In the best of times flamenco is an impassioned outburst, a revelatory fusion of music and dance that embodies Andalusian Gypsies' suffering, joy and cussed refusal to submit quietly to fate. But with the unexpected loss of legendary guitarist Paco de Lucía last month at the age of 66, the wave of flamenco performances breaking across the Bay Area in the coming weeks will undoubtedly contain even more roiling emotion than usual.
Northern California audiences have come to expect regular exposure to Spain's greatest flamenco artists, but the array of talent coming through the region is beyond anything in recent memory. Cal Performances starts things off at Zellerbach Hall with Focus On Flamenco, a series featuring two international stars: Ballet Flamenco Eva Yerbabuena on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 followed on Friday, March 14 by the breathtaking vocalist Estrella Morente (that's her voice pouring out of Penelope Cruz's mouth as she delivers the titular song of Pedro Almadovar's 2006 film Volver).
I expect De Lucía's name will be invoked at least once at Zellerbach, but his spirit will be palpable Wednesday at the Palace of the Fine Arts Theater, where De Lucía's protégé, colleague and one-time rival Tomatito makes his long-overdue San Francisco debut. In many ways the concert's timing feels eerily propitious. De Lucía had already radically realigned flamenco through his jazz-steeped work as a solo artist and accompanying supremely influential vocalist Camarón de la Isla when he became a crossover star, collaborating with jazz guitar shredders.
The crowning moment came at the Warfield on Dec. 5, 1980 when De Lucía, John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola recorded the hugely popular live album Friday Night In San Francisco, which made De Lucía a revered figure among guitarheads who didn't know flamenco from a flamingo.
Tomatito, who's touring with a sextet featuring rising young musicians and dancer Paloma Fantova, has followed in De Lucía's footsteps. Born José Fernández Torres in Almerí, he was discovered by De Lucía as a young teenager, and was still in his teens in the mid-1970s when Camarón de la Isla hired him to replace De Lucía. He toured and recorded with the beloved singer until his death from lung cancer at 41 in 1992. He first made an indelible mark with his debut on Camarón's classic 1979 album La Leyenda del Tiempo, a brilliantly idiosyncratic project that broke with flamenco tradition in terms of instrumentation and production but remained rooted in the hardscrabble Andalusian soil, with many lyrics drawn from Garcia Lorca.
"At the time I thought it was risky," said Tomatito, 55, in Spanish, speaking from New Mexico at the start of his North American tour. "I didn't like it. Camarón had the electric bass and more pop and rock instruments. He said people would understand the record in 20 years."
Since Camarón's death, Tomatito has established himself as one of flamenco's greatest guitarists. He's won a series of Grammys and Latin Grammys, while collaborating with numerous jazz artists like Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, with whom he won a Grammy for the 2000 album Spain. He credits De Lucía with sparking his interest in jazz.
"When Paco De Lucía started playing with Chick Corea, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin, that influenced all the younger musicians from his school," Tomatito said. "That was the beginning of it."
De Lucía's legacy will also be in the foreground at Bay Area Flamenco's April 6 program at Brava Theater, an event that pairs an all-star ensemble with the Bay Area premiere of Andrea Zapata Girau's hour-long music documentary Guitarra de Palo. The live performance includes the great Spanish flautist and long-time De Lucía collaborator Jorge Pardo, New York trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, a Latin jazz pioneer who led the great Fort Apache band, Israel "El Piraña" Suárez, a maestro of the box-like cajon, who worked extensively with De Lucía and now tours with Buika, bass master Javier Colina, and guitarist Raimundo Amador.
"Raimundo is a Gypsy from Sevilla and hails from an important clan," says Nina Menendez, the founder and artistic director of Bay Area Flamenco, the organization that presents the annual Bay Area Flamenco Festival. "The great pianist Diego Amador is his brother. He grew up in the community playing straight ahead flamenco, but they fell in love with B.B. King and that whole blues/rock thing in the sixties, when they were young teenagers. He does this amazing fusion of flamenco and blues."
While major arts presenters like Cal Performances and SFJAZZ play an important role showcasing top flamenco artists, over the past decade no one has done more to build bridges between Andalusia and the Bay Area than Menendez (who's a fine flamenco singer herself, and the daughter of the storied jazz/blues vocalist Barbara Dane). She's busy planning the ninth edition of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival in June, when she'll present the incandescent Farruquito Dance Company at Zellerbach, but before then she's bringing the legendary singer and dancer Miguel Funi to Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center on April 12, and Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa Jazz Center on April 13.
Though flamenco has lost its greatest international star with the death of De Lucía, the art form is as vital as ever, with strong roots and ongoing cross-pollinations that end up enriching and expanding the ancient tradition.
Cal Performances' Focus on Flamenco starts Wednesday, March 12 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. For tickets and information visit calperfs.berkeley.edu. Tomatito and his Flamenco Sextet peform Wednesday, March 12 at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts. For tickets and information visit omniconcerts.com. To learn more about the upcoming Bay Area Flamenco Festival in June, 2014, visit bayareaflamenco.org.