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My Spanish Heart

A hit '90s New Flamenco band returns

Kudos to the Philadelphia Free Library! To my surprise, just recently I was able to find a copy there of The Flamenco Clan: Herencia by Ketama, a documentary film made in 2004 by the German filmmaker Michael Meert.
 
Beautifully rendered, visually and musically, the film recounts the story of the Habichuela/Carmona dynasty of brilliant flamenco artists, who moved from grinding poverty in Granada to Madrid, where they eventually became celebrated musicians. The offspring of the two pioneering brothers make up the core of the New Flamenco group, Ketama. Antonio and Juan José Carmona, who are brothers, and their cousin, Josemi Carmona, found a way to successfully blend pop and flamenco to create some unforgettable music. José Soto and Ray Heredia also were important during the band's early years. Ketama was immensely popular throughout the '90s, though some accused them of a fusion sell-out. Their response was, hey, we're bringing a new audience to flamenco. I can vouch for that. Needless to say, I fell hard for their music and bought my first CD (at the FNAC in Puerto del Sol), De Aki A Ketama, their breakthrough album of 1995, which sold over 600,000 copies. Then I found Dame La Mano, Sabor and, possibly their first album, made in the '80s, Canciones hondas (Deep song, a style that predates flamenco and was celebrated by Lorca). 
 
In the early 2000s, the group disbanded, though individual members continued to perform and Antonio Carmona, the lead signer, released a couple of solo albums. 
 
Last November, I discovered through an article in El País online https://elpais.com/cultura/2018/11/13/actualidad/1542138868_276109.html, that Ketama was getting back together and launching a big tour throughout Spain in 2019, starting out, of course, in Granada, on February 23. For a moment, I imagined I would be there, but that didn't quite work out. Still, I'm hoping  to catch at least one of their shows this year!
 
Reading about the revival tour inspired me to revisit the documentary, pull out my old CDs and visit Youtube, where you can find some great performances such as "No Estamos Lokos," incidentally the name of their 2019 tour. One of my favorites, "Se Llevaba Llevar," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIRX69FD2m0, features the hugely popular (and guapísimo) guest singer Antonio Vega (RIP/DEP), of Nacha Pop and solo fame.
 
My friend Hamish Binns, who lives in Madrid and is a musician, composer and builder of musical instruments from found objects and even vegetables (!), told me about Ketama. (Thank you, Hamish! BTW, he's also a professor.) I had asked for some suggestions and, along with Ketama, he mentioned Pata Negra, another New Flamenco group. I enjoyed the music of Pata Negra, but Ketama stole my heart. Their music is filled with beautiful melodies, incredibly complex rhythms (like any flamenco), passion, mystery, despair, and what they call in Spain alegria, which is more than just joy or happiness.
 
Perhaps, you would like to enjoy this music as well!
 
Here's an introduction:
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRkC6tiRRcs
 
And they're bringing the next generation along, too:
 
El Alma No Tiene Color (The Soul Has No Color),
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLPpRLMe3fI
 
 

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Madrid & me

Twenty years ago, I was living in Madrid on sabbatical from The Philadelphia Inquirer. At the time I did not have a residency visa, so I was unable to open a bank account, plus I had to leave the European Union every three months. I managed to find an apartment not far from the Plaza Santa Ana, where I was staying in a hostal on the calle Huertas, a busy street with lots of bars, restaurants and a very cool jazz club that recently closed. Every day I would check Segundomano, a shopper-type newspaper, and make appointments to see apartments. Most people wouldn't rent to a person who did not have a bank account, but at last I found an old building with a two-bedroom apartment that seemed good enough. I signed a lease in Spanish and the landlord gave me his bank account number so I could deposit the rent each month. The apartment was the one he lived in when he first got married. He was tall and resembled Ted Danson and was a nice guy. He showed me how to light the old-school heater in the kitchen, so as to have hot water. I was terrified of blowing up the place. He pointed out the washing machine and flipped the dials so I would know how to wash my clothes; pointed to the sink and told me to be careful, he didn't want to have to hire a plumber! Too bad he didn't tell me the word for laundry detergent; I ended up washing my clothes in fabric softener for at least a month.

After the landlord and I completed our transaction, I walked up the hill to a bar/restaurant and was chatting with the bartender. He told me the neighborhood was muy peligroso, very dangerous. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I said to him in Spanish, "dangerous, really? Are they going to stick a gun in my back and rob me?" He said, "no, nothing like that. They might try to grab your purse." Ha! 

The apartment was a fourth-floor walkup. I had forgotten some advice about making sure it had heat, and it didn't. It boasted a couple of portable radiators that you plugged into the wall. By October, I was freezing. My neighbors across the hall were wonderful, a professor of some sort whom I never saw, his wife and daughter, both of whom were extremely friendly and welcoming. They assured me the neighborhood was not dangerous and they had lived there all their lives. One day I was chatting with the daughter and told her how much I loved the pinchas de tortilla, pie-shaped servings of the Spanish egg and potato concoction. She said, "no, no pinchas, you have to eat the whole tortilla." And she was so thin!

One evening after a late-night concert, a taxi driver dropped me off in front of my building, and he noted the number, 36. "That's a very sad number here in Spain," he said. "Why is that number sad?" I asked. "That's the year the civil war began," he told me. Sixty years later, it was still fresh in the memories of many Spaniards, I came to learn. But, of course. Our own Civil War is much deeper in the past and yet still resonates in our daily lives.

Civil wars are always complicated, but the Spanish Civil War defied comprehension at first. It has sometimes been called the last war of ideas: Republicans, the Catholic church, the Nationalists, the Anarchists, the Fascists, the Communists, to name a few, all battled it out and made odd alliances. The first time I visited Madrid, Francisco Franco, who led the Nationalists and won the day with the help of the Fascists and Nazis, was still in power, though he died later that year. A row of Guardia Civil stood at attention with their giant rifles in front of the Prado Museum. It was a bit intimidating, needless to say. They were on the trains, everywhere. All the women seemed to wear long black dresses; there was a somberness to the city.

Years later, when I returned, the city had been transformed. Couples kissed on the street, the Spanish women were fashionably turned out and the young ones invariably had bared midriffs.

The last time I was in Madrid, in 2016, my favorite hotel had been rebuilt and upgraded; the coffee shop next door was gone, along with the glass cups and saucers accessorized by little tubes of sugar and tiny pastries called palmitas. I had to buy my coffee across the street at Starbucks and drink it from a paper cup. That gave me a bit of a jolt and not from the caffeine!

I can't wait to return to Spain in 2019 to see how Madrid continues to transform itself, moving more and more into the mainstream of the modern Western world, even as it maintains some of its most cherished traditions, like the paseo, the tapas, the cañas, and going to the movies on Sunday night.

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