The intrepid trio stand on the shoulders of giants as they try to take flamenco into a new era
In 1979, a revolution happened in the world of Spanish music, where the once staid and old-fashioned genre of flamenco was revitalised, causing controversy along the way. The album La Leyenda del Tiempo, released by perhaps flamenco’s biggest icon of the 20th Century, Camarón de la Isla, took the traditional basis of Andalusian flamenco and added more modern instrumentation alongside it, including electric guitars and bass. A commercial failure at the time of release, with many criticisms of its style, the album was nonetheless hugely influential in forming what is now known as flamenco nuevo, also known as flamenco fusion, which has only grown in popularity and stature since the late 1970s, with subgenres like flamenco rock and flamenco rumba also achieving success. Just under 30 years after that album was released, Seville-based band Fondo Flamenco released their debut album, Contracorriente. Based in part off an EP they released the year before, their debut album set them up well for future successes, going on to achieve high positions in the Spanish charts with their second album. The album is entertaining in its own right, but it is also interesting inasmuch as it shows just how much music had moved on from Camarón’s days, but also how it remained indebted to his work.
“On Contracorriente, Fondo Flamenco manage to both pay tribute to the great flamenco cantaors and guitarists of the past, while also managing to maintain their individuality and personality.”
The flamenco nuevo format is not reinvented here by Fondo Flamenco, but nonetheless they perform well, with several catchy tunes, first and foremost of which is Ojalá, my favourite song on the album. It is maybe the closest the album gets to traditional flamenco, with lead singer Alejandro Astola doing his best vocal theatrics on the track over the top of some gorgeous and intricate acoustic guitar work. Escúchame Mujer is also another good song, this time more nuevo than flamenco, featuring a piano introduction and an overall much more pop-oriented feel to it. Saxophone solos, electric guitars, drum kits all feature, and the crescendo at the end is reminiscent of another well-known Spanish band, Estopa. The album more or less continues in this vein, veering from flamenco flavoured pop rock to a more purely flamenco style, and it’s a mix that works well in my view. The variety keeps the listener engaged and interested, and there’s even one song, Veneno, that has echoes of Cuban son within it, making it an example of what the Spaniards call ‘cantes de ida y vuelta’ or ‘roundtrip songs’, which refers to European Spanish songs that have been influenced by the music of Latin America (which were in turn previously influenced by Spanish music before being adapted to regional and cultural spheres) hence the term roundtrip. There are also indications of further influences, like the moderately out of place yet still kind of fun in a goofy way slap bass of Acariciándote.
On Contracorriente, Fondo Flamenco manage to both pay tribute to the great flamenco cantaors and guitarists of the past, while also managing to maintain their individuality and personality. While not all of their stylistic flourishes work (and indeed, for my money at least, their best songs are the ones in the more ‘traditionally’ pop or flamenco veins) nonetheless it’s good to hear them spread their wings and try to be adventurous. Building on the foundations built by the likes of Camarón de la Isla and Ricardo Pachón one still can hear echoes of that cohort within the trio, but they are also more than capable of entertaining on their own terms as well. While it may not dazzle like one would hope, there’s still enough of their own skill and personality in the music for it to just stand out from the crowd. The album’s title means ‘counter current’, or perhaps less literally meaning upstream or against the current or flow. It can seem somewhat ironic considering how whole-heartedly they are going with the flow of flamenco nuevo trends, but equally it could be a reminder of how controversial any fusion with flamenco used to be. What once was counterculture is now just culture.