Flamenco captures Halifax

Hundreds of people heard the clapping, singing and stomping of Spanish Gypsy music in Halifax last week. El Viento Flamenco was in town to perform for the New Dance Series. When they left for home on Sunday afternoon, they weren't returning to the balmy villages of Spain -- they flew back to Newfoundland.

By: KIM GARRITTY
Editor: Scott MacDonald
Posted: Feb. 15, 2000
Updated: Feb. 19, 2000

Evelyne Benais stomps and claps her way through Halifax.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Live Art Productions

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Sounds of El Viento Flamenco . (1:10 clip).
RECORDED BY: KIM GARRITTY

Halifax says 'ole!'

The guitarist's nails are long, gothic and covered with a fine varnish. Before he plays, he stares into space, breathes deeply and clutches the guitar. Sometimes he holds his breath until the rhythm breaks. You can hear his breathing from 20 feet away. When he first strokes the guitar, he attacks and caresses the instrument like he's been playing flamenco for decades. But he's only been playing for four years.

The singer steps to the microphone, and the ancient sounds of North Africa, Roma and India flow from his deep voice in Spanish lyric. It's hard to believe these two are blues singers from St. John's, Nfld. The two intertwine lyric and guitar rhythms in intensity and volume for several minutes before the percussionist starts clapping. The music builds until it is time for Evelyne Benais.

As she steps on stage, Benais steps into character. She wears a long black skirt with a pink skirt underneath. Her shoes have a slight heel and lace up around her ankle. Her hair is tied back into a roll with red flowers. Her hypnotic footwork moves in perfect syncopation to the ryhthm and voice of her flamenco musicians. She has a wild, sometimes pained, look on her face, and occasionally she cries out in Spanish. Yet her body moves in complete control, feet tapping feverishly while she tenses her arms and opens her hands, letting her fingers delicately draw gestures in the air. Benais dances for more than an hour until she shines with exhaustion.

Tony Tucker, Bob Sutherby, Sean Harris and Evelyne Benais are El Viento Flamenco.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIVE ART PRODUCTIONS

The El Viento Flamenco troupe has just performed the last concert at the Dalhousie Arts Centre in their four-show visit to Halifax. They receive two standing ovations.

Flamenco is the music and dance of the Gypsies of Spain who migrated from India to western Europe. "The dancing and the guitar are all structured around the verses of the singer," Benais says.

Singer Sean Harris explains that flamenco music is more of a form than a set of songs. "There's no real lyric or lettre or verse. It's all just pretty much words that go along with the piece." Many of the stories deal with the Roma or Gypsy experience in Spain and reflect "a lot of longing, a lot of unrequited love, a lot of hardship."

The group roused the audience. One woman commented after the show, "She makes every woman want to put on this red dress and dance." Another observer said the show was "controlled but forcefully expressive." She adds, "It's a beautiful dance. I wanted to learn it anyways, but now I see how much work it is."

Chris Majka, promoter for Live Art Production, invited the group here for the New Dance Series after their performance in the Local Currents modern dance festival last year in Halifax.

"Even at that performance, people stood and cheered and shouted 'ole!' " Majka says. "On the basis of how well that worked, we decided we wanted them back for a stand-alone show."

More than 1,000 people saw the group over the last two weeks Majka says. All the shows were nearly full. Majka says only a few people in Halifax play flamenco, but the high turnout shows interest is growing.

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Musicians bring flamenco to Newfoundland

It didn't seem to matter to the audience that El Viento Flamenco is based in St. John's.

Merill Rasmussen, a member of the audience said, "I kept thinking it's so odd that these people are from Newfoundland. You would never suspect it."

The group's Newfoundland origins are directly linked to the passion and career choices of Evelyne Benais, the troupe's founder.

Benais was raised by French immigrant parents in northern Ontario and spent her teen years living in Paris.That was when she first heard flamenco. A friend lent her a tape of flamenco music. After that, she says she started listening with a different ear and fell in love with the music. She renewed her love of flamenco when she discovered the Don Quixote bar as a teenager in Toronto. It was a dance bar and restaurant that brought flamenco musicians over from Spain for six-month contracts. Benais says she was a regular.

After her exposure to flamenco, Benais says she used to day-dream about it all the time, especially when she studied all night at school. "I really didn't know all that much about flamenco. I knew about the music, but I didn't really know about the lifestyles of Gypsies," Benais explains. "I remember visions of myself in a small village far away from everywhere where I was listening to that music."

Benais told herself she would take up dancing when she finished her BA in French literature. But flamenco would remain a dream for Benais for a long time. She received a scholarship and went on to do her masters at the University of Toronto, met her future husband, and moved with him to St. John's. She stayed there for a year until deciding to pursue her PhD in Paris.

It would be a turning point in her life. While in Paris, Benais' mother became ill with cancer, and Benais returned to Toronto before she died. During this tumultuous time, she went back to St. John's to decide what to do next. Benais says she realized that life was too short and said it was time to follow her dream.

She had received two extensions for her doctoral studies and had just one more paper to hand in if she wanted to continue. "The next deadline for the grant application for the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council was approximately at the same time. I had a week or a week and a half, and I couldn't do both. I had to chose one and I chose the grant."

Benais' arms caught in quick movement.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIVE ART PRODUCTIONS

So she went to Toronto to study with renowned flamenco artist Carmen Romero. When Romero asked her to dance in her troup, Benais jumped at the chance. She commuted between St. John's and Toronto for another year until it became too expensive and tiring. She moved back to St. John's permanently and started looking for musicians.

Someone had mentioned Bob Sutherby to her. Benais showed up at his door one day with sheet music and instructional videos and asked him to consider playing flamenco.

They started performing two months later. Sutherby continued to practice and train. Benais arranged for guitar teacher Patricio Tito to come from France to teach Sutherby for a month. During his stay, Tito wanted to see Sutherby perform in his natural element with his blues band, the Gravelpit Campers. That night Tito saw Sean Harris sing for the first time and suggested him to Benais.

Benais says Tito told her, "He can learn Spanish later. Listen to how powerful a voice he has, the rhythm he has, and also how much he gives of himself on stage. He's not up there trying to look cool, putting on airs. He's just singing his heart out and that 's what you need for a flamenco singer."

Tito trained Harris for a month before Benais took over. Harris says learning to sing in Spanish wasn't difficult because of his classical training. "I was singing Italian, French, and German ... So when I was asked to do the same thing in Spanish I just had to get my head around it."

Along the way Benais has tried to get others involved with the group but finds many artists leave St. John's for other centres. Now she has a young percussionist, Tony Tucker, working with them.

"It's really good," Tucker says. "The timing is really similar to African music." He says the pieces where Benais dances are his favourite. "It gets you stoked. It's much more exciting and gives me a chance to do a lot more."

Benais says she loves being in St. John's and has no plans to leave for Spain. "Lack of pollution, lack of crime andthe daily good humour make it very easy to live in St. John's."

Harris says Newfoundland is very open to new music and they have a regular group of people who support them.

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'People want more' say workshop participants

In addition to shows at the Dalhousie Arts Centre, El Viento Flamenco performed at a variety of workshops for voice, dance, guitar and percussion over the two weeks they were in Halifax. On Saturday afternoon, they gathered at the Maritime Conservatory of the Performing Arts for a juerga (hoo-where-ga), an informal gathering of musicians. With paella, punch and enthusiastic flamenco fans, the juerga allowed students to show off some new talents.

Musicians and dancers gather for juerga on Saturday at the Maritime Music Conservatory.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIVE ART PRODUCTIONS

Some of Benais' students at the conservatory describe the workshops as exciting, but hard work. "She pushed us really hard," says Sarah Rozee. "The best part of it was when I finally got the rhythm."

Flamenco students Sarah Rozee, Deshayne Fell, Nancy McNeil and Victoria Ridler share their new flamenco skills.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIVE ART PRODUCTIONS

Barb Dearborn, head of the dance department at the conservatory, organized many of the events inluding the juerga. After seeing El Viento Flamenco perform last year she approached Live Art to organize the dance and music workshops. More than 80 people participated in the workshops, and Dearborn says, "My feeling is people want more."

Dearborn says next year they will organize the juerga in the evening after all the shows are finished so they can "spike up the punch a bit" and celebrate longer.

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