Beats and Compas: Where Flamenco and Hip Hop Meet
We were in close, tight quarters. I remember the smell of chorizo and garlic, and the sweet, sticky taste of sangria. Sweat added to the acoustic and visual charm of the encounter. We are in Casa Panza in Little Havana, circa the mid 1990s, and Celia and Paco Fonta dominated the small stage with their intense and emotional flamenco. This was a weekly staple for Miami culturistas, live flamenco and tapas — the real thing. I remember going with a group of belly dancers. We were connecting to our Moorish origins, experimenting with cajon, guitar, and other rhythmic cousins. Celia brings me onstage and I dabble in my first fusion experience; embracing the guitar and her consonant-making footwork to travel deep in my belly and spine. It was a celebration of ancestors and fluidity. Last weekend Celia and Paco Fonta reinvented that fluidity with their show “Beats and Compas,” a performance of hip-hop flamenco fusion at the Byron Carlyle Theater, presented by Siempre Flamenco. “Compas” is the name of the basic structural rhythm of flamenco, usually in 12 counts. It is marked by staccato footwork that frames the arms and floor patterns. These two dance and music genres come together in marriage to the “Beat” — the fundamental force behind hip hop. Hip hop and Flamenco share an origin based in struggle. Celia explains that “flamenco is a stylized way of expressing movement, human emotion, and self discovery.” She adds that flamenco originated in Andalucia, Spain, the southern region where the Moors, Jews, and Gypsies congregated before the Spanish inquisition. Their shared struggle and persecution laid the foundation for this art form. “Flamenco developed as an expression of that persecution.” The essence of flamenco embodies the feeling of “overcoming a situation or obstacle.” This movement upward, and the vibrational ascendance, is true for hip hop as well. While hip hop’s ancestry can be traced to the dub poetry of the Caribbean and parts of Africa, its identity is rooted in inner city struggle for expression and access. Where flamenco uses the percussive innovation of the feet and hands, hip hop incorporates the throat (the human beat box) and drums. Anticipating the show, I can’t help but remember my 2005 production of the “Habibi Remix — a hip hop belly dance love battle.” I danced alongside b-boys and uprockers to a live DJ onstage, mixing belly dance and hip-hop beats. The original script was created by spoken word artists and MCs. It was an integrative experience for us and for me, viscerally pleasurable to inhabit such expansive rhythmic spaces. I was excited to see Celia’s approach. I came into the experience with an earned trust of Celia and Paco Fonta’s artistry. What inspired and excited me most was the border crossing, boundary-breaking nature of the production. Celia’s hip-hop counterpart was dancer Charles Williams, a native of Sarasota and alumnus of New World School of the Arts and the Frederick Bratcher dance company. While his hip hop was based more on contemporary and African dance, it had all of the urban and global flair relevant to the style. I love the way the show built upon itself. The dancers entered the creative space standing firmly in their own genres, then created layers upon each other; interchanging essence and attitude. This intention was highlighted in the Alegrias duet — where both dancers meshed the flamenco and hip-hop steps to traditional flamenco music. The show ended in a crescendo, where the live band, DJ, singer, and dancers took the audience to an elaborate fusion of sound, percussion, and community. One of the strengths of the show was its ability to bring people together. The cast had members from the African American, Spanish, and Caribbean community. It was a successful blend of European and African art without any sense of hegemony. This performance provided an example of the best that is within us all, the power and contribution of dance, and its ability to trespass borders and create a forum to celebrate the fluid spaces between peoples and cultures. For more information, check out: www.siempreflamenco.com. Originally published in the Sunpost in November 2010.