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Gypsy Roots

Castanets and tablas may seem an unlikely combination. But a New York City production called Nacho Nacho: Gypsy Storytelling actually combines flamenco traditions with northern Indian kathak dance styles. Samir Chatterjee, one of the foremost Indian tabla drummers in the United States, conceived and directed the project. "Flamenco has a strong rhythmic aspect, which fascinates me," Chatterjee explains. "It has historical connections to Indian music and dance through the Gypsies. Nacho Nacho is developed on the similarities and dissimilarities of the two."

Pairing flamenco and Indian music isn't simply a bolt from the blue. The World Network label's Gypsy-music compilation CD Road of the Gypsies opens with "Nana del Caballo Grande," a song on which the late flamenco legend El Camarón de la Isla (nee José Monge Cruz) sings a poem by Federico García Lorca with sitar accompaniment. And the Rajasthani Indian Gypsy ensemble Musafir has been known to include flamenco songs in its repertoire.

"In both the traditions, music came after dance, and it was created to accompany dance by providing a theme to dance to," says Chatterjee.

Northern Indian and Spanish Gypsy music may not show obvious similarities today, but their connections stretch back hundreds of years. Details are sketchy at best about the origin of the Gypsies as well as their migration across the Middle East and Europe. The word Gypsy, in fact, is a corruption of Egypt, once considered the homeland of a people more politely known as the Romanies. The Gypsies are thought to have come from the Rajasthan region of northwestern India. According to one legend of Gypsy dispersion, the fifth-century Persian ruler Shah Bahram Gur invited nomadic musicians from Northern India to entertain his court. When the Romanies didn't settle into the farming life that Gur had intended for them, he expelled them from his country, and their wanderings began.

"It's not known which tribe of nomads might have made the voyage to Persia," writes Simon Broughton in volume one of The Rough Guide to World Music. "But the links between Romany and Indian languages such as Hindi, Punjabi, and Sanskrit make it pretty certain that is where the Rom originated."

According to Chatterjee, "It is hard to say -- or would be rather incorrect to say -- that the kathak dance style of northern India has anything to do with flamenco as its origin or vice versa. But somewhere down the line there exists some connection between the two, as both are solo dance traditions as opposed to community dancing. There would always be a major difference between the two as kathak, like most Indian dance traditions, was originally performed in the temples. Flamenco has no such affiliation."

Chatterjee has years of experience fusing divergent music styles. He has worked with Glen Velez, Ravi Coltrane, Dance Theater of Harlem, Da Capo Chamber Orchestra, Boston Musica Viva and other jazz and avant-garde musicians. He founded Chhandayan World Percussion Ensemble, is a member of two jazz trios, and performed with Sanjay Mishra on the multi-instrumentalist's CD Blue Incantation, which featured Jerry Garcia as guest artist. Since 1982 he has toured Europe and Asia and collaborated on disc and in concert with numerous classical Indian musicians. He is also founder-director of Chhandayan, an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving Indian music and culture, which means conducting classes, organizing concerts, maintaining a library, and even running a store.

Chatterjee fuses Indian classical music, Spanish music, and flamenco dance in a performance with dancer and choreographer La Conja, guitarist Romerito de Huelva (nee Jorge Luis Perez), dancer Leandra La Greca, and Pandit Ramesh Misra, who plays the sarangi, an ancient Indian bowed string instrument.

La Conja is an experienced splicer of traditions. Together with her company, Mimbre y Vareta, she toured India in 1998, incorporating Indian dancers and singers into her Flamenco Natyam project. She also performed what she terms "a mosaic of Indian and flamenco dance" at the prestigious Guggenheim Work and Process Series. She has collaborated with flamenco greats Jose Molina and José Greco. And on her Andalucian Legacies project, she worked with Arab music legend Ali Jihad Racy. The New York Times describes La Conja as "a dancer of intense, beautifully modulated heat."

While Chatterjee accompanies dancers La Conja and La Greca and Misra plays the sarangi, Romerito de Huelva performs the highly demanding traditional flamenco guitar part. The guitarist began devoting himself to the intricate and complex Spanish Gypsy style of playing in 1986. In 1989 he became the first Latin American to be awarded the status of Honorary Member of the Pena Flamenca de Huelva in Andalucia, Spain, and has worked with dancers Carlota Santana, Bailes Ferrer, and Jose Greco II. The combination of his fiery, highly rhythmic performance with Chatterjee's virtuoso command of the tabla should be breathtaking.

While there are more obvious differences than similarities between flamenco and Indian music, Chatterjee notes one connection that extends beyond shared roots. "Both the styles have a lot of rhythmic footwork," he says. "In kathak there is a strong element of expression, which is called Abhinaya. In flamenco we get to see a combination of hilarious and vigorous movements. Both the styles are enriched with a fascinating sensuality. These are the areas we try to explore in Nacho Nacho. I hope to bring out these elements in our presentation at Fort Lauderdale as well."

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Bob Tarte

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