In the decade and a half before Covid-19 disrupted international travel (and everything else), the Bay Area Flamenco Festival created a brisk and efficient pipeline, bringing Spain’s most celebrated flamenco artists to San Francisco and East Bay stages. But between the pandemic and festival founder Nina Menendez navigating treatment for cancer, the inflow of artists from Spain, particularly performers from the extended Andalusian clans that have maintained the raw cante jondo (deep song) tradition, has slowed to a trickle. Two concerts this month presented by Mission District-based Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco seem to have reopened the tap.
Antonio Rey, a Gitano guitarist born in Madrid, raised in Mexico City and now living in Jerez de la Frontera, was hours away from performing at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage in March, 2020, when the venue was shuttered by the surging virus. He was in town to mark the release of his fifth album, “Flamenco Sin Fronteras,” which he’d recorded the year before with producer and sound engineer Oscar Autie’s El Cerrito Records in the East Bay. He returns to the Bay Area for a concert Sunday, Sept. 18, at Brava Theater Center, but now he’s celebrating that his album went on to win a Latin Grammy Award.
Featuring his original compositions, the album navigates often treacherous waters, drawing on his love of jazz, romantic ballads and other idioms while unabashedly hewing to the technical and emotional imperatives of traditional flamenco. “I composed this music for all types of people,” he said before a rehearsal in San Jose, speaking in Spanish. “It’s flamenco sin fronteras. It doesn’t have colors, borders or races. I composed the music for everybody.”
Sunday’s performance brings Rey together with friends old and new, including Carola Zertuche and guitarist Jorge Liceaga, who first met the guitarist at the very beginning of his career when they all lived in Mexico City in the mid-1990s. Fluent in a variety of Latin American musical traditions, Liceaga mentored the budding guitarist, who grew up in a highly musical family.
Zertuche was performing at a Mexico City tablao, “where I started dancing professionally,” she said. “Antonio was 10 years old when he started playing, and we performed every day for about four years, until he moved to Spain as a teenager. Jorge was there too, in the audience, around 1994. When Antonio called me about performing in San Francisco, I said, ‘Oh, yes!’ His musicality is incredible. He has everything. Last month he played with Alejandro Sanz, in more of a pop music thing. He moves between the worlds.”
Rey made his reputation as an invaluable accompanist, gaining widespread notice in the company of the great flamenco dancer and choreographer Antonio Canales. He continued to refine his craft, touring with leading flamenco artists such as dancers Farruquito, Manuela Carrasco, and Rafael Amargo and vocalists Rafael de Utrera and La Tana. Before the Latin Grammy, he’d already won numerous honors for his work as a composer and player.
For Sunday’s show, he’s also joined by Venezuelan-born, Los Angeles-based cajón master Diego “El Negro” Álvarez, who also worked with Antonio Canales during his 16 years in Spain, as well as other leading flamenco dance companies such as Sara Baras, Joaquin Cortés, and Nuevo Ballet Español.
The Brava concert is the first stage encounter between Rey and special guest vocalist El Pepele, who was born in Jerez de La Frontera and grew up amidst the Méndez clan, a storied Gitano flamenco dynasty from La Plazuela. He’s a nephew of the legendary cantaora La Paquera de Jerez (1934-2004) who played an essential role in defining the art form for more than half a century.
While steeped in the deep tradition, he’s become known for finding an innovative way to meld flamenco with Latin American musical styles, as well as reggae, funk, rock and jazz. Theatre Flamenco, the second oldest dance company in the Bay Area after San Francisco Ballet, also presents El Pepele Sept. 30 at El Rincón Flamenco with Zertuche and guitarist David McLean.
Zertuche first met El Pepele at a flamenco camp in San Diego a few years ago, and when Rey suggested they bring in a vocalist for the concert, she knew he was going to be on the West Coast. “I had just performed with him and, in flamenco, when you make the connection like that, you seize it,” she said. “He’s from Jerez, from the Méndez family, a great Gypsy clan. He likes flamenco, plus adding rock and other styles. But El Rincón is more traditional tablao style. Yesterday at Duende,” the Spanish-inspired Uptown Oakland restaurant, “he did one tune singing with guitar, and it was very beautiful.”