Juan Martin and El Chaparro’s West-Eastern Divan Seduces Swansea’s Hispanophiles

United KingdomUnited KingdomDos Guitarras Malaguenas: Juan Martin and El Chaparro de Malaga (guitars),  Taliesin Theatre, Swansea, 12.10.2014 (LJ).

Montoya is usually the name that comes to mind whenever there is mention of flamenco style Spanish guitar. Ramon Montoya and his nephew Carlos were both formidable musicians who influenced performers such as Sabicas, Paco de Lucia and Tomatito, who became world renowned artists in their own right. Closely associated with ‘flamingo’, the flamenco is like a flame-coloured bird, though with perhaps more of the fieriness of the phoenix than the finesse of the flamingo. Originating from ‘Vlaminc’ which is Middle Dutch for ‘like a Gypsy’, this music emerged from Andalusian and Romani musical rhythms and requires both gusto and subtlety (again the bird analogy proves useful) to convey both the flamboyancy and sorrow it witholds. Interestingly, the Andalusian historian Blas Infante suggests that the word flamenco is derived from ‘fellah mengu’, an Arabic term meaning ‘expelled peasant’. Infante added that this term referred to the Moriscos who were Andalusians of Islamic faith who, in order to avoid religious persecution and enforced exile, joined with the Roma inhabitants. In much of Spanish culture, from its Mozarabic architecture (the Mezquita/Catedral of Cordoba) to its literature (Cervantes’ Don Quixote), Islamic influence is seen to be jostling with the increasing predominance of Christian faith. When writing his playful account of the book’s origins, Cervantes recounts that one day in the Toledo marketplace a young boy was trying to sell old notebooks and tattered scraps of paper covered with Arabic script. He then acquired one such manuscript and found a Moor to translate it. The Arabic script, the Moor tells him, is the ‘History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian.’ Cervantes then brings the Moor to the cloister of a church and commissions a translation. This coalescing of traditions is succinctly described by food historian Lourdes March, who when describing Spain’s national dish, says of paella that it ‘symbolises the union and heritage of two important cultures, the Roman, which gives us the utensil and the Arab which brought us the basic food of humanity for centuries’.

Having studied under Nino Ricardo and Paco de Lucia in Madrid and performed with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, there is little doubt of Juan Martin’s kudos. But perhaps Martin’s most noteworthy performance to date is his recital for Picasso at his 90th birthday celebrations. Out of this concert his 1981 album Picasso Portraits, where each piece is a depiction of a Picasso painting, emerged.

Joined by the well-known accompanist El Chaparro de Malaga (Jose Antonio Conejo Vida), the duo performed an assortment of Spanish guitar styles with flare and imagination (including one of Martin’s own compositions, influenced by the great Spanish composer for piano Isaac Albeniz, entitled Farruca Martin).

Beginning with a Rondena, which has its origin in the Fandango Malagueno, Martin and El Chaporro took the audience on a musical journey through Spain. Introducing each piece with a short description of the style and region (Seville, Cadiz, and Granada, to name a few) the duo coloured each performance with character, performing with indefatigable vigour and integrity. As lead Martin was mesmerizingly virtuosic. His improvisational flare and natural ease when performing Malaguena along with his technical prowess and Hispanic character evident in La Chispa (translated as ‘the spark’) were well received by the audience at Swansea University’s Taliesin Theatre.

The accompaniment of El Chaporro was persistent and steady. Never competing with Martin for the limelight, El Chaporro was a modest accompanist with a rich tone. He played with depth of understanding sounding svelte whilst quite capable of providing a strong rhythmic underbelly to Martin’s fast-paced solos. Despite some moments where the two were slightly out-of-sync, the overall intention and purposefulness of each performance rendered the slight discrepancies of timing less noticeable than they would otherwise have been.

Their interpretation of thirteenth century songs (of the Nasrid period) was incredibly rich and lamenting, both bringing out the middle-eastern colours and highlighting the oud and lute origins behind the more modern Spanish guitar. Evoking the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the outskirts of Granada, Martin interprets the Spanish landscape with feeling and exactitude. Similarly evoking Moroccan musical textures, Martin’s Evocation from Damascus to Cordoba was a sublime intertwining of Eastern and Western styles. Playing the percussive La Feria (a Rumba of the Alhambra) for an encore, the duo performed with gusto from beginning to end, evoking the festive scene depicted by José Villegas Cordero in his painting entitled Baile andaluz (1893).

Though the poetry is to some extent overtly florid and elegiac in tone and saturated in youthful romanticism, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Impresiones y paisajes (‘Impressions and Landscapes’), first published in 1918 when the poet and playwright was only 19 is a small collection of meditations on Spain’s landscape, people and art. Both the feel and imagery conveyed in Lorca’s verse was expressed by Martin and El Chaporro. In Poem of the Solea, from an early collection of Lorca’s poetry entitled Poem of the Deep Song (1921), Lorca writes:

Dry land,
quiet land
of night’s

(Wind in the olive groves.
wind in the Sierra.)

of oil lamps
and grief.
of deep cisterns.
Land of death without eyes
and arrows.

(Wind on the roads.
Breeze in the poplar groves.)


Lucy Jeffery


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