Unless you count bandleader Natalia Perez del Villar's festive red vest, there wasn't too much Christmas-y about the tenuously Christmas-themed Navidad Flamenca at the Mercury Cafe on Friday night. Though the band played a few villancicos, or traditional Spanish Christmas songs, the jingling bells your typical North American might expect to hear this time of year were replaced by foot-stomping and castanets, the major-chord good cheer replaced by the Phrygian scales and lightning-fast picking that give flamenco its distinctive, mournful sound.
A flamenco performance isn't really like any other kind of performance, but maybe the best way to describe it that it's kind of like a combination between ballet, tap-dancing and jazz. There's a band -- Perez del Villar's was anchored by lead guitarist Vincent Chavez and lead vocalist Mark Herzog -- and it's about improvisational musicianship like a jazz performance, but the dance is equally the center of attention, and often provides the rhythm, like tap dancing. Unlike tap dancing, though, there's a dramatic grace to the dance that is equally about form; many flamenco dancers train, as Perez del Villar once did, in ballet.
But where a ballet dancer's prime comes early, when the body is still lithe and flexible enough for the acrobatics, in flamenco, dancers age like wine -- an essential component to a great flamenco performance is a nebulous quality called the duende, a word that roughly translates to "the soul." And younger dancers just don't have it.
And it was clear that Perez del Villar ruled her roost in terms of duende. Opening with a dance between herself and the younger Sara Monterroso, the two danced as partners, but also almost as rivals; like the Argentinian tango, their dance had the feel of a face-off. If it was a fight, Perez del Villar would have won, but Monterroso still danced beautifully, and Perez del Villar let her take center stage for most of the numbers; like in jazz, the performers sort of traded off solos.
A few numbers gave room for Chavez, who just absolutely nailed it all night, to do his thing, the dancers sitting and providing rhythm with quick, quiet hand-claps. Flamenco demands some of the most difficult guitar-work out there, and Chavez brought both the technical skill and the duende, so to speak, pulling out the ultra-fast strumming flair-ups and scale-runs, but also letting the music breath, letting the falling cadences, runs and rhythms pile up to the point of chaos and then reigning them back in. He grooved. He had soul. As did Herzog, whose impassioned vocals lent themselves well to the plaintive lyrics he sung -- mostly, as he joked a couple of times, about death and pain.
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Like a good jazz performance, Navidad Flamenca had the relaxed, informal feel of a few musicians just hanging around and jamming, but there was something about it, too, that was almost tribal or spiritual. It was beautiful to watch them dance and play, but there were also moments of real transcendence, moments where whatever was going on seemed to suggest something intangible, something deeper. Something, as it were, from the soul.