Live review: Fanny Ara Flamenco Ensemble at Blue Whale, April 16.


Note: I'm bumbling into this as a sometime flamenco fan rather than an expert. We hit the Whale on a whim, and prioprietor Joon Lee (who usually books edgy jazz) told me he'd been admiring Fanny Ara for years, but her schedule didn't mesh until she made another local booking at the Fountain Theater this weekend. So here we were.

Before establishing Bay residence, Ara logged deep flamenco studies in the French Basque country and Spain. So she's got roots, but her direction tonight showed an itch to liberate her art from kitsch and Franco-sponsored retro-vision.

The soulful wails and encouraging shouts of veteran singer José Cortes provided the main link to the past, then green branches sprouted. Acoustic guitarist Andres Vadin justified my niche scrutiny with Malmsteenian sweep-picked arpeggios (metal) and dense Minguslike dissonances (jazz). Though harmonic overlayering isn't foreign to flamenco, Vadim lavished it on practically every chord, while his single-string runs emphasized urban energy over gypsy lyricism.

Same for the percussion. Beaming in white sunglasses like Stevie Wonder on shrooms, Diego "El Negro" Alvarez augmented his hand drums, tambourines etc. with a snare drum and cymbal -- you don't hear flamenco rocking this hard.

The rhythm crack normally comes from the feet, a tradition that dramatic dancer Manuel Guitierrez never neglected. His stamping heels would have shattered a lesser man's spine, and his busy rhythms persisted beyond human endurance; when he should have been kneeling for the James Brown cape, he just charged forward, his body twists and active hands expressing limitless vigor.

But not onstage sexual tension, normally the backbone of flamenco. Forsaking the duet dance, the fans and the castanets, and curtailing her shoe percussion, Ara alternated spotlight time with Gutierrez -- she the writhing anaconda, he the rampaging bull. At times she even disdained his exertions, subtly scratching her nape and checking her nail polish before commanding the stage herself. In a tight, unruffled black dress, she undulated with wonderful fluidity rather than the usual lusty heat, magnetic in her own contrasting style.

We clapped for the originality, the tight execution and the implied anger. And so did another patron, master saxophonist Bennie Maupin, who knows a thing or two about revitalizing old traditions.

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