Long live Dionysos!
of a neophyte at the Festival de Cante de Las Minas, held at La Unión
Daniel Gil. La Unión (Murcia province), August 2002
The reporter arrives at Cartagena intrigued, expectant. It's 7pm on Friday
August 9th, and the sun is still beating down on this industrial and shipping
town in Murcia. La Unión 2002 will be his first flamenco festival, a genre
of which his grasp is not at all firm, and he touches down somewhat lost, waiting
for things to start happening, waiting for the magic to flow...
Hardly four hours later, just time to dump the suitcases at the hotel, grab
a bite to eat and catch the local bus to La Unión, and the journalist enters
the Catedral del Cante. A former meat market, built in a modernist style, this
is to be the festival's main venue. That night the building, without doubt one
of the finest around, is the gateway to one of the biggest annual events on the
flamenco calendar: a week of non-stop singing, dancing and music - an overdose
of flamenco arts.
The festival had already began when the journalist joined the throng that evening.
The previous evening, Thursday, choreographer and bailaora Yoko Komatsubara
raised the curtain on the event, making good the organizers' desire to pay tribute
this year to the artist's native Japan.
Niña Pastori. La Unión 2002 (Photo Kyoko Shikaze)
But not until Friday did the big names start to show their faces in La Unión.
The headliners, Carmen Linares and Antonio Canales, caused an endless queue of
spectators at the market entrance. What seemed extraordinary to the journalist
turned into plain ordinary after he tired of the same old story time and again
for subsequent shows. The expectation caused by the program, coupled with the
festival's unusual organization, meant that waiting for the audience to enter
always delays the start of the shows.
That first night the reporter learned that Carmen Linares is an encyclopaedia
of cante. In other words, she's capable of singing almost every palo or style
of flamenco... and does it very well indeed. The reporter also learned to differentiate
between Dionysiac and Apolline. In other words, that not everything that's done
well is exciting, and not everything that's exciting is done well. And he thought
he learned with Antonio Canales what good dancing was all about. His performance
and that of his young bailaores Juan Ramírez, Paul Vaquero and David
Paniagua, the incredible technical and physical skill the show unfurled, caused
a profound impression on the journalist. Later, a few fellow journalists explained
to him that flamenco dance isn't the same as tap dancing, and that Canales and
company were too wrapped up in the foot-stomping zapateado, allowing other
aspects such as arm movements, choreography or the fundamentals of each different
style of dancing to fall by the wayside. Somewhat confused at this late hour,
the reporter called it a night, and lay in bed thinking over the complexity of
the relationship between the emotions and precision, between passion and technique,
between Dionysiac and Apolline.
On waking that Saturday, the young reporter took note of a new axiom of flamenco
festivals: the performances never start early, always finish late, and you don't
get to bed until the early hours. Corollary: you don't get up for breakfast and
you seldom get up for lunch. Even so, the festival program includes numerous daytime
activities: courses, conferences, presentations, tributes... The sparse trickle
of curious individuals arriving at these events confirms the arguments expressed
above, and just goes to show that when attending a music festival you go for the
music, live and direct if possible.
Manuel Cuevas Rodríguez. Lámpara Minera de La Unión
(Photo: José Albaladejo)
As night falls, though, the atmosphere in La Unión is like a street
party. With the main streets decorated and lit up, and with several pavement cafés
dotted around the Catedral del Cante, this building becomes the epicenter of life
for both locals and visitors during the whole week. And when the main acts finish
their shows, the music and atmosphere spill out into the streets. Whether it's
on the steps of the market building, where the public are just as interested in
the singing as they are in their breakfast of churros con chocolate; or at the
'Latino' street café, a little bar a bit further down the street, whose
tables and chairs take up the whole of the other plaza, and which offers bread
smothered in tomato and oil once the patrons have given up worrying about what
time it is. Colorful, peculiar, charming, and fun.
That Saturday night, at the second grand flamenco gala, José Mercé
reigned in La Unión. At the end of his powerful performance, a throng of
gypsy children stretched out their hands to him from the foot of the stage, in
adoration of the messiah of cante. The art in his voice, and the intimate communion
held with his guitarist, Moraíto Chico, brought the audience to its feet
in the market. Mercé's performance perhaps stole the show from the guitar
recital by Carlos Piñana and his group. The undeniable quality of the artist
from Murcia and of his musicians fueled the debate between Dionysiac and Apolline,
which continued to perplex the journalist.
On Sunday dawn broke over a sleepy, quiet, dull, almost moribund Cartagena.
The reporter goes out into the street but there's not a soul in sight. Shops and
bars closed, newsstands open but with no newspapers (a total contradiction), early-morning
strollers not out for a stroll. The Sunday atmosphere, in the middle of August,
traditional closing period for shops and businesses, only serves to accentuate
the impression given by this city, deep in industrial crisis since the mid-eighties.
Proud of its Roman and Carthaginian ruins, the town is building up a collection
of contemporary ruins, the victim of shocking urban planning, for which graffiti
all over the town lays the blame on the powers that be in the region's capital
Murcia. La Unión, which is a small, modest town, gives a very different
impression. It's humble air and well-kept, decorated streets, with the market
square acting as the center of town life, makes for an inviting atmosphere.
This is the forty-second year the festival has been running. In spite of the
ample experience, the festival organization still resembles that of a beach party,
hardly what you'd call professional. That puts some black marks next to the Festival
de Las Minas, for example the delays already mentioned, or a certain crudeness
in the announcement of the acts. Having said that, it has a lot going for it too.
Throughout the course of the festival, the artists who pass through La Unión
really come into contact with visitors and locals. And its resemblance almost
to a village fiesta really does give it a flavor all of its own.
That Sunday evening, however, the organizational aspect was at its worst. A
problem with the soundcheck, causing an hour and a half delay to the start of
the show, meant that an angry Diego Amador, first artist up on stage, offered
no more than twenty minutes of his piano and group of musicians. With the audience
who filled the market on the brink of starting a riot, and differing explanations
offered by Amador and the festival organizers as to what had happened, on came
Niña Pastori and made the peace. Her show isn't strictly flamenco and maybe
sits uneasily in the middle of a program like that of La Unión. But those
spectators who'd come that night to the Catedral del Cante did so, for the most
part (especially the mothers and daughters), to listen to the singer from Cadiz.
And the truth is they went home satisfied.
La Paquera de Jerez arrived in Cartagena on Sunday night, and the festival's
tone changed distinctly. When she left on Wednesday, it was hard for journalists
and members of the panel to recall everything that had happened on the weekend.
Her presence, always overwhelming, lived up to expectations, both as an artist
and as a person. The reporter awoke on Monday nervous, uneasy. The previous winter
he'd had the once in a lifetime opportunity of accompanying Francisca Méndez
Garrido and her family during the series of recitals offered by the cantaora in
the Japanese capital Tokyo. During those days far from home the young reporter
developed an intense personal relationship with La Paquera and her entourage,
way beyond the call of duty, a duty which produced an article that can still be
read in this corner of the Net. But on his return he hadn't made contact with
them until now. He knew that he was going to meet them, and he was worried what
type of reception awaited him. Mid-morning, when he crossed paths with the singer's
brother Pepe Méndez, at the hotel where they were staying, his fears were
allayed. During these days in Murcia the family from Jerez treated him just like
one of their own again. The trip, the flamenco immersion at the festival, it had
all been worth it. The experience of being close to and having connected with
someone like La Paquera has immense value.
We had to wait for her star performance, La Paquera's that is, until Tuesday
night, after the Town Councilors paid tribute to her. And the result, as mentioned,
was a revolution. With her peculiar style, always thrilling, she won over an audience
who melted from her charisma and gave her a long standing ovation. And by the
end, the journalist was able to resolve his philosophical diatribe: Long live
The previous night saw a performance by Yoko Komatsubara's flamenco ballet
who, with a well-chosen line-up of Japanese bailaoras and Spanish musicians, offered
a highly entertaining interpretation of 'Bodas de Sangre'. The festival's orientation
toward the Japanese flamenco market proves to be justified.
On Wednesday, more than halfway through the festival program, the competition
begins. Out go the stars and in come the aspiring newcomers. The thirty or so
entrants took over the Catedral del Cante and began a top-notch run-down of mineras,
cartageneras and other styles of cante from the Levante region. Powerful, very
powerful. During these days, up until the final outcome on Saturday, the glory
of the great stars which filled the dressing-rooms gave way to the dreams of glory.
Young artists looking for the success which could change the course of their careers,
could give them the boost they need to reach the league tables of those artists
who've made a name for themselves.
On Sunday the winners - in the cante category Manuel Cuevas, on guitar Antonio
Soto, and dancer María Ángeles Gabaldón - basked in the glory
of their triumph as they headed for their respective homes. And that same Sunday
the reporter started the detox process. The diagnosis: flamenco overdose. The
remedy: pop music and junk TV. But just one glance at the bedroom calendar and
he breaks out in a cold sweat: only fifteen days to go till the 'Festival Bienal