I've been fascinated by the world of flamenco ever since my 2010 visit to Andalucia in Spain, where I was overwhelmed by the intoxicating mix of impassioned singing, virtuosic guitar playing, and ecstatic, trance-like dancing. I only made it to Granada and Sevilla, but flamenco was born in Jerez de la Frontera, near the southeast tip of Spain, not far from the Strait of Gibraltar where many Gitanos - Spanish Gypsys - had settled.
Most of the traditional flamenco Gitanos are long gone, fallen victim to the never-ending fusion of flamenco with everything from tango to techno. But Manuel Agujetas, who was born in Jerez de le Fontera in 1939, survives as one of the last great exponents of the traditional Jerez style of flamenco. Last night, Agujetas performed before a crowd of 200 or so at CUNY's Graduate Center, the final concert of of their inaugural Live @365 world music series. Remarkably, it was Agujetas' first NYC concert in more than 35 years.
Agujetas, who appeared with the young guitarist Manuel Valencia and his wife, dancer/bailaora Ikeda Kanako, sings in the canto jondo style: the purest, most ancient form of flamenco. Agujetas may have had long, dark hair, but his face was like that of someone near death, ravaged with the extreme pain and suffering of his songs. Some sample lyrics:
I was sitting in jail on my matJust thinking.not about what had happened to meBut about everything i would still have to go through.The woman I loved was very illI told her not to cryI would even love her dead
Agujetas sang most of the traditional canto jondo styles, including soleá, siguiriyas, fandangos grandes, tientos and the a capella martinetes. But, what was most remarkable was the sheer violence of his Qawalli-like singing, waving his hands uncontrollably and leaping out of his seat at the end of every song. The Spanish call this duende, and Agujetas had more of it than anyone I've ever seen. His advanced age made absolutely no difference: on the contrary, it gave him even greater power, like the incantations of a Shaman. I don't even understand Spanish, and yet I was completely riveted.
After two full sets, Agujetas finally gave in to the realities of age. "My voice is not a machine," he said pointing to his throat. "I have to stop now."
A couple of more songs, and Agujetas stood, waved, and walked offstage, without looking back. Just what you would expect from a Gitano.
More pics on the photo page.