When a flamenco guitarist gets drawn to Carnatic music
Mexico-born flamenco guitarist Manuel Alonso’s love for music has taken him places. He was in Chennai recently and was instantly drawn to Carnatic music.
t’s flamenco guitarist Manuel Alonso’s first time in India and he is bowled over by the food and culture of Chennai. But one thing still baffles him: “When I pass by people on the street, I smile at them and say good day. But nobody responds!” he says, confused.
The initial culture shock aside, Alonso has taken quite well to the city. He was recently in the city for a three-day musical camp organised by the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, teaching the basics of flamenco music — guitar, in particular — to the students at the academy.
Born in Mexico City, Alonso is an animated man; while talking about his musical journey, he is prone to bursting into song to explain better. “I learnt classical guitar when I was 10,” he says, gently plucking the strings of his guitar. “But then, my teacher played a cassette of Paco de Lucia’s composition,” he says and strums the guitar hard and loud, taking everyone by surprise. “It was that energy that I wanted to emulate. You don’t see that in classical guitar,” he adds.
Alonso realised his childhood dream when he became Mexico’s first and only musician to receive the Superior Degree in Flamenco, from the Catalonia College of Music in Barcelona. His upbringing in a musical family only served to further his goals; his father was an amateur guitarist and his uncle a pianist. “There was always music playing in my house, and there was always, always a guitar around,” he recalls.
Having left Mexico City when he was 21 to study professional flamenco, he now divides his time between Barcelona and Andorra, where he has set up a music school. It was quite a shift from Mexico City to Andorra. “I have grown up in a big city where there’s hustle bustle all the time. But here in the hills, the pace of life is much slower. You have time to reflect on and practise your music. I get two extra hours by just not having to travel from one place to another, like it was in Mexico City,” he laughs.
Back to roots
Once he left his hometown, he never completely returned. Ironically, it was after spending all that time away from Mexico that he finally discovered the music of his land. “I was touring in Veracruz and I discovered san jarocho,” he talks about the folk music of the city, quipping, “Mexican music is more than just Mariachi bands in hats, you know.”
Alonso realised how easily San Jarocho gives itself to fusion with flamenco. Ever since then, he has been incorporating elements of Latin American music in flamenco style. One of his famous projects, Latin Stride Music, features a guitar, a cajón and a piano.
In his travels across the world — he has been to France, the UK, Germany, UAE, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Argentina and more — he likes to jam with local musicians to understand every country’s musical heritage. “Next, I want to play with the musicians of Turkey and Egypt. I think they have a rich culture,” he says.
His grouse is with classical music being put on a pedestal. “When I was growing up in Mexico, flamenco was thought of as music of the streets, much like early jazz. Everyone played it but it didn’t get official recognition or the respect it deserved. People were supposed to aspire to classical music,” he says. It is the classical music of South India that drew him to this country. “We did a fusion with Carnatic music and I was very impressed. The vocals have microtones, something you can’t play on a normal guitar,” he says, adding that he hopes to learn the ghatam.
Alonso is always on the lookout for adding more elements to flamenco music. “Did you know the cajón wasn’t added to flamenco music until much later? It’s from Peru, not Spain. Today, we have pianos in it too,” he says, emphasising on the open nature of flamenco music. “It has space for all kinds of instruments.”