MADRID, Spain — At a recent flamenco show in downtown Madrid, guitars strumming to furious crescendos and sudden stops, a spectator might have found himself thinking, “Hey, there’s a long-haired guy clapping at the back of the stage who looks Japanese. Wait a second, he is Japanese!”
Flamenco is booming in Spain, and it’s booming among the Japanese. Many Japanese fall in love with the art at first sight, and spend the best years of their lives trying to master it.
The Japanese onstage was Takamitsu Ishizuka. His role as a meroclapper was no accident, and he can do a lot more than just clap. Besides winning numerous awards in Japan, he earned an honorable mention against the Spanish at a 1999 Madrid singing competition.
Ishizuka learned how to sing straight from the source: from living with the gypsies in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the well-springs of flamenco in the southern tip of Spain. Living with the gypsies, a marginalized group in Spanish society who developed flamenco much like the black slaves of the U.S. came up with the blues in the cotton fields, is something even aspiring Spanish taoressingers don’t do.
“I want to be the first Japanese to sing professionally in Spain,” says the ambitious Ishizuka.
Atsuko Kamata is another Japanese who does flamenco better than anyone in Japan, and a lot better than most Spanish. In 1995 she won Encarnacion Lopez La Argentinita, a national dance competition in Cordoba with more than 200 competitors, almost all Spanish.
“I want to know why the Spanish still get so surprised when they see us dance,” says Kamata.
With four Spanish musicians, the petite Kamata travels back and forth between her homes in Seville and Tokyo to make a living teaching and performing.
“When there is a famous teacher of flamenco in Seville, 80-90 percent of her students will be Japanese studying abroad,” says Kamata.
There’s even a Japanese magazine called Paseo Flamenco that is devoted exclusively to the genre. The publication is gobbled up mainly by young women.
Kyoko Shikaze, a correspondent for the magazine, says that there are anywhere between 50,000 to 70,000 Japanese learning flamenco in Japan at cultural centers.
“In Spain, on the other hand, there are about 100 specialized schools of flamenco,” she says, “and the Japanese study at about 20 of the most popular. The Japanese are the majority in some of these schools.”
What is it about flamenco that attracts the Japanese so much, like moths to a flame? Are there areas of overlap between the exuberance of flamenco and the introvertedness of Japanese culture?
“Real flamenco is not a tourist spectacle in a concert hall,” says singer Ishizuka. “It’s spontaneous and intimate with a group of friends. The group feeling is very important.”
Other Japanese I interviewed note the fact that the gypsies came from India and there is an Asian essence to their cry, not unlike the mournfulness of a.
The popularity of flamenco among the Japanese grew largely in the bubble years of the 1980s, says correspondent Shikaze. The 1986 tour of Antonio Gades, a virtuoso Spanish ballet dancer, was particularly successful.
Movies such as “Carmen” and Spain’s hosting of the Olympics Games in 1992 further helped the cause, not to mention the perennial tours of gaunt guitar maestro Paco de Luc, and the dirty dancing of dashing Joachim Cortes.
Chiaki Horikoshi, a Japanese artist who has lived in Spain for the better part of 25 years painting abstract art, has a different theory as to why flamenco is so popular among the Japanese.
“If you think about it, the Japanese and the gypsies are alike because both (a) have black hair; (b) the languages share many similar syllables; and (c) both cultures traditionally want their wives to stay at home.”
Horikoshi likes to joke, but he has insider credentials. He won a prestigious flamenco singing competition in Ronda in southern Spain some years ago. He is also a close friend of the Agujetes, a legendary flamenco family in the south of Spain, and is even a godfather to one of their sons.
There are so many Japanese doing flamenco in Spain, and doing it well, that the phenomena has attracted frequent national attention, sometimes with whiffs of alarm by the torchbearers of the national pastime.
“The Japanese may be able to do flamenco better than anyone else, but it is ours,” said Merche Esmeralda, a famous flamenco dancer here. “I could never imagine them singing in Japanese,” she said in an article that appeared last year in El Mundo, a leading national newspaper.
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