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Flamenco Pacifico presents 'Convivencia'

Before the art form flamenco, there was a 700-year time of peace in Al-Andaluz, what is now Andalusia in southern Spain. 

That period of time is called La Convivencia, or "The Coexistence," a time from the eighth to the 15th century when a mix of cultures, cooperation, art and sciences flourished under Muslim rule. The legacy shows in the region's architecture and such landmarks as the Alcázar castle in Seville, the capital city; Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral; and Granada’s Alhambra palace.

But the northern Catholic monarchs — Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II — resented Muslim rule and campaigned, with the Alhambra decree and then the Spanish Inquisition, to drive out non-Christians, defeat the Moors and take their cities. The last to fall was Granada in 1492.

"This provided the groundwork for flamenco," says flamenco guitarist Grant Ruiz. "This mix of Muslims, Jews and Gypsies were persecuted. They are the marginalized and disenfranchised who created flamenco as an expression of their loss and grief. This is the crucible of flamenco. It bears a lot of resemblance to American blues, an art form to express longing and loss."

Flamenco Pacifico — guitarists Berto Boyd and Ruiz, percussionist Terry Longshore and dancer Elena Villa — will celebrate the release of its debut CD, "Convivencia," at 8 p.m. Friday, March 24, at Hilltop Music Shop, 205 N. Phoenix Road, in The Shoppes at Exit 24, Phoenix. The new CD's are $15, $10 for a download card, and will be available at the concert. Advance tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Hilltop Music Shop, Music Coop or online at brownpapertickets.com. Tickets will be $30 at the door. A portion of the CD sales will be donated to American Civil Liberties Union.

The sounds of flamenco have developed into something finer since the art form's early inception.

"This wild music and dance was performed mostly for self-expression in outlying areas," Ruiz says. "Flamenco as we know it today did not show up until the 1850s, when it began showing up in performance venues. It's gone through many eras where it flourished: the 1850s, the 1920s. Then when flamenco guitarist Sabicas came to the U.S. in the '50s, Americans became interested in it."

UNESCO declared flamenco as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

Ruiz studied flamenco guitar at Taller Flamenco in Seville in 2005 and 2011. He's studied the art form's singing privately, with such touring musicians as Jesus Montoya and Jose Anillo, who were introduced to him by dancer Savanna Fuentes of Seattle.

Ruiz and Boyd play flamenco on guitars made by lutiers John Shelton and Susan Farretta of Alsea.

"We play Berto's original compositions, along with more traditional tunes," Ruiz says. "When we play Berto's compositions, we create a second guitar part. Then one of us will play the first guitar part and the other the second. It varies. Sometimes we improvise and trade off, but mostly it's about taking the compositions he's written and making them richer and larger with a second guitar.

"With traditional pieces, we create arrangements that use the advantage of the two guitars, so we aren't playing exactly the same thing but a larger, encompassing sound. We add other instrumentation. For the March 24 show, we'll add Randy Tico on electric, fretless bass."

"Convivencia" is a study in skilled, not rough, instrumentation and vocals, and showcases a range of rhythmic flamenco forms.

"The title track is danza mora, which means 'Moorish dance,'" Ruiz says. "It's evocative of the sound from that time period with its Middle Eastern influences. It evokes a mix of cultures. I sing a verse in Arabic on that one, then I go into Spanish. Several words in the Spanish language are based on Arabic."

"Que Yo No Soy," a seguiriyas, also features Ruiz' vocals.

"That particular form represents the deepest of the deepest laments in the flamenco world," he says. "That category of songs are used to express emotions of loss and grief. The sevillanas, 'Colores del Sur,' on the other hand, is a happy party dance. It's a four-part dance that comes from Seville. You can see it in the name. It's usually a partnered dance that is popular at parties and galleries. It's light, happy and festive."

It was the band's idea to include the entire gamut of emotions on "Convivencia," Ruiz says.

"'Buenaventura,' featuring a solo by Boyd, is a tarantas that comes from the mining regions of the southeast of Spain," Ruiz says. "The sound evokes life in the caves, and the music has a hollow sound. The lives of miners everywhere are hard, so again the songs tend to be somber. These songs are strictly instrumental. "Sueno del Minero," a jaleos and another of Berto's compositions, is a lively form that comes from the word 'shout' or 'Olé.' Something you might hear during a flamenco performance or bullfight. The jaleos are festive, light and energetic."

Tangos and rhumbas are scattered throughout the CD's 10 songs. These are more popular forms of flamenco, well-known to Gipsy Kings and Ottmar Liebert fans. The final track, "Lorca por Solea," is a beautiful piece of music collected by Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorco from old Spanish songs. Also an accomplished musician, he found the melody and lyrics, and then wrote the chords.

The refined sound that is flamenco today is Ruiz' and Boyd's preference.

"We were definitely out to create a refined sound," Ruiz says. "Flamenco can be very rough, of course. People often like that aspect of it. There are times, in the jaleos for example, when we want that visceral sound that flamenco is known for. The feeling we're going for depends on the song.

"Berto and I have backgrounds in classical guitar, so we tend to go for a refined sound. Flamenco has moved in that direction, and it's got not so much of the rough feel it used to. We have flamenco players in Spain now that have great skill. The album is inspired by a number of those players who have amazing technique and musicality. The foremost of these musicians is Paco de Lucia, who really raised the bar as far as technique and musical skill. He took flamenco to the next level by adding jazz influences, and started the contemporary flamenco movement in the '70s. 

"This goes back to the whole Convivencia thing," Ruiz says. "From the beginning, flamenco has been about mixing cultural influences. Flamenco musicians are intuitive and imitative. When Paco heard American jazz players and the way they could improvise so easily, he began to use their ideas. Now a lot of flamenco players use jazz elements, including Berto and me. This also lends to the album's refined sound. Flamenco is harmonically more sophisticated than it used to be."

Money from sales of the CD will be donated to the ACLU, and Ruiz said band members share a desire to bring flamenco into schools and give kids an idea of the historical background of the art form.

Flamenco Pacifico visits schools to share the role of art, not just as a personal expression but as a social statement, with students. Last year, the group was part of Britt Festivals' expanded residency program.

Flamenco Pacifico's debut 'Convivencia' will be available at the group's March 24 CD release party at Hilltop Music Shop.