Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Hidden Movement of Carmona Flamenco

by Ramon Shiloh

Nestled in the hilly district of West Seattle is Flamenco Arts Northwest (FANW), an organization dedicated to elevating students’appreciation of, and discipline to, the art form of Flamenco. Founded in 1996 by Executive Director Marcos Carmona and his wife, Rubina, FANW has secured a large following of fans, dedicated artists, musicians and singers who are drawn to the rhythms of this emotional craft.
Utilizing the voice, guitar, percussion instruments and dance, Flamenco is one of the most complex genres in performance art, Rubina explains, because there are so many variables that come into play. “It’s a very difficult technique. It’s very demanding. Any student who has experimented in any of the disciplines – dancing, singing or guitar playing – is going to tell you that Flamenco is the hardest thing they’ve ever studied.”
Although Flamenco is considered a Spaniard art form, the elements that define this genre are poverty, emotional hardship and displacement. Born amongst dissident Christians, Jews, Arabs and Gitanos who lived in Andalusia, Spain, the somber, controlled expressions are truly the product of many cultural influences.
The Carmonas, who are both of Jewish descent, point out that their heritage has had enormous influence on the art form. “I would say that among the North American Flamenco, next to people of Hispanic decent, Jews are the biggest ethnic group. The singing is one-quarter Jewish,” Rubina explains. “The music is Jewish, Muslim, Gypsy, European Spaniard, North Africa and the Middle East. That’s a heavy mix. In the dance, you have a very strong influence from India. There are certain foot techniques identical to kathak, a North Indian classical dance. That’s from the Gypsies coming into Spain from India in the 1450s. Their styles and rhythms mingled with European and Arabic styles of dance.”

Flamenco in the Northwest

Rubina and Marcos have been performing throughout the U.S. and Spain for 30 years. Together, they form one of the most enduring and successful Flamenco ensembles, Carmona Flamenco, outside of Spain. The Pacific Northwest has been their home base since 1988, when they began performing regularly with dancer Ana Montes in concert and cabaret venues in the area. Carmona Flamenco also performed at the Allegro Dance Festival for a number of years, appeared at the Kirkland Performance Center and helped launch the Arts West and Music Northwest organizations
“We did a lot to get Flamenco out there to raise awareness. In time, it grew enormously,” Marcos says. “We have also taught many students who formed what we now call guerilla groups. They do their own thing and we are proud of that.”

In 1999, Carmona Flamenco released its first and only CD, “Reflejos“, which serves as a reflection of the Carmonas’ respect and commitment to the art form. “We’re performing artists, not recording artists. That’s why we only have the one CD. We are constantly working to develop new material all the time. We improvise, so we can instill variations into the same thing.”
Another group that performs under the FANW banner is La Peña Flamenca de Seattle, which formed in 1995 to showcase the talents of aficionados and emerging professionals who perform with Carmona Flamenco. The explosion of La Peña currently includes 22 dancers, plus guitarists, vocalists and other musicians who range in age and multicultural backgrounds. La Peña provides an engaging learning and performing environment, as well as a great social opportunity for adults and mature teenagers.
Over the past several years, the annual La Peña concert has moved from a small 90-seat hall to a beautiful 200-seat facility. Seattle area performances have also included the Broadway Performance Hall, On the Boards, Asian Art Museum, Folklife Fiestas Patrias, Nippon Kan Theater, Century Ballroom, Dance on Capitol Hill Theater, Hokum Hall and the University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Theatre.

It’s a Family Affair

Conveying a specific mood is at the heart of Flamenco. Rubina’s melodic cante (singing) is accentuated by a haunting depth that can be likened to an emotional aria. Her rhythmic palmas (hand claps) keep time with the stomping of her feet in the baile (dance), preserving this beautiful art form in its purest form.

Rubina first began her artistic journey in the Bay Area of California, where she grew up. “I’ve always been attracted to dance and music, so I’ve always pursued some type of musical education,” she reminisces. “I studied woodwind instruments in junior high and high school and sang in choruses. I didn’t have much opportunity to pursue dance until high school when I joined the modern dance department. Fortunately, I was able to have the opportunity to have these resources in public schools.”
Rubina spent her college years studying Anglo American folk music, as well as Balkan and Greek folk dancing. She even spent a year and a half playing with Jerry Garcia. “When I was doing folk music in San Francisco, I met Jerry Garcia, Bob Hunter and those folks before they were the Grateful Dead. We were doing Bluegrass together. I sang with them and started playing dulcimer and a little banjo. We played until they went their way and I went mine.” Rubina says as soon as she discovered Flamenco, she left everything else behind.
In March 2007, at the Ethnic Heritage Council’s 26th annual dinner and awards ceremony in Seattle, Rubina was presented with the Gordon Ekvall Tracie Memorial Award for her significant contributions to the preservation and presentation of ethnic arts in the Pacific Northwest. The honor is a well deserved tribute to a woman who has spent her life passing on her knowledge and expertise to a new generation of Flamenco artists.
When you hear Marcos play the guitar, you find yourself lost in the breathtaking range and energy of his music. His traditional and contemporary performances include basic Flamenco guitar techniques, such as arpeggios (broken chord), alzapua (thumb technique), rasqueados (strumming) and picado. Each technique is designed to elicit an emotion, emphasizing the dignity and elegance so typical of the traditional Flamenco.
Marcos’ artistic journey began in San Francisco, where he first learned how to play the trumpet and violin. It was during his high school years that his love for the guitar was permanently sealed. Marcos joined the folk music movement in the 1960s, but never strayed too far away from the popular music of the time. When he fell into Flamenco, he knew he had found a genre that offered him unlimited challenges.
“It was the cante that grabbed my attention,” Marcos recalls. “That, to me, is the part I love the most. The guitar and the dance come next in terms of importance, not in terms of commercial success, but in terms of hierarchy. But, on the stage, it’s usually the opposite way around. The dance is looked at first.”
The Carmonas’ youngest child, 26-year-old David Carmona, has also become a permanent fixture of Carmona Flamenco during the past six years. His percussion style is extraordinarily hypnotic, accompanying his mother and father as they weave through the passages of song and dance.
David’s percussion is the cajón (crate), a box that is played by slapping the front face with the hands. Traditionally, the cajón did not have an integral role in Flamenco, but it became widely accepted in the late 1970s. Associated with the Afro-Cuban Rumba, the hardest part of learning to play the cajón is mastering the complicated rhythmic patterns.
“David just fell into it. He has been a musician forever. We proudly raised him as one,” says Marcos about his son, who also loves Jazz, Reggae and Hip-Hop. “With all these fusions, as a percussionist he loves bringing his drum kit everywhere, which will give him the ability to do many great things down the road.”
One of the reasons this enduring family has been so successful is their solidarity. “If I was teaching by myself, it would be a lot harder,” Marcos says. “If Rubina was dancing by herself. it would be a lot harder.”

Carmona Flamenco will perform at the Solstice Cafe on March 21 in Seattle. For additional information on Flamenco Arts Northwest, including future performances, log on to

© 3/9/2009

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