One of the best places for flamenco outside of Spain, the Bay Area is home to many award-winning, innovative, and highly-cherished flamenco artists. These artists can often be seen performing intimate tablao (floor) shows in bars and restaurants on both sides of the Bay. One mainstay for Bay Area flamenco is SF’s Thirsty Bear, which has hosted a Sunday night tablao for 14 years. A more recent addition to the scene is Penrose, a Moorish-influenced restaurant in Oakland, which features a slightly-raised, slatted wooden stage perfect for flamenco.
Penrose owner Charlie Hallowell explained his goal: “to bring an overtly supported music scene to Oakland where you don’t have to pay a cover or buy a ticket to see amazing live music.” Indeed, November’s tablao boasted some of the Bay’s heavy hitters: Melissa Cruz, Fanny Ara, Alex Conde, Clara Rodriguez and David Paez.
An enigmatic, mysterious artform, flamenco is often associated with the word “Gypsy,” a colloquialism for the Gitano people – the Roma of France and Spain. Flamenco originally developed from Gitano, Moorish and southern Spanish cultural influences; it’s also identified with cultural resilience and a commitment to a traditionally-crafted lifestyle passed down from generation to the generation.
At Penrose, the flamenco vibe was evident from the moment pianist Conde touched the keys for the first song, a piano solo set to the compelling Bulerias rhythm. Conde was soon joined by the lightning -speed palmas of dancers Cruz and Ara.
Palmas is the name for the hand-clapping which forms the rhythm section of flamenco; the players are called palmeras. They charge forward the driving pulse of the music, while the guitar gives harmonic foundation for the singers and dancers.
In flamenco, palmas are quite intricate. Often, unfamiliar audience members become excited and clap off-kilter, only to be quickly hushed or given a side eye by the performers or other audience members. Although flamenco can seem loud, it’s acutely aware of silence, and of maintaining space in-between explosive flourishes.
Next came another palo, an Alegrias (“happiness” in Spanish). From the city of Cadiz, Alegrias is one of the more easily-identifiable flamenco rhythms. The joy of the palmeras was evident, as they launched into a double-time tempo, with an incessant counter-time rhythm.
French Basque dancer Ara stepped out to the center of the stage to dance the alegrias. Her exacting footwork and eloquently-curved lines built up into an intensity of movement. Just when it seemed she couldn’t possibly dance any faster, she doubled the speed of her footwork, as the musicians matched her tempo. Suddenly, she stopped as simply as she had started. Jumping into the center of the action, she attacked the rhythm furiously, culminating with a finishing move which drew all eyes to her.
Flamenco’s family aspect was apparent when guitarist David Paez invited his mother, Adriana Espino – visiting from Cordoba, Spain — up from the audience to sing. Paez created space for her, as she launched into a heartfelt Letra, which captured flamenco’s emotional essence:
Sentimiento . . . para cantar hay que tener el arte y el sentimiento
y es que no se puede aprender
esto se lleva muy dentro
y dios te lo da al nacer.
“Feeling,” she began. “To sing, you have to have the art and the feeling. And you cannot learn this. It comes from deep inside and God gives it to you at birth.”
Conde also comes from flamenco culture. His father was a famous copla (a style of Spanish music popular in the 30s and 40s) singer in Spain, with 20 albums to his name. Conde explained that his piano style is patterned on that same melisma his father used to sing. After coming to the U.S. in 2007 to attend Berklee College of Music, he studied jazz and classical, but found himself missing flamenco. He began to play with touring artists from Spain and now has been back in flamenco’s arms for more than ten years. Currently, Conde is recording a new album of flamenco standards in New York with producer Eddie Palmieri
Like jazz, flamenco dwells in the improvisational. Particular to flamenco, however, is the dancer’s prerogative to both improvise and lead the ensemble at times. Cruz has frequently performed to songs from Conde’s album, Descarga for Monk – a collection of Thelonious Monk tunes adapted to flamenco; At Penrose, she danced to Conde’s composition “Spring Break,” set to the flamenco rhythm siguirilla.
Originally from New Orleans, Cruz studied music and various dance forms before flamenco found her. Known for her musicality and technique, she explained she’s more likely to improvise in a tablao show, depending on her comfort level, and how the other dancers are interpreting the music. In live performance, there are moments, she said, “where I am consciously trying to not think and just be a medium for whatever comes out and not be judging it.”
Rodriguez, another versatile artist and flamenco dancer, was actually the singer for the Penrose show. Although she has very little formal training in singing flamenco, she’s a trained pianist who comes from a family of singers, pianists, and music teachers. Dancing and singing, she said, are “very different role[s], especially if you’re singing for baile (dance), than when you’re dancing and you’re kind of embodying everything that’s behind you and everything that’s inside of you. Your role is really different when you’re a musician… you’re trying to give energy to the dancer.”
Why do these artists choose to live in the Bay, so far from the wellspring of flamenco in Spain? “For what I feel like I want to do with it… I feel more liberated to pursue that here” Cruz said. Over the years, she has dabbled in everything from Cuban, Balkan, metal, rock, Cumbia, jazz, experimental, classical, Filipino, and Turkish music to aerial silk performances.
Perhaps this is indicative of a regional cultural scene in which exploration and dialogue across musical genres is common. In addition to six decades of flamenco history in the Bay, the area is also known for ethnic dance, world music, and Latin fusion – offering endless cultural influences and inspiration.
“What I am liking about flamenco right now is that we’ve gotten to a point where nothing is too weird. There have been enough boundary-pushing artists,” said Rodriguez. “I love hearing, for example, singers that are willing to really reach out of the normal instrumentation. . . I think flamenco allows for all of those things but it takes a kind of vision.”
Artistic visions can vary drastically in flamenco an artform which embraces creativity as one of its core values. Interestingly, each of the aforementioned artists are adept traditionalists who aren’t afraid to step outside of that box.
All of that results in a cultural dynamic which shifts easily between traditional feel and progressive experimentation. As Hallowell explained, the results are often sublime, especially in a live context. “The ecstatic experience of witnessing what those women and men are putting out into the world when they’re performing – there’s no way to really calculate the massive goodwill and soul development that that creates.” He added, “You spend five minutes [watching flamenco]and you’re like, ‘fuck, this is worth doing.’”
(Full disclosure: The author is a student of Melissa Cruz)
Ongoing Bay Area flamenco events:
Thirsty Bear Brewing Company
661 Howard St, San Francisco, CA 94105
La Marchas Tapas Bar
2026 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA 94702
1st Wednesday of every month
1517 Franklin St, Oakland, CA 94612
Mision Flamenca @ Bissap Baobab
2nd Sat of every month
3372 19th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
The Sound Room
2147 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612
Bay Area Flamenco