BEIT MERY, Lebanon: The story of flamenco guitarist Paco Pena almost borders on folklore.
From his humble beginnings in his hometown of Cordoba, to a sprawling career in London, Pena is always effervescently moving about, and this week he is in Beit Mery for the Al-Bustan Festival to perform a show about, quite fittingly, being on the move.
With his Flamenco Dance Company, he will present the show Quimeras, which has garnered international praise since its premiere three years ago. Exploring the concept of immigration and the lure of a better life elsewhere, it tells the story of a group of migrants who come to Spain from Africa in search of work.
Pena collaborated over an extended period of time with Senegalese and Guinean musicians, and produced a spectacle that many critics have described as expanding the possibilities of flamenco.
But in reality, the flamenco guitarist has been engaged in breathing new life into his beloved dance form since the 1960s, when he made the bold move to leave Spain and move to London, where flamenco was something of an anomaly.
With Quimeras, Pena draws on his own experiences, having witnessed the throngs of African immigrants arrive in his native Andalusia, said to be a gateway to Europe. In his hometown of Cordoba, a center for newly arrived Arabs and Africans, the notion of immigration and the idea that people are prone to moving from place to place was an idea that Pena recognized at an early age.
“[Quimeras] is about the fundamental problem that now exists with immigration. With people who don’t feel they belong somewhere. The reason I feel so strongly about [the issue of immigration] is not necessarily a personal thing, from my own experience. It is really a result of my observations of the terrible tragedies that happen in the world,” he says in an interview with The Daily Star.
The chief impetus to developing Quimeras, however, was the story of how the immigrants got to Spain.
“The most dramatic impulse for me to do this was hearing, almost daily in Spain, about the people leaving Africa to go to Europe and the Canary Islands and many of them dying at sea.”
For years, Africans have set off in boats that follow long and dangerous routes, risking their lives to cross the turbulent seas that separate the continent from Spain’s mainland, hoping to begin anew and channel the funds they make as illegal migrant workers home to their impoverished families.
“They go on these boats to get a better life and most of them just die. And others continue to do it. All because they want to offer their work, and in return, they want a better life,” Pena says.
And so, the idea that would one day become the show, began first as a feeling Pena had: that the aims of these migrants was in fact legitimate, despite their illegal status.
“I am an artist,” he says. “With my art, with what I do, I express my thoughts and my feelings.”
He says immigration is an ancient enterprise, filling the pages of history books and changing the world by infusing traditional cultures with new ideas. He offers the example of Christopher Columbus, sailing to the new world in boats teeming with immigrants.
“People move and I have always moved, and I think – this is the point – I think it’s a legitimate thing. If you want to go somewhere because you want to better your life, what can be nobler than to move?” he says.
When Pena moved to London in the 1960s, it was not because the circumstances in his native land were so dire; it was because they were not challenging enough. He is quick to draw the obvious difference between his story and those of the immigrants in his show. “It was a little bit of a game, in a way, young people going here and there.”
In London, Pena discovered a great sensitivity to all forms of art, and felt that with flamenco he had something novel to offer. Having established himself as a soloist, Pena began to branch out later on in his career and to collaborate with other forms.
In Quimeras, he knew that because it sought to tell the story of African immigrants that they ought to be partners in the artistic process. In principle, it seemed like a great idea, because Africa is home to many varieties of dances and rhythms also present in flamenco, which derives some influence from the continent.
“I feel the roots of Africa in my music,” Pena says of his music, in itself a hybrid of the immigrant communities that settled in the south of Spain. He conjectures that this might be one reason why the form is so open to collaboration.
“I don’t pretend flamenco is able to understand everything but those ingredients help it to come in touch with other cultures,” he explains.
In practice, collaborating with various African musicians and combining two very distinct cultures of music and dance to tell a story was, in Pena’s words “crazy.”
While both were of the same mind rhythmically, the interpretation of movements and their execution were details that took time to tease out, engage with and negotiate in the telling of the story. It was a delicate process and took longer than Pena had anticipated.
“Sometimes I found their interpretation of a gesture too big, expressing more than I wanted to say. I wanted to leave something to the audience to interpret, I didn’t want to act the idea, I wanted to suggest it,” he says.
Whenever Pena engages with a new form, he does so with his expertise in flamenco as a comparative point of reference. Inevitably, a tension arises in his work, where he feels bound to the established structures of the flamenco style – he is a classical guitarist after all – but also feels compelled to surpass them.
“I’m always engaged with the style, but somehow fighting against it as well,” the flamenco guitarist says. Perhaps these, he offers, are the essential ingredients for ingenuity.
Quimeras will run in the Al-Bustan Festival from March 20-22. For more information contact the Festival Office at Hotel Al-Bustan: 04-972-980/1/2.