Spoleto 2012 » Jazz, Blues, & Roots

David Peña Dorantes balances flamenco tradition and innovation

Music in the Blood



You can tear away at Spain — as many have done — hunting for a term that defines it all. But no such simple clarification exists. The country is many old kingdoms and rivalries wide, a pile of timeworn allegiances tall, and many, many fathoms of crushing remembrances deep. Content yourself, then, that there are threads visibly but barely keeping the whole together. Religion is one. Music, another. The plentiful, colorful threads? Those are the music.

Because of what Spain is (and was), there are many idioms represented by those threads. In Galicia, the gaita bagpipe declares Celtic roots. In Basque country, folk melodies are played on diatonic button accordions. In Valencia among the orange groves, the Dolçaina, a medieval woodwind, speaks with a Mediterranean accent. Afro-Cuban rhythms, taking hold wherever they were brought ashore, tug you out onto the crowded dance floor. And down in the south, sundown sees the cafés fill with that hothouse hybrid blossom, gift of the Romani, draped in the colors of ancient Al-Andalus: flamenco.

In this part of the world, roots dig deep. And in flamenco there is that nearly untranslatable term: jondura. Loosely, it means depth. More broadly, it encompasses the expressive qualities that American blues and jazz call "soul." Jondura is the accolade reserved for the most beloved and respected flamenco artists. David Peña Dorantes has earned that prestigious elogio many times.

But Dorantes himself believes that another word is more important to understanding his work. "Freedom," he says, "is the finest of words. Music is not the realm where we should fail to apply it."

If ever there was an artist whose very DNA is inscribed with music, it is Dorantes, whose family legacy of flamenco is deep and wide. He was born into the flamenco world, yes, but he does not feel he was born into chains because of that legacy. If anything, he feels it is his task to expand upon what others before him have made manifest.

In fact, Dorantes contends that family is a key element in flamenco and its power to communicate cultural values. "Flamenco has great significance among the families from which it arises, and that is one source, among many others, of its cultural relevance," he says. "The powerful emotional content conveyed to me [through these family connections to the music] is what comes together, innately, in my music. It is the expressive power and the jondura I'm identified with."

It is another way of saying, perhaps, that his musical pedigree, far from binding him to his post, actually empowers him, throwing its weight behind his efforts, charging forward and clearing the way ahead to his audience. It is an approach toward understanding both his music and his impetus that sounds elemental, focused, evolutionary. Evolution is a very fitting descriptor for his initial steps on this path.

His first instrument was the guitar. But the piano soon followed, as did studies in classical music, so that he would never lack for the precise musical word, color, and texture to express his journey.

"What concerns me and drives me is the 'what is being expressed,' not so much the 'how' it is being expressed," Dorantes says. "Because the reality is that when your heart and soul are speaking to you, and you have an idea to communicate or a story to tell, if you have command of the language you are using, you will find a natural way to express these things. To achieve this, you must study and train so that you may bring new musical instruments to bear and still speak coherently and appropriately."

Dorantes has a supportive background and a strong urge to create his own work and communicate it effectively. "My desire to go a further distance ultimately pushed me to pursue my studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Seville, to explore the classics there, as well as to study piano, harmony, and composition," he says. "I believe this defines my work, because I'm always seeking to merge both tradition and innovation, attempting to harmonize and balance those directions."

Which leads to the question of popular music, its significance in the culture and what paths it may illuminate for our pleasure or understanding. "Popular music has other characteristics, other qualities, that are quite different from what I have outlined [as the roots of flamenco and its cultural import]."

Is there something missing, perhaps, in popular music — some nutritive deficiency that does not feed the soul as well as mature musical expressions like roots music and other folk traditions? Dorantes' answer is hesitant to condemn, but he has no difficulty further defining the issue. "Popular music simply lacks the cultural intensity that gives eloquence and deep purpose to an artistic expression such as music. Popular music is the language of the moment."

Dorantes' ongoing ambition is that delicate combination of deeply personal journey and cultural context — context that he clearly has no desire to leave behind. His ideal public, he says, "simply has the willingness to enjoy and feel the music, to allow it to speak to them and to take a journey with me to different musical worlds." That is at least one definition that requires no mitigation.

Add a comment