Music: A troubadour of history

Flamenco guitarist Juan Martn fuses the musical traditions of Christian, Arabic and Jewish culture to remind us of a more tolerant past. By Nick Kimberley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Is there wistfulness in his voice when Juan Martn, sitting in his house in Finchley, tells me, "From my home in Andalusia, you can see Africa on a clear day."? Perhaps, but Martn isn't saying this in a fit of nostalgia. He's telling me something about Spanish culture, and specifically flamenco, the music to which he has devoted most of his life. Spain is at the edge of Europe, and flamenco likewise, looking not only to Europe, but beyond: to Africa, the Levant, and further still, to India.

For Martn, that perspective is integral to the music, but it is often obscured, on the one hand by tourist flamenco, and on other by the nuevo flamenco movement that seeks to unite the music with other more fashionable traditions, predominantly rock and jazz. Martn is not as such against either the tourist or the nuevo version of flamenco. Nevertheless, as a flamenco guitarist ("the Chopin of flamenco guitar", according to a Swiss newspaper) born in Malaga but resident in Britain for the past 25 years, he seeks his own nuevo flamenco by returning the music to its roots. "In order to go forward," he says, "I felt I had to go back."

Argument over the derivation of the word "flamenco" itself already hints at the music's genetic diversity. Is it a derisory reference to the flamingo- like stance of the singers, or does it honour the music's peasant origins as "songs of the labourers" (felah men ikum in Arabic)? Does it suggest the Flemish immigrants who brought cante flamenco to Spain in the 16th century? Or does the word come from the German flammen, "to be flamboyant"? What's more interesting is that the word evokes so many possibilities, which echo through Juan Martn's CD Musica Alhambra, the name he also gives to tomorrow night's opening concert in the South Bank Centre's Arte Flamenco festival.

London is one of the few cities that allows the possibility of assembling the diverse elements of Musica Alhambra: "I've been fascinated for years by the oud, the Arabic lute, because it's so close to the guitar, and the group includes Abdul Salam Kheir, who not only plays the oud, but sings in a Lebanese idiom that harks back to the Moorish style heard in Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. The percussionist, Chris Karan, plays the North African darabuka, as well as the Indian tabla, while Sarah Murphy and Kevin Murphy, who play flute and clarinet, have studied ethnic music in Turkey.

The history to which Martn seeks to re-attach flamenco is one of tolerance, and he's aware that, in late-20th-century Europe, tolerance is a rare commodity: "Flamenco as we know it today is a maximum of 250 years old. What went before that was a combination of Arabic music, Sephardic Jewish song, Castilian folk songs, Indian dirges and Persian music. Religious doctrine obliterated that in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in the name of Catholicism. Then later the Moors were expelled. Today, we forget that Christian, Jewish and Arabic cultures co-existed in a period of great creative beauty."

Martn continues to perform solo and with his own dance company: "There are three elements in flamenco: the cante, the singing; the guitar; and the baile, the dance. You could also include the jaleo - shouts of encourgament to the performers. I started playing guitar when I was six, then in a group, a cuadre flamenco, as a second guitarist. Only when you have sufficient understanding, can you continue to become an accompanist."

His was a long and arduous apprenticeship, but one he was pleased to follow: "The great guitarist Sabicas, who died in 1990, said that to play solo flamenco well, you need to have done 20 years playing for dance, then 20 years playing for singers. The rhythmic force of the guitar comes from following the dancers' footwork. And if you're playing for the voice, the strong Moorish element means that the singer uses quarter-tones, whereas the guitar only has semi-tones, so you have to work to find which chords fit."

Martn is happy to see his music performed in a concert-hall context, quite different from the juerga that is flamenco's home in Andalusia: "I like the etiquette of silence. At a fiesta in Spain, there will often be people who don't understand, who talk at the wrong time. That can kill the moment of duende (roughly, "soul"). In a concert-hall, on the other hand, people are there because they want to hear the music and there is no reason why duende shouldn't happen in a concert-hall."

The concept of duende is at the heart of flamenco. The poet Lorca attempted to define the indefinable by saying that duende took the listener to "the final blood- filled room of the soul". That may not sound much like the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but Martn intends to effect the transformation tomorrow night. Who knows, if it's a clear day, we may even be able to see Andalusia.

Juan Martn and Musica Alhambra, 7.45pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1, tomorrow (0171 960 4242). The CD `Musica Alhambra' is available on Flamencovision.