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reed magazine logoSummer 2009

On Being Possessed

Back in the States I dropped out of academia to focus on photography (although I still play the guitar). In 2002, I was invited to participate in an exhibition illustrating an anthropology conference on flamenco in Granada. The event, “Sinmysterios de Flamenco,” attracted much public attention and brought me back to Andalusia for the first time in 34 years. Inspired by the success of the show, I began wondering about the many candid photographs of the gypsy artists I had seen in Spain years before: photos tacked to walls or yellowed and gathering dust in broken glass frames, many of them taken by foreigners like me, evidence of a remarkable period of cultural exchange.

gypsy kids

Gypsy kids improvising their own fiesta in the early morning hours of the Feria de Sevilla. Photo by David George, 1967

This curiosity was the beginning of the Flamenco Project, a seven-year effort on my part to locate, digitize, restore, archive, and publish photographs, audio recordings and films made by non-Spaniards, who came to Andalusia in pursuit of Flamenco during that unique window of opportunity between 1960 and 1985. It was motivated partly by a need to preserve memories of that time and partly by my desire to bring my photography and music together at that point of my life.

The fiestas were the high points of the musical experience. A few of us had tape recorders and made audio recordings. (In most cases, discreet taping was accepted by the artists, and it was often encouraged by them.) We also took photographs, mostly amateur snaps, but many that were extraordinary.

Looking back on those years, I realize that we had privileged and unprecedented access to the inner circles of flamenco life. We were not a political or social threat to the gypsies, and were passionately supportive of the music. An anomaly in the fabric of daily life, we were a complement to the artists’ world, creating an unusual place for ourselves in their social sphere.In fact, aside from the monumental 1970s documentary film project Rito y Geografía del Cante and the occasional local radio station’s festival recordings, most of the surviving documentation of that era comes from foreigners. The Flamenco Project has archived over 150 images by 17 photographers, 4 original fiesta recordings, and 2 films.

Non-Spaniards still venture to Andalusia, continuing to enjoy the music, and to record and photograph emerging artists. Yet the flamenco lifestyle and Spanish culture in general has changed so dramatically over the years that the kind of experience we had in the 60s and 70s just isn’t possible now. Not only is Spain considerably more expensive, but the music itself has become more commercial and the artists, less available. Moreover, the flow of cultural and musical influence has reversed course; flamenco has embraced jazz and even hip-hop as major influences.

In order to research the Flamenco Project, I have made numerous trips to Spain over the past seven years. Even though I’m ostensibly looking for photographs, I always bring my guitar along. What I have discovered is a younger generation of gypsy guitarists who now look to me for material, because I was there during a period they recognize as one of the golden ages of flamenco. They find it remarkable that I still play the music of their great-uncle Diego who died in 1973, and that I learned it one-on-one from the source, before they were even born. They ask me how the old man played this and that, since I was actually there and hopefully remember. Many are learning from the very tapes that we foreigners had the foresight to record years ago. Now I have a chance to give something back, to pass the wisdom of my teacher along to the artists of the future. It is an extraordinary reversal of roles, rewarding beyond measure.

Steve Kahn ’66 is a New York (Brooklyn) based, internationally known commercial and fine art photographer. A flamenco guitarist for over 45 years, he remains one of a handful of musicians still playing the Morón toque (style).

Flamenco Project

The project features 150 images by 17 photographers, 4 original fiesta record­ings, and 2 films, all taken or recorded between 1960 and 1985. Together, these documents create a picture of flamenco life, experienced through the eyes and ears of involved foreigners who came to witness the intimate moments of joy and pain expressed in the art of flamenco.

The photographs include informal portraits of artists, presented not necessarily at their manicured best, but rather unprepared and unscripted, more honest, perhaps, more revealing than what one might expect. The documents reflect an outsider’s perspective on pueblo life, portraying flamenco in its original context.

The project opened its inaugural exhibition in Jerez de la Frontera in December 2008, kicking off a two-year, exclusive sponsorship by the Andalusian bank and cultural foundation Cajasol | Obra Social. The next show opens in Sevilla on September 19, 2009, and a book will be available in early 2010. International venues are in the making. For more information, visit www.flamencoproject.com.

Further Reading, Listening, and Viewing:

  • The Wind Cried by Paul Hecht
    (Dial Press 1968)
  • The Flamencos of Cadiz Bay
    by Gerald Howson (Hutchinson 1965)
  • A Way of Life by D.E. Pohren
    (Bold Strummer 1980)
  • The Art of Flamenco by D.E. Pohren
    (Society of Spanish Studies 1967)
  • Flamenco de la Frontera by Paco del Gastor,
    (CD, Nimbus Records)
  • Cante Flamenco by Paco del Gastor
    (CD, Nimbus Records)
  • Cante Gitano by Paco del Gastor,
    (CD, Nimbus Records)
  • Son de la Frontera (CD, World Village USA)
  • Morón y su Compás (DVD, OffSevilla)
  • El Angel: Musical Flamenco. (DVD,
    El Flamenco Vive)
  • Rito y Geografía del Toque (DVD)
    (Alga Editores, S.L)
reed magazine logoSummer 2009