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.