Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — On Authenticity

On the Tarantas, Taranto, Granadino, Authenticity, Air Travel, Rail Travel, Ripoffs Real and Imagined and the Martinete Guitar Solo — Endless Meditation No. 21 (b) by Brook Zern

In 1961, desiring to learn the real flamenco guitar, I became a charter member of The Little Sisters of the Poor, the Catholic charity group which recently sued Obamacare because they didn’t want to provide birth control information or supplies to their employees, a request temporarily supported yesterday by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  (I just realized that every one of the nine justices — six are Catholic and three are Jewish — would have been on the Ku Klux Klan’s hit list…)

Okay, I wasn’t a charter member in the usual sense.  I just had to get to Spain, and at that time air travel was hugely expensive — in inflation-adjusted dollars, coach seats cost far more than first class today.

Happily, charter flights cost far less than normal flights, though still far more than today’s coach fares.  You just had to join the chartering group.  (Two years later, I’d take another charter flight, this one organized by my alma madre, Columbia University, sitting next to Francisco García Lorca – yes, the brother of you-know-who and a teacher at Columbia where his brother had studied decades before.)

Anyway — when I finally got off the propeller-driven DC-7 that took me to Europe (Manchester, England, specifically) in a mere twenty hours or so, I was walking groggily down the gangplank or stairway when a guy at the bottom with a big camera told me to smile.  He clicked the shutter and said he’d send me the picture as soon as it was developed, and asked for my address plus one pound, or about three dollars, which I gave him.  He said, “Thanks, mate”.  Wow.  Nobody ever called me mate before.  Only much later did I realized that I had been ripped off in Europe before my feet even touched the ground!

I spent the night in a movie theater watching Black Orpheus four times, and then headed for Granada, the only flamenco center I’d heard of, where I soon found Pepe Tranca, a good Gypsy guitarist and a sweet guy.

(He didn’t “look like a Gypsy”, whatever that means or meant, if anything; though come to think of it, he looked “more” like a Gypsy than another  of my teachers, the now-legendary Diego del Gastor, whatever that means – To me, Diego looked exactly like a Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Wellesley College, whatever that means.)

Anyway again, Pepe may have noticed that I looked dubious, because he pointed to his chest and said, and I quote directly, “I may be white, but my heart is black”.  I guess a sociologist or anthropologist or current flamencologist might say Pepe was playing the authenticity card, to manipulate my perception.  I think he was just telling me something he felt.

Well, Pepe immediately sat down and taught me how to play the granadino. Now, I already knew the taranto — to me and many others, the term just meant a free-form tarantas song that had been forced into an even and danceable rhythm, perhaps 2/4.  Clearly, there had to be a local Granada version of the same simple notion, but based on the town’s famous song form of granainas.

Only much later did I realize that there was no such thing – that in fact I had been ripped off in Spain before I finished my first lesson!

Y si este fuera poco [I think that's sort of Spanish for "As if that weren't bad enough"], the next thing Pepe taught me to play was the martinete.  Yes, the martinete, as in “the great and venerable unaccompanied deep song form, without a fixed meter and thus not even accompaniable, much less accompanied.  To reiterate: not played on guitar,”]

Now, the subtle difference between the photographer who ripped me off and Pepe — and other individuals of Pepe’s apparent ethnicity whom I’ve since had the pleasure of dealing with — is that they have almost always given me vastly more than my money’s worth, even if they didn’t realize it or even intend to.

I’ve still never met anyone who has heard of the granadino — but almost every guitarist and dancer I’ve talked to says jeez, what a terrific and totally logical idea.  You simply take the free-form granaina with its evocative chords (notably the tonic B major) and hammer it into an even rhythm.  Presto, a new guitar solo and danceable form, with all the evocative exoticism of the Granada connection.

(In fact, just deciding to play the hypnotic Moorish-sounding Granada-style zambra dance form in the key of B natural instead of the standard E natural would give the same result, and maybe that’s what Pepe was doing.)

(If any dancers out there are interested, I’m prepared to sell all rights to the granadino for a reasonable sum in unmarked bills.)

Was I ripped off?  I don’t think so.  I think I’m the only living flamenco player who knows the granadino and the martinete – forms so rare that they never have existed at all, at least until Pepe decided he might as well show me something for my fifteen pesetas, if only to avoid spilling the treasured guitar secrets of any actual styles…

P.S.  A remarkable thing, if only in retrospect, happened to me on the endless train ride that meandered through the switchyards of Bobadilla for quite a while on the way to Granada.  (It’s still a key railroad junction – I recently careened through it on the high-speed AVE train in about four seconds.)

Anyway, two fellow passengers, noting that the idiot in the next seat – no, make that wooden bench; hard wooden sharp-slatted bench — hadn’t laid in the requisite huge supply of provisions for the incredibly slow hundred-mile trip, generously shared some bread and wine with me.  I told them of my quest, which they thought was a riot.  But when we jumped down from the train, one of them took me by the wrist, placed my hand against a perfectly ordinary nearby tree, and said, “Típico! Auténtico!”

Then he laughed, and the other guy laughed (did I mention there had been some wine involved in this?), and he did the same thing; and then there we were, running around from tree to tree, while they shouted “Típico!! Auténtico!!” as I touched each one.  (It is hard to be a taciturn and private person in Spain, regardless of one’s preferences.)

With all that has happened to the notion of authenticity in recent years – I was at a recent travel expo show where it seemed that most of the countries seeking more tourists were shouting “Authentic!  Authentic!” – I have to give those guys some credit.  They heard why I’d come to their town, though I certainly didn’t use that actual word.  And they intuited that I was involved in some peculiar search for something I considered more real or “authentic” than my own somehow unreal self and inauthentic reality.  Otherwise, why would I be travelling all to hell and gone to find it?

(Flash forward fifty years or so.  I’m talking about flamenco with an anthropologist who is nonetheless a friend.  He seems a- or bemused by my attitude in this area, and so he gives me a pop quiz on which flamenco artists are authentic and which aren’t.  I give the correct answers.  Then he does it about blues singers, and pop singers, and painters and writers, faster and faster.

I’m on a roll, presumably batting a thousand.  Then he slips my name into the list, and I blurt out: “Inauthentic.”

And he looks at me for a while and says, “What exactly do you mean?  What are you inauthentic at?  Aren’t you an authentic example of, say, a half-Jewish, half-Pennsylvania Dutch, half-baked self-styled evaluator of certain things?”

“That’s not anything,” I say.  “I’m talking about real…”

“What exactly do you mean, ‘real’”, he says.

No wonder I hate academics.  This guy seems to think that everyone is equally authentic.  That’s crazy talk.

Isn’t it?

As the brain-damaged hero of “Memento” says in the terminal line:  “Where was I?”

Or did he say something else?  I forget.

But that’s typical.

Brook Zern

January 2, 2014   1 Comment