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Flamenco En Vivo Brings Spain’s Passionate Dance to Oakland

Dance/Music review: Flamenco en Vivo, March 20, Bissap Baobab Oakland

Flamenco isn’t just a dance, it’s a culture. Also known as Gitano music, it developed around the Romani peoples (Gypsies) in Andalusian Spain, and is typified by rapid-fire acoustic guitar runs, a dance form which alternates between expressive hand motions, acrobatic twirls, and foot-stomping percussion,  syncopated hand-clapping (called palmas), and passionate singing, often with sad or ironic lyrics.  One of the most-key aspects of flamenco is its devotion to improvisation – which leads to a feeling of being “in the moment” during live performance.

Yaelisa enters the flamenco zone

Yaelisa enters the flamenco zone

Last Friday saw the debut of “Flamenco en Vivo,” a new monthly flamenco party at Bissap Baobab Oakland, an African-themed restaurant and burgeoning center for global culture which is an offshoot of its sister venue in San Francisco. The force behind “Flamenco en Vivo” is Yaelisa, one of the Bay Area’s most accomplished flamenco choreographers, teachers, and performers, who told Oakulture the new party replaces the now-defunct “Caminos Flamencos” night at Duende.

Melissa Cruz and Yaelisa

Melissa Cruz and Yaelisa

Yaelisa assembled a formidable team for “Flamenco en Vivo”’s debut: dancer, teacher (and LoCura member) Melissa Cruz, guitarist Jason McGuire, percussionist Marlon Aldana, and singer Jose “El Grillo” Blanco. That’s truly a world-class lineup, with more than one hundred years combined experience (!).

Yaelisa and Jason McGuire

Yaelisa and Jason McGuire

Still, it remained to be seen how the music would do in BBO, a venue which is slightly larger than the typical intimate environs preferred by flamencos. The answer? Very well indeed. Yaelisa and Cruz began the performance with a duet which spotlighted their ability to move in rhythmic unison. Then each performed a solo dance. This pattern repeated throughout the night, with short break in-between (which allowed the dancers to change outfits).

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

No two flamenco dancers dance the same, and it was interesting to note the contrast between Yaelisa’s style—which emphasized flamenco tradition, with graceful hand motions and dramatic pauses—and Cruz’ energetic take on the form, which relied more on sudden twists and turns. Both were exquisite in their technique and powerful in their footwork, lifting their skirts from time to time so the audience could see what their feet were doing.

Yaelisa

Yaelisa

McGuire was on fire throughout the evening, tapping his guitar like a cajon when he wasn’t displaying a ridiculously-quick fingerstyle worthy of (recently departed master guitarist) Paco de Lucia. El Grillo and Aldana added to the sublime-ness of the show, adjusting to the tempo—which the dancer calls out, signaling with foot-taps—as necessary, and making the entire thing look easy. In truth, though, the level of musicianship was as elevated as the level of dancing. It’s not an overstatement to say that you’d have to travel to Spain to see an equal or higher level of flamenco performance.

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

The crowd appeared to be fairly evenly-split between hardcore flamenco devotees and newcomers to the art form. But even if the technical aspects of what was happening on the floor went over their heads, the visual thrill of watching the dancers was tangible; particularly-impressive movements were punctuated with yells of “Ole!,” as Yaelisa and Cruz summoned up what must have been incredible inner strength to stack frenzied flurry on top of frenzied flurry. Just when you thought they’d expended all their moves, they’d flow into another eye-popping sequence (pro tip: in flamenco, the dance performance isn’t done until the dancer returns to her chair), extending the excitement level.

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

They even got the crowd into it at the end, bringing up several audience members, some of them flamenco students, onstage to strut their stuff. All in all, it was a great introduction to flamenco for the Baobab Oakland crowd, and something which should not be missed!

An audience member joins the dance!

An audience member joins the dance!

The next “Flamenco en Vivo” is April 17 at Bissap Baobab Oakland. More info about Yaelisa’s classes and upcoming performances is here. More info about Melissa Cruz’ classes and upcoming performances is here.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Nina Menendez

This month Oakulture premieres “Women Runnin It,” a new interview series featuring women in dynamic positions of cultural leadership. We begin with Oakland female producers and promoters. Usually behind the scenes, these women are the ones bringing your favorite concerts, shows and nights for you to soak in and live the culture of Oakland.  How do they build community and social arts networks? How do they curate a meaningful event or a club party?

Recently at a Bahamadia concert at Leo’s produced by Chaney Turner of Social Life Productions, the emcee spoke to the need to be actively engaged in creating inclusive community — a crucial component of a culturally-positive nightlife and cultural arts scene. Important to many of us, particularly women and LGBTQi persons, is the ability to go out at night, share our art, enjoy dancing or conversation and not have to defend our bodies and presence. The promoters who are committed to holding this ground for us and advancing it are bringing female artists, gender fluid and non-ratchet parties, and holding down inclusive, ‘safe’ spaces through curating social arts. They are cultural stewards that we at Oakulture value and support. We think you should too. Check out previous women highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez and Chaney Turner.

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The third installment in the “Women Runnin It” series features Nina Menendez, the Founder & Artistic Director of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival (BAFF). Flamenco is the creative expression of a culturally resilient people; an improvisational and exquisitely aged art form of Gitano or Gypsy singing, fierce footwork and dancing, percussive clapping, snapping, body percussion and guitar.

The Bay Area is currently one of the best places in the world for flamenco outside of Spain. A major reason for that is the entrenchment of authentic flamenco dancers and musicians in the region, dating back decades, who have inspired generations of local artists, many of whom have gone on to acclaim in the flamenco world. As both a grassroots arts organizer and world class producer of concerts and workshops, Nina has contributed her lioness’ share to the curation of these bridges of cultural exchange.

Nina boasts a rich cultural background herself: she comes from a musical family of both Cuban and Spanish extraction. Her mother is folk singer Barbara Dane and she is a singer herself, as well as being a former professor of Latin American and women’s studies. She brings her deep knowledge and respect for cultural legacy, resistance and pride to all of her programming and productions, making her a valued resource for the flamenco community. Nina’s commitment contributes to maintaining and building on the cultural legacy of flamenco. This year, she celebrates a major milestone: ten years of producing the Bay Area Flamenco Festival, which begins this week.

Nina Menendez, Founder and Artistic Director of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival

Nina Menendez, Founder and Artistic Director of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival

Oakulture: Tell us about the Bay Area Flamenco Festival shows this year and your inspiration for producing them.

Nina Menendez: It has been and continues to be a true privilege and honor to work with such extraordinary artists over the past 10 years. We’ve presented some of the most important figures in the history of flamenco – from Manuel Agujetas to Manuela Carrasco and Angelita Vargas – as well as prodigies from today’s scene – Diego del Morao, el Carpeta, el Farru – and we’ve also presented groups like Son de la Frontera or artists like Diego el Cigala who are known outside of the flamenco world as well.

The centerpiece of this year’s festival is “Generations of Gypsy Flamenco” which I am presenting here in San Francisco on Sunday, March 22. The idea is to bring together dancers from three different generations, three different pueblos and three different approaches to Gypsy flamenco dance.

Concha Vargas, Pepe Torres and Gema Moneo are dancers who I know well and have worked with on numerous occasions. All three are internationally respected dancers who are at the same time deeply rooted in the grassroots traditions of their local communities. They are each key exponents of their respective generations and are among the finest and most “flamenco” of the flamenco dancers active in Spain today. Together they illustrate the passing down of flamenco dance traditions as an expression of cultural identity and oral history. Their artistry illustrates the continuity of the traditional forms as well as their ongoing reinvention.

Nina Menendez at Oakland Flamenco sessions

Nina Menendez at Oakland Flamenco Sessions

They will be joined by a group of musicians who I hand picked for this production because of their compatibility with all three of the dancers. This will be the first time guitarist El Perla and singer Jose Valencia come to perform at the Festival and we are very excited to host them and to welcome back guitarist/singer José Gálvez and singer Luis Moneo. It will be an unforgettable evening. We are also thrilled that Latin-Grammy nominated cantaora, Esperanza Fernández and the outstanding cantaor, José Valencia with be performing at the Brava theater in the Mission on Friday, March 27th. This will be a concert emphasizing flamenco cante and a rare chance to experience two of the finest flamenco singers of today’s generation, both representing deep family legacies and rooted in a rich legacy of Gypsy flamenco singing.

And finally, in celebration of International Women’s month, we close the Festival in Santa Cruz on Sunday, March 29th with ¡Flamencas! where dancers Concha Vargas and Gema Moneo and singer Esperanza Fernández will come together will blend their intense female energy and telluric chemistry to present an evening of flamenco puro, reminiscent of what you might witness at a Gypsy family gathering in a pueblo in Andalucia.

Video footage of dancer Gema Moneo, one of this year’s BAFF performing artists with El Momo at the Festival de Jerez in memory of Barullito Moneo.

Menendez with flamenco dancer Farruquito

Menendez with flamenco dancer Farruquito

Oakulture: What values do you bring to your work as a producer and how do they impact your decision-making?

Nina Menendez: Certainly values of social justice have a fundamental impact on my work. These values inform my curatorial vision and the decision I make as regards programming. They also have a lot to do with the community partners I seek out for collaborative work and mutual support. I believe that the arts should be a part of everyday life for all human beings and all communities. Increasingly culture is seen as corporately produced goods meant to be purchased and consumed rather than a shared community activity that expresses individual creativity and a common cultural legacy; a part of everyday life that is key to a community’s survival and growth. Much of our programming features Gypsy artists from Spain who share their expressions of cultural resistance and pride through music and dance with Bay Area audiences. These events help to increase awareness of the culture, traditions and history of the Gypsy/Romani people and illustrate the role of the arts in the everyday life. The culture of flamenco is rooted in the legacy of Spain’s Gypsy population, a marginalized subculture with a strong history of resistance to oppression and cultural co-optation. By creating cultural exchange opportunities through performances and workshops by visiting artists from Spain’s Gypsy community, we foster increased understanding and respect among people of diverse backgrounds. Our programming emphasizes how music and dance traditions can serve as a vessel for the transmission of cultural identity and oral history through the generations.

 Nina Menendez on NBC Bay Area's "Comunidad del Valle"

Nina Menendez on NBC Bay Area’s “Comunidad del Valle”

Oakulture: What relationship is there between your artistic work and your work as producer and director?

Nina Menendez: I put a lot of thought and intention behind it. Which makes it a little easier to promote/produce. Flamenco-singing has been a major creative outlet for me but most of all I’m an “aficionada” which in flamenco-lingo refers to a person who is immersed in the culture of flamenco, loving it deeply. For me it’s been a life-long passion that started in my teens when I fell in love with cante gitano (Gyspy flamenco singing). In my 30s and 40s I sang with many of the local flamenco groups and was a professor of Spanish and Latin culture. Later I directed the Encuentro del Canto Popular in San Francisco’s Mission district for several years and managed tours for Cuban artists. So when I founded the Bay Area Flamenco Festival 10 years ago in 2005, I brought all of those parts of me together.

“So many artists and people of all ages and walks of life are making creative waves at the grassroots and bringing the arts and culture into Oakland neighborhoods that have been plagued by urban blight, making them vibrant and exciting places to live and work. There is some degree of gentrification but it is counterbalanced by the inclusive, open and affordable cultural initiatives that are blossoming all around us.” -Nina Menendez

Oakulture: What approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Nina Menendez: We are in the process of deepening our partnerships with several grassroots community arts organizations and applying for funding that will allow visiting artists from Spain and local Bay Area-based flamenco artists to offer free or highly-subsidized classes according to economic need on an ongoing basis to low-income children and youth. This goes hand-in-hand with our plan to build and expand our Artist Residency programs, making them a regular feature of our year-round programming, allowing for a deeper level of cultural exchange and tradition sharing.

Oakulture: What do you wish people knew or understood more about the behind-the-scenes?

Nina Menendez: That this is a labor of love and requires endless hours of planning and work. That we don’t have an endowment or any consistent source of funding and depend almost exclusively on ticket sales to cover all the expenses entailed in bringing world-class artists from Spain’s Gyspy flamenco community to the Bay Area. We depend on community support – it truly does take a village – and we are committed to finding ways to make this work sustainable through increased involvement of dedicated volunteers, expanded support from grant making agencies and foundations and the development of a pool of committed donors.

Nina Menendez at Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Nina Menendez at Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Oakulture: What’s exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Nina Menendez: So many artists and people of all ages and walks of life are making creative waves at the grassroots and bringing the arts and culture into neighborhoods that have been plagued by urban blight, making them vibrant and exciting places to live and work. There is some degree of gentrification but it is counterbalanced by the inclusive, open and affordable cultural initiatives that are blossoming all around us.

Nina Menendez with her mother, singer Barbara Dane

Nina Menendez with her mother, singer Barbara Dane

Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Nina Menendez: Role models in the realm of producing: Chris Strachwitz (more of a record producer but key for roots music), artistically: My mom, Barbara Dane. I’m her number one fan.


Oakulture: Who are your Oakland heroines?

Nina Menendez: Trombonist Angela Wellman founded the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music downtown on Broadway in a storefront in 2005, several years before the current “renaissance” began. This is the first and only public conservatory of music in the United States where youth of all backgrounds have affordable access to world-class multi-cultural music education. Bobi Céspedes, Afro Cuban vocalist, educator and Yoruba-Lucumi priestess. Does Barbara Lee qualify as an Oakland heroine? Well she is definitely a heroine. Yoshie Akiba, founder of Yoshi’s jazz club is also on my list.

Oakulture: If you could book anyone, who would it be?

Nina Menendez: Diego del Gastor, el Perrate, la Fernanda. La Niña de los Peines and Melchor de Marchena. Terremoto de Jerez and Manuel Morao. Carmen Amaya. Moraíto.

Oakulture: Words to live by?

Nina Menendez: Ole! Aché! THANK YOU!
Honor your ancestors, contribute to your community, stand up for justice, love your family, appreciate your friends, be yourself and don’t buy into the mainstream media’s version of reality.

Bay Area Flamenco Festival:

Sunday, March 22nd, 7pm
Generations of Gypsy Flamenco
Featuring dancers Gema Moneo, Pepe Torres & Concha Vargas
with singers Jose Valencia & Luis Moneo

Guitarists Jose Galvez & El Perla
Percussionist Luis de la Tota
Informal pre-show festivities in lobby from 6-7pm

Tix $35-75
Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco

Friday, March 27th, 8pm
Cante Jondo – Cante Gitano
Featuring singers Jose Valencia & Esperanza Fernandez
with guitarists El Perla & Jose Galvez
Percussionist Luis de la Tota

Tix $30-75
Brava Theatre, 781 24th St., San Francisco

Sunday, March 29th, 7pm
!Flamencas!
In Celebration of International Women’s Month
Featuring dancers Concha Vargas, Gema Moneo & singer Esperanza Fernandez

with guitarists El Perla & Jose Galvez
Percussionist Luis de la Tota
Tix $30-65
Crocker Theatre, Cabrillo College, Aptos (near Santa Cruz)

Monday, March 23rd through Saturday March 28th
Festival Workshops & Classes
Featuring singing, dance, guitar, palmas and improvisational skills with artists from the Festival
East Bay, San Francisco & Santa Cruz locations


Bay Area Flamenco Festival Twitter & Facebook

*Also check out Oakulture’s Guide to International Women’s Month Events in Oakland and Beyond for more woman-centric events throughout the month of March!

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