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  • Writer's pictureYumi La Blanca

Flamenco Express (3) - Inspiration

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

(Juan Jose Suarez & Victor Fernández at The Space, Bethnal Green, 2019 - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

After Brexit and Covid, I guess it’s been hard to bring artists over from Spain. How do you feel about it?

C: It’s unpredictable. We have extra paperwork which we have to do, but the paperwork doesn’t get looked at because they don’t have enough staff on. That’s good in a way but at the same time it’s more stress, because we have to provide them with the right paperwork. You never know, when they (the artists) get to the airport there might be some… ‘racist’ who is having a bad day, who just says ‘no, go home’, you know. And we don’t have any leeway, we’re bringing them over just in time for the show and they go back again, so if we do that - touch wood. It’s been alright, but…

J: It’s sort of… it’s always been incredibly stressful bringing people over, because you’re afraid you’re going to lose the flight, the flight is going to be cancelled, or there is going to be a strike, or they just missed it, you know, all these things could happen. Or it’s going to be a volcano that erupts so that the airport is closed… We’ve been there, we’ve been there.

C: That was horrendous. We had people coming in from three different airports in Spain.

J: And they kept opening and closing at different times.

C: The cloud from that…do you remember that?

J: Do you remember the Icelandic volcano? And we had the shows, all of them were sold out. We were like ‘oh my god! oh my god!’ They arrived like 10 o’clock at night from different places, finally.

C: The guys flying from Seville got the first flights out literally, and everybody got here, and it was like, yes, phew!

J: So it’s always been stressful. For me personally, I don’t know about Chris but, having a year or 18 months of not performing, it was really enough time to think about ‘do I want to carry on doing this?’ You know, it’s the… and, of course at the beginning it was a shock because we were on stage on the Sunday, we send our guests on Monday, and Monday afternoon all the airports closed.

C: Antonio got the last flight out. For Victor, they cancelled the flight.

J: So it was all sort of… but it was long enough to think… and not just ‘do I want to do this, in terms of do I want to carry on dancing?’ but ‘do I want to sort of deal with, live with this level of poverty and stress?’ But it was long enough to actually think that through, guess what, I decided for myself that I wanted to carry on, Chris obviously decided the same thing. I don’t know if he went through the same…

(La Joaquina - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

I think we all went through that… to reflect upon…

C: And it was also a weird, weird time. We don’t look back anyway. Having decided that we wanted to carry on, it was like ‘right, what do we have to do now?’

J: I’d say, more than Brexit and Covid, the harder thing is the economics, because we went through the recession in 2008, that went… we had to get rid of… it was no longer viable to be touring in a big theatre as a big company.

C: We were usually 6 people on stage, or 7.

J: We just, the crash happened, that was the end of that. So we reinvented ourselves.

C: (It used to be) two singers, two guitars, three dancers.

J: That was going to be impossible, so that’s what we came up with (the current format of) one guitarist, one singer, two dancers.

C: We got hotels and everything… big, big bucks.

J: So we know we can survive the recession. There is that thing where there are people who still go to the theatre. But it’s always… I like to live in a time when worrying about money wasn’t so great. But hey, I don’t think… I mean, you know, that’s the choice of what we have chosen to do. And if we get at all slightly anxious, Antonio turns around and says ‘this is the life we have chosen!’ (laugh)

C: Straight out of a good fella. The singers…. the singers are always being really important to us. To have different voices, very good, strong singers.

J: And such characters.

C: I’d love to be a flamenco singer. I’d give up the guitar straight away if I thought that was possible.

Flamenco Express with Alejandro Molinero & Pedro Sanz @ The Courtyard Theatre (2016)

What do you think is the key to working together for so long?

J: Space.

Space?! (laugh)

C: …I don’t have to think about this one. (laugh).

J: Sorry Yumi, have I just ruined it… (laugh)

C: We don’t live together. Er…

J: …Respect, and also…

C: … Respect? (laugh)

J: Working out how to work together, I mean, right at the beginning, sorting out the ground rules that… because, for instance, when you’re in a studio working together, you’re quite vulnerable, and it’s quite sort of tense and… but you know that that has something to do with the studio. When you walk out of there, you have to leave it there.

C: Flamenco is intense, you know, not just…

J: If you walk around all the time with that sort of (exhales)… it won’t last five minutes. I know it sounds stupid because, you know, ‘respect’... what the hell does that mean… it’s about sort of respecting each other’s insecurities, respecting each other’s needs… The maximum I want to work in the studio is 2 hours, that’s maximum, OK, so it’s every day. But normally it’s about 1 hour and 20 min. I totally get that Chris needs much longer in the studio, 2-3 hours, 4 hours at a stretch. But we share the studio, we manage to really negotiate that easily. OK, you go then, I go there… there is no… It’s just being aware of each other, and not taking each other for granted, even though…

C: Most of the time (laugh). And also, the other thing is that it’s just the way it is worked out, we both want the same thing. We both have the same sort of attitude to… ‘right, we’ll just do it’, and ‘there is no rule, you’ll just do it’. Right from the beginning it’s been like that. What’s good is that, as the situation’s changed, and the company is in different (format)… we haven’t diverged, we haven’t sort of decided, ‘I want to do this, you want to do that’.

J: It’s sort of we’re still doing what we decided to do way back at the beginning, you know. But it’s about being really clear about what you want. You know, neither of us is very good at saying ‘oh, we need to think about this, we need to work out where we can afford to do this’. It’s like ‘someone asked us to do this, do you wanna have a go?’ ‘Yes let’s do that, let’s see what happens if we do that’. We’re willing to just say ‘yeah’. I mean, we went to the Seychelles three times teaching flamenco and all that. And that was just completely… We knew someone who had a connection. I sort of wrote to them, I said, ‘we’d like to come to the Seychelles’.

C: Who wouldn’t?

J: Yeah, and ‘this is what we can offer’ The first time we went, we did it for free, because they didn’t know us. We just said ‘look, we work for a week for free, as long as you give us a holiday for free and pay for a flight.

C: They paid for the accommodation and everything.

J: So ’we’re coming to teach you for free, as long as it doesn’t cost us a penny. So taking those risks and being prepared to take those risks together, there is not one of us wanting sort of, ‘do something, do something’, and the other one says ‘no, no, no, be sensible’. It’s that we’re willing to take a risk, and both of us have that same mentality that doesn’t conflict too much.

C: There was also… it’s a slightly different thing, but we were talking about the prison resettlement programme in Spain for flamenco singers.

J: They’d pay for him (a particular singer as such) to come here and work with us.

C: He’d been in prison for like 8 years, and he’s really an amazing singer. They were trying to find work for him when he came out. And I was like, ‘yes… no… yes…’

J: I mean, it’s almost accepting that you’ve got nothing to lose. The only thing Chris and I have got to lose is our pride…well… well we lost that a long time ago! (laugh).

C: Risk-taking is what we both do, because it’s the only way sometimes.

Flamenco in Seychelles December 2008

Who is your particular inspiration in the world of flamenco, or outside flamenco?

J: Oh my god… (after thinking for a while) Georgia O'Keeffe as a painter, Mark Rothko as a painter, as dancers or theatre people - Martha Graham, Mark Morris. Musicians…

C: So many.

You’re interested in ‘the arts’, not just flamenco.

J: Absolutely.

C: I kind of like things that aren’t necessarily easy to listen to. I’m a big fan of Tom Waits, and I quite like… music that has a sort of punk element to it, where it’s been broken up a bit, but I’d listen to classical music, folk music…

J: Do you know who I find really inspiring? This is a bit abstract because I haven’t actually ever seen her live, I’ve only ever seen videos of her and I find her really inspiring - La Niña Ladrillo.

C: She’s like a quite punky dancer from Seville, with shaven hair, she also plays the bass really really amazing.

J: Why I find her an inspiration is because she is an amazing flamenco dancer but she does NOT compromise in terms of her costume, or… That translates as ‘the brick girl’. And she just… and the other person is Rosario Toledo. She’s just so herself, so full of life, and again, obviously has a very clear intention… yeah.

C: José Valencia the singer… So many.

What is your favourite flamenco palo? For example, Jaki, you’re recently dancing Caña and Romeras very often. Is it because you like them?

J: Oh yeah, I like the Romeras because it’s strong and it’s fast, partly because it was actually invented for a man so it has that strength behind it. It’d either be Soleá or Caña. I love a man singing Caña, I love Antonio singing Caña, and every time he has different… you know… but if it’s not Caña it’d be Soleá.

C: I like Seguiriyas and Martinetes, and Bulerías and Soleá por Bulerías...

J: And, and… (laugh)

C: They all have such distinctive characteristics. One as a sort of side track conversation I had a while ago with the singer Pedro was about how lots of guitarists now use lots of different tunings. And… you know, some amazing playing, but one of things that does is it tends to make all the palos sound the same. So when you’re playing Tarantos, you know, lots of guitarists use Rondeña tuning, but then play Soleá or especially Soleá por Bulerías or something like that, and it tends to make… When you use the standard tunings for these palos, they are really distinct from each other, like, Soleá does not sound anything like Seguiriyas. But if you play everything in the tuning of Rondeña or in Tarantos for example, everything starts to sound the same. I prefer to keep it distinct, old school. I’m old school. We have once or twice had a percussionist, but in general we never really use a percussionist, in a way it’s the same. It’s like, we really like the sound of feet, hands, guitar and voice, simple. I like flamenco percussion, but in my own work I like the sounds that you get when you don’t have it. The other instruments are the same, I don’t particularly like bass. Having said that, you know, I’ve seen Gerardo Núñez play with the double-bass player, and it’s great. But that’s Gerardo Núñez. In general, we’ve always avoided violins, flutes, accordions… and just kept the guitar, voice and hands and feet.

J: I like the word ‘raw’ in flamenco, you know, I like things to be raw. If we have the luxury of being somewhere the day before to rehearse, that’s a real luxury, but by and large, we have about half an hour on stage in Brighton, and that was the first time we worked together since October when Juan was here, and I liked that sort of rawness that produces, it’s that you haven’t got time to be nervous. Of course you’re nervous, but just when it comes you haven’t got time to…

C: So with Victor, the last shows we did, for his Tarantos I played different falsetas each night, pretty much, and he actually changed the choreography quite a lot. The last night especially, we did it like a much longer ending.

J: On the last night, Romeras, Antonio sang, and sang, and sang, and sang… It was fantastic, I kept looking round and he was laughing and I was laughing, and he was like, alright another verse, another verse…. But you know, I’ve got a terrible memory. I hate having to learn choreography, oh god it terrifies me. There was one night, I remember, with Alejandro, oh god, I had to learn this choreography and got to the end of the last sort of… It was only Fandangos, and him and this other dancer both face the audience, but for some strange reason I ended up looking upstage with my back to the audience, then I thought ‘that’s the last time I try to learn choreography’, because… it was just appalling (laugh). So, no, it’s going to be raw, my memory…(laugh).

C: ...the dancers we worked with were all working all the time, doing this all the time. When Juan works in Seville he doesn’t rehearse very much. He turns up, he might run through half an hour before the show. So it’s the same, you know. Dancers who have their choreography, which they might do, they have lots more rehearsals, and they do different things, but in general it’s much more improvised. And I think… when I go and see things, I can always tell if it’s like over-rehearsed. And it’s stale, oh…if they’ve just done the same thing night after night, you can sort of see, whereas if it’s like a bit fresh, a bit dangerous, then you can come across with the audience, engage the audience.

(Alejandro Molinero and La Joaquina - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

Maybe it’s difficult to answer, but… what does flamenco mean to you?

C: Ah… (gasp)

J: (After thinking for a while) The freedom to be an individual. To not to have to conform to anybody else’s idea of what an artist should be like or a dance artist should be like. More than anything it’s that, and that sort of shapes my lifestyle. There aren’t many art forms… You know, when I was in New York, I had the opportunity to work with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. And there, it’s about art of freedom of movement. It’s that freedom to actually be an individual. I mean, it’s not fair to… Of course I care what other people think and immensely on stage I care that people in the audience get what I’m trying to say. But because flamenco gives me that sort of freedom I don’t have to be on stage and get them to judge me in terms of, like, ‘this is a flamenco, this is what it is to be a flamenco’. I don’t have to conform to those things, because as an individual artist, flamenco gives you that…

C: All the people we’ve worked with, none of them are the same.

J: You’ve seen our shows, you’ve seen how many different male dancers we’ve had in the last 10 years - name one who looks like the other one. Even what they wear, you see Juan Carlos, I haven’t seen a dancer booted and suited as exquisitely as that one, you know. Victor turns up with a very nice shirt and a nice pair of trousers. Titi turns up with a pair of skinny tights, and… you know…

C: ‘What’s it gonna be this time, Titi?’ (laugh)

J: So, it’s that total freedom within an artform that really informs the rest of your life, because I’m immensely disciplined but actually I have no discipline, you know, in terms of like… I’ve never worked, I’ve never had a job, not since I was 16. I don’t have that sort of discipline but I have the freedom to come and go as I wish… (To Chris) Your turn! Good luck, dear (laugh).

C: I’m still thinking… I don’t know, It’s just become, it’s a life and it’s constant investigation and, sort of trying to expand or improve, it’s like looking for the sound that I hear from other guitarists, ‘I want to sound like that’, and find new ideas. I’m not a very adventurous guitarist in terms of… I don’t bring a lot of really modern harmony into my play, I kind of like the old style things. I’m really into rhythms, I play percussion of different kinds. It’s kind of, for me, it’s like, freedom in a similar way as Jaki was saying, especially with the rhythms. It’s communication between the three elements of singing, the dance and (the guitar), the rhythm is the thing that binds all together. And that’s what I really… When it’s going well it feels so good, especially in Bulerías. Bulerías is like, it’s a sort of sacred rite, almost. It’s one of the reasons why we do it at the beginning of the show, because… it’s so stressful (we all laughed). It binds you together. All the time, we’ve worked for a long time with… the majority of the people from Jerez and they wouldn’t do anything else at the beginning of the show. It’s like, ‘what should we do to open the show? Shall we do Fandangos de Huelva or Tangos?’ ‘No, no, no, Bulerías, Bulerías.’ It just kind of brings you all together and after that you got this connection. To me… that communication element to it, that is what it means.

J: I’ve just thought of something else that, it’s for me, to be on stage and to be crying on stage, and also to be able to turn around and just laugh out loud. That’s huge freedom in your head, in an art form. You know, I sat there and tears rolled down my face before I stand up when I used to dance Soleá, oh my god, you know...

C: Manuel, he was…

J: And Anna. And even this time, when I looked across… where were we, I think we were in Slough on Saturday night? And I looked across - Victor was here, and Antonio was there, Chris was there, and I had this image of us at the last show before Covid.

C: It was the same group.

J: We were all looking at each other, smiling, and tears just rolled down my face, and I can’t tell you why but it was something like, ‘my god, we’re back together again, it’s so great’, you know. To be involved in something, to have some, you can be crying eyes out and (while clapping) ‘olé, olé… ’, and Victor looking at you, Antonio looking at you and winking, it was just… Does that answer your question? (laugh)


(Emilio Ochando - photo by Rob Kenyon @BiginaBox)

The last question - can you reveal some of your future show plans?

C: June, September, October.

J: Juan Carlos Avecilla (dancer) and Antonio El Pola (singer) for June. El Pola will stay with us for the rest of the year. In September, Emilio Ochando (dancer) is coming. And in October it’s Juan Carlos again and El Pola. Next year… who knows. (After October) Flights become unpredictable, we don’t like doing anything at Christmas.

C: Christmas is a bad time, summer holidays are bad times…

J: January is not good, no one has got any money, and it’s freezing cold, and that’s not funny. Putting the floor on the roof of the car (to transport) in the middle of winter is not funny.

C:You know, we have to bring people over and do a block of 3 or 4 shows. We’ve always done it but we used to do more, sometimes. They used to come for 3 weeks, sometimes, like, there would be days off as well, but we’d do like… 10 or 11 shows.

J: It was a really united family in terms of… Mateo would cook, and Anna would do the washing up, you know… Rosa would lie in bath, you know…

C: Did you ever see Mateo with us, Mateo Soleá? He is Manuel de la Malena’s brother-in-law and an amazing singer.

J: He taught Manuel to sing. You know, his repertoire… he was lovely.

C: He gave us a good boost. He believed in us.

J: He was like, having your favourite grandma on stage…

(While we all laughed, Chris kindly offered me to stay for his home-cooked dinner that was delicious. Thank you so much Jaki and Chris, and also many thanks to Rob for the photos.)

*June shows by Flamenco Express

Thursday 8th June - Brunswick Pub, Hove

Friday 9th June - Hampton Hub Club, Hampton

Saturday 10th June - Landor Space, London

Sunday 11th June - Chapel Arts Centre, Bath

(Please check their website or Facebook page for details)

Juan Carlos Avecilla dancing at Casa Patas, Madrid (the guest dancer of June & October 2023)

Flamenco Express

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