Flamenco Express (1) - Ignition
‘Flamenco Express’ is one of the first names you’ll encounter when searching for information about flamenco in London or the UK. Jaki and Chris are such big representatives of the UK flamenco scene - they have entertained and inspired local audiences with their passion and dedication to the art form.
In order to deliver authentic flamenco shows around the country, they dare to take a risk to invite artists directly from Spain. Their choice of guest artists are quality-guaranteed and instantly gain popularity, with artists including dancers Victor Fernández, Ajelandro Molinero, Emilio Ochando, Titi Flores, singers Antonio El Pola, Nati Garcia, Juan Jose Suarez, Juan Debel… to name but a few.
Jaki and Chris have been very nice to me, and they even supported my cause for the Japan earthquake in 2011. Whenever I go to their show, they’re always friendly. For this interview, Chris kindly invited me and Jaki to his cosy house and even prepared a lovely meal for us, totally unexpected but which complemented such a wonderful evening!
Having known each other for way more than ten years, to be honest we’d never chatted so long. I’m honoured to have discovered lots of unheard stories about these lovely people at this occasion. We talked a lot, so I have decided to split this interview into three parts - I hope you’ll enjoy this first part for now, and look forward to the next two :)
J: Jacqueline Wilford (Jaki), the dancer
C: Chris Clavo, the guitarist
*The interview took place on 5th April 2023
*All the photos (except the one above) by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox
How did you start flamenco?
(We all laughed)
C: (To Jaki) You first. Shall I go first?
J: You go first.
C: I was playing in a band that was falling apart. It was kind of funk. It started out as a reggae band but by the end of it, it was like a funk band, like heavy funk, you know the band like Fishbone, people like that, and quite a big band with saxophones and percussion and everything… but that fell apart. Then I saw flamenco…
Here or in Spain?
C: In London, a bar called Triñanes in Kentish Town.
Do you remember who the artists were?
C: Tito (Heredia), Gemma (de la Cruz), and Tio Lionel - he was Tito’s uncle and he was a singer. He was a character.
J: He was a real old school singer.
C: He was a good singer.
J: Yeah, oh, absolutely.
C: And I started having guitar lessons with a guy called El Osito. If you ask the older people at the Peña they would know… ‘Osito’, a little bear. He was sort of one of the… I don’t know how old he was at that time…
J: Late fifties?
C: But he died quite young… youngish.
J: He used to play for (dance) classes a lot. He was very good… he had a great desire to teach as in to really get you to grasp what flamenco was, you know, I took lessons from him for a few months for about a year I think. The big question for me was like, teach me what you need to see and hear when I dance as a guitarist, what it is that enables you to play for me, I need to learn that. And he was very good at that.
C: He was great. Then I took lessons from Willy Basilisco. He died of a heart attack probably fifteen years ago. He had quite a lot of heart problems. He had like surgeries and stuff. But he used to run Sevilla Mia. He was the manager of Sevilla Mia for quite a long time.
J: And he was brilliant at it.
C: It was always good, I mean, I’ve seen all kinds of people down in Sevilla Mia, I’ve seen Manolo Sanlúcar play, people like that. And then we went to Spain and… the rest is history.
(Photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)
Do you remember the year when you started it?
C: ‘92, the year that Camaron died.
J: Well, you’d started learning before that, hadn’t you?
C: The year ‘92 was when I got… hooked up with El Ocito.
Thank you very much - and Jaki?
J: I was a contemporary dancer dancing in New York, and I saw a show that was on tour from Spain. It was supposed to only stay a month but it actually stayed in New York, it was so successful, 6 months. It had Chocolate in it, and it had, I think it had Agujetas in it, because they did this amazing piece where they made a horse shoe while two dancers danced, the blacksmith sang the whole Martinete.
C: Did you see… I don’t think it was Agujetas. It was somebody else from Jerez.
J: Maybe it wasn’t Agujetas but it was this amazing form. I know it had Manuela Vargaz in it, and she was young. But I saw that in New York. And I gave up my job of dancing in New York, and came to this country. And then… gone to Spain, studied. I needed… I was dancing flamenco, I saw this, ‘that is, that is what I wanna do now.’ And it’s called ‘chasing your dream’.
In which year, do you remember?
J: Yes, I left New York in… I went to Japan in ‘87, so I left New York in ‘84. Long, long time ago.
You’re originally from…?
J: London. I was trained as a contemporary dancer in London. And in my last year, the college offered me a job in Canada, and I did that. Then I went down to New York, and got the job in New York.
(Photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)
So, both of you started from different art forms, and got hooked immediately on flamenco, or gradually?
J: No, I saw it, and that was it.
C: Me too.
J: That was no discussion. That was all I wanna do, gone to book my return flight, get my bag, into Spain.
Got bitten by the flamenco bug?
C: Totally. I was always into this idea, the band I was in was quite visual, and when I saw flamenco there was this dance element to it as well, just really grabbed me as this kind of idea of performance.
J: It’s sort of so weird because, the thing I saw about flamenco, I used to go take classes in studios where there was always a drummer in class. The same, in Merce Cunningham studio there was always a pianist. And it was the idea of a dance being on stage with your own musicians. That’s what really grabbed me the idea that you could actually make something happen with musicians right on stage and be a dancer, not be… just sort of moving around on stage but actually be a proper art form where this communication or connection was going on at the time, it was like ‘wow, that’s it, that’s it’.
Flamenco Express Live. Greenwich Dance Agency 2003
Who do you think is the most influential teacher to you?
C: The big moment for me was Carlos Heredia in Seville. And then a couple of years later with Diego Amaya who had been in London. I met him in London but I went to stay in Jerez with Manuel de la Malena’s parents, and took lessons with Diego Amaya. The two of them are my kind of points of reference in a way. There is also an amazing guitarist called Pepe Justicia. That’s three, really. I got quite a lot of other guitar lessons with people, but their styles are non-compromising, really strong, loud players.
J: …I am still thinking…I’d say, a guy called Eduardo López, who was probably my first proper teacher and I also worked for his company in Spain, in Talavera de la Reina.
C: He taught me the guitar too.
J: It’s where the famous matador Joselito died. Eduardo was from Argentina and he’d been in Pilar López Company, and worked with Carmen Amaya. He’d worked all over the world.
Does he share the same surname with Pilar López by chance or were they related?
J: No, just a coincidence. He was hugely influential. And as Chris said, he could play really good guitar as well. Teaching me the steps…
C: Teaching escobilla while playing it.
J: Doing this (stood up and demonstrated footwork), playing the guitar! … And singing so badly.
C: Yes, he was not much of a singer.
J: You know, I studied with people like that, and the usual suspects (i.e. some famous teachers), but… in terms of actually feeling like I’ve really got something, I’d say, from Eduardo, and then all these years later I’d say David Perez. I’ve done classes with him in Seville, but he has real sophistication about his own work and incredible artistry. Sometimes, you know, the most influential … just the thing you pick up, and one of my hugely influential teachers was my ballet teacher but not for the ballet, but actually for his musicality and his artistry. So it’s really sort of being a collection of teachers’ voices that make you really…
C: For me, as a guitarist, playing with other guitarists. Not actually like having lessons or studying with them, but just sharing things and showing things, and… we had a period where we had some really good guitarists coming over and we were working with two guitars and I learnt so much by doing that.
Playing together, watching and listening…
C: And learning what they did, you know, they were more experienced than I was, how they went about playing, accompanying, rehearsing, all the things you have to kind of get your head around.
J: It’s such a way of life, there are so many things to learn that, unnecessarily wouldn’t think directly oh, this person is teaching me. There is so much bigger than yourself and the art form that you just absorb, and you feel like, providing you’re quite open and try, feel like a sponge, just like, you know, that affects. … Next question! (laugh)
*To be continued
Flamenco Express in CLF theater (2016) - Victor Fernández & Antonio El Pola