My recent visit to the top floor of mega retailer Saturn in Hamburg netted five Flamenco records - two compilations of up-and-coming artists; one hybrid with Pepe Habichuela & the Bollywood Strings; plenty of good little things on Paco de Lucia's new Cositas Buenas; and the fifth one the subject of today's review. (There were more but my wallet wasn't cooperative.) Upon completed listening, the latter two releases, not entirely surprising, turned out to tower above the rest like Redwoods dwarf regular fir trees. Marja's & Henk's combined pens will go to town on Cositas, leaving me to brave the scary matador's task on Canto.
This bullfighter's reference is deliberate. El Pele's singing style conjures up a cleanly charging steer whose horns haven't been tampered with to protect the matador, whose fighting instincts are focused to the task at hand without requiring undue domination and flashy while fake tricks by his killer. With blistering metal and propulsive mass in his pipes, El Pele veritably attacks the music with no concerns over vocal prettiness. Vocal 'polish' is sacrificed to transmit uncut emotional fever, a polish of origins very different than the perfection of place settings and doilies. No, this polish is what sax players strive for when their tone gets dirty, loud, unhinged, frayed at the edges, raw and violent - except no sax player alive could match the primitive force and fury unleashed here. Their dynamic range is limited by the bore of mouthpiece and gap of reed, neither competition for the depth of El Pele's throat nor the fire in his belly's throttle.
Cante Jondo thrives on the chemistry between singer and guitarist, the most famous pairing perhaps the marriage between Camaron de la Isla and Tomatito - the shrimp from the sea and the little tomato. Suffice to say that El Pele and Vicente Amigo present a thoroughly mature pairing that does justice to even the highest expectations while instilling becoming modern touches like the synth ambiance on the darkly moody "Acontecio", or Cristobal Agromonte wailing sax on the high-pressure bulerias "Los Amantes", which pitches the voices of La Susi and El Pele against each other like two primordial cats stalking one another around a dying camp fire.
Indeed, the inclusion of electric bass on all but two tracks makes Canto quite the departure from the traditional duo setting which is obeyed only on the solea "Rincon de los Amargos". To use a common term that transmits unequivocal meaning, most numbers on Canto simply rock. Popular Western music only has Rock -- and to a lesser extent Blues -- to mirror the depth of anguish and fury that's the hallmark of the best Flamenco singers. Thinking of Canto in rocker's terms, don't detour into crunched distortion-driven guitars or sheer noise but the ferocious drive behind some of its best examples, the go-for-broke wailing, attitude and emotional excesses of certain poster children like Axl Rose.
The unique thing about Flamenco song is how this very wildness must operate within complex predescribed patterns of rhythm and execution. Completely lacking then are the adolescent disregard for rules and tradition which Rock celebrates as a matter of definition and defiance. Cante Jondo is a precisely calibrated high art whose practitioners cannot successfully advance through the ranks without having mastered clear-cut rules of engagement first. But in the end, what is prized most highly is complete emotional abandonment within said conventions. And Canto leaves absolutely no doubt, about either the mastery both artists have achieved which completely owns the complex structural language of Flamenco; or their gift for overturning this technical proficiency to single-minded service of their emotional message whereby a very potent spell is woven that makes 'ordinary' song sound wan and tame by comparison.
Imagine then the perfection of an immaculately crafted piece of jewelry whose every line and angle reflects balance and love of detail. Now hang this overpriced Rodeo Drive find around the burly neck of an African tribal warrior in the prime of his life. That juxtaposition of polish and strength, poise and threat, stillness and motion, wisdom and natural reflexes, is what Canto is all about. It's perfect execution and the spontaneity of let-it-rip sass, coexisting side-by-side. And when you encounter that in the flesh -- so to speak -- it makes for an altogether more invigorating and shocking experience than mere words could hope to convey.