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.
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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)