Then when I came to the United States I became very interested in the guitar. At that time I was more into the electric guitar, blues, rock, and jazz until I heard flamenco guitar. If you like guitar, flamenco guitarists are into a very, very high level of technique. I love technique and I love people that play with feeling and that is really what flamenco is—a lot of technique and feeling, a lot of soul.
Flamenco is so old that the real roots are not really known, but we can trace them starting in India. Then from there, there are different beliefs. Some people believe that it went through Arabia, Morocco, Africa, and then up into Andalusia. Other people believe that it came down through the north of Spain and ended up in Andalusia. Definitely it ended up in Andalusia, which is the south of Spain. And from there it is from the gypsies. They always have been persecuted throughout history and finally settled up in the hills of Andalusia. And from there flamenco started taking form, carrying all of the influences from Moorish, Moroccan, African, and Indian music, from all of the different Middle Eastern countries. That is the beauty of flamenco—having all of those influences. It really came from the gypsies. This is their art—they are the ones who originated it and they are the ones who do it better than anyone else. Up until this date, it still belongs to the gypsies. They are still the kings of flamenco.
What is some of the basic terminology that fans of flamenco music and dance should be familiar with?
The most famous one, the one that everybody knows is olé. This is a cheer like “come on.” Most of the time, you use it to encourage the performers or the students. In the art itself, there is palmas, which is handclapping. It is a very important aspect of flamenco. It is very important, very complicated—most people would think that doing handclapping/palmas would be very basic. There are actually very few people in the world or here in the United States who can do handclapping for flamenco. Baile is the dance, cante is the singing, and toque is the guitar playing. Those phrases are always associated with flamenco. There is one very important one: duende. Duende has different meanings. One of the meanings is for when there is a performance that is so incredible that the spirit of the artist is carried through the audience. Then they say that is duende. Duende means “ghost,” meaning that there is a ghost that takes over the whole theater, because the artists are so into the music that it carries them to the audience, that they become one—like being possessed. So, duende is very important—very, very important—in flamenco. Having duende also means having the art, having the spirit of flamenco—being flamenco, knowing the art really well. Being a great musician, that is all part of duende. So, that is probably one of the most important phrases of flamenco: duende. They use that a lot for different aspects of flamenco; it is a very beautiful word too.
The history of Anita Sheer, the San Jose Flamenco Society’s founder, is intriguing. What was her background and how did she come to establish the Society in San Jose?
I think when she was 11 or 13 years old, she was living in New York and was very interested in guitar. And at that time, for many, many years in the United States one of the most famous guitarists from Spain was Carlos Montoya. Most Americans know of him or used to—I do not know nowadays. Anita looked in the Yellow Book and she saw that he lived in New York, and so she went and found out where his house was. She went and knocked at the door. His wife opened the door and Anita said that she wanted to study guitar with Carlos Montoya. He came out and he said, “No, I don’t teach—I don’t give lessons.” So, then she asked him if he could play something for her. Here was this little girl and he thought, “How cute.” He came and played for her. So, she left and went home and learned the piece that Carlos Montoya had just played. She came back and showed it to him and he was just so amazed by it that he did take her as one of his pupils, and she has been the only one who Carlos Montoya ever taught. So from then on, she started learning and becoming really good. She was a composer, piano player, flamenco guitarist, and singer, and then she got into folk music. She did tour with some of the greats, like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Simon and Garfunkel. She was doing a lot of the festivals in the early Sixties. She also had a lot of TV appearances. At the age of 14, she was on the Johnny Carson Show. She did a lot of TV commercials. She toured Europe. She got a lot of fame in England in the early Sixties, so then she put out a folk album—very, very beautiful—and she put out a couple of flamenco albums.
Then she came to the United States. She came to settle in the Bay Area. And that was 25 years ago. Then she started the Flamenco Society, a non-profit organization promoting the art of flamenco like what we do now. It was run by a Board of Directors, getting support from the City of San José. She set up the dance academy that we still continue. She was the guitar instructor at that time. She started bringing in a lot of great artists—she brought a lot of the greats like Sabicas, Juan Serrano, Los Romeros, and José Greco. She worked with Carlos Montoya—more of the traditional people who were the greatest artists at that time.
She passed away 13 years ago—she died of cancer very unexpectedly. From then on, I have carried on what she had been doing. It was a very beautiful thing that she did and I wanted it just to continue . . . And we are still here.
She was a very incredible performer—very talented. There are not that many females that sing flamenco and play guitar. She was also a professor at De Anza College. She would teach flamenco there and they were very popular classes—really popular classes. There was so much demand that it would take about a year just to get into the classes that she was teaching.
There were recordings that she did right before she died. She was finishing an album that has never been published because of copyright issues, which is too bad because I think that it would have been a successful recording.
What is the mission of the Society? Have the mission and focus of its activities evolved over the 23 years that it has been in existence?
The Society started out promoting the art of flamenco, and we do this through teaching classes. We have from Beginning Flamenco to Advanced. We do informal performances called juergas. That is another word very popular in flamenco, which has a different meaning here in the United States. In Spain, a juerga is when people meet informally and it turns into a jam session . . . Like in a patio, a gypsy will come out and start playing the guitar. And then another one will come out and start singing. And then another one will come out and start dancing—three days later there are 20 musicians jamming. That is what is what a juerga is—really an informal jam session. Over here we do it more formally at a theater, which is not a juerga. We do have audience participation, so that is the part that we use as a juerga, but it is more formal.
The Society has evolved now into promoting more of the bigger artists from Spain. Before we used to work more with the people who were coming to the United States, but now we actually go to Spain and bring some of the greatest. We have worked with the traditional to the new, modern flamenco guitarists, from Paco de Lucia, who is probably the most well-know flamenco guitarist in the world, to all the great young guitarists—like Vicente Amigo, Gerardo Nunez, and Canizares—dancers, singers, and groups that come out of Spain. So, our mission is still educating the public through dance and guitar classes. We also do workshops on castanets, palmas/handclapping, guitar, and cante/singing—so anything related to flamenco. So, our mission continues, just promoting the art through formal concerts, juergas, and educating the public.
When the Flamenco Society was founded were there many flamenco organizations in California–or even the United States—at that time?
No, there were not that many and still up to this day there are not that many. There are some organizations that come and go, but they are not as organized. The dancers are usually the ones that start an organization, but they come and go. The Flamenco Society is very unique because we are organized with a Board of Directors, with a budget supported by grants, and with an office and studios. Usually the Artistic Director is the main performer and dances in the shows. In this case, I do play the guitar, but I am not a professional flamenco guitarist so I do not take part in the shows. I used to, but I do not do that anymore, so now I am more into organizing the shows, doing the administration, hiring the artists, putting the shows together—but not putting myself in the show like most other Artistic Directors do.
Is flamenco as it is performed in the United States divergent from what one would experience in Spain and, if so, what are some of the ways that it has been adapted by American performers?
Yes, it is very different. For one thing, the flamenco gypsies are not here. This is the gypsies’ art. They are in Spain and there is no way to come to the same stature of what the gypsies do. For them, it is not only an art—it is a way of living. They do it as a lifestyle; they do not do it because it is something for entertainment. They have been doing it since they were born. Before they are born they already have duende. It is in them—it is in their blood. This is something that they do all their lives with their families, something that they carry on. So how can you compete with something like that? In the United States, most people just do it occasionally. Over there you have it constantly. You are listening to it, they are talking about it, and performing. It is all around you.
Over here, you just go to a class one or twice a week and you know only a few people who do it, so of course it is going to be different. But, at the same time, there are some great artists here in the Bay Area. What they do usually is to go to Spain to absorb the art. Usually they go once a year or more. Many of the artists here have lived in Spain for many, many years and have absorbed a lot.
There is a place called Morón de la Frontera, which is in the South of Spain. There was an American called Donn Pohren who went there and opened up a flamenco ranch. He set up classes and great flamenco artists at this ranch. Flamenco has different sounds depending on the region. So in this region, the flamenco has a “Morón de la Frontera sound.” A lot of the artists from the United States [in the Sixties] went over there to study at Donn Pohren’s ranch. That was a big thing for flamenco in that region. Most of them [the American artists] stuck with that sound and came back over here with the Morón sound and artists, so this became kind of a duplication of what was going on in Morón. A lot of those artists are not around any more. Now there is a new and different sound and new artists, but for a while a lot of the artists in the Bay Area were influenced by the Morón de la Frontera flamenco sound. They are still around and still performing, but they kind of got stuck on that sound. Things have changed now and it is different. We have some great artists here and some very great dancers. One of our new instructors for the Society is named Fanny [Ara] and right now she is getting very popular. She is going to tour in South America. Her name is becoming very, very well known as a flamenco dancer.
There is great art despite of how hard it is here in the United States in that we do not have as many people as there are in Spain. For the audience it is very hard because they are only going to see a few shows. Here [in the South Bay] there are very few shows on a regular basis. Otherwise, you have to go to San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland. There are some shows there, but usually it is the same people presenting the same artists because that is where they live and that is where their organization is. Santa Cruz is another good place for flamenco. The Bay Area is one of the best places in the United States for flamenco. Now, Washington, D.C. and Miami have really developed. Now places like New Mexico are really good, as well as Chicago. Washington, D.C. and Miami are the prime places for flamenco. It is getting harder in the Bay Area because to bring people from Spain is very costly and it is a long trip. It is easy for them to come into Washington, D.C. and Miami. For them to come here costs more money. We are missing out on a lot of the artists coming here unless the Society or another organization brings them. That is part of what we do when we can.
I was born in Colombia, in South America. I lived there until I was 14. Most people associate flamenco with Latin America, but it is not true. I am sure that there are a lot of flamenco aficionados in Latin American countries like Colombia, but it is not a music that most people would listen to. You become familiar with it because of Spain, the mother country that we admire and love the music of, but it is something that you just hear on the radio once in a while. You may see shows here and there, but it is not really something that you are really involved in. It was just a music that I heard, but did not really know what it was. It did not mean much to me.
Then when I came to the United States I became very interested in the guitar. At that time I was more into the electric guitar, blues, rock, and jazz until I heard flamenco guitar. If you like guitar, flamenco guitarists are into a very, very high level of technique. I love technique and I love people that play with feeling and that is really what flamenco is—a lot of technique and feeling, a lot of soul. And I heard flamenco guitar and thought, “What is that?” From there on, I wanted to investigate more about flamenco. All through the years I had bought a lot of flamenco recordings, but I do not know why. It might have been in me somehow. I really became interested in what flamenco was. Then when I became really infatuated with it, one day I just packed up—I was single at that time with no kids—and went to Spain. I took a backpack and said, “I’m going to Spain to find flamenco.” I went to all of the places where I had heard there was flamenco and walked around the streets asking people where to find it. I listened to a lot of the real stuff and picked up a lot of recordings. Then I came back and saw an ad in the newspaper from the Flamenco Society that they were having a show and they also wanted people to join the Board. I did not even know who they were. I just called them and said that I wanted to be part of the Board. They said, “Come and see our show and we will talk to you.” I went and watched their shows from there on and I was in love with it. I became a volunteer and then I became part of the Board of Directors. Then I started working closely with Anita Sheer. By the time that she passed away, it was a natural thing for me to take part in the artistic side of things. At that time, I was studying with Anita. I started taking flamenco guitar classes and going to Spain about once a year. I also came back and took part in various flamenco groups for a while. I did a couple of solo flamenco performances. After I became Artistic Director, I became more involved with the administration and left the playing part of it. I work hiring the artists instead of being one of the artists.
Who comprises the Society’s students and audiences?
We have a very wide range of students, from eight years old to a very advanced age. There are males and females—mostly females. There is not really one particular age and there are all from different backgrounds. One of our instructors, Koko de la Isla, is Japanese. Flamenco in Japan is another story. That is where it is most popular—more than in Spain. Various flamenco artists from Spain go to Japan.
For the guitar classes, most of the students are males. Mostly they are younger—maybe from 18 to 33. For the singing classes, the students are more elderly. Usually males are the ones who study that. As far as the audience for our performances goes, usually it is an audience between 30 to 80 years old. Most of them are Americans. These are people who have gone to Spain. They may have seen flamenco shows and they like it. They want to come here and hear it. They see an ad in the paper and want to find out more about it. There are also a lot of the family members of the students. We like to target more of a younger audience and have been trying to do more outreach to 14 to 15 year old high school kids. But, that is kind of hard. What attracts them is not so much of the dancing, which more of the other people like. The younger people like more of the music. They want to see more of the groups and guitarists. It is kind of a harder audience to keep interested. That is why we have to be variable in what we do to give people what they want, but at the same time educate people about the different aspects of flamenco, that it is not just dance.
There is so much in flamenco. The real flamenco is cante—dancing came later on. Originally flamenco was only done with cante—singing—that was called flamenco. There were no guitarists. All that they used were the palmas—the handclapping—for many, many years. Then after that came the guitarists and then the dancing. If you are a real flamenco aficionado, someone who really knows the art, what you are really going to be interested in is the cante. It is something that you have to acquire a taste for. The more that you learn, the more that you are going to develop a taste for it. It is like a good wine, something that you really have to know. If you really understand flamenco, then you are going to understand the singing. It is incredible. Flamenco singing is something very beautiful, very amazing. You do not have to know the language because a lot of times even if you know the language, you do not understand what they are saying, but sometimes it makes it more interesting to know the language. It does help with singing to know it. The accents are another thing. There are different flamenco singers that have different accents, from different regions that have different sounds. Flamenco is very complicated—really one of the most complicated forms of music. Probably Indian music is the only other form of music that I can think of that is harder than flamenco. That is where some of flamenco’s influences came from. There is also a little resemblance in the dancing. As I mentioned, we can trace flamenco to India. Most flamenco artists love Indian music because of the resemblance in the sound and the feeling of the music.
Where do you see the Society in another 20 years?
We will continue to present the greatest and newest flamenco artists from Spain. Flamenco has evolution. In 20 years we do not know what flamenco is going to be. Hopefully it is going to still be the kind of art that we are going to want to continue to promote. A lot of what we do is to bring the new artists who are well-known in Spain, but who do not have a name until we get them out of the country. We bring them here and introduce them to our audiences in the United States. From there, a lot of people become big fans of the people who are already big in Spain. They do not know of them until we bring them here. We want to continue that legacy, to bring some of the greats from Spain and give them exposure here in the United States. Getting exposure here is a big thing because it is such a big country. A lot of flamenco artists want to come here because of the large numbers of people who hear of them. When they come here and tour it is very good for them and for the audience—it is a two-way thing. We want to continue that and to continue giving classes.
The dream for us would be to have a whole center for flamenco where we have, all in one location, our studios; offices; a store where you can go buy CDs, dresses, castanets—everything related to flamenco; a restaurant where people can come and have Spanish food; and a theater. There is one similar place in San Francisco where they have a restaurant and a theater where they perform. It is run by a Spanish organization. I would like to have a place where people come in and they feel that they are in Spain, in Andalusia. They can be in downtown San José, but when they are in the center they feel that they are in Spain. I would love to do something like that. Hopefully, maybe someday we will.
Learn more about the San José Flamenco Society’s history, classes, and upcoming events by visiting their Web site.
Interview Details: August 29, 2009. San Jose, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.
Images courtesy Eddie Diaz.