Review: Herencia Flamenca

I recently had the chance to see Herencia Flamenca (in the English-speaking world titled “The Flamenco Clan”) by the German documentary filmmaker Michael Meert. The film focuses in particular on the band Ketama, whose members proved to be the most popular and influential exponents of the “nuevo flamenco” movement in Spain beginning in the 1980’s. Ketama and others like them began to mix traditional flamenco with other influences – jazz, rock, and world music – in an effort to create a new sound that spoke to contemporary Spain in the years after the Franco regime while still referencing the historical roots of flamenco.

This was not purist flamenco, but it was a fusion of flamenco with other styles which was performed by musicians who knew very well what real flamenco is, since they could play it. The Carmona brothers who made up Ketama, were not just a group of lads who appeared on the pop music stage out of nowhere. As the documentary shows us in fascinating and often moving detail, they come from a long line of gypsy musicians from Granada. Because of extreme poverty in Andalusia, many of them had to move to Madrid or other cities in order to find work.

An example of how radically things have changed in Spain occurs when Juan Carmona takes the filmmakers to the apartment block in Madrid where he first lived when he and his family moved there in the 1960s, explaining how all of them slept on a group of mattresses piled on the floor. This poverty is juxtaposed with today, when the Carmona brothers play to tens of thousands in stadium concerts. The Carmonas are not the only ones who have managed to rise above the dire poverty and hunger that characterized the Gypsy experience for much of Spanish history, though in acknowledging the prejudice they experienced as Gypsies, they also admit that the Gypsies themselves were often prejudiced against other Spaniards.

However, lest the reader think that this is a film about class structure and sociological developments in 20th century Spain, the real message of this movie is about the love of music and the love of family. There are sequences of singing and guitar playing that pull at the heartstrings, and others that lift the spirit and put across an unadulterated joy. And everywhere there is genuine warmth and affection among the extended members of the flamenco clan, who meet, embrace, kiss, pray, eat, play and dance together, from the newest newborn to the oldest great-uncle.

There is a marvelous section toward the end of the film when the extended family gets back together, as they try to do at least once a year, in the Sacromonte district of Granada. We are truly privileged to watch part of the evening, as they take turns singing, dancing, and playing instruments until the wee hours of the morning. One very well-edited sequence in particular shows the real heritage of the clan: each male guitar player in the family takes it in turns to play one section of a flamenco guitar piece. We begin with the eldest patriarch of the family, who plays one phrase; he is then followed by the next younger man, and so on, all the way down to the youngest guitarist in the family who is able to play the piece. In this one section we can see how the tradition of the family and its love of music can stretch across generations.

“Herencia Flamenca” is not a perfect flamenco documentary. There are a couple of brief musical sequences which feel overly arty, manipulative and fake about midway through the piece. Aside from these however, anyone with an interest in Spain and learning more about flamenco music from a non-theoretical perspective will enjoy the generally excellent performances, interviews, and insights into the lives of these musicians.

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