Today’s post is Part 2 of Carmen Kobayashi’s interview. Please click here for Part 1. This week, I read a discouraging article in the New York Times about the permanent closure of many important flamenco tablaos (clubs) in Spain. Naturally, these closures are a result of the pandemic and the disappearance of tourism. These venues are the lifeblood of young, emerging flamenco artists, and many have been around for decades. A young student, such as Carmen, usually starts their professional career by working in a tablao.
Flamenco is a strong artform. It was born out of adversity and marginalization. It has the staying power to survive the current moment and thrive once again. However, I do wonder about students and young artists like Carmen. I wonder about my friends in Spain who need that setting to develop their craft. Without a doubt, some of them will not continue as professional artists; economic realities will force them to choose another path.
Keep this in mind as you read the following interview. If you have the means, please offer support to young artists and artistic communities around you. Nobody can embark upon an creative career without encouragement and support from those around them. Thank you.
The interview was conducted April 23, 2018, in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla. It is presented over the course of several posts.
You haven’t been studying long — how much performance experience do you have?
I had two or three performances in Japan. Whenever my mom had a performance or [when her dance studio] had a performance, she would ask me to sing. I would sing something like Volver by Estrella Morente or some Flamenco-Pop or some Tango, just to get accustomed to that sort of situation.
What do you remember about your first performance? Was it a good experience?
It was a good experience! It was really good, but I had no sense of compás (rhythm) so I had no idea where to start or when to get out. The guitarist really helped me. I was out of compás, but I had fun.
You’re also an actress — do you remember your first performance experience with acting?
It was a small theater. It was theater in junior high school, and we did Annie and I was Hannigan. People said that when I’m like that, when I’m drunk, that I’m good as a Hannigan. I remember that I was really afraid backstage, but once I was out on stage I totally changed. It was a different me and I got into the role. Yeah… it was then that I realized I really liked acting. (laughing) Thank you! Now I remember!
With flamenco you talked about how, whether you like it or not, the real you is going to come out and that with acting it’s a little different. For you, what is similar and what is different about performing as an actor and performing as a singer?
Performing as an actor vs. performing as a singer? Wow… I guess the [thing] that’s the same is that, for example, in flamenco we have so many heavy lyrics that we have to relate to. It’s a kind of theater. My professor said flamenco is theater so we have to be inside that role and feel the suffering. That part is similar to acting. I don’t know, but I feel like flamenco is more profound. You touch on certain things that you’re afraid of. Doing flamenco, you cannot hide from yourself. But, in acting you can hide. You can imagine and you can bring your soul and then interpret. Sometimes you encounter things you didn’t have inside. It can reveal new parts of yourself as well, but it changes so much. It also depends a lot on the other actors too. But in flamenco, if we’re talking about singing, it’s you who’s singing and [you’re interacting directly with] everybody. You have to bring everything you have to the performance otherwise the audience is going to eat you.
In your acting training, have you ever been on the other side of the camera, directing for example?
Yeah, the short film that I [mentioned] I made in Japan. My friend and I wrote the script, did the directing, and did the supporting roles as well. The protagonist was another guy because we couldn’t do everything. I really like being behind the camera as well. Also, in this documentary I was a co-director with two other directors. We edited everything too, in both the short film and in the documentary. I like working behind the camera as well. I think it’s important so that you know how everything works. For example, an actress was complaining once about having to wait. Once you’re behind the scenes, you understand why they make you wait. They have to check the lighting [and all sorts of things] and it’s a lot of work.
Do you want that sort of role in flamenco as well, where you’re not just singing, but you’re maybe more of a company director or something like that?
With flamenco I want to be a singer, but if I have the chance and have the right connections, I’d like to be a bridge between Spain and Japan. For example, I’d like to bring people from Spain that I work with as a singer and bring groups to Japan. I want to help Japanese people learn more about flamenco. I would do that, but just being a flamenco director that organizes performances [in which I don’t sing], that wouldn’t be my passion.
Do you see yourself more as an interpretive artist or someone who wants to create?
That’s why I had this [documentary] in mind because I like musicals so much… Since flamenco is kind of dying little by little. It’s less popular. Whenever I go to festivals there are fewer and fewer young people. I thought, “I wish I could make some musical [film] using flamenco, so that it would get more popular. When this project came out, it was like Japanese-Spanish, one hundred and fifty years together. It had to be something related to Japan and Spain. I thought, “Cool, here I would be able to act.” Documentaries are acting too. I’ve seen other documentaries and it’s really hard to try and be natural. It’s acting, plus doing flamenco, plus directing with the other two co-directors. It was really hard. We couldn’t sleep well. We’d been talking for months through Skype. I was also studying at the Fundación and I had homework. I thought, “Why did I get involved in this?” But, when I finished I was like, “you know what, it seems like a struggle, but that time I had… those days were the best days I had this year.” I want to be focused on my [studies] until I become a professional. Once I get there I want to turn around and create. “Now that I’m a professional and I know a lot of people and I have skills, what can I do?” It’s then that I want to create.
I’m curious about the comment you made about young people. What is it about flamenco that’s making it so much less popular amongst young people?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Maybe because now there are so many new things. In Japan, with technology and everything, there are so many new groups and singers. Many of them are the same. It doesn’t make a difference. They don’t have a Michael Jackson or a Beyoncé or that kind of big artist. I guess right now there are just too many new things. It’s so easy to go to YouTube and search for something new or something from another country. People forget what they have in their own country and what’s good. Also, flamenco is everywhere in Spain, so maybe they don’t value it. They lose sight of it.
As someone who’s just beginning, what do you think a young artist needs to do to develop their own style? Can you already identify your own personal style?
I haven’t come to that point yet because I’m still in the process of trying to create a base. Once you have a base, then your personality will come out. Some people, once they have their base, they try to become someone else rather than themselves. They imitate other people, other singers. I can tell who’s an artist and who isn’t an artist. For me, an artist in flamenco is someone who has their own style and is [authentic]. They don’t care about the rules. They respect the base, but then they make their own rules and go with their gut. For example, Carmen Bujosa, she has [a good] base, but whenever we learn new songs, she makes it her own song. It’s not because she ignores the base, it’s because she has her freedom to express herself. The non-artists are the people who imitate the big artists. You cannot be big if you’re following someone else. It’s important to study [great] artists, but once you have the base, you need to be free and be yourself. I want to be able to do that.
Who would you ideally want to perform for? Would it be for yourself, for the people in your group, the respect of your peers, for the public, or for something completely different?
For the public, but especially for everyone that’s been helping me and supporting me, like my friends and family. I want to sing to them. If I go to a big stage, I would think about my dad and I would think about my mom. They’d be the first ones I’d have in my mind.
Do you think that many flamenco artists overperform?
Yeah. They really want to show off. There are so many people who want to show off. I guess that comes from their wanting to be elevated. They want to be accepted so they overdo it, and I guess [this isn’t] only in flamenco but in all art [forms].
When that happens, how does it affect you?
When that happens, it kills the art. I block it out and don’t feel anything from the performance. I space out. Also, a lot of people misunderstand flamenco. I just started, but since I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, I can tell that some people misunderstand flamenco. [They think that] just overdoing it makes it flamenco when it’s not.
Certain people have preconceptions about what flamenco is or who flamenco people are and what they’re like. For you, what is the most destructive stereotype about flamenco and flamenco people?
[That they’re] poor. When people hear that you’re a flamenco artist they assume you’re poor and don’t make enough money.
Are you talking purely in the economical sense or also in terms of education?
In terms of education not so much anymore because flamencos are educated. They have a normal education, let’s say. Some people, for example, say, “That’s why in the flamenco world you can’t earn money!” Let’s say that I’m married to a flamenco artist, they’ll say, “just be sure you’re okay.” A lot of people just assume that flamenco can’t [sustain a career]. In actuality, there are so many ways to survive in flamenco.
That’s a reason why young people might be discouraged from doing it. There will be less talent [taking it up].
I think that is the reason. You don’t see that you can be big. Paco de Lucía and Camarón were really big artists. After that, now, the really big artists like Rosalía make “flamenco” in their own way, but it’s not flamenco! For me, what she’s doing isn’t flamenco at all. Maybe if you change it to a really modern style, then you can make money. But what now? Who are the big flamenco artists? That’s one reason why I want to be a good actress, so that I can bring flamenco into film. Film has a lot of [power].
You have a special way you could share it. Tell me more about what is and isn’t flamenco. That’s obviously something that people talk about a lot. The word itself, but not in the history or origins of the word, but today, for you, what does flamenco mean and how is it misused and misinterpreted?
For me, flamenco is flamenco. Flamenco-Pop is not flamenco. It’s good to make something unique, but it’s sad that it’s dying. For example, when I was talking to my cousins, they said they liked flamenco and then they put on El Barrio. That’s Flamenco-Pop, so I put some flamenco bulerías on YouTube and they got bored. But this is flamenco, you know! This made me realize that flamenco is really misunderstood because of Flamenco-Pop. I like to sing that too though! Niña Pastori, El Barrio, and other Flamenco-Pop, but that’s not real flamenco. It’s being forgotten and misinterpreted.
A lot of people also use the word flamenco to define their identity. For you, what does it mean to be flamenco?
To be flamenco is to be able to enjoy it while doing it. When I feel like saying olé, it’s when the artist is really feeling it or really having fun. It’s not the people who care about what others are thinking. Even if their stuff is messy, if they’re having fun it makes you want to yell, olé! Being flamenco is about having taste, [presence], and wanting to have fun.
When you think of the flamenco community, what’s the image that comes to mind?
In Japan, my image of flamenco is that people pay more attention and value flamenco more. They love it and look forward to seeing better people, better classes from guest artists. My image here is that flamenco is everywhere. Everybody knows it and they don’t care.
Because of that, do you feel that flamenco people in Japan are more tightly connected?
There are many people there, but the flamenco world is still small. Everybody kind of knows everybody. Because my mom knows so many people, I wouldn’t have a problem finding work if I went back. We already know so many people, we have connections. There’s good and bad too, like everywhere else in the world, but it’s closer. Here, people are also close.
Have you ever seen collaborations that combine traditional Japanese music with flamenco?
Mmm, no. I don’t think it’s possible to combine traditional Japanese music with flamenco because it’s so different. They could try, maybe it could be cool too! I’ve never thought of that.
For someone like you or me, being part of different cultures and mixed families, you can see certain things differently about how cultures interact. What has been your experience, if any, regarding racism in flamenco?
I’ve seen it. For example, if you’re Japanese [people think] you can’t sing well or you can’t dance as well as Spanish people or Gitanos (Roma). My Spanish side also used to think that, but recently I realized I was wrong. Right now, in Japan there are so many young people who have been here [already] to study. I saw this video on Facebook, and when they did some bulerías, they were actually really good. I was like, “wow, you never know.” But, there is a lot of racism. When I met a big artist once — I’m not going to say his name — he said, “ah, so you’re studying at the Fundación?! Well, cante is going to be really difficult because you guys (the Japanese) don’t have melisma or vibrato.” I didn’t say whether or not I had it, but I thought that was discrimination. Why can’t Japanese people have these things?! Even if they don’t, there are also so many Spanish singers who don’t have them either, but they train! In the end, they [develop] it. You can’t judge someone just because they’re Japanese.
Also, if you’re Gitano or Gitana (Roma), then you’re more welcome. You’re more flamenco. If [you’re an outsider] and sing or dance better, they still see you as [inferior]. I really hate that. Just because you’re Gitano doesn’t mean that you’re better than others.
And it’s clear that some of the most important artists in the history of flamenco have been non-Gitanos too.
One thing I’ve always found fascinating about flamenco is that, culturally speaking, it’s so specific. It’s from Spain. It’s from Andalucía. It’s an important part of Gitano culture. At the same time, it’s becoming universal now. It’s everywhere, Japan, America, Germany, Holland, France, etc. This isn’t just in terms of aficion (passion), but there are people in these places that are dedicating their lives to doing this as professional artists. It makes me think of a number of questions. One of them is with the cante, because of the issues with language and pronunciation. Have you ever heard cante that was “distorted” because of language and the different accent, but that you liked?
No. In Japan I’ve seen a lot of singers and they have difficulties with the pronunciation. I try to respect that, but I have to say that I didn’t like it. On the other hand, there’s a singer named Yuka Imaeda. She’s so Japanese, but when you close your eyes you feel like there’s a Spanish person singing. I like that because the pronunciation is good, and sometimes she’s much better than Spanish people.
This post is Part 2 of Carmen’s interview. Please click here for Part 1. For additional excerpts of this interview and others, click Follow at bottom left to follow the blog and receive email updates.
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