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LA La Land: A magical night of Mexican Flamenco – jazz for the feet

I did not know that there was such a thing as Mexican Flamenco.  I always associated Flamenco with Spain, with deadly serious dark-eyed Spanish women and men drumming rhythms with tap shoes and castanets. This weekend I was treated to the Mexican version and learned a lot about Flamenco.

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The location of my entertainment and education was the La Cocherra Cultura – the Garage of Culture, a converted car repair facility that is now a significant art center in Ajijic. The event was   Flamenco! with a completely Mexican team: dancer María José Valdés,  singer Julio de la Isla, and guitarist Carlos Iván de León, assembled by producer Emilia Gálvez, who also danced and played the cajon.  Valdés was a special treat for the Ajijic audience because, despite being renowned throughout Mexico,  it was her first time dancing in the Lakeside community about an hour from Guadalajara.  

It was a night of music and magic. 

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The magic materialized almost immediately as Morelia-based Carlos Iván de León kicked off the first song on his guitar and the tapatio (Guadalajaran) singer Julio de la Isla’s vocals sailed over the guitar riffs and throughout the center.  His voice was mournful, although Gálvez said later that the lyrics are not always as sad they sound, but because of the singing style and the differences between Spain’s Spanish and “Mexicano lingua” they can be hard to understand even for Spanish speakers.

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Gálvez joined in on the cajon, her hands and fingers weaving a subtle percussion fabric with the vocals and guitar notes.  Then the dance began. María José Valdés virtually attacked the dance floor, her body and her feet speaking a powerful language of angular poses, sharp motions and explosive contact with the wood beneath her feet.  Known for her performances at the Bailaores del Mundo during the Flamenco Summers of Love of God 2019, the Aguascalientes, Mexico, resident displayed a technical perfection and the emotional depth that stunned the crowd. She swung her movements around the anguished vocals and aggressive guitar riffs of Carlos and Julio while Gálvez created a percussion backdrop on the cajon that molded itself to Valdez’s movements.

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But there was more magic to come, There were two young dancers visiting from Spain who were there just to watch and enjoy, but Gálvez coaxed them onstage, despite the fact that the male dancer was wearing hiking boots and the young woman low-heeled street shoes – hardly flamenco shoes.   Footwear aside, they wowed the crowd not only with their exuberant and technically superb baile but with laughter at their situation of clomping on the dance floor in hiking books and loving it. 

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Then Gálvez and María José Valdés joined them and the four danced together and in pairs in an improvisational round.  Afterward, Galvez told us that dancing together with no practice was natural. “Flamenco is all over the world,” she said, “ but there are structures within it we all understand and we get to improvise in the spaces in between the structures.”  It is like jazz for the feet. The audience did their own improvisation by alternating between clapping in time and shooting videos on their phones. The night ended with bows, laughter, and phones full of once-in-a-lifetime images.

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Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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