Dance Workshop with Maria “Cha-Cha” Bermudez
posted in practice on december 10th, 2007
No, don’t worry—I’m not branching out into dance (believe me, none of us wants that!), but I did get the chance to accompany Maria Bermudez during her three day workshop at the American Dance Institute in Greenwood. For those of you not "in the know," Maria is a vivacious, globe-trotting dancer with the Jerez-based group Sonidos Gitanos. She is also a longtime friend of Rubina Carmona, who occasionally coaxes her out to Seattle to give a dance workshop.
As I’m sure any of the dancers who attended the workshop would corroborate, this was an eye-opening opportunity for all of us. Maria "created" much of the workshop on the spot, so not only did the dancers get to learn some new steps and sequences (fresh from Jerez, as it were), but we all got to watch the process of creating those sequences in action.
Luckily for me, my job as a guitarist was mostly to back up Markus Kolb, who has done this sort of thing before. The workshop was broken up into two ninety-minute sessions each day, with "level 1" in the first block, "level 2" in the second. The routine for each session was built from day to day, so at the end of the workshop we had all covered quite a bit of material. For the level one sessions, we worked primarily on Tangos; for the level two we worked in Rondeña.
As far as the actual playing goes, it was at times a lot like playing for a dance class and at times completely different. As in dance classes, while we worked religiously within palos and compás, there wasn’t really any "song" to learn beforehand that provided a musical template to work from. A lot of this kind of playing, I’m coming to find out, is the dancer gesticulating at you and going something like "da-da-di … da-da-di … di-di … di-di-di." Somehow — bizarrely — it makes sense, but musical flexibility is an absolute must (as is knowing some stock phrasing in the palo in question).
Unlike dance classes, the whole thing goes really fast. There’s no taking an idea home, incubating it, and coming back the next week with some saucy little melody you’ve worked out in your spare time. Luckily for Markus and I, Maria (like Rubina) is from the "compassionate" school of flamenco, so she didn’t scream at us when it took us a few takes to interpret her onomatopoeia.
"Eventually getting it," however, all changed for me when it came to the Rondeña: Markus was familiar with the form, but I, much to my alarm, learned right then and there that Rondeña is played in an alternate tuning: your low ‘E’ goes to ‘D’ and your ‘G’ goes to ‘F#’. Oye! "Lost" about sums up how I felt about this on Friday (the first day of the workshop). In fact, so lost was I that I think I actually played palo seco (i.e. rhythm on muted strings) through much of that sequence.
On day two, however, I bucked up, detuned, and dove into the world of goofy Rondeña chords. And here I was lucky (again) that Markus is also of the compassionate school of flamenco: he showed me the six or seven basic chords and I fumbled through them while he did most of the accompaniment legwork. By Sunday I was, if not quite competent, at least not quite so painful to watch (or, I imagine, to listen to).
The moral of this story, I suppose (if we must draw one), is not to be afraid to plunge into the unknown—even if you sound like a truckload of angry housecats while you do it. I find I constantly have to remind myself that flamenco is traditionally a "by ear" form and that often the first I may hear of what someone wants me to play is when he or she hums it at me. There’s something redeeming in this. It’s good to be able to pick things up off of recordings or sheet music, but the immediacy of having a live person standing there in front of you, I think, tunes you in a bit better to listen to the music in your head as well. That, I suspect, is where the stuff that actually means something comes from. (Though I thoroughly recommend ignoring the voices in your head … .)