What is expected of a Flamenco artist, abroad, is to respond to the canons of the genre, just like they have been established for decades. For this reason, it is bewildering approaching someone like Niño de Elche, who from his heterodoxy and defiance has blasted this conservative and so many times picturesque conception of a practice that he claims as subversive and experimental. So far as to embrace the electronic music, the noise and, in a searched way, the sound art in general that begins with the precursor Val del Omar and continues in Sónar or the Avignon Festival. This interview, to one of the new faces of We are Europe, comes from the first lockdown during spring 2020 and maintains all its topicality and opportunity, despite the lockdown, curfews and festivals suspension.
Author: Vincenç Batalla
Photo credit: Manuel León, Celia Macías
Our two previous meetings, in 2015 and 2017, took place face-to-face at the Avignon Festival; at Sónar electronic music festival, where a Flamenco who has just astounded with his unusual proposal was not necessarily expected. With Grenadian parents, he takes his artistic name from Alicante, his hometown. Since 2011, this trained Cantaor has spent time going from performance to performance modulating his voice for a more contemporary range, relating it with other bodied voices, and opening it up to an infinite number of possibilities, and focusing it towards critical readings of power. He was on his way to becoming an ex-Cantaor or an ex-Flamenco and meet himself where he could not be catalogued.
That is how we found him, at the age of thirty, among holiday images and sharp questioning of the musical movement. Accompanied by the Sevillians Los Voluble at the Barcelona Sónar, with his Raverdial of Flamenco vibes set and Hard Trance, from the Sermon au Raver by the French libertarian philosophy collective Tiqqun (the origin of the Tarnac community). Then, a few weeks later, Niño de Elche appeared in a shared performance with the Slovenian dancer Matej Kejžar, in one of the courtyards of the city of the Popes in Avignon, precisely denominated Rave, but played it with the only sound of voice and physical contact. Two years later, we saw him directly in the court of honour of the Papal palace, at La Fiesta of the Sevillian Bailaor Israel Galván, with a wide cast from three continents to take a turn to the party and show the audience what is lived behind.
Poetic and musical heterodoxy
“In the last years, I have not been interested in traditionalist Flamencos or ‘indies’ or rockers or classics opinions, not just about me but about nothing”, confined in Madrid with his usual causticness in this 2020, Francisco Contreras (the person behind Niño de Elche) answered us in writing on whether he is worried about being accepted with his heterodox Flamenco. In 2015, he was acclaimed by the independent Spanish press who discovered him with Voces del extremo (Telegram communication), in association with members of Pony Bravo, a Sevillian group who updates the Andalusian rock without losing the irony and whose master was made in Berlin to give it a krautrock touch. The compositions are based on incisive poetic-political texts by various authors.
One of the Contreras’ references is Pedro G. Romero, activist of the Flamenco studies and contemporary’s independent platform (PIE.FMC) seconded to the Andalucía International University. To situate this ideologist of new means, he also influenced the texts of the celebrated Malamente, by Rosalía, or no less recommendable Firmamento, by Rocío Márquez. The dramaturgy of La Fiesta, as well as, Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo (Sony, 2018) was his, a double-CD and triple vinyl tour through the less official history of Flamenco, from 19th century to the situationist Guy Debord, and the guitarist Raül Refree’s production. The latter, first album producer of Cante Jondo Los Angeles by Rosalía. And so, we get an idea about the creativity of all this flamencology temple agitators’ core.
“From the field of contemporary art, Pedro G. Romero is one of the great artists who has known how to move, on many occasions, the way we looked at Flamenco art, connecting it with many other matters. Without him we would not be where we are or, at least, I would not be what I am. Precisely, far from the industrial field that tradition proposes, the impure or peripheral Flamenco is the one being most recognized, because is the one that Israel Galván, Pedro G. Romero or myself can represent”. A complete vindication.
And, to finish stablishing these catwalks, a comment about the Catalan Rosalia’s planetary success and her flamenco-trap, coveted by James Blake and J. Balvin, Arca or Travis Scott and soon Billie Eilish. “The Rosalía’s success is very positive, what is more positive is that much of that success was performed from an unquestionable artistic quality. A demonstration of great taste and intelligence is her interest in Romero or Refree”. However, Niño de Elche’s stellar collaborations are not small either because his participation in Tú me dejaste de querer, the brilliant take-off of the Madrilian C. Tangana, already has more than 120 million reproductions on Spotify and the video is about to top 100 million views.
Running away from covid-19
Before Antología heterodoxa del flamenco, Niño de Elche had published the album Para quienes aún viven (Superball, 2017) with the Madrid post-rock band Toundra. Under the project Exquirla, an authentic exorcism with the healing words of Enrique Falcón. Musical themes that we listen in those hard enclosure days, between patience and rage, to keep our indignation levels. How does Niño de Elche experience or have experienced it? “My state of mind fluctuates a lot depending on every-day social and personal news. I can go from absolute sadness, unjustified anger to euphoria for my work passion, or immersing myself in absolute relaxation by not needing to think too much in a next tomorrow and be able to invest my time reading a book or go to bed very late”.
And, it is not exactly the lockdown and its consequences what is going to change his plans. “Right now, the works I’m immersed in, I try not to let them affected at all by Covid-19, otherwise we are going to talk about the same thing for years. I refuse to let my work get infected by a single issue, whatever it may be”. Although he adds: “the situation is very hard both for the economic and emotional topics, because my work is my life and if it is damaged, my existence is affected, in a deepest sense”
The installation about Val del Omar in Reina Sofía Museum
He confesses that during this period he did not make music at home, but he continued editing and rethinking these projects by the time that he can go to the studio and other places. Initially, his art installation, Auto sacramental invisible about José Val del Omar’s audio file (Granada, 1904-Madrid, 1982), was stopped. It was not opened at Reina Sofia Madrid museum until autumn, and can still be seen until April 26 in Madrid with open museums. It consists of a sixteen loudspeakers assembly that continues the work of the filmmaker and avant-garde artist Val del Omar who accumulated hundreds of hours of recording, and in 1952, he didn’t get to finish something that related him with John Cage or Pierre Schaeffer. A hard work, that Contreras has been doing in the last three years in a residence in El Matadero, together with the musicologist and journalist Miguel Álvarez-Fernández.
Using this experience, last December, Niño de Elche published probably his more radical album La distancia entre el barro y la electronica, Siete diferencias valdelomarianas (Sony BMG), exclusively in double vinyl and limited edition of 1.000 copies. The staging should have been done in the Sónar 2020 with the Barcelonan musicians MANS O, Nara is Neus and Shelly. That Sónar festival, like in 2021, was cancelled due to Covid-19 but in a virtual programming of the parallel festival Sónar+D in September, it was possible to discover Juan Carlos Quindós’ video creation Oraciones del siglo XXI, one of the seven tracks on the album. Precisely, the album leaders took the opportunity to finish shaping it during the first lockdown.
Mellizo doble with the bailaor Israel Galván
In Antología del cante flamenco heterodoxo, Niño de Elche already included the theme Mensaje diafónico de Val del Omar, in a flamenco destructuring work that he continues following up. Another theme Coplas mecánicas de Juan de Mairena (heteronym of the poet Antonio Machado) gave him rise to mount, in the Sónar 2018, an unprecedented performance with Israel Galván following in the wake of La fiesta and vindicating the futuristic character of flamenco.
Of the duo variations to which Niño de Elche and Galván have been dedicated, highlights the show now called Mellizo doble offered at the Avignon Art Week, last October, as an alternative to the Provenza festival cancelled in July. In it, they include a completely dark passage which leads to a catharsis between the cantaor litanies and the gravel where the bailaor wallows. “It is a continuation of the collaboration that Israel and I have been carrying out for about three years. We understand each other very well in our artistic and friendly relationship. That dialogue is like a kind of toolbox for both of us”.
The Spanish playwright and electrical performer Angelica Liddell also had to premiere Liebestod (about the love, the death and the figure of the bullfighter Juan Belmonte) last July, in the city of the Popes. It has been scheduled for the Avignon festival 2021. Another occupation that Niño de Elche has lost during the pandemic is his participation in the diptych Una costilla sobre la mesa that Liddell was presenting on tour, in her maternal chapter on the recent death of the artist’s two parents.
Greece and the Documenta of Kassel
The performance has allowed Contreras to travel throughout Europe for years. When Greece was still suffocated by austerity policies, the philosopher Paul B. valued as curator of the Documenta de Kassel 2017, commissioned Niño de Elche and Galván a double incursion on Athens and Kassel to talk about the impoverishment of south people. Niño de Elche and Galván started singing and dancing on top of different types of European and gypsy coins with Greek and Byzantine musicians under the theme coined by Romero La farsa monea (The false coin).
Announced as one of the 64 artists and activists faces 2020 by We are Europe festival network, the question is how did he get it. “I was very grateful, although everyone who is engaged, somehow or other, in culture industry is in a sense a cultural activist”, he responds modestly. His opinion about the European reaction face with the current financial, migratory and health crisis is far more severe: “We went to Athens many times to prepare our participation and the Greek people were always very competent compared to the German people. Despite the crisis and the cultural difference, they showed us that culturally they are still a prepared society, even if their political life is possibly one of the most shameful of the last years”.
From Los Planetas to Colombia
Internationalist as he is, and committed at the time to the outraged Spanish, his vision of the European Union is obviously sceptical. “Europe remains one of the great tragedies where the identities struggles, market economies or the appalling borders situation make increasingly clear that the citizen is an obligatory client and that Europe or the West must be urgently re-understood as the base of a cultural and artistic thinking worthy to be taken up again”
Nationalism is another questioning axis in Contreras‘ musical work. Both the minority and the state. And, to tackle it, he does not get squeamish in his strategies. In his recent collaboration with Los Planetas, the Spanish indie group by excellence, and again Romero as ideologue, the name chosen for the project is Fuerza Nueva. This was the far-right party denomination emerged from the Franco regime in the seventies. But, of course, in the hands of these snipers the result is a shift of the symbol towards iconic images like the dark force of Darth Vader. And, on a musical level, the popular anthems reworking like La canción de los gitanos, El novio de la muerte (Spanish Civil Guard anthem) or the Catalan national anthem Els segadors like Canción para los obreros de la Seat (according to an anonymous collected by Guy Debord in the late seventies). New versions which serve as a sonic wall of all the Spanish society contradictions, with Los Planetas on guitars and the deep Niño de Elche voice.
“We think that it had an effect, an echo, and a reverberation in the citizens’ souls with their memories, their defeats, their longings and their misfortunes on their shoulders. Situationism does not seek a concrete effect, just merges into the political and social paradox and thereafter we can only wait for everything blow up”. Should an artist talk about politics or comment on current events? I ask him in the questionnaire before his controversial statements which quickly become press headlines: “He should not, but he can.”
Furthermore, during the month he spent in Colombia recording with Eblis Ál-varez of Meridian Brothers the unstructured flamenco-cumbia Colombiana (Sony, 2019), Sergi Cameron travelled to Bolivia with him to make the documentary Niños Somos Todos which does not last more than fifteen minutes. What did you discover in Colombia and what other places do you plan to bring flamenco? “Mainly, I discovered very different ways to make music beyond the privilege of living a month in Colombia with the most interesting cultural scene in Bogota. I will never take flamenco anywhere. Wherever I go it will come, but my purpose is rather to take me personally to other journeys instead of flamenco. Sometimes flamenco accompanies me, and sometimes not so much”.