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)

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum