When flamenco gets its own festival at Virginia Commonwealth University, a weekend stuffed with blazing guitar playing, percussive dance and impassioned singing, it will be the realization of a longtime dream of organizer John Patykula. An associate professor and the only guitarist on the full-time faculty, Patykula has worked behind the scenes on a number of concerts, including the annual Guitar and Other Strings summer series and last year's excellent festival honoring Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. He first applied for a faculty grant to host a festival dedicated to the archetypal Spanish music 10 years ago. This year, with two outstanding flamenco guitar students to showcase, he gets his chance.
The spectrum of flamenco forms will be on display at the opening concert Friday, split between the innovative guitarist, singer and dancer Marija Temo and the more traditional guitarist Paco de MAlaga. “There will be a contrast between the young female artist who has a certain modernism in her playing [and a degree in classical guitar],” says VCU flamenco guitar instructor Charlie Moeser, “and the older male, authentically from the south of Spain and a lifetime flamenco artist.”
Superficially, flamenco is music of dramatic intensity: an exotic woman with dark, smoldering eyes in a low-cut dress clicking out a complex rhythm with castanets held languidly above swirling skirts and intricate, percussive footwork. But the style has deep roots, dating to the multicultural melding of gypsy, Moorish and folk songs in Spain's Andalusian region, an era wiped out in the ethnic cleansing after the late 15th-century Spanish reconquest. The word flamenco first appears in the 18th century, but its origin is lost. It may refer to the unlikely ancient belief that the gypsies were originally Flemish; it may mean “flamingo” — both are modern uses of the term. In any case, like jazz, rock and hip-hop, the music was born in the fierce creativity of an outsider underclass.
But if flamenco's golden age ended nearly a century ago, it remains in remarkably good shape. The Gypsy Kings, whose members are Gitano (Spanish gypsy) despite their base in southern France, developed a winning blend of flamenco and Cuban rumba that has made them the bestselling band in French history.
There are, inevitably, purists who object to such fusion. “There is a raging debate about authenticity, about what is flamenco,” Patykula says. “But it is the right of any artist to do what they want.”
Which explains the variety of weekend performances. Saturday's concert features the sweeping color and grace of Edwin Apariso's flamenco dance troupe. “There will be singing, dancing, great guitar playing and percussionists,” Moeser says. “Then Sunday, we take over.”
The Sunday afternoon finale will feature roughly 30 guitarists, according to Patykula, with solos from Moeser as well as from star flamenco students Leah Kruszewski and Frank Roark, among others, and two new works featuring Patykula's VCU Guitar Ensemble and VCU Community Guitar Ensemble, one by instructor and guitar virtuoso Adam Larabee and the other by graduate Frank Mullen III.
“For some reason, all the students play better for a day or two after a great concert,” Patykula says. So after two concerts, and several workshops, the festival finale should be spectacular. S
The VCU Flamenco Festival runs March 20-22 at the W.E. Singleton Center, 922 Park Ave. The artists will host workshops during the day and nightly concerts. For information, call 828-6776 or visit www.vcumusic.org.