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#1042: Adding a Tropical Twist to Flamenco (fwd)
Adding a tropical twist to flamenco By Elijah Wald,
This story ran on page N04 of the Boston Globe on 11/21/99
._-_Haitian music is the fastest-growing pop style in the Boston area,
but the variety of offerings this week is still exceptional.
Thanksgiving has two of the most respected dance orchestras going head
to head, with the legendary Orchestre Septentrional, popular since the
1940s, at Mosley's in Dedham and the 22-piece Orchestre Tropicana at
Wonderland Ballroom in Revere. On Saturday, Wonderland has what will
probably be the biggest show, with the hot compas group System Band, a
must for salsa dancers, in a battle of the bands with modern pop stars
Sweet Micky. The most unusual concert, though, is yet another
Thanksgiving show, at the Holiday Inn in Somerville. It features the
local roots rhythm band Batwel Rada opening for Strings, the pioneering
and unique masters of ''flamenco tropical.'' Flamenco tropical is the
brainchild of guitarist Jacky Ambroise, who founded the group in 1996.
''The idea of mixing flamenco and Haitian troubadour style is kind of
weird, but that's what came out. We wanted to have something
international and at the same time with Caribbean flavor,'' Ambroise
explains, on the phone from his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He began
playing guitar at age 8. He studied classical music, working through
the famous method of the 19th-century Spanish guitarist Francisco
Tarrega, then found himself drawn to flamenco, in particular the work
of Paco de Lucia. Soon he was performing his variations on the style.
''When I was like 15, 16 years, I used to give little concerts in the
school,'' he says. ''And they really liked it. Haitians, you
know, love guitar, and seeing
someone playing guitar so fast, I think they were really amazed to see
that.'' Rather than simply becoming Haiti's flamenco master, though,
Ambroise wanted to put a local twist on the music. ''I wanted to put an
emphasis on the Caribbean flavor, the troubadour style,'' he says.
Basic folk style
Troubadour music is one of the basic Haitian folk styles. ''They are
like musicians who work on the streets and play music in the cafes,''
he says. ''It's the typical Haitian music, with guitars and congas,
maracas and a bass called marimboula [an instrument like a wooden box
with tuned metal tines]. The rhythm was always fascinating to me, so we
just took this and then we mixed it with the flamenco.'' Unlikely as
the combination may sound, Ambroise says that it happened quite
naturally. ''I love flamenco and I also love this troubadour style. So
it was kind of easy to play them together.'' Ambroise soon joined up
with a bassist, Philippe Augustin. After a few concerts as a duo, they
added a rhythm guitarist, then two percussionists to give more of a
Caribbean flavor. ''We had our first concert in April 1996,'' Ambroise
recalls. ''And from the very first notes that we played, the reaction
of the people, I looked at Philippe and I told him, `Philippe, I think
that we hit the right target.' Because the people were so amazed about
the purity of the sound. And since then we've been playing a lot, not
only on the Haitian market, but on the international market.''
Strings has released two albums, ''Tropical Mood'' and last year's
''Flamenco Tropical,'' both on Miami-based Crossover Records. Most of
the tunes are original, but there are also versions of Latin standards
like ''Tico Tico.'' The sound is a laid-back blend of clean, influenced
acoustic guitar and strong percussion lines. The lack of vocals
sometimes pushes the band toward an easy-listening groove, but in
general they have more than enough energy to surmount this pitfall.
Live, Ambroise says, this is the least of their problems. ''When we
went to Chile, the police had to come and stop the concert,'' he says.
''There was a crowd of about 5,000 people, and they were going crazy
about what we were doing, and finally the police had to ask us to stop
Ambroise says that he would compare his approach to that of the Gipsy
Kings. ''When they are onstage, they really set fire in the place, and
that is what we try to do too,'' he says. One big difference is that,
unlike the Kings, Ambroise has chosen not to put a vocalist in front of
the group. There is some use of vocals for background, but no lead
vocals at all.
The guitar speaks
''We let the guitar speak first,'' he says. ''We often make the vocal
follow the melody of the guitar, so in a sense the vocal supports the
guitar. But with no lyrics, because in Haiti we speak Creole and
French, but this is like an international music and everybody can
understand it. That was a trade that we've made in ourselves, and I
think that we're gonna definitely keep it that way.'' These days,
the band has all the work it can handle back home, and is also
touring the United States and around the Caribbean. ''My father was a
musician,'' Ambroise recalls, ''and all my uncles play music, or they
are writers or painters, they are all in the arts. When I was a kid,
they used to have parties at my house, and I used to sit and look at
them play, there would be three, four guitars and singing. And now,
I'm playing for them, and they are so proud, because they remember me
as a small kid being there,andd now I am playing my music for them.''
Strings and Batwel Rada perform at 9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Holiday
Inn, 30 Washington St., Somerville. Tickets are $35 and $30 in
Orchestre Septentrional Thursday at Mosley's in Dedham; 781-326-3075.
Orchestre Tropicana Thursday at Wonderland Ballroom in Revere;
781-289-3080. System Band and Sweet Micky Saturday at Wonderland;