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Think Flamenco

Guitarist Jose Tanaka trained in Spain to perfect his technique, which differs in practice in U.S.

May 23, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If guitarist Jose Tanaka is right, much of what we see at flamenco concerts is, at best, old-fashioned and, at worst, flat-out wrong.

The accomplished Tanaka--dubbed "El Japones Gitano" (the Japanese Gypsy)--made these discoveries when he studied flamenco in Seville four years ago.

"I was shocked," the 31-year-old Japanese-born guitarist said over breakfast recently at a Downey coffee shop. "I was always taught to play strongly, very powerfully, almost like pounding, even though that's not really musical.

"But I go to Spain: Nobody's pounding. The playing is very, very musical, and actually some of the singers told me, you have to back off because I played too loud, too aggressive. 'That's not flamenco,' they said. 'You have to listen.'

"The funny thing is, I found the same thing when some of the Gypsies played blues. They beat the guitar, from beginning to end. I said, 'That's not the blues. It's about how you groove. It's not about how sloppy you play.' "

Groove is the key word in both forms. But in Spanish, the word is "soniquete" (pronounced soh-nee-KEH-teh), which is also the name Tanaka gave his company, playing Saturday in Huntington Beach and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on June 10.

It was a word Tanaka would hear often during his stay in Seville.

"Sometimes the singers or dancers would say, 'No, no, no. You're not playing the right soniquete. You're not getting the soniquete.'

"So I studied every little detail of the rhythm to get as close as possible to Gypsy playing."

For instance, the rhythms of a buleria are usually played here fast and hard, much like a machine-gun firing.

But in Spain, Tanaka said, "It's more relaxed. It's still fast--still the same tempo--but it grooves like a completely different music."

Tanaka was hardly a novice at all this. His father was a flamenco guitarist who taught guitar and owned a music store in his native Kyoto. His mother was a dancer. His uncle, who had lived in Spain for a long time, also was a flamenco guitarist.

"Flamenco is much more popular in Japan than here, actually," he said. "If you go to Spain to see flamenco dance classes, probably 70%-80% of the students are Japanese. There's a saying, 'If the Japanese quit flamenco, then flamenco is going to go bankrupt.' "

But to broaden his overall musical knowledge, Tanaka came to the United States in 1987 to study jazz, blues, Latin and rock guitar at the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles.

Soon he gave up the other forms and concentrated solely on the Spanish art, quickly beginning to appear in concerts with major flamenco artists performing locally.

That prompted him to seek a more authentic style. So he decided to go to the source--Seville, where he studied for about three months.

"Because it was such a short time, I practiced and played guitar 10 hours a day," he said. "I was very blessed to be accepted by some of the Gypsies. My teachers actually told many [other] foreigners to leave."

What was it about him that led his teachers to allow him to stay?

"Because I'm a [born-again] Christian, I think my Lord helped me to find my way. The second thing is, one of my main teachers there told me that I don't sound like any other foreigner. It sounds very Gypsy, the way I play."

When he came back to Los Angeles, he wanted to put into practice what he had just learned.

"I had a very difficult time at first. Many artists were not interested in collaborating. That was the most frustrating part.

"In Los Angeles, there are a lot of flamenco artists who do flamenco very well, but flamenco here is very, very old style and not updated. If you see a lot of shows, so many shows end up the same, no matter who's dancing, no matter who's playing.

"They say they're improvising, but they're not. I've seen these people doing the same steps and the same choreography for years, and every time I play for them, it's exactly the same thing. I wanted to start this real thing."

So he formed Soniquete Flamenco.

Critics have called his style more fusion than flamenco.

"The funny thing is, flamenco, real traditional flamenco, is fusion," he said. "People forget that. It was a mix of Gypsy and Moorish music and Andalusian music. Those three things met and became flamenco.

"My style is more modern. In my group, we improvise more. But we don't just put the music or the dance first and make everything second to that. We work together. So it's very musical, but at the same time we still have spontaneous things also. So it's a very good balance.'

*

Soniquete Flamenco will perform at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Huntington Beach Playhouse Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave. $15. ($7.50 for students and seniors.) (714) 374-1655.

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at chris.pasles@latimes.com.

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