In another lifetime, Luis de la Tota could double for Harpo Marx.
This is not an observation you make very often at a flamenco show. The song and dance tradition of Romani Spain is passionate, sly, proud, and complex, but usually not silly.
And yet, when the percussionist took a solo on his cajon, his perfectly timed comedic schtick, full of old-school jokes like catching flies and ogling girls, combined with his devilishly complex rhythmic sleight of hand-and-ear, the audience was laughing out loud. Put him in a curly blond wig and give him a rubber chicken, and you’d be struggling to keep the two artists separate. When you weren’t rolling on the floor.
De la Tota, who is from Jerez but makes his home now in the Northwest, is steeped in his craft, but is also working to bring the next generation of artists along. Watching him was a master class in old school flamenco style, but also in generosity – constantly encouraging his fellow performers, urging them to take a bigger bow and letting the audience know the value of what we had seen.
And we saw some truly stirring work. “Madre Flamenca” featured a trio of dancers, two guitarists and a singer as well as de la Tota. Dancers Estefania “La Ishi,” Amelia Moore, and Esther Marion all tore through their solo work, bringing individual details to their practice. La Ishi opened the dancing part of the program with a defiant quality – she often confronted the audience directly in a wide, powerful stance. Esther Marion seemed to have the most complicated internal rhythms, and some of the more poignant internal narratives – she brought grief to the stage as well as joy. Amelia Moore was the most lyrical of the three, with a sunny quality to her dancing even in the darker passages. Her tango solo had moments of great pathos, but she brought them all to resolution.
Guitarists Jed Miley and Rafael Vargas have technique to spare, but used it to serve the emotional core of the program. Their rhythmic byplay with each other and with de la Tota gave the dancing a clear floor to work with, but came forward in more elaborate phrasing when they worked as a pair. Singer Alfonso Cid also played the flute, but his vocal work was especially compelling. Even for those of us who don’t speak Spanish, and so can’t understand the details of the lyrics, his emotional coloration gave us a fundamental insight on the stories of love and pain that are an integral part of the traditional repertory.
But as engaging as these artists were individually, their ensemble sense was the best part of the evening. Flamenco is often an art form of give and take, and like Contact Improvisation, works best when performers can establish a strong connection among themselves. The whole group seemed to take as much pleasure in performing for each other as they did for the audience. “Madre Flamenca,” an early tribute to Mother’s Day, was an illustration of a different kind of family relationship.
Madre Flamenca played May 13, 2017 at the Royal Room.