Flamenco tends to strike suddenly, seizing the soul of unsuspecting listeners with its finely calibrated balance between physical control and unbridled emotion. The combination of blazing guitar runs, propulsive hand claps (palmas), wailing vocals (cante), percussive footwork, and passionately defiant gestures (baile) flows from a worldview that transforms everyday struggles into exquisite, strikingly cathartic expression.
Encountered at the right moment, the Andalusian art form has been known to reconfigure entire lives. At least that’s the way American-born artists who’ve dedicated themselves to flamenco describe falling under its spell. For Oakland guitarist David Scott McLean, a mainstay on the Bay Area flamenco scene for the past 15 years, even a course of flamenco guitar lessons didn’t prepare him for his first brush with an unadulterated Gitano performance.
Arriving in Spain in 1999 for a year of studying abroad, he found himself at an outdoor festival on the outskirts of Granada, a fabled city known as a cosmopolitan nexus for trade and culture (and the last Islamic outpost on the Iberian peninsula before the emirate fell in 1492). He was dazed from jet lag “and sort of stunned to be in this new place—and then I hear Rafalin Santiago, ‘El Habichuela,’ accompany this amazing singer,” McLean recalled. “That’s what made me want to play flamenco.”
He never found out the singer’s name, but before long he was taking lessons with El Habichuela, a standard-bearer for one of Granada’s most illustrious Gitano flamenco clans (in an art form that’s long been defined by familial dynasties). He spent several years traveling back and forth between the East Bay and Spain, taking lessons in Granada and Jerez de la Frontera with other masters such as Emilio Maya, Paco Cortes, Pascual de Lorca, and Jose Galvez.
More than a creative discipline, he found that flamenco “allows you to tap into your subconscious. Once you know the forms inside and out and understand the language, it feels like this practice in trusting your impulses and reactions on stage. You get into this symbiotic thing with the dancers or singer, and you’re no longer thinking about chords, or forms, and it feels like you’re tapping into something deeper.”
By the time he released his first album, 2007’s Found in Spain, which he recorded at Jackson Brown’s studio after the singer-songwriter took a shine to his guitar work, McLean had established himself as one of the Bay Area’s essential flamenco accompanists. The principal guitarist for AguaClara Flamenco, the flamenco company directed by his wife, the esteemed dancer and vocalist Clara Rodriguez, he’s composed music for many dance troupes and worked with just about every significant bailaora in the Bay Area.
As a performer, McLean tends to stay in the background, which makes Sunday’s afternoon and evening concerts at The Sound Room celebrating the release of his second album, Te Canto Colores, one of the season’s premiere flamenco events. The Oakland cast includes Fanny Ara, Melissa Cruz, and Clara Rodriguez on baile and palmas, with vocalist Azriel “el Moreno” Goldschmidt, percussionist Marlon Aldana, and bassist Daniel Fries.
In many ways the Nov. 14 performances build on the monthly flamenco series that McLean has presented at The Sound Room for the past decade, starting when the wife-and-husband couple Karen Van Leuven and Robert Bradsby opened their original venue at 21st and Broadway. The new Sound Room on Broadway near 30th is bigger but still well-suited for intimate, up-close flamenco encounters.
On a scene in which gigs can be jealously guarded and big personalities seek maximum time in the spotlight, McLean has helped build the community with his easy-going persona and disinclination for off-stage drama. One sign of the respect that he’s earned is that fellow guitarists recognize his dedication and musicianship, even when they hew to a different flamenco path.
Keni el Lebrijano, who got his start on the scene in the early 1970s when The Spaghetti Factory in North Beach was still the Bay Area’s primary flamenco showcase, has devoted himself to flamenco puro. It’s an old-school approach that resists adding new elements to an Andalusian Gitano tradition born out of the confluence of North African and Iberian cultural currents, a fusion of music and dance that embodies the peoples’ suffering, joy, and cussed refusal to submit quietly to fate’s vicissitudes.
He experienced his flamenco epiphany in the summer of 1967 when a friend played him the classic album Antología del Cante Flamenco y Cante Gitano, an encounter that left him shaken and tearful. After some lessons with guitarist David Serva, the first Bay Area musician to forge close ties with flamenco artists in Andalusia, he spent years studying with flamenco guitar luminaries such as Pedro Bacán, Pedro Peña, and Diego del Gastor. While he’s quick to differentiate his aesthetic, el Lebrijano doesn’t hesitate to praise his colleague as “a good flamenco.”
“I’m not a modern player fan,” said el Lebrijano, who performs Saturdays at Anaviv in Richmond. “A lot of people learn a lot of stuff, but don’t necessarily play it in a way that does the music justice. David does, and that’s refreshing. He really pays attention and doesn’t intrude on a singer or dancer. He actually accompanies people. He also has the attraction of having a wife who’s a really good singer and dancer, and they work stuff out together really well.”
McLean and Rodriguez met when he started accompanying her shortly after she moved to the Bay Area in 2010. A classically trained pianist who started studying flamenco as an adolescent in Santa Barbara, she performed widely around Los Angeles after earning a degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA and spent three years in southern Spain under the tutelage of master dancers and choreographers such as Juana Amaya, Concha Vargas, Andrés Marín, and Úrsula Lopez.
“She’s spectacularly talented,” he said, “and I always feel like I’m trying to catch up to her.”
In recording his original Te Canto Colores compositions in the home studio he built in their backyard (next to the studio he built for Rodriguez), McLean sought to both work within the tradition and find his own space within it. His fluency with flamenco’s many forms is readily apparent as he gallops through the intricate 12-beat buleria pattern on “A Caballo.” One of the album’s most striking tracks is his solo guitar feature “Mulhacén,” an almost programmatic piece that evokes the majesty of the namesake mountain behind Granada (with a sly concluding reference to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A Felicidade,” the tune connects the city to Rio de Janeiro, another music-besotted seaside town with a skyline defined by a mountain).
“Flamenco has all of these forms, or palos, and each has certain boundaries and idiosyncrasies, and within those boundaries, you have a lot of freedom, rhythmically, melodically, lyrically,” McLean said. “It’s daunting at first. I think there’s this idea that you go to Spain and bring it back here. But part of me wanted to create our own flamenco and have it be local, to build a community and everybody has a place in it.”
The Bay Area flamenco community is just starting to emerge from the pandemic’s wreckage, and the toll has been considerable. Some of the restaurants that featured regular performances are closed, like San Francisco’s Thirsty Bear, or have yet to bring the music back, like La Marcha in Berkeley. Oakland dancer, choreographer, and teacher Yaelisa, a longtime force on the Bay Area scene as director of Caminos Flamencos, and her husband, guitarist Jason “El Rubio” McGuire, sold off the school’s flamenco wardrobes and accouterments and left town, with Paris as their eventual destination.
McLean hasn’t lost faith in flamenco’s power to bind people together, or on a scene where the line between students and performers often disappears.
“We attend each other’s shows, give dance and guitar lessons, and have student shows so everyone in the community has an opportunity to perform and challenge each other to improve and create,” he said. “That sense of community here in Oakland makes me want to strive to be a better artist, to evolve, and have something else to say.”