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The Northside Grill and Some Ponderings on Participation

posted in performance on august 10th, 2008

The Northside Grill and Some Ponderings on Participation The latest installment in the Zamani Flamenco annals: we’ve finally found a local spot in our neck of the woods where flamenco actually fits in. For anyone out there who hasn’t tried to book an apt venue for a flamenco trio, the elation of this announcement might sound a bit overblown, but believe me: taking a flamenco act to the streets (i.e. beyond festivals and "ethnic nights") is a prickly undertaking.

And in the spirit of Toque (helped along by my sherry-fueled late night writing fits), I intend to share this prickliness with you. But wait, you say, back up a bit: Why is this news? Zamani Flamenco has played a gig or two; there have been venues. It’s true. And some of those venues have been great. Okay, fine – and some have been simply odd. But whatever, you take the good with the … er … odd.

Here’s the crux of the issue: in many cases, the oddness cited above isn’t so much a question of the establishment that hosts us as it is simply us. Take for example The Wayward Coffee House. How could you possibly bring a flamenco show into a place where 90% of the clientèle is plugged into a laptop? Flamenco dance is not exactly easily tune-outable. And don’t even think about traditional music venues: flamenco guitar and dance sandwiched in between a DJ and the latest Radiohead knock-off?

You begin, I hope, to appreciate the difficulty here.

One solution, of course, is to make one’s own night. Luckily for us, Imad, the owner of The Northside Grill, was fine with us doing just that. And this isn’t the only bonus: The Northside is a Moroccan restaurant, so the space is decidedly Mediterranean – a comfy place to be for flamenco. And it’s big enough to hold a respectable audience, but not so big that the family at booth #148 is going to wonder what the ruckus is way over in sector 14.

And how, you might ask, did the evening actually go? In short (a rare occurrence for me, I know), I would call it a success. When I say "success," of course, I don’t mean that it was perfect. Frankly, I don’t even know if that was the goal. But it was lively: the audience was having fun; we were having fun. And this was the goal.

This also meant, of course, that in the spirit of the evening we encountered some audience participation that was perhaps a bit aberrant: wildly out of compás palmas and jaleo I can’t even begin to describe. Even here, though, I’ve got no room for complaint; what’s more, discouraging this kind of spontaneity is the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve seen flamenco acts that are pretty active in shutting down such audience participation – and if you’re aiming for a kind of "virtuoso" show, I can see why you would do that – but I also think there’s something cathartic in breaking down the "we are the entertainers you are the audience" divisions.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s no criticism intended here. It’s more a question of performance aesthetics. Although I hesitate to make even the most cursory comparisons between my own efforts and the accomplishments of flamenco giants like these, this issue makes me think of one particularly conspicuous difference between Diego del Gastor and Juan Cañizares (on whom I’ve blogged before). Both are undisputed icons of flamenco guitar, but while the playing of a Cañizares inspires in the audience (or in me, at least) awe at his skill, ability, and musical taste, a flamenco like del Gastor taps into flamenco as a folk tradition, a collaboration of the multitude over time.

Which is not, of course, to overestimate the degree (if any) to which I, an American pursuing flamenco abroad, am able to tap that tradition. I suppose my preferred method of working through the distances of geography and culture (at least for the moment) is to think of all of this more as a pursuit, however elusive, than as a destination. "Getting at" tradition is less important than "going after" it. In this sense, perhaps, both sides of the aesthetic coin come back into play: making flamenco "work" abroad is not only a pursuit of technical ability, but is also a pursuit of the ability to reconnect music and dance with the sense of community from which it springs. It’s surprising to me how easy it is to lose sight of this in day to day practice.

True, Greenwood is not widely know for its perfusion of Andalusia or gitano culture, but when you’re trying to tap into a folk tradition in what has become, let’s face it, an increasingly less folk and more commercial world, I suppose one has to make one’s community where one finds it. Is this "flamenco puro"? Probably not. But is it something more than just one guy with a guitar? I hope so.

Well, I can see that I’ve done it again: a long (and long-winded) digression, speculative third person, multiple uses of the word "aesthetics." A tangent has been taken. I would apologize, but that would be disingenuous (after all, if I were really sorry I would just hit delete right now, no?), and anyway, if you’ve read this far you must have had some inkling of interest. Or maybe you’ve just now discovered that you just need to learn how to skim better … in either case, you’ve learned something.

But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with The Northside Grill? Just this: that it’s a fun show where you can clap along if you like, have a paella and a glass of beer, and, folk tradition deities willing, perhaps find some connection to musical roots you never knew you had.

Hmm. That last bit sounds conspicuously like a plug. Indeed it might be: Zamani Flamenco will be back at the The Northside on the 21st of August, at 8:00.

You should come!

And in the mean time, you should go play!


tags: zamani
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