It's good to sing

Paco Pena (right) is a flamenco artist with a mission. To take back the initiative from the fashionable crop of flamboyant dancers and bring the voice to the fore.

It is a measure of Paco Pena's stature as a flamenco superstar that he is totally unfazed by the prospect of conjuring an evening of Andalusian passion on the stage of an old LSE lecture hall (alias the Peacock Theatre). "There's always a compromise when you perform in theatres and concert halls but if we performers are happy on stage then I'm sure flamenco convinces."

We are talking during a break in his Dutch tour. Pena, whose wife is Dutch, tours Holland every year and visits frequently to supervise his guitar students at the department of world music at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Flamenco is hugely popular in northern Europe - a fact that used to surprise him. "When I first toured Europe back in the Seventies when I was doing a lot of solo concerts, I found the audiences really, really warm - especially in Germany. You don't think of the German people as particularly warm and responsive in that way but they were." A less reflective man might pigeonhole this as a simple attraction of opposites: cool-headed Saxon cliches beguiled by the warm south, but Pena sees the phenomenon in more musical terms. "Germany has a culture of concert going - they're very aware of music." Besides, the handy stereotypes of Hispanic impetuosity and teutonic reserve are radically undermined by the presence of Pena himself. Studiedly unflamboyant on stage and in person, the mousey fiftysomething in the sweater looks like a grammar school art master until he illustrates a point of technique with a sudden flourish of his extraordinary fingers.

He's a payo - not even a gypsy - from Andalusia and considers race irrelevant: "I don't believe that it's a question of blood. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, how much sensitivity you have; it's a question of culture. If you're Anglo-Saxon but born in Andalusia then you're Andalusian." Pena (born Andalusia 1942) didn't go to flamenco school. "You didn't learn flamenco anywhere in those days. I picked up my brother's guitar when I was six or seven and I emulated Nino Ricardo who I heard on the radio." Yet Pena, himself now one of the all-time greats, admits that his real heroes were singers, notably the veteran gypsy cantaora Pastora Pavon known as La Nina de los Peines who died in 1969. For Pena, the song is the primary unit of flamenco. In one of his early London shows in 1970 Pena took pains to wrest flamenco away from the fleet-footed zapateadors that had held sway for so long. "What I did was unheard of; it was the first ever show that had begun with the simplest handclapping and a lone singer. It was a great success."

Yet, despite Pena's championing of the cante, it remains the aspect of the art most neglected by the international touring phenomenon that is modern flamenco. This is partly a language problem. Even the gamest O- level Spanish speaker can only fish out the odd word (amor, corazon, pasion) from the unfamiliar gypsy argot and, in any case, the traditional mozarabic singing style mutilates the verses - a pity as they often have the simplicity and power of medieval lyric poetry:

Your teeth

Are like little grains

Of rice pudding

But these round, unvarnished words are invariably strangled at birth, emerging as a miaow of agony, the haunting lament of a timeshare salesman with a secret sorrow.

Pena likes to think that the tortured vowels and rasping delivery speak a universal language of suffering and endurance. He obligingly prints some translations in his programme notes but there is more to meaning than mere words: "If you know the poetry you are one step nearer understanding but I would like the audience to feel the feelings being sung in that poetry even if they can't understand."

Audiences' lack of basic Spanish has certainly proved no impediment to flamenco's global success but this is largely because the emphasis has been placed so firmly on the dancers and guitarists: La Joselito, Jose Greco, Antonio, Paco de Lucia. Today's answer to these golden names of the past is, of course, little Joaqun Cortes, darling of Hello magazine and soon to be seen sweating profusely at an arena near you when he begins his spring tour. Pena, courteous to a fault, is the last man you would expect to go on the record with his views on a fellow artist but it is no secret that many flamenco aficionados (that's aficionados with a th) are not hugely impressed by the 27-year-old Cordoban superstar.

Much is made of Cortes's "flamenco fusion", a term actually coined in the 1960s to describe experimental work by men like Paco de Lucia who collaborated with jazzmen and tried to expand flamenco's range. In fact, as Pena points out, flamenco has been in a constant state of flux since its darkest origins in medieval Spain. "Flamenco as we know it took shape in the last century; it's not really very old. It is essential that flamenco is not static. Both tradition and progression are important. One just has to hope that tradition (which is very wise) will assert that which is worth keeping and that which is not." Pena himself is no slouch as an innovator. "In Misa Flamenco I incorporated a new instrument of a kind: an orchestral choir. I wanted that to clash with the raw, untrained qualities of the flamenco voice." It is this creative musical tension that has made the guitar such a valuable asset to the flamenco mix. Although we now consider it indispensable, the guitar was only introduced at the turn of the 19th century. An occidental instrument adhering to a more rigid musical system, it presented a dynamic contrast to the wayward, improvised quarter tones of the flamenco voice.

Flamenco is always an improvised form but Pena and his 13 fellow artists will be giving 32 performances at the Peacock. Isn't this is a far cry from the spontaneous expression of Andalusian passion that supposedly characterises flamenco at its purest ? Surely the modern touring company is merely prostituting a fine tradition? This is sentimental nonsense of course. Although undeniably a feature of Andalusian domestic life, flamenco has been a public art since the gypsies first took it into the cafes cantantes of Seville and Cadiz 150 years ago. It is this urge to synthesise the supposedly pure flamenco of the domestic sphere that causes such emphasis to be laid on an illusion of authenticity. It has led its practitioners to cultivate a certain patina of amateurishness hard to square with their touring schedules.

A key part of the myth of authenticity is duende, the spirit that inhabits the soloist at the climax of a performance. Nice idea, but demonic possession is not something that can be conjured up twice nightly. The jaleador may growl his oles, the singer or dancer may convulse spastically as the demon descends but surely this is all part of the act? Pena is honest enough to admit that such a level of inspiration is not sustainable for an entire world tour but showman enough to insist that duende really does exist. "Do you ever feel a very stirring burst of communication when you look at a painting or a sculpture? You may not feel it every day but when you do feel it the person who made that work of art has communicated to you; the cycle has been completed. Isn't that duende?"

`Arte y pasion' is at the Peacock Theatre to 1 March (0171-314 8800)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project