of all that things in my life that I am meant to do, so I will do it.

And so too, I quiet that voice that aims to discourage me, I shield myself from my own inner-dialogue, and I even squelch the sound of those who would dissuade me with words and looks that aim to dishearten. On the nights of this tour, I will sing, out loud, to drown out the opposition.

And if anyone should ask you, friends, “What makes you think you can sing flamenco? What makes you think you can dance? What makes you think you can be on any stage?” Just tell them that not one of us is really worthy. Tell them that being on stage is ALWAYS a privilege, never a right. Tell them too, that our job is to do our job, and not to compare our selves to others. As I believe, ultimately, it is simply our duty to perform for an audience of One.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

No Longer Strangers

by Jason Martinez
For the second time, I return home to Tucson with my wife, our hearts full and overwhelmed with all we've experienced this past weekend, in what proved to be a dream realized. Or perhaps it can be better described as a vision, and one shared by many, at that. I change my mind, it was both a dream AND a vision.

Fabian and Katrina Sisneros are dear friends of ours, and like us, are a flamenco family. They graciously included us in the third performance/community event of The Peña of Nuevo México, an organization in Albuquerque founded to encourage flamenco as a way of life, organically grown, and proliferated through the generations. Through their efforts, and with the support of their extended family and friends, it appears that a treasure has been unearthed, revealed more clearly, layer by layer, every time another event takes place. What we experienced at the event Saturday was all at once exciting and humbling.

The day began with a caravan excursion to Abo: an ancient ruin, national park, and the Sisneros family ranch all in one (it's all very complex). The previous days, and right up to that very moment, had been spent in preparation for the two shows we had ahead of us that day, but never mind that.....we were whisked into the 250-year-old home of Fabian's grandparents, where two types of red chile (with pork or ground beef) sat beside a pot of beans in a room of mixing aromas that immediately settled our pre-show nerves. The community dance hall down the road, in Mountainaire, would just have to wait; we were busy piling shredded cheese into our bowls of warm chile and stacking homemade sopapillas next to our meal wherever we could find room on the table. 2-3 bowls later, we walked the grounds of this sacred place and let the blowing wind speak, reminding us to breathe and accept what is.

Next stop: the performance in Mountainaire. The Sisneros, the Montoyas (Katrina's family), and we, the Tucson crew, rushed into the community hall with the sound equipment, garment bags and a mixture of adrenaline and exhaustion I imagine any performer is somewhat familiar with. Before I knew it, I was cramped into a tiny room off to the side of the stage with my fellow artists, all of us practicing our steps and trying not to accidentally smack each other in the process. We then took the stage, sitting on old, well-crafted wooden benches that had clearly been sitting there for quite a while. Perfection. Smiles abounded, both from the performers and the old folks in the audience, as we watched Katrina's niece, Fabian's sister, and a student of his perform a Fandango de Huelva. Katrina, the veteran, later joined them for a buleria, leading this next generation of artists in the choreography. They, themselves will surely be doing the same with the following generation in the years to come.

After our trip back to the city, we stopped for about 30 minutes to catch our breath at Fabian's parents' house in the South Valley, and then on to Por Vida Tattoo, where the event was to take place that evening (it's all very complex). This was Round 2. We practiced the same frenetic ritual, but with extra hands helping out. Sound check, good; chairs in place, good; last minute rehearsal with a pianist, violinist, and whole new group of musicians, good.

The sun had gone down. We all said our own private prayers, knowing full well where we've been and what we've been through. "Just do what you do," I thought to myself. People poured into the seats gradually, steadily, and in good numbers (before, during, and after the performances as it turned out). It was show time. We were all in the moment. Performers fed on the collective support of an audience that seemed to understand this was an opportunity provided to anyone who chose to accept it, as a gift freely given. There was cohesion and excitement. Risks were taken. Students and teachers performed side by side. There was beautiful music and baile. Two sets of good flamenco artistry passed us by, as quickly as we had boarded the vehicles that morning.

The show ended, but the flamenco (and more chile) went on well into the early morning. A group of younger kids with wide, hungry eyes stuck around. The National Institute of Flamenco, Tierra Adentro charter school, and the Public Academy for Performing Arts had obviously been doing their jobs! These were kids with voices, talent, and wisdom which far exceeded any I might have had at their ages. They observed and learned, and their enthusiasm was contagious.

I was blessed to meet these kids and many new people, to see old friends, and to share something with them that isn't always available at the snap of the fingers. I'm ever grateful to my God, and to my friends, Fabian and Katrina Sisneros, for bringing us all together. We were no longer strangers, but soldiers fighting toward one goal: the cultivation of flamenco in the community. What was it Fabian always said? "Art should be in the day to day activities of life." We are seeing this manifest before our very eyes. What could be better than that? It really was a dream realized.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tongues of Angels

By Melani Martinez

My grandmother, Juanita Peyron, was born on December 21, 1917 in El Paso, but today she lives in a Northwest Tucson "home" with several other ladies who also suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. My nana (as I call her) recognizes who I am, but sadly, she never calls me by my name anymore. I can sit and talk with her, and she can know that I am part of her family, but most everything else is a historical blur for her, and sometimes for me too.

The last time I visited with her, she spoke (in Spanish only, even though she knows both English and Spanish) of random ideas and memories that didn't make much sense - at least not to me. "The plant next to the fireplace is beautiful," she said, though there was no plant or fireplace anywhere near us. "The baby in the cart was putting all the special food from the market in my basket," she explained. I smiled at her. Then, to my further confusion, she verbally pointed out objects outside her window, in the desert, that I couldn't see. I'm not sure if they were there or not, but out of respect, I tried to acknowledge what she saw. I asked her questions, and sometimes she answered with complete alertness. Still, she responded to some questions by just staring at my face for long seconds, struggling to find the words, or the idea, or the memory. I remember seeing that same look of struggle on her face just ten years ago, when she was only 84 years old, when she lived in her own home with her own husband and could manage to take care of herself well enough. That same look is still there on her face - a kind of wrinkled brow, shifting eyes, mouth somewhat agape. That look makes me hurt. If I think about it for too long, that look on her face can make my whole body hurt. I do my best not to think about it.

These painful images are some of the thoughts, though repressed in my everyday waking life, that start to rise to the surface when I step onto the stage, in my costume, and the music starts. I imagine that that is true for most of us who practice flamenco - the stuff that we face each day gets pushed down inside, burying itself until the time comes when we can dance, or sing, or play, and then the stuff comes up and out. Like my nana, sometimes I get stuck with blankness. I struggle to find the words I know I need to say to the people looking at me, staring at me, sometimes with the same blank face that my nana adorns so often these days.

The good thing is, because of flamenco, I clearly understand that some things cannot be said with words. I'm reminded that my attempted conversations with my nana are never going to fully satisfy either of us. I love that flamenco provides this gift of understanding. I'm so privileged, especially as a student and teacher of writing, to have learned that words cannot always suffice, and perhaps that is the way it is meant to be. I know that even if I could speak perfect English, or perfect Spanish, or even speak with the tongues of angels, I still couldn't masterfully say what I really mean. As wonderful as spoken language is, as much as I appreciate it, it doesn't completely satisfy.

The absolute best flamenco performances I have seen or been a part of were not really about words, but I honestly remember exactly what was "said." When I sat in the back row of a packed Rodey Theater and watched Antonio Canales perform for the first time in my life, I remember what was said to me. When I stood behind the curtain of that same theater some fifteen years later, I remember exactly what I was going to say to the audience as soon as I got out there. I may not remember the songs I heard, or the steps, the tempo, the lighting, the costumes, or even the palos, but I can recall performances by the specific feeling I had in those moments. My whole life, I always had a sense of inferiority when it came to speaking Spanish and English, but with flamenco, I was given a voice. All I had to do was open up and speak. What an extraordinary gift this was for a muted life.

Though I may not have any idea what my nana means when she talks to me now about those random fire thoughts that go through her brain, as she stares at me blankly, I do know she is in there somewhere, and I can hear her love. I can still hear the accents, the syllables, the whispers in my ear, whether she is speaking to me, or not. I was blessed with every single time she recounted the tale of being the only person to see my first steps as a baby, a story that she repeated to me constantly before Alzheimer's took grip of her mind. Because she said it so often, I can hear her say my name. "Melani," she says, when her eyes meet mine. The sound of her voice and the inflections of her stories ring clear as day in my ears. And when I see her, lost in her own body, in a clean, cold nursing house that is about four times bigger than the little cozy home she left behind, she tells me so many wonderful stories - even if she doesn't use the right words anymore.

When I remember her sounds, her expressions, I have hope that through flamenco I can express myself as beautifully as she has to me.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Video Killed the Flamenco Radio Star

By Mele Martinez

The word is out... Madonna is seeking a flamenco dancer for her new tour.

There were several things on my mind today, and several things that I was hoping to blog about, but when Madonna makes such news known, it is hard to talk about anything else. So, I will indulge her, to a point.

Several flamencos have been discussing (on social networking sites) the news of Madonna's employment ad, and though some seem enthusiastic about the opportunity and even have dancers in mind, most seem to be either angry or laughing. I want to put aside, for the time being, the arguments that she would or wouldn't present flamenco with integrity, that she will be "watering down" or commercializing the art form, or that this kind of public exposure to flamenco has its good and bad points. Instead, I'd like to focus on one detail - made prominent in the advertisement: the desire that the flamenco dancer have a "Mediterranean look."

To really talk about this, I need to know exactly what that means... what is the "Mediterranean" look? Obviously, I am not the first person to ask this question, and if fact, there is an page already gleaming with answers. They range in description: dark hair and eyes, curly long dark hair, olive skin, Caucasian with a tan, Italian, Greek, exotic and "islandy." I find the answers limited. After all, isn't the Mediterranean teaming with populations of every color of complexion? Dozens of countries circle the Mediterranean Sea, including countries of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Certainly, this definition of a Mediterranean look doesn't cover the diversity of the peoples of all those cultures and backgrounds.

But let's get to my real questions...
Is it tougher for people without the "look" in flamenco, to be appreciated as artists? Or does it just make it tougher to get paid?

Those of you who know what I look like, know that these questions hit home for me. Physically, I do not have a "flamenco look." Not even close. I am about as opposite from the physical characteristics of Gypsy as I can be, and to compound the matter, I don't even look like a dancer. I am not long, slender, or carved.

That said, I know that there are many other flamencos out there - with talents and skills towering over my own - who probably wouldn't get the Madonna job either, even if they wanted it. Let's name a just a few: Concha Jareño, Rocio Molina, Juana Amaya, Pastora Galvan, Belen Maya, Christina Hoyos, La Tati, etc. And that is just a small list - not even considering the male dancers. None of these artists necessarily fit the description of "Mediterranean" in appearance, yet they all excel in an art form that strangely conjures ideas of a dark "islandy" goddesses in the minds of much of the American public.

Perhaps Madonna and her marketing entourage have their reasons for needing a flamenco dancer who looks Mediterranean. They might even be very good reasons. But I doubt there is any reason that could convince me that audiences need to see flamenco - an art that is so distinctively unique - performed by only those who conform to "look" the part. It saddens me, and I would guess that it also saddens a Creator who made us all with our own distinct "look."

Friday, January 27, 2012

To The Flamencos Out There

I love flamenco. No seriously, I love it. I wish there were more specific words to describe my "love" for it. I don't want to mislead anyone by giving the impression that I put it on par with my family or my God; by no means do I mean to suggest that it even compares. I wouldn't even say that flamenco is my friend. I just mean to say that it has become the way in which I communicate with the world.

As a teacher of flamenco baile, it fascinates me to ponder what others see and hear when taking class or watching a show. What does flamenco mean to them? Is it a temporary love affair or are they hooked? Some people wear their reasons on their sleeve while others keep it guarded under a thinly veiled surface. I see lost people alongside extroverts. I see myself in all of them.

It's for this reason I believe it's important to quietly observe. We can learn a lot about ourselves by watching others. It's not an easy thing to do when we're so engaged in the moment, yielding to the senses in order to learn from or to savor the experience at hand. It's easy to forget that there are others next to you when we've been lulled into a sense of intimacy that flamenco can create. I recommend peeling the eyes away for brief moments, just to see the expressions on the faces next to you. One may be surprised by what they see.

I've seen flamencos doing this before; at times observing and at others outright staring, not at the performance, but at other observers. They rest their heads back a bit, squinting the eyes or raising an eyebrow with a not-so-subtle hint of skepticism, as if to say, "Do they really get it?" It gives one the feeling of being sized-up, and for good reason. This is not necessarily the type of observation I'm speaking of, though it has its place too.

An opposite approach exists, and can also be useful; we can gain a lot from observing flamencos in the crowd. If there are high-level artists in the audience for example, I can't help but pay attention to how they react to what's on stage. It's as though I'm in class, learning from my teacher. It can be inspiring to see someone you revere become inspired themselves. It can be equally dangerous however, because we can fall into the trap of not judging for ourselves what we like and dislike.

I'm not so bothered by judging, by the way. We all do it. There's no escaping it. We can control how we choose to treat other people, but we all have emotional attachments to flamenco. We experience love, jealousy, envy, sorrow, joy....the entire gamut of the spectrum, and these feelings do a lot to shape our perspectives about both the art and the artist. After all, aren't we tricked into thinking we know more than we actually do about the person by what we see of them on the stage or in the classroom? At any rate, as is true with many things, our views change as we mature, both as people and as artists. This maturity is what eventually enables us to know honestly what we enjoy (or not) in flamenco.

It may seem like I've made things more complicated than they need to be, and maybe I have. There are those out there who can just walk into the studio or the theater and be in the moment, without giving much attention to anything outside the simplicity of the event; I, myself, can be that person. It just seems to me that if someone loves what they do, they pay homage to their art by giving it thoughtful consideration. This has been my homage to art and the artist.

by Jason Martinez

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

According to this promise...

Since we moved from Albuquerque to Tucson, Jason and I have had a particular conversation that pops up every six months or so, like a recurring dream... one with some of the same characters, sometimes the same setting, always recognizable. Inevitably we sit down and talk, and talk, and talk. Inevitably, we end the conversation knowing that the end of it is never really over. We wonder when it might come up again next; will it be three months this time? Or will it be just three weeks? Sometimes we get angry. Sometimes we even sob quietly to ourselves. Sometimes it seems like the topic is too unimportant "in the big scheme of things" for us to be discussing again. Mostly, I think, we get tired of the repetition. We get tired of reaffirming what we thought we had already confirmed before. Yet, the question always rolls itself back over to us... should we quit flamenco?

When I say "quit," I don't mean QUIT. I don't mean that we mull over whether or not we should say goodbye to flamenco forever, though often it feels like that. What I mean is that we wonder if we should continue to try (and try again) to make flamenco our career. If we were making a living - even a modest living - on flamenco, then I guess it wouldn't be in question, but that has never been the case. And I'm guessing that that has never been the case for a whole lot of flamencos, flamenco families, and artists in general.

I usually wonder if we have set out aims too high. After all, most of our parents were not working successfully at something they were passionate about. They simply graduated from high school, got a job, then didn't quit that job until they got a better job, and so forth. Passion had little to do with it. But that same generation told us we could believe in dreaming. I don't remember much from school, but I know the idea of turning what you love into a career was definitely in there somewhere. That wasn't just a fluke idea I made up on my own. "Whatever you put your mind to," they quipped. All the way back to kindergarten we were practically singing the mantra of the American Dream. So, when it doesn't happen right away - which we were also warned about - we are told to hang in there and stick to our guns. But sadly, Jason and I often feel like we've run out of ammunition. We try this, and we try that. We roam around in the artists' world looking for our niche, hoping that we can somehow use what we love to do to pay the bills. In the process, we attempt to not "sell out." We attempt to keep whatever integrity we can. But integrity and money don't always make a good pair.

So then comes the doubt - either for one or both of us. Suspicion slowly creeps in. We ask ourselves again, do we need to wake up from the impractical dreams we've manufactured for ourselves? Then comes another round of talking. And year after year we realize that we haven't "woken up" from much. At the cost of financial instability for ourselves and for our family, we find ourselves swimming in dreamland, and it is only in those moments of near paralyzed consciousness that we wonder if we should go ahead and take that alluring (and probably irreversible) red pill.

As frustrating as this process can be, I have solace in something that not everyone has - I am not alone in it. Jason and I have to go through this grind, but at least we get to go through it together. That is what makes us a family. That is what marriage is. It complicates things, yes. It doesn't always make it easier, no. But when it comes to flamenco, his strengths can cover my weaknesses, and vice versa. And that can be a powerful thing.

I can't say that I was smart enough at the beginning of our relationship to know this would be the case for us, and that we would have the same "stupid" conversation so many times over. But after nearly ten years of marriage, you could say that I'm acquainted with the concept now. Years ago, I half believed that when you made a big commitment in your life, you were forever bound to that decision simply because you made it in the first place. Almost like magic. Even at our wedding, I half believed that saying "I do" meant "I will." But just like committing to a marriage, committing to a dream doesn't really work like that. You don't say "I do" just once - not in a successful commitment, anyway. You end up having to say it over and over. You constantly decide to be committed. You say "I do" every single day, and on some days, every single hour. Repetition, I'm learning, can be a wonderful thing. Recommitting to dreams can be like falling in love again and again.

On the other hand, love and passion aren't exactly the same. Of those of you who know me, probably none of you have ever heard me say, "I love flamenco," and to be honest, I don't. (What a shock, right?) But I'm sure you've heard me say it about Jason. I'm glad I can reserve that word for people in my life. No matter how passionate we are about our dreams, they will never totally fulfill us. And I can almost guarantee that they didn't teach your THAT in school.

Luckily for me, if Jason and I someday divorce ourselves from flamenco dreams, we get to stay together. Actually, its not luck at all; its a gracious blessing.

Friday, January 6, 2012

"Out of The Mouths of Babes...."

For those who don't know me, my name is Jason. My wife, Mele, and I are both professional flamenco dancers. We met when she uprooted her life in Tucson, AZ to come to Burque (Albuq., NM) to become a member of a flamenco dance company there in its infant stages. We fell in love (ahh yeah), got married (ahhh yeah), and had a wonderful baby girl named Lola (ahhhh yeah!). We have since taken this ancient wisdom that is flamenco back to Tucson where we now teach and perform; in fact, it's part livelihood, part labor of love for us.

We find ourselves in an interesting position. You see, for years we've exposed Lola to flamenco. She was in the studio everyday for the first 2 years of her life. She's joined us on stage....sometimes willingly, most times begrudgingly. We have always thought it best to keep her exposed to it and to leave the door open should she decide this is something she would like to do. We know the benefits to the soul and the financial struggles as well, so we wrestle with the prospect that she might one day consider this way of life when pondering career possibilities. Ironically, Lola has, in her innocence, given us the perspective we were hoping to give her.

We're about a week away from beginning kids' flamenco classes in our studio, which Lola eagerly awaits, but not for the reasons we had originally hoped. She has a friend from school who will be joining her, and she has always loved playing with other children. It's clear that Lola is much more interested in socializing than structured dancing. At first, we wished her motivation for participation would be her love for flamenco as music and as art. Mele and I shared an epiphany however, and realized it was we who needed to learn from her.

We've always preached that flamenco begins in the home and in the community. We've always been aware that we, as Americans (USA) come at flamenco backwards, that is to say, we take the discipline of our choice (mostly guitar and dance) and approach flamenco from a soloist's point of view. We realize that flamenco, in its purest form, is people communicating things to each other that they can't fully express through simple conversation, and with no concern about who might be watching.

In reminding us of these things, Lola has proven to be more flamenco than either of us. We can easily get caught up in art and forget the life and community the art is supposed to be reflecting! Flamenco is best done in innocence and with honesty, just as child does it. Ole tu Lola.