[30 September 2007]
The first Rough Guide to Flamenco came out in 1998. In those days World Music Network looked less like a juggernaut than it does now and the albums they released were almost ridiculously general. There was The Rough Guide to West Africa (which later they broke down into Rough Guides to Mali and Guinea, Senegal and Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana, the Sahara, and the oldies disc, West African Gold), The Rough Guide to India (later, Rough Guides to Ravi Shankar, Mohd. Rafi, etc), The Rough Guide to Brazil (now Brazilian Hip Hop, Rio de Janeiro, Samba) and so on. This second edition of Flamenco comes a year after the Rough Guide to Flamenco Nuevo, suggesting that someone listened to the flailing Nuevo, winced, and decided to go back to the drawing board.
The label’s co-founder Phil Stanton compiled the first edition. This time the job has gone to Jan Fairley. According to the CV on her website she writes for fRoots and Songlines, practices Taoist Tai Chi, and once put together a three-disc Flamenco compilation for Nascente. Call her now if you have work that needs doing; the woman knows her stuff. This new compilation is not like the old one. I’m guessing that the difference comes down to a combination of two things. The first is obvious in that two different compilers have two different tastes and if you ask them to pick the best of anything they will choose two different sets.
The second thing is time. New groups have formed, new albums have come out and Flamenco has grown in popularity. Consequently, Fairley has got more music to choose from than Stanton ever did. Flamenco, like other forms of folk music in other countries, suffered when rock ‘n’ roll floated over the borders back around the middle of the 1900’s, but after stumbling and shaking for a while it has managed to get back on its feet.
Stanton’s album had a tough presence. He liked the sound of physical effort, heels on the ground, a palm smacking the body of a guitar, speed and clapping hands. His choices are suggestive of something muscular; full of dust and dirt, untidiness, and the mystical, cleansing pain of duende. Fairley is neater. She’s an indoors woman. The guitars and handclaps and powerful voices are still here, (it’s not as if you could get rid of them and still call it flamenco with a straight face), but they’re being aimed in a new, less messy direction. The two Guides share some of the same musicians, with one track repeated, Tomatito and Camerón’s “La Voz del Tiempo”. The easiest way to assess the differences between them is to compare the two songs from Tomasa La Macanita.
“Bulería De La Mocinta”, La Macanita’s song from the first edition, is fast, forceful, and sudden. The singer vibrates hoarsely over rough clapping. A male audience keeps her company. In Fairley’s compilation the clapping melts under a smooth guitar and the hoarseness of La Macanita’s voice is less emphatic. The expression of strength in her bulería becomes “sensually slow”, as the compiler points out in the notes.
So if Stanton chooses the raw energy that leaves you gasping then Fairley seeks the more refined and complex. She’s the light, complicated laugh, he’s the bark of the older man. Actually that’s misleading as he chooses longer tracks than she does. There’s nothing on the second edition that comes near the length of the first edition’s seven-and-a-half-minute Chano Lobato number, “A Quien Contarle”. Lobato creates empty spaces and then gradually consents to fill them with tense shivers of guitar, as if the sea is slowly brimming over the rim of a rockpool and finally spilling into it, drawing back, then rushing in again on the next wave. Lobato’s rough voice feels around like the voice of a recovering mute realising his vowels.
Fairley’s equivalent of Lobato’s long exercise would be Miguel Poveda’s “Tierra del Calma” which similarly stretches the vowels out but trims them into shape at the ends. The idea of a lingering guitar is sketched in and then the song moves on. The whole album is like this, it has the idea of flamenco without the agonised prolongations that lead to passionate explosions. It has the idea of passion, but in a tidier form.
I’m probably making it sound weak, but it isn’t, not really. Just different. Fairley has more music to get through and less time to dawdle over pauses. That’s how it sounds. This album is ten minutes shorter than the first one and manages to cover a wider terrain. She leaves out Carmen Linares, which is unexpected and a shame. Pata Negra, whose role as pioneering flamenco rockers used to garner them a reasonable amount of attention, have been displaced by the more up-to-date sound of Ojos de Brujo, who are represented by “Sultanas de Merkaíllo”, from their last album, Techari. The clumsier hybrids and fusion-for-the-sake-of-it people were siphoned away by The Rough Guide to Flamenco Nuevo. We’ve been left with a taut, toned album, no-nonsense, shapely, cutting to the chase, always flamenco, but new with each track. The Rough Guide to Flamenco (Second Edition) is summed up best somehow by Martirio’s “Romance de la Rosa”, a strong and delicate piece of work that never quite reaches the extremes of passion to which it refers.