Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bebo and Diego

Last night, we witnessed the magic of Spanish Gitano (gypsy) cantaor Diego el Cigala and Afro-Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés at the Royal Festival Hall. This ended up being a real treat for me as my knowledge of flamenco -- indeed, most Latin -- music is very poor.

El Cigala was born in 1968 and began singing on the streets of Madrid before accompanying flamenco dancers on stage. The strength and passion of his voice soon distinguished him as a solo artist. Valdés was born in 1918 and has been playing the piano in Cuba and in Europe for more than 60 years. He is considered a pioneer of Afro-Cuban music. Last year, the two artists released the heartfelt Lágrimas Negras (Black Tears) -- an album that fused rumbas, guajira, sons and boleros, and won the two stars a Grammy.

Flamenco has always been a mélange of musical traditions, from the gypsies who brought their music perhaps from northern India, through Spanish, Jewish, Arabic and Berber influences, to blending with the blues, jazz, hip hop and rock. El Cigala's blend of flamenco and blues is produced by a voice that is hoarse and soulful: the voice of a man who drinks too many whiskys, smokes too many cigars and has had his heart broken one too many times. And yet this is a man who is in such command of his voice that what fills the hall is mellow, smooth and heart-stoppingly beautiful.

I'm not a fan of Latin jazz (much contemporary jazz at all, in fact), but Valdés plays with such virtuosity and flourish that I was captivated by the melodies spinning out of his fingers as they danced across the piano keys.

The band also included a mournful double-bass, skittish percussion and shuffling cajon. The musicians faced each other in a circle and played to each other in a call-and-response style that was so intimate, our presence as an audience felt like an intrusion.

Yes, I was utterly seduced.

Related links:

+ "I began to discover similarities between Cuban and Spanish music. For example, there's a malagueña cadence which is exactly the same as our guaguancó. As in many other cases, there are similar rhythms and harmonies thanks to African and Indian influences." Interview with Bebo Valdés.

+ "In flamenco there's more and more desire to learn all the time, people are dying to create." Interview with Diego el Cigala.

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