Flamenco is an art form as cerebral as it is physical for as much as it is about passionate expression it is also about control. While the feet go a thousand miles an hour, the torso is held still. While men and women dance together, their bodies do not touch. It is this restraint that makes Flamenco so alluring; it is simultaneously emotional and honest and no more so than in the eyes of guitarist Paco Peña.
Peña and his company of dancers and guitarists will travel to Australia to perform Flamenco in Concert at a series of venues from Perth to the east coast during September and October.
Peña is not reticent about the long journey. Rather, as he explains to Fine Music he considers travelling “a part of what I have to do and it sorts of builds up to a performance, a kind of struggle to actually give birth to something interesting which I want to say on the stage”.
Peña embodies the cerebral aspects of Flamenco. He is shy, not “forward–going” enough to dance so chooses instead to “motivate dancers with the music that I play, with my ideas”.
Peña’s music and ideas take centre stage in the first half of Flamenco in Concert, as he will perform solo. Asked if he sees his guitar as an instrument or an extension of himself, he says: “It is really an extension, in human terms, an extension of my words of my feelings and therefore it is of course an instrument but it has to be a responsive instrument to those motivations, to those things I want to say.
“If the guitar is a particular instrument,” he continues, “then it is an instrument that provides percussive elements which the dancer can emulate and use for displaying her art, or his art”.
But it also has a sort of lyrical quality that emulates and projects the very special qualities of the human voice, says Peña. He believes that as a soloist he can bring out both aspects, the rhythmic and the singing. “Those two things are actually part of establishing who I am, what I perform, what I try to project,” he says.
‘Project’ seems the best word to capture what Peña aims to do. He laughs when asked if he sees what he does as performing; he likes the question, he’s just been caught off guard. After giving it some thought he replies, “I have to say it is and it isn’t. Though I am not a forward-going person, on stage I put forward strongly what I believe in musically. Nevertheless, I’m honest in that so there is no performance there”.
But in putting himself on the stage, Peña actually has a very strong mission or commitment to convince, “to bring with me, all those people that have come to see me and hear me so though in a sense it is very honest, from my point of view, it is also something that I have to devise and I suppose that becomes a performance”.
True to art
This theme of honesty extends to the second half of Flamenco in Concert when dancers will join Peña on the stage. The tradition of Flamenco as a hybrid music and dance form is, to Peña, “a very honest articulation of a culture, of the feelings of a culture, which is my culture”.
“It is a very true art form, which touches people, hopefully, in a very special way, even if society now is, thank god, by and large in a very comfortable state of affairs. Flamenco deals with feelings that are almost kind of primordial which are very true and belonging to humanity in a way that people can catch from the performance,” said Peña.
His comments touch on Flamenco’s tumultuous past. Catholic society once persecuted the Gypsies, Moors and Jews who had brought Flamenco to Spain. Peña himself was raised Catholic and, when commissioned to compose a large-scale religious work, set out to reconcile those strands. His Misa Flamenca unites “the Flamenco voice which is very raw, a very emotional and almost careless crying out of emotion… with the well-established, well organised system of the Mass and that rite of the Mass”. It seems as much a humanitarian effort as a compositional one; to set right the history of the art form that defines him and to highlight the universality of the human condition.
Misa Flamenca is as much a part of Peña’s musical ‘journey’ as Flamenco in Concert. Travelling the world is part of his process ‘of actually realising my ambitions, in terms of artistic endeavour.’ Peña says he gains something from every place he visits but this honest and emotional man confesses to having gained something special here. “Australia,” he concludes, “has given me a lot of something very important… confidence”.
– Nicky Gluch