Thelonious Monk did not just play the piano when he played the piano. On some of his recordings, he can be heard vocalizing right along with the keys. He wasn’t really singing, nor did he necessarily expect to be heard by his audience. Somehow, voicing what he played while he played it powered him through his rhythms. Last Saturday night (September 14), Ana Montes did the same with her flamenco dancing. Accompanied by the famed Carmona family of musicians, Ana mouthed her movement, while her heels rapped staccato notes onto the sheet music of Café Solstice’s exposed brick wall. Ana remarked, “my pieces are partially choreographed and open for improvisation…like jazz…”
The rich heritage of flamenco as an art form was underscored in the group’s performance by the familial ties on the stage: the musicians include Rubina and Marcos Carmona , who are wife and husband, and David, their son. Though not related to the Carmonas by blood, the main dancer Ana contains within her body, brain, and passionate heart, the fiery soul of flamenco. Together, they transformed Seattle’s spacious Solstice into a tiny Toledo tapas bar (or a flamenco version of a late-night jazz club). Rubina’s bass-like voice chanted melodies that curled around the space. Ana’s hands were like tendrils of smoke wafting from a late-night bebopper’s vintage cigarro. David’s fingers ran like spiders across the cajón on which he sat. He and Ana spoke to each other with their eyes as well as their rhythms. Marcos bordered on stoic. He looked only at his guitarra, its golden-yellow wood grain accentuating the roses embroidered on Rubina’s black dress, and the pale yellow of Ana’s vast and elegant scarf. Draped around her shoulders and torso like a dress, the scarf’s long, delicate fringe bounced and swayed with her movement like the cilia of an amoeba against her shapely form. Once, as her heels tapped out an impossibly tight beat, her hips shimmied like a belly dancer’s.
In perfect polyrhythm, Ana and Rubina clapped complicated beats. “Our palmas are a very delicate part of our song,” reminded Rubina, in a testament to the rich, rhythmical history of the art form. Like jazz, flamenco exploded onto the art scene, created by the big bang of a cultural mish-mash. In the US, it was African and European musical notes that influenced the development of jazz. In Spain, of course, it was a different historia. The country was ruled for many hundreds of years by Middle Eastern Muslims. It had ancient ties with the Moors of North Africa. It was inhabited by both Roma (often referred to as Gypsies or Gitanos in Spanish) and Jewish people. Thus, this uniquely Spanish art form is a conglomeration of influences from all these cultures. For example, the guitar comes to flamenco from the Roma people. In fact, another term for “guitar” in Spanish is instrumento gitano, or “Gypsy instrument.”
When people think of flamenco, the image that pops to mind is often a woman in a red, frilly dress, spinning to reveal a shapely leg or two. However, according to Ana, the singing (canté) came first. The dancer is a percussion instrument, who focuses mainly on the polyrhythms of the feet and the grace of the hands; the palmas as rhythm instruments came even before the dancing, which may, in turn, have arisen before the guitarra. The dancer is also the embodiment of the intense emotion of the song, highlighted by the rich, spiralling tones of the voice.
Interestingly, the cajón that David played last Saturday originated not in Spain, but in Peru. African drums were outlawed by the Spanish conquistadores. So, in an ingenious early recycling method, Afro-Peruvians used discarded fruit crates instead; cajón literally means “crate.” Over time, it has developed into a codified instrument incorporated into many kinds of music. In this case, the cajón, the palmas, and Ana’s rapping heels wove a rope of inseparable rhythm.
Together, the group was a powerful force to be reckoned with, exploring intense emotion, making deliciously complicated music, and honoring the roots of their art form. Fortunately, the group can be seen again on October 19 and November 30. Visit www.anamontes.com, www.facebook.com/flamencodanzarte, or www.fanw.org/carmonaflamenco for more information about these upcoming performances.