Isaac Stern Auditorium/ Ronald O. Perelman Stage
For all the spectacle of drama and virtuosity in flamenco — the flashes of movement and color by the dancers; the dazzling runs and powerful strumming on the guitar — at the beginning was the word.
While much of flamenco’s history is in dispute – including the origins of the word flamenco – many flamencologists agree that el cante, the singing, is the quintessential component of flamenco. (Perhaps, but not necessarily always, accompanied by palmas, clapping, or the tapping of knuckles on a table.)
The role of the guitar evolved from modest accompaniment in the earlier part of the 19th century to solo instrument a century later.
“The guitar, in the cante jondo [deep song], must limit itself to keeping the rhythm and follow the singer,” wrote poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a student and champion of flamenco, for his conference “Arquitectura del Cante Jondo,” in 1932. “The guitar is a background for the voice, and must be strictly subjected to the will of the singer. But because the personality of the guitarist is often as strong as that of the cantaor, the guitarist must also sing, and thus falsetas [solo guitar phrases] are born, the commentaries of the strings …”
Over time, however, exceptional musicians such as Ramon Montoya (1880-1949), Niño Ricardo (1904-1972), Sabicas (1912-1990), and the indispensable Paco de Lucía (1947-2014) elevated the technical quality and expectations, built on that modest role and expanded the vocabulary of the guitar in flamenco — and with it, the sound of the entire genre.
Vicente Amigo is part of that continuum.
With his virtuoso technique, distinct sound and expansive approach, he is redefining the sound of flamenco in the 21st century. He has decided to walk a fine line while doing so, however, tending to the tradition, holding on to the jondura (depth), while following his artistic curiosity and opening flamenco to the larger world of music.
He is a poet of the guitar. He has a personal, warmer, rounder-than-standard flamenco sound; muscular yet less aggressive; focused and precise. He also favors a melodic approach with a greater use of space, and well placed, impeccably clean runs. If at times he sounds as if he’s trying to turn the guitar, once a servant to the singer, into a vocalist, it’s because he might be. One of his main objectives on his pop-influenced Paseo de Gracia (2009) was “to sing with the guitar,” he acknowledged then. “I tried to sing with the guitar the melodies that the guests then sung; I tried to make my guitar my vocal chords.”
As a composer, he is a melodist with a knack for catchy lines, and while he certainly knows his palos (styles within flamenco), he might choose for inspiration pop song forms or a fusion with Celtic music, as in his latest recording, Tierra (2013), which includes some of the songs featured tonight.
Not surprisingly then, he has found common ground with some of the great masters of flamenco but also with jazz musicians and pop stars. Having grown up with the classic sound of flamenco, he clearly feels free to explore, adding to his sound, as needed, orchestras and horn sections; drums, accordions and keyboards.
None of this has endeared him to purists.
Amigo shrugs them off.
“I do not like to carry the flamenco flag,” he told easyreadernews.com in 2012. “I like to carry the flag of music, of art, of my feelings. It is what brings everyone together, into my world. I don’t expect an audience to know about flamenco. It is a question of expressing yourself. Within the flamenco world, one artist may think another does not play the true flamenco – but for me, it is just a matter of expressing myself. That is what art is: expressing yourself. And I prefer to speak about flamenco as art.”
Besides, even the most dedicated flamenco purist would have to concede Amigo’s unimpeachable credentials, including his apprenticeship and work with the great guitarist and composer Manolo Sanlúcar, his collaborations with transcendent artists such as Camarón de la Isla and Enrique Morente, and his work with distinguished singers such as José Mercé, El Pele and Diego El Cigala.
“The way I create music is I go out and see what I discover,” he added in the same interview. “There is a base in flamenco; every music has its base, the basics – but music is all about going out and seeing what you discover.”
As for his interest in other genres and combining them with flamenco, “I’ve always been interested in fusions,” he elaborated recently. “We ourselves are a blend of our father and our mother, how could we be against it? Besides, one of the wonders in music is that it’s open-ended, infinite, and where you least expect it, you may find something that enriches you as a musician and as a person.”