The last time a single artist signified an entire genre to me was at the age of 14, when punk was the only music coming out of my headphones, and if someone mentioned reggae they were talking about Bob Marley. Plain and simple--Bob Marley equaled reggae, reggae equaled Bob Marley. My musical collection is now mostly reggae, from Gregory Isaacs to Turbulence, and my 14 year-old ignorance of other reggae artists is now an embarrassing reminder of my connection with every person who, when asked if they like reggae, says something like, “Oh yea, I love Bob Marley.”
It’s haunting. I recently saw “I Am Legend” and was wrapped up in the absurdity of Will Smith, a “huge” Bob Marley fan who creates his life philosophy based on Marley’s lyrics, but whose favorite album is “Legend”--the most overplayed, Starbuck’s-sold, generic, “greatest hits” album that has been produced. Just as I began to poke fun at this contrived premise…the familiar guilt set in--Legend was the first Bob Marley album I bought and the only reggae album I owned for several years.
I guess when you just haven’t investigated what’s out there you are prone to jarringly ignorant subconscious assumptions, so this weekend I decided to hit the Theater District in Manhattan and put an end to another theory of mine, that flamenco music = the Gypsy Kings.
Shockingly, the Gypsy Kings were not even invited to the 2008 New York Flamenco Festival, and on Saturday it was the Tomatito Quintet headed by guitarist Jose Fernandez Torres playing a sold-out show at Town Hall. According to the World Music Institute, Fernandez has “ensured the evolution of flamenco guitar, and secured his own place as the leading flamenco guitarist of his generation and one of the greatest flamenco guitarists of all time.” “Besides the Gypsy Kings” did not appear as a footnote of that last sentence.
El Tomatito took the stage with fellow guitar player El Cristi, percussionist Lucky Losada, vocalist La Tana, and gypsy dancer Jose Maya. All five were dressed in black and had long, dark, brooding hair. Already a bit skeptical of the “Little Tomato,” my suspicions grew when I couldn’t see his hand moving in rhythm with the frenetic Andalucian melodies that filled the concert hall. I wished it was the Gypsy Kings. Then I realized that I couldn’t see his hand physically making the music I was hearing because, from the balcony level, I couldn’t even see his hand move. His outbursts of strumming were so fast that my eye couldn’t pick them up! The complex flamenco rhythms that he produced were a hummingbird flitting from branch to branch with chord changes that required mind-boggling dexterity.
Then that distant, wailing, Spanish female voice I had heard in so many Gypsy Kings songs joined El Tomatito. I had always imagined the source of that voice to be an older woman, maybe a witch, maybe a fortune-teller, but definitely not the young La Tana next to El Tomatito. Flamenco vocals are deeply emotional in the way that they are sung (maybe in the lyrics as well but only La Tana would know), and to produce them she had to feel everything. She flung her arms like a little girl at the height of a tantrum, her body shook like a woman who has seen her husband killed, and her voice jumped wildly between high and low octaves. The experienced flamenco fans applauded with an “OLE!”
Then Jose Maya, the gypsy dancer, walked perfectly and delicately to the center of the stage, threw back his head like a proud matador and with one stamp of his black boot punctuated a strum of El Tomatito’s guitar with a loud CLACK. Maya danced with his feet, with his hands, with his head. He wound his body around the song, his torso bending and contorting, a marionette under the guitar’s progression—all the while his feet tapping fast enough to match El Tomatito’s hand. The crowd lost it, the quintet battled whistles and cheers, Ole echoed throughout the room, the temperature rose and the audience began to sweat, and at that moment I left the Gypsy Kings behind.