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  • Writer's pictureYumi La Blanca

Flamenco Express (2) - Passion

An exclusive interview with Flamenco Express, one of the most prestigious flamenco companies in the UK - the second part

J: Jacqueline Wilford (Jaki / La Joaquina), the dancer

C: Chris Clavo, the guitarist

*The interview took place on 5th April 2023

*All the photos by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox

(Rosa de las Heras, La Joaquina, Gemma de la Cruz at Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Feb 2004 - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

How did you two meet?

(We all laughed)

J: Inevitable. Too many years ago… I was teaching at the YMCA, and El Ocito was playing for my classes.

C: The YMCA in Tottenham Court Road. There have been classes since, haven’t there?

J: This was about… (whispered) we were the first to teach flamenco there. This was about ‘94? Was it? ‘93 or ‘94?

C: I think we met in… Actually, it must’ve been like ‘91 that I started.

J: Yeah, I was gonna say, because we met in ‘93.

C: No, it was ‘92 because last year we said that it was 30 years since we met.

J: Oh right, oh god. OK.

C: Very difficult to remember.

J: It was too long ago. El Ocito was playing for my classes and he said to me, ‘I can’t play in a couple of weeks, I won’t be able to come to your classes, I’m going away’ or something, ‘so I’m going to let a student play.’

So… he (Chris) came as a replacement guitarist?

J: Yeah, basically (laughed). Once again, the rest is history.

C: I think I came along with him once or twice.

J: Yeah, because he…

C: I was going to play, because he played for Jose Garcia and various other people.

J: All this is the last century, this is the problem.

(We all laughed)

J: But you know, that was where we met.

C: Through El Ocito.

J: Yeah, and then we went busking together. And really, the rest is history.

C: We went busking in Greenwich on a bank holiday. Just the two of us, by the Cutty Sark.

J: We made enough money for an Italian meal.

(Chris Clavo & Juan Debel at CLF Cafe, Peckham, 2018 - Photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

According to your website, Flamenco Express was launched in 1996. How did you start it?

J: You know about the Landor (a pub theatre in Clapham North, London), don’t you? There was a theatre group who wanted some choreography, didn’t they? (asking to Chris)

C: For a play by Picasso.

J: They were doing the show at the Landor upstairs. They were putting the show on and wanted some choreography, but they didn’t have any money. So we said ‘in exchange for the choreography, give us a night in your theatre’, and they did.

C: Every Sunday.

J: From then on, it went on to be every Sunday. The opening night was Paco Perez, Gemma (de la Cruz), Jingle, Fernando Reyes. That was the first night, and we took it over, basically, we organised, and we had put shows on there every week.

C: Not always us, sometimes, we had all the London flamencos basically.

J: Maribel (de la Manchega), Paqui, Gemma, you name every… and we did that for 18 months. And then sort of out of that, started the team of the company.

C: We weren’t calling ourselves Flamenco Express at that point.

J: No, we were calling ourselves anything, weren’t we really? It wasn’t until we sort of decided that Rob came on board, and so there were three of us, so that was the publicity and he was a manager, so he was booking shows.

C: We had other kinds of dance as well, we had African dance, Brazilian percussion, and…

J: But that was before Rob came along. He was doing the artwork, but you know. But actually as a company, we really started… and Manuel de la Malena was here. And that’s sort of, that’s where, how it really started from there.

So… you didn’t have the name Flamenco Express at that time.

J: Not until ‘96.

Who decided on this name…?

J & C: Rob.

(All laughed)

C: We didn’t have a choice.

J: But there were all these things going round, all these Spanish companies, and no one could pronounce them. And people used to say, Juego (Spanish ‘J’), Juega, Juago… and oh, nobody could pronounce… and it was like…

C: ‘I am a flamenco company’.

J: Yeah, that was the classic. It’s actually ‘Alma’ (flamenco company) but it sounded like, everyone used to pronounce it ‘I am a flamenco company’.

C: Worldwide, there were about 15 different companies called Alma Flamenco.

J: Yeah, and we knew that we were going to mostly work in this country, and we knew that we were going to deal with flamenco with theatre managers. So we needed something that they could remember and they could pronounce.

C: And it has different meanings, like express as of expressive, expresivo… and we did a lot of motorway trips. Still do.

J: So, somehow ‘Flamenco Express’ is… memorable.

So, is he (Rob) the manager of the company?

J: Oh…

C: He might like to think like that.

J: In name only.

(All laughed)

C: He did a lot of publicity, and did a lot of booking for us.

J: Until the (economic) crash in 2008, he really was our manager, and we were putting sort of 7 or 8 people on stage in Hackney Empire and all sorts of places.

C: He had the computer, that was the thing. None of us had the computer and he had to do photoshop and stuff.

J: And he had graphic skills, so he could produce the posters. So it was, you know, it worked all round, and he got to do the photography, and he did all the lighting… but then obviously after the crash in 2008 we had to sort of re-think, so he was less involved but he still does the artwork, he still, you know, he’s there.

C: Very much involved.

J: Holding it as much as he was, just the way sort of…obviously since Covid things have changed again, so you know… You always try to adapt to the time and we need to feel quite together on it, don’t we, to actually cope with it.

So, you didn’t know Rob before, but he just joined…?

J: No, I’ve known Rob since I was 18. He happened to live sort of 2-3 doors from me, and he was already a graphic artist, he’d worked a lot in the theatre.

C: He did photojournalism.

J: He was sort of, easy to pinch, if you like, say ‘look, do you fancy this?’

C: He worked in the West End theatres, he worked in Cardiff in a theatre, Swansea in a theatre.

J: So he knew his way around backstage, he knew how to do the lighting and stuff. He was going to do it.

C: Jaki came out of the dance theatre. I came out of music and Rob sort of tour managed, done stuff with musicians, so we were coming out of, from a professional point of view, before we even got involved in flamenco.

J: It didn’t grow out of the hobby, never ever grew out of the hobby, came as three professionals. OK, let’s do this, let’s do this and see if we can make this work as a professional company, and pay people. I mean, this wonderful… was it Duke Ellington? ‘How do you keep your musicians, how do you keep the band together?’ Basically…

C: He says ‘every band leader has a gimmick. I have the gimmick, I pay them’.

J: That’s our gimmick.

C: Rob doesn’t always come with us now. He does the London ones and… (as for other places) not often, every now and again.

J: Partly economics, partly the size of the car, partly the distance, the more people you have the more money it costs.

(Titi Flores & Jesús Álvarez, Theatre Royal Windsor, March 2011 - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

Do you have any unforgettable episodes from your past shows?

J: There are so many, so many.

C: Good ones, bad ones… not many bad ones.

J: I’ll tell you a nice one which was difficult, but amazing. You understand all the fire regulations, right? We were doing rural touring and we had Titi Flores and Manuel de la Malena. We were on stage in this wonderful, beautiful community hall and they decorated it all, and this little stage, it was a lovely show. And it comes to Titi’s solo and he stops the show, and he looks at me, turns the lights off. And he goes down to where all the tables and people are, and he starts to collect all the candles, then he takes them onto the stage and he makes a circle of the candles around himself and dances in it. That is magical. But us three were s**tting ourselves because you are breaking every rule of theatre, ‘no live flame on stage’. You know, super dangerous… so that was beautiful, but…

C: One of mine was… the very first time, we worked a lot with a guitarist from Jerez, called Jesús Álvarez, who is an amazing guitar player. And his first time he came over, we had Gemma and Manuel and Samuel (their son). Samuel was about 3 years old. In the van, we broke down on the motorway. We were going to Worcester, I think it was. The van broke down and in the end we had to get 2 taxis to take us to sort of 70-80 miles to the theatre, and we got to the theatre at 6.30 and we were supposed to be on stage at 7.30, and this was the first time… I’d never met Jesús before. The first time I’d ever met him, we had to photograph of his rehearsing in the car park in the van that was broken down with little Samuel sort of standing there like, looking cute. We got to the show, literally no time to think: we had to do the lights, we had to do the sound, blah blah blah… we went out, and it was just a storming show. It was a festival in Worcester, and it was packed, and it was just such a good vibe. We all kind of, really, it was like ‘wow’, you know… we thought this was going to be a tough one, but… there are lots of stories like that.

J: There were so many. A magical night. Sometimes it’s all sorts of incidents around… I mean, I remember one night, coming home from a theatre, down beyond Stonehenge. We stopped the van and we got out because you couldn’t see the sky, there were so many stars. So, there are moments like that just enhance the whole idea of how you spend your life on stage and….

C: Gemma dancing the Bulerías in the van…

J: Rocking from side to side.

C: We used to take this, like an ambulance, for special needs people, we got it really cheap or free from Southwark council.

J: We used to have a corridor for wheelchairs down the centre.

C: It was quite big, so there was enough room in the middle, and we were in the petrol station and coming back to the van, the whole van was doing this (rocking), and Gemma was like…

J: Doing the Bulerías. Oh, haven’t we made the mad dash away from the petrol station? I went in to pay and came out. You know those lots and lots of flowers outside petrol stations. When I came out, all the flowers had gone. And I got into the van and the van was full of all the flowers. (The guest musicians) were sitting there (smiling) like…

C: With sunglasses with the price tags on…

J: And a woman was phoning the police, because they nicked all the flowers and all of these in the van, so we were like ‘go, go, go!’ … So, the magic moments on stage, they are enormous, they are brilliant, but it’s all lovely, just, a lifetime spent doing it, the collection of…working with the amazing people, working in beautiful situations, I mean, we worked for quite few years with Ana de los Reyez from Jerez and she had a little boy called Manuel. She couldn’t get a babysitter for him because he was too young, so she used to bring him. And he used to come and do the…

C: Even with a stage manager.

J: He used to stand beside the stage. He’d come and dance the Bulerías in the end.

C: Even Jasmin’s Alba (Heredia Villalobos) dancing with us when she was like 5 years old.

J: Just to have this gift of moments in your life, they are like, it’s good to remember that it’s what makes your life really really rich and full, you know.

C: We had, most of the time, we had really good experiences with all the people. If it hasn’t worked out, we just move on to the next.

J: When it hasn’t worked out, we often sit down 5 years later, roll with laughter, you know, it’s like, god, what happened there? What was it about?

(Jaki and Alba at the Landor, Sep 2021 - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

You’re very good at finding venues. Do you do it by yourselves or does Rob help you?

C: That’s all of us.

J: And that’s constant.

C: You see, something comes up, something new, somewhere refurbished, you have to keep an eye on. You sometimes see, not so much flamenco because there is not much going on, but if you see a similar kind of performance going on in the venue, then ‘oh, that might work for us’.

J: But it’s a constant search. Venues are closing, venues are opening…

C: We’re just done one for the first time in Sittingbourne, and coming up, we’ve got this new one in Hoxton.

J: Hoxton is a new one for us, and Slough was a new one. You’re just always on a hunt because what you’re asking for is only one night. Now, most venues, most theatres would take a week or 3-4 days. So it’s very rare that they have only one night. So what you’re trying to do is slip in on their odd night, so they can have a full week. At the same time, making enough slip-ins you can put all your shows together, so it’s constant.

C: We never wanted to do restaurants. I don’t mind that people eat and come to see the show but we always wanted to do in either like a pub venue or a theatre so people actually come to see the show, not to eat at the same time.

J: It’s also, you go to eat and chat nicely with friends - you don’t want this clutter going on. I can’t imagine anything worse! I’d definitely go to proper tablaos in Spain, where waiters stop serving and everything, when the show goes.

*To be continued

Flamenco Express in Bath Theatre Royal 2002 (with guest artists Titi Flores, Manuel de la Malena, Olayo Jimenez, Tito Heredia)

Flamenco Express

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