By DAWN HIGGINS
AS A FLAMENCO FAN, I firmly believe that Halifax has struck it rich. With the arrival of El Viento Flamenco almost two years ago, Halifax has become home to one of the few troupes in Canada, to contain all elements of the flamenco art; voice, guitar, percussion and dance. And not only are they providing great entertainment, they are more than willing to share their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm. They are welcoming neophytes and the practiced alike and are making it possible to study the art of flamenco in a variety of ways, from the recreational to the dedicated. They are knowledgeable and skilled, talented and awe-inspiring. They are friendly, charming and they are funny. They come from Newfoundland.
El Viento Flamenco, at its core, is Evelyne Benais (dancer), Sean Harris (singer), and Bob Sutherby (guitarist). They have two percussionists that perform with them, Ian MacMillian and Tony Tucker. Since moving to Halifax they have begun to work with other musicians, dancers and singers, expanding their fold and cultivating an entire sub culture.
You see, for those of us interested in Flamenco, there is life BEVF and life AEVF. That's Before El Viento Flamenco and After El Viento Flamenco. The BEVF times were dark, cold, filed with the futile search for authentic and soulful expressions of the human condition. AEVF life is rich, meaningful; something akin to the state of wholeness and contentment the Buddhists would call Nirvana, like a place the Christians would call Heaven. You can now find musicians and dancers emerging from workshops and classes, Spanish Juergas and small cafes, spilling contagious rhythms out on to Barrington Street. Life just doesn't get any better than this.
But as I've said, it wasn't always this way. There were the before years.
In 1974, professor Don Stoltz moved to Halifax to take a position in the Micro Biology Department at Dalhousie University. He routed out three other guitar players who were already here, practicing flamenco on their lunch breaks and compiling impressive record collections. He joined their ranks and for the next 25 years, these men practiced in isolation, played together when they could and even did a performance with a few dancers once. But life was full of other distractions (families, careers ... the Regan era.) It was a passion that was indulged only in spare time and with spare energy. There were few aficionados and it wasn't easy to find each other. When I decided in 1997 that I was willing to drive from Lunenburg to Halifax to take a flamenco dance class, I couldn't find one. In 2000 Claire Hodge moved here from Ottawa to attend NSCAD. A talented flamenco guitar player, she reported a dearth of fellow Flamencos. "I couldn't find anyone here playing flamenco guitar. I didn't know Don (Stoltz) was here. There were a few guys, classical players, who had a bit of interest in flamenco but ... "
But ... the times, they are a changing.
And it's these heady, AEVF times that brought Don and Claire and I together, in the same cafè, on a cool Friday night in May. It is a convergence of many roads and all roads lead to El Viento Flamenco.
El Viento Flamenco was founded in the unlikely locale of St. John's Newfoundland in January, 1996 when Evelyne Benais found herself a guitar player. "When I approached Bob I thought, well, this is what I have to do with my life regardless of where it leads me, this is what I enjoy doing." A few years earlier, Evelyne had followed her heart right into a flamenco dance class while staying in Toronto to be with her critically ill mother. "I was looking to relieve some of the stress," she explains. Her mother's untimely death left Evelyne pondering those hard to ignore questions about what makes for a happy, fulfilling life rather than a life of regret. When Evelyne returned to Newfoundland, there was little doubt about what she needed to do, and rather than finishing her PhD, she wrote a grant application. She was awarded a $1000 grant that enabled her to return to Toronto where she could further her flamenco studies. In no time Evelyne was traveling back and forth, performing with a flamenco troupe in Toronto and trying to live in St. John's. What she needed in St. John's was a guitar player who knew flamenco. She needed to practice. Evelyne finds Bob Sutherby.
This does not mean that everything now fell effortlessly into place. Bob Sutherby was a rock n' roll guy who didn't know anything about flamenco guitar. He played in a band called the Gravel Pit Campers. He did not speak Spanish. He did not know ligados from tremolo, a bulerias from an alboreas. Bob had a lot to learn. Evelyne laughs heartily now. "I really did sincerely approach him for the sake of practice. I had no idea that what I was asking of him (learning flamenco) was such a huge task. You don't ask somebody to do that just for practice." But Bob, undaunted, took up this task with the focus and determination of a charging bull. "He's just a hard working and self taught kinda guy. So this was the perfect challenge for him."
Within the year they received another grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, to bring in a flamenco guitarist from Spain to work with Bob. For one month they practiced eight hours a day. Bob was honing his new craft but was still playing in The Gravel Pit Campers with his long time friend, singer Sean Harris. Evelyne and the guitarist from Spain showed up one night to see Bob's band perform in a local St. John's club. "I was thinking well, I'll never get a singer. I was a little sad about that but I was happy to have a guitarist and it just seemed completely unlikely to have a singer because, I just had in my mind that, of course, a singer would have to be Spanish ... they would already have to know flamenco and how was that ever going to show up in St. John's?" But, as usual in this story, the unlikely-ness of everything working out doesn't stop it from doing so.
"It was this guitarist (from Spain) who opened my mind up," says Evelyne. "He said, 'why don't you ask that guy right there whose singing the blues in Bob's rock band?' I said, 'He's not Spanish, he doesn't sing a word of Spanish ... or know flamenco ... '
'Ah, you'll teach him.'" Evelyne laughs again and shakes her head. This visiting guitar player had seen something fundamental in Sean Harris. Evelyne; "What he had chosen about him was that he was up there on stage, and it was rock n' roll but he was singing his heart out ... he's got soul. 'Look at Sean, look at the way he's singing his heart out, look at the rhythm and the beautiful voice he has. The rest will come later' ... So that's how Sean came to us... I approached him during their break that night and I asked if he'd like to sing flamenco, he said 'yes'. He started the very next day. And what that guitarist did, who was in to train Bob, was to take some melodies and simplify them to the maximum, for the sake of Sean and Sean sang those simplified versions for a year."
Sean Harris; "I was honored and, to me, this was an opportunity to explore a whole new world of music. You know when you're passionate about something you want to explore all of it, I'm very passionate about music, so this was great."
At this point they began getting invitations to perform in St. John's and although they did not feel entirely ready they boldly began. Bob Sutherby describes that as, "our humble beginnings, a very humble beginning looking back." And yet the offers to perform just kept coming and soon they were regularly traveling across the Maritimes, performing in festivals and music halls and offering workshops. The first time they had to miss an opportunity to perform in Nova Scotia due to the expense and difficulty of getting on and off the island, they began to discuss moving. In 2001, they moved to Halifax.
The rest, for us Nova Scotians, is AEVF.
ON A CHILLY evening my brother called me from Halifax; "There's a poster up about a flamenco performance and a dance workshop. I got a phone number for you. El Viento Flamenco, that mean anything to you?" Mean anything?! It meant that a dedicated core of artists were on the scene. They would pull the flamencos out of the woodwork and bring everyone together. It meant that one night, two years later, I would be sitting in a cafè on Barrington, listening to Los Flamencos (an offshoot of El Viento Flamenco) surrounded by other students and aficionados, the curious and the hooked. This is the night I would meet Claire Hodge (who now plays in Los Flamencos) and would be introduced to our knowledgeable university professor and flamenco aficionado, Don Stoltz. When I asked Don if he felt that El Viento Flamenco has had an impact in Halifax, he was definite and enthusiastic. "They've had a real impact. Because they're so competent, it's meant that in Halifax anybody here who's had a desire to learn ... anybody with any interest in becoming good at flamenco or doing it, the opportunity is perfect. It's added another dimension to the arts scene in Halifax and for a city this size, the opportunities for flamenco are just enormous and the entertainment provided here is fabulous."
I think one can make an argument for the real wealth of any society being held in the hearts, minds and souls of its citizenry. One could say that real wealth is a sum of all the knowledge and skills we collectively possess, brought to fruition, manifest or expressed with great heart and soul, or perhaps, great heart and soul expressed with skill and knowledge. Anyway you want to define it, Halifax has been enriched. And I am but one of Evelyne's 120 students, so I'm not alone I'm sure, when I say that their arrival has been like being a Muslim, who wakes one day to find that while they slept, dreaming of a pilgrimage, Mecca had come to them.
For further information and performance dates check out http://www.elvientoflamenco.com"
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