Mark McDermott

The Los Angeles Flamenco Festival takes flight in Redondo Beach this weekend

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The very first Los Angeles Flamenco Festival, which took place in 2010 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Photo by Sari Makki

It began as a wandering song of sorrow. It became music of shared suffering and defiant survival.

Flamenco may be the world’s most mysterious music. It is not so much a musical genre as a wild river of song, one that traces its origins back to India, perhaps as far back as 1,000 years ago. Historians believe that the Roma people – Gypsies, as we would later know them – found their way to Spain around the turn of the 10th century. Some believe they came from the caste of the “untouchables” in India, and by 1492 they were outcasts once again, on the run with the Moors and the Jews as the Inquisition sought to wipe out the non-Christian peoples of Spain.

The music that began to emerge from the hills of southern Spain around that time had elements of Jewish laments and Moorish singing while some of the accompanying dance movements were reminiscent of Hindi dances of South Asia.

The river that is Flamenco has been meandering ever since.

“Flamenco never really tells a story,” writes Ethan Blumenstrach on the liner notes to a recent album by flamenco artist Adam del Monte. “It’s more of a ‘cry in the dark’, a gasp in anguish, an appeal towards God, that by its very nature accompanies the poor, the oppressed and the afflicted. It’s a complete art form, encompassing hypnotic dance, inspired song, intricate palm-work and percussion, and most singularly, the guitar, to express both anguish and exaltation, and often both in the same musical note. Most historians point to Moorish and Jewish influence – two outlawed cultures during the Spanish Inquisition – as to the music’s origin. It evolved haphazardly across Andalusia, informed by Greek, Byzantine and other Mediterranean affectations, and finally by dirt-poor gypsies eking out an often checkered existence in the cafe cantantes of Madrid during the late 19th century.”

And so it should come as little surprise that the annual Los Angeles Flamenco Festival comes to Redondo Beach by way of a Korean from Hawaii and includes a Spanish guitar virtuoso, a master player from Israel who studied in the ancient caves of Andalusia, and full-blooded gypsy dancers from San Francisco.

Flamenco, after all, is about movement.

In 1996, Mitch Chang was studying classical guitar at the University of Hawaii when his professor, Lisa Smith, asked him if he’d accompany some Flamenco dancers as they practiced.

“I don’t think I even like it,” he told her.

She insisted. “Knowing your personality, your style, and your temperament, I think it would fit you,” Smith said.

“Huh,” Chang said.

If Chang didn’t know the power and passion of flamenco yet, he caught a glimpse when he arrived at the rehearsal and discovered the guitar player who preceded him had run off to Vegas to marry with one of the flamenco dancers. Later, the guitarist he trained to take his place with the flamenco troupe would do the same.

“So I was kind of the left-out loser,” Chang said, laughing.

But flamenco gave him flight in another way; Chang found a new freedom of expression. When he played flamenco, everything he felt seemed somehow to pour through the strings of his guitar.

“For me, all my happiness, sadness, my anger, it all combines into one and that is how it makes me feel,” Chang said. “Not to sound corny, but I think it just kind of makes me feel, period.”

Chang became one of the better flamenco players on the islands, and began promoting shows that brought Flamenco performers in from all over the world. Flamenco eventually took him to the mainland, to San Francisco, where a rich Flamenco community exists. Later, he moved to Southern California. Over the past five years, he began promoting festivals again – in particular, the historic and very successful Hawaiian Slack Key Festival at Redondo Beach. This week, he will produce his third Los Angeles Flamenco Festival, also at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

Adam del Monte performing at 2010's LA Flamenco Festival. He will perform again Sunday at this year's festival. Photo by Sari Makki

Fittingly, this festival features two of Chang’s greatest heroes – the legendary Vicente Amigo (see story) as well as Adam del Monte, an LA-based artist whose playing actually inspired Chang to move to California. del Monte, though born in Israel, spent part of his childhood in Spain and returned as a young man to apprentice in flamenco. del Monte studied in the famed Sacromonte caves of Granada – a Gypsy district where the old traditions are passed on. Among his teachers was the legendary Pepe Habichuela. He also studied more formally at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. His experiences have enabled him to stride through two worlds that are rarely bridged – he is an accomplished classical guitarist as well as a flamenco artist.

del Monte came to California 19 years ago, at the age of 26, with the specific intention of broadening his own river of flamenco.

“I came here because I wanted to expand my musical horizons, and journey, and collaborations,” del Monte said. “At the time, 20 years ago, there was, certainly more than today, a much more conservative attitude about using [flamenco] with other world music elements. And I was compelled to do just that. And so LA I think was a very fitting place for that to happen – I played with a lot of jazz musicians, indie musicians, Arab musicians. That gave me sort of an avenue to explore others cultures through flamenco.”

“I’ve played with Persian musicians, I’ve played with Armenian musicians,” he added. I mean, you name it, anything in LA, I’ve done it – that has a musical resonance and cultural relevance to flamenco. All these cultures I’ve mentioned have some kind of near or distant influence on flamenco. I mean, people would not think Armenian music has influence on flamenco, but in some strange way it very well could have, because when the gypsy’s passed on their way to Spain they passed through Armenia, they stayed there for a while. You listen to Armenian kanoun music that is played only by women there is a very clear pattern of buleria, a specific flamenco form, that is exactly what those Armenian women are playing. It’s astounding how similar it is – in fact it is not just similar, it’s actually the same. Only the buleria has become more evolved, with other influences, African influences, Indian influences, and Spanish influences…But there is definitely an Armenian imprint there somewhere.

del Monte noted that America generally and LA specifically has a rich flamenco history of its own. Perhaps the greatest flamenco dancer of all time, Carmen Amaya, came to Hollywood in the 1940s, giving the art form the largest audiences it had ever had. And the magnificent and deeply influential flamenco guitarist Sabicas – who sometimes accompanied Amaya – also came to live in America and often played in LA.

del Monte credits Chang as a centralizing force in increasingly vibrant LA flamenco scene through his work in bringing such legendary artists as Diego Cigala and Vicente Amigo to the area and in creating the LA Flamenco Festival itself. He noted that in the past such performers rarely if ever visited the LA area.

“It is something at some point someone would have had to have done – thank god it was someone like Mitch with both the integrity and audacity to bring the best of the best here,” del Monte said. “LA has so much diversity and so much talent but sometimes it seems like a third world city and it is ignored. I mean, what is LA, chopped liver? So someone like Mitch had to step in and raise the profile to where it belongs, as a world stage featuring all this cultural diversity and really high level art.”

Ana Ramiro, a spokeswoman from the tourist office of Spain in Los Angeles, said that Chang’s work has been vitally important to flamenco community in Southern California.

“Mitch´s success is just a result of the passion he feels for Flamenco,” Ramiro said. “When I first met him I realized the way he feels flamenco… as natural as the air he breaths. Having Vicente Amigo opening the flamenco festival this year is a gift to all of us, and we should thank Mitch for that.”

“Flamenco is what it is… and each one of us feels it in a different way,” Ramiro said. “It is an universal art, and as any other art it has no limits… It´s passion, pain, joy, excitement, and many other feelings combined in a very special way of expressing our souls. And it is capable of touching so many souls that UNESCO recently declared this art as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

In a radio interview last week on the KPFK, del Monte said Chang has become the definition of the perfect musical promoter in LA.

“If you looked up idealism with realism and with very big cojones, the picture of Mitch Chang would show up,” he said. “It’s the combination of all the above and the ability to really forge ahead with something of such weight and quality, especially inside the musical métier of LA – it’s essential.”

Vicente Amigo headlines Los Angeles Flamenco Festival March 24 at 8 p.m. The festival continues Sunday with Teatro Flamenco, Adam Del Monte, and Nino De Los Reyes. See laflamencofestival.com for tickets and more information.

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