Anyone who believes that the soul of flamenco belongs in its wails of unguarded self-obliteration is going to have a hard time with this disc. In fact, they’re going to have a hard time accepting flamenco nuevo overall, in the same way that someone who loved blues might have a hard time accepting rock ‘n’ roll. The stylistic language of the music is still there, but the number of people using that language has grown and the music has changed to accommodate them, as languages naturally do when they travel and age.
It used to belong to the gypsies alone, and their flamenco was a mixture of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and the strictures of poverty. Practitioners of flamenco nuevo don’t have to be gypsies—they don’t even have to be Spaniards—but they’ve borrowed the simplicity of the gypsy music, its voice, its guitar, the sound of clapping, and they’ve hybridised it, producing flamenco-rock, flamenco-samba, flamenco-jazz, or flamenco-whatever-you-like.
Does Eva Durán’s voice sound too harsh? Add backbeats, as Digitano does here, and with this padding around it the voice seems friendlier. Does flamenco guitar sound fine to you, but really you’d prefer something deeper and more hardcore? Listen to Rodrigo Y Gabriela, who used to be members of a Mexican thrash metal band. Their live acoustic version of “Foc” spends a lot of time pulling off twisty, delirious flourishes, but at one point the guitars start to chug and chop and we realise we’re listening to flamenco-Metallica.
If you prefer hip-hop, then there’s Ojos de Brujo, who had an international hit a few years ago with Bari, an album of scratchy street flamenco. (If you already own Bari then don’t get too excited: so does our compiler.) Javier Ruibal makes a case for romantic, Andalucian flamenco-pop with “Perla De La Medina”, while Solar Sides tries out a house mix, and Mystic Diversions uses a flamenco guitar and Latino drums to keep the surface of “Beneath Another Sky” bouncing in excitement while ambiance runs underneath.
The album finishes with Yasmin Levy, who appeared on the Rough Guide to the Music of Israel earlier this year. “La Alegria” is simpler than the song she sang on Israel, and it does more for her voice; it gives her a chance to show off its flexibility and backbone. She ends with a mournful cry of “Iii-eee-ow” and, in theory at least, we can loop our minds back to the anguished singing of Elena Andújar who started things off with “Perdí La Voz”.
Andújar is matched with a plump set of backing instruments, and they don’t do much except take the threat out of her voice. They smooth and smudge as if they were making eyes at Javier Ruibal. This is where the fan of unguarded self-obliteration is going to wince. Some other folk-modern hybrids use popular styles to make their music sound harder and more dangerous. In this case, it was fierce to start with. I don’t agree that modernisation is emasculating flamenco, as I once heard someone argue, but while I was listening to this disc I sometimes felt coddled. I thought: “Please, throw away the production values and let the woman yell!”
The songs on this Rough Guide are so disparate, linked, in some cases, only tenuously by a shared guitar riff or a pattern of hand-claps, that by the end you might be wondering if flamenco nuevo should be described as a genre at all. You don’t put a modern classical piece and a pop song under ‘rock’ just because they both happen to use a drum and an electric guitar. Of the compilation overall, I can only say that as an essay on the variety that flamenco nuevo can achieve, it does its job well. I don’t like all of the songs, which puts me in the ambivalent position of appreciating an album without completely enjoying it, but listen for yourself and see what you think.