Experienced up close, flamenco is an art form that can shatter the bubble separating audiences from performers, offering a visceral communion with artists bearing a tradition that’s still passed on within extended Gitano families.
Since 2004, the Bay Area Flamenco Festival has been presenting Spain’s greatest flamenco performers, and the 14th annual event highlights the way a densely interconnected array of Andalusian clans continues to define and shape the art form.
Friday and Saturday’s performances in San Francisco feature the incandescent dancer Juana Amaya (at Herbst) and her daughter, the 25-year-old rising dancer Nazaret Reyes (at Brava). But on Sunday, the action moves to Berkeley with two concerts at La Peña Cultural Center.
The early program “Noche de Canto Gitano” showcases the vocalists performing with Amaya and Reyes, with guitarist Juan Campallo and percussionist Diego Amador Jr. (if his name looks familiar it’s because his father is the great flamenco pianist/composer Diego Amador). More than a master of the wooden box-like cajón, the 25-year-old Amador is “an amazing multi-instrumentalist who just put out a flamenco pop single,” says Nina Menéndez, the festival founder and director.
“Juan Campallo is also part of a family of hardcore flamenco artists from Cadiz who learned to play accompanying this two brothers, well-known dancers. Now he’s very much in demand by dancers from Seville. He focuses on dance accompaniment, not so much solo or cante accompaniment.”
The vocalists represent three distinct flamenco communities, with David “El Galli” Sanchez hailing from Morón de la Frontera, where he grew up at the feet of Gastoreño Gyspy flamenco clan, and Antonio “El Pulga,” Núñez, a native of Chiclana who’s also an esteemed lyricist and the nephew of the great flamenco vocalist El Chocolate (El Pulga’s festival performances are his first in California).
Rounding out the triumvirate is Anabel Valencia, who started performing at a child at holiday zambomba fiestas in Lebrija. She made a hit record in 2001 with Rycardo Moreno’s crossover group De Ojana Ná, but in her mid-20s decided to focus on flamenco and started gaining notice as a rising talent, collaborating with her cousin José Valencia in his concerts and in productions by artists such as Joaquín Grilo and Niño Jero.
“She’s from a long line of great singers from Lebrija, a country style of flamenco singing,” Menéndez says. “She’s up on her feet, singing right for the dancers, in their face, very expressive.”
Sunday’s late program “Flamenco Sin Fronteras” focuses on instrumentalists with flamenco-singing jazz saxophonist Antonio Lizana joining multi-instrumentalist Diego Amador Jr., Cuban flamenco guitarist Andrés Vadín and others for a night of surprises and flamenco-jazz. While he’s collaborated with an international cast of jazz and flamenco artists, he’s best known in the States for his guest appearance on Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra 2017 project The Offense of the Drum (Motéma Music), which won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Latin Jazz Album.
Menéndez was blown away when she happened to see him perform in New York City last year and hastily added him to the festival program. “He’s amazing,” she says. “He sings flamenco incredibly well, and plays great jazz saxophone. He takes the genre of flamenco and puts it into jazz in an incredible way. He was here alone spending a month hanging out in New York and when I found out he’d still be here during the festival I hooked him up with Diego, and Andrés Vadín, a fantastic Cuban guitarist living in LA.”
Recommended gigs: Almir Côrtes / Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy
Brazilian string wizard Almir Côrtes, a mandolinist, guitarist and composer from Bahia, performs Friday night with his trio at the Hillside Club featuring electric bassist Scott Thompson and percussionist Brian Rice. They’re joined by special guest Harvey Wainapel on clarinet and saxophones, a Brazilian jazz master with whom Côrtes collaborated on his gorgeous 2017 album Trançado.
And Saturday night, tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy get back to where the players all got their start with a program of gospel music at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall. Featuring pianist/organist Lionel “LJ” Holoman and bassist Michael “Tiny” Lindsey, Extra Nappy is one of the glories of the Bay Area music scene, with a sound and repertoire that draws on a soul-steeped continuum of African-American music. The performance is part of the CJC’s Black History Month celebration, with an emphasis on celebration.