Enrique Morente, Flamenco Legend, RIP

I seldom write about music since this is a literary blog primarily, but there are times when a musician’s importance cannot be ignored, and Enrique Morente was just such a figure. He was a legendary flamenco singer, one of the most important of the last 40 years, perhaps the most important since the death of Cameron. He was also the most controversial flamenco singer since Cameron. What makes him such an important figure is the breadth of his singing and his experimentation. His early work is marked by a respectful and confident knowledge of traditional flamenco. His album Homage to Don Antonio Chacon tradition flamenco at its best with just a guitar and a voice capturing the essence of flamenco, the rich complexity of styles, the profound passion, but also the light and joyous elements of flamenco that sometimes is forgotten when talking about flamenco. He, too, delved into the older palos (rhythms) that you often do not find in recordings and was a testament to his reverence for flamenco. At the same time, and what made him so controversial, was his willingness to experiment. Sure there was the traditional album recorded with Sabicas in 1990 (which is one of his better albums) and some other efforts, but he also sought out different approaches. Albums like Sacramonte and Negra, si tú supieras fused a mix of rock and Latin rhythms that moved into a more pop sound, but always kept to its flamenco roots, often reworking traditional words. And unlike many of the pop experiments with flamenco, he seemed to make records that didn’t sound like a dozen other pop flamenco albums, which often bring flamenco to pop and loose the fundamental nature of flamenco.

When he recorded Omega in 1996 he took flamenco even farther from its roots, joining forces to record with the Gypsy metal band Lagartija Nick. True to his constant shifting, the album is a mix of hard rock or even metal blends with flamenco, and more traditionally sounding works. It was a brave choice and could have been a disaster, but like Cameron’s La leyenda del tiempo, the other ground breaking fusion of rock and flamenco, it works because it is true to each musical form. The rock isn’t watered down and playing around at the edges, and the flamenco holds its own. Although, it is in the pieces that are less metal where the flamenco is at its most powerful.

Like many flamencos, he had a reverence for the works of Frederico Garcia Lorca and Omega, fashioned as a tribute on the 100th anniversary of his birth, uses the poems from Poet in New York and a few Songs of Leonard Cohen to create a sometimes dark, sometimes joyous picture of New York, and urban life. The music is a perfect match to those elements in Lorca’s work, whether it is the enchanting Dawn in New York (La aurora de Nueva York), or the dark and heavy Sleepless City (Ciudad sin sueño). For me it was one of the best introductions to Lorca and for a time I even had the text of Dawn in New York memorized in Spanish. I still return to the Poet in New York from time to time. It was one of those perfect confluences of literature and music that seldom happen let alone work. Even when I didn’t like what he did on some of the albums later, for example, Lorca, I will always love that album.

In some ways, too, he and Cameron helped push my imagination to Spain and I remember my first trip to Spain searching out flamenco I brought along a tape of him and Cameron and saw as much as I could, but for some reason never could swing it to see him. Fortunately, I’ll always have the great albums and my memories of that time, with the discovery of all the palos, the traditions, and the pueblos. IT was an exciting time and I’m glad he produce such good albums.

If you would like to listen to him or watch him in action RTVE has created a whole page with videos and audio. Definitely worth a check. I recommend the video “Romería de Yerma” y otras (1990), and if Omega sounds interesting try ‘Omega’ vuelve con Lagartija Nick y Morente en el FIB (2008).

El Pais has a list of his best albums with a write up. I think Homage a Don Antonio Chacon, Nueva York /Granda, and Omega are the best. I don’t know Despegando and would like to hear it some day.

A biography of Morente at El Pais.

Memoriams from Jose Merce (probably the only other flamenco with his stature), Carmen Linares (flamenco singer), M Mora.

An early and traditional fandango.

Morente and the great Raï singer Khaled .

A Caña, a traditional form.

Something from Omega

Rachid Taha Coming to Seattle in June

Much to my delight I found out today that the Raï singer Rachid Taha is coming to Neumos on Sunday June 6th. It is a rare treat to have any Raï come to town. Hopefully, he will give a better performance than he did last time. I don’t know what the deal was, either he was drunk or jet lagged or what, but he was so erratic and didn’t seem to be able to complete a song. At one point he got in to a shouting match with some guy saying, you want to kill me? You want to kill me? It one of the few moments in English, but there was plenty of French and Arabic tirades. It was too bad because the 1 2 3 Soleils is such a good album, along with Diawan.

100% Arabica – A Review

If you want an insightful film that will explain the problems of Algerian immigrants in France, this is not the film. Yet it does have its moments and is a Raï fan’s attack on those problems, which gives it a certain weight. At the same time the film is a was a young persons film, one of those films that celebrates youth culture and asks why the adult world is so afraid of what the kids are doing these days.

The film follows a Raï band as they try to break out of their ghetto and make a living from their music. They are all former criminals and the temptation to steal is strong, especially since there are not too many opportunities in the ghetto. French discrimination of immigrants is quite well known and the film does not shy away from suggesting there isn’t much beyond the ghetto. While the band and the inhabits of the neighborhood try to live in peace, the local imam tries to get rich by imposing a fundamentalist form of Islam on the neighborhood. The imam is completely corrupt and is only interested in getting more people to support him. He works with the mayor, who is only interested in getting reelected and doesn’t care about what happens in the neighborhood, and takes his money to try and convince the neighborhood it should follow him.

The members of the band, fronted by Khaled, fight against all of these problems. They struggle to get money for a show, struggle against the imam who says music is forbidden, struggle with their parents who think they are bums. As in all musicals, though, the music is all powerful and everyone except the imam love the music. In the end, despite the machinations of the imam, the band celebrates with a triumphal show in the neighborhood and and the imam is driven from the neighborhood in a pork delivery truck. Music defeats intolerance.

The film is supposed to be a comedy and in a way it is, but it is seldom funny. Instead it comes off as a problem film with music. It is much better than Blackboard Jungle which is another problem film with young people’s music, because the musicians made the film. It shows the real preoccupations and problems the Algerian youth in France have. Every element, lack of jobs, corrupt officials, fundamentalist Imams, all have their bases in reality, and in this sense the movie is interesting. However, the narrative thread is week and so many characters come and go throughout the film that no character can develop very much. Everything in the film is for the insiders who can fill in the gaps, who know what it is like to live there. If you are an insider it makes for a pleasing film, if not, it makes for a film that is uneven.

The music, however, makes the film worth watching. There are several good performances by Khaled and Cheb Mami of some of their well known songs. The versions are not the album versions. Khaled has several good scenes where they show him working out a song and he is working with just one keyboard player and no mic. The performance is very intimate and well worth a watch.

In all, 100% Arabica is not one of the best movies but it if you have even a passing interest in Raï it is worth it.