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Flamenco takes center stage during a three-day festival at Casa Vicente

Mele Martinez grew up doing Mexican folklorico dance in Tucson. But now her heart belongs to Spanish flamenco.

"I'm Mexican American," she says, "and I did folklorico as a kid. As I got older, I wanted something more sophisticated. Flamenco is pretty hard to say no to."

Martinez, now co-director of Flamenco del Pueblo Viejo troupe and school, is hoping the rest of Tucson will follow in her flamenco footsteps, at least for this weekend, when the first Tucson and Spanish Flamenco Festival stomps its way through three nights outside Casa Vicente Spanish restaurant downtown.

"Fifteen or 16 lead dancers will perform each night, with backup dancers" in concerts lasting three to four hours, she says. "We have six groups from Arizona, and three guest artists who are all international stars."

The stars include dancer Fanny Ara, a Frenchwoman now living in San Francisco who mastered the percussive Spanish dance after years of study and performance in Spain. Hailing from New Mexico are singer and guitarist Gabriel Lautaro Osuna, now of Los Angeles, and guitarist Ricardo Anglada, of Albuquerque, a city so flamenco-mad that Martinez calls it the "Sevilla of North America," in honor of the Spanish flamenco capital. All three of the big names will perform both Friday and Saturday nights.

On Sunday night, Martinez and her husband, Jason Martinez, will take the stage with their hometown troupe. The same evening, eight flamenco teachers will do a group dance, to be followed by a juerga, a "flamenco dance party, mostly improv, with live music."

Other regional artists include Barbara y las Flamencistas, Adair Landborn and Peña Flamenca, and Sophia Eva, all of Tucson; Flamenco por la Vida, from Phoenix; Angelina Ramirez of Scottsdale; and Melissa Aguirre of Hermosillo.

All weekend, the music will be played live. Singer Macarena Giraldez, the lone performer from Seville, will sing el cante jondo, the haunting flamenco voice style that translates as "deep sounds." Two musicians, Jon Bañuelos of Tucson and Misael Barraza of Hermosillo, will play guitar.

The Spanish baile y música—dance and music—will be performed under the stars on the restaurant patio and courtyard, decorated for the occasion like Seville in Holy Week, Martinez says. Banners will hang from the walls, and a caseta, a small tent, will be set up with seats "where you drink wine."

Festival-goers will get to taste assorted Spanish vinos with the price of admission, and they'll be given a glass of sangria. The Club España de Tucson will stage cooking demos and hand out tapas. By day, aficionados can take workshops in flamenco dance and music lessons in palmas, hand-clapping, and in cajón, the flamenco drum.

The fiesta is modeled on Albuquerque's longtime annual festival.

"Albuquerque has a huge flamenco community, with events bigger than L.A. and New York," Mele Martinez says. (She and her husband both danced professionally in the New Mexico city with Yjastros, the American Flamenco Repertory Company.) "There's a lot of Spanish history there"—Hispanic New Mexicans typically celebrate their ties to the mother country rather than to Mexico—"and Albuquerque has had an annual festival over 20 years."

However, the festival this year fell victim to the poor economy. It's precisely because Albuquerque canceled its flamenco fest that Vicente and Marita Sanchez-Gomez decided to stage a Tucson version in conjunction with their restaurant.

Vicente is from Castile, north of the flamenco hotbed of Andalucia, but he's always loved it.

"Flamenco is one of the most complex musics," he says. "It goes back 2,000 years. It is influenced by North African, Arabic and Jewish sources, as well as gypsies."

It started out as a rural phenomenon, Vicente Sanchez-Gomez notes, as a folk music that combined haunting singing, rhythmic hand-clapping and percussive foot-stomping, accompanied by the guitar. In the mid-20th century, southern Spaniards migrated to the central part of the country in search of work, and they brought flamenco north from Andalucia with them.

"There was a big migration from the south into the city," he says. "They settled in neighborhoods in the '60s. There was a fusion with the big city, and flamenco was transformed, the way jazz was in the U.S." And like jazz, he adds, "Flamenco has a direction, but no rules."

Sanchez-Gomez is no musician—"music is my love and my frustration"—but he's brought it into Casa Vicente since he opened the restaurant some four years ago. Flamenco dancers typically perform in the dining room on weekend nights, and he frequently books musicians playing classical and flamenco guitar.

Once he and Marita decided to stage a festival, they enlisted Mele and Jason Martinez to handle the performing end. The Martinezes run their school and troupe out of a warehouse behind the restaurant, and they have plenty of contacts in the flamenco world. Mele had studied flamenco in Tucson with Olivia Rojo and danced here with her company, Flamenco y Más, before leaving to dance as a solo artist elsewhere. Jason dances and plays cajón. The two artists met in the Yjastros repertory company; in 2006, they came back to Mele's hometown to raise their daughter, Lola, and to establish Flamenco del Pueblo Viejo.

Mele Martinez found that Tucsonans' interest in flamenco had waned after Rojo left town. Still, a number of local troupes are performing, and the Martinezes' school "is doing nicely," she said. She and the Sanchez-Gomezes are confident the festival will trigger a new interest in the old art form.

"Flamenco is a happy music that goes all the way down to the heart," Vicente says. "There's a little bit of soul in it."

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