When you mention “flamenco” to someone in this country, the foot-stomping, expressive dance probably is the first thing that comes to mind.
Traditionally, though, the guitar and the singing were primary, with the dance almost presented more as an accessory.
At least that’s the way it was for Jose Valle Fajardo, known by the nickname “Chuscales” given to him by his grandfather, as he grew up listening to and playing the flamenco rhythms in his grandparents’ gypsy cave in Granada, one of the many such grottoes clustered in what is often dubbed the cradle of flamenco.
With grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles coming together to sing, strum and dance, “it was like a show every day,” Chuscales said.
While the dance has become primary in this country, the song and guitar were paramount in Spain – and not very easy to learn.
“The guitarist has to practice more, it’s more difficult,” he said. And it takes a long time to develop the grammar, pronunciation and other elements that constitute flamenco singing.
It’s the complexity of the rhythms that makes flamenco so unique, he said.
“On guitar, you follow the dancer. You have to be in rhythm,” Chuscales said. “Everything is more complex, more beautiful … . You can mix in some jazz, some blues flavor – but the rhythm, for me, is one of the more special things in the world.”
You can get a sample of what he’s talking about with “Flamenco x 3” today and Saturday at Teatro Paraguas, when Chuscales will be joined by his wife, dancer Mina Fajardo, and singer Kina Mendez. Also born into the gypsy tradition – in her case in Spain’s Jerez de la Frontera – Mendez grew up under the influence of her aunt, famed flamenco singer La Paquera de Jerez.
In his early years, Chuscales also sometimes danced flamenco, something he said he doesn’t do anymore unless one of his fellow performers pulls him out onto the floor.
“You can’t learn to play flamenco guitar without knowing a lot about the dance and the singing,” said Lee Thompson, a flamenco guitarist himself and board member of Chuscales’ Arte Flamenco de Santa Fe, an organization aimed at promoting the art through performance, workshops and classes.
“It’s not just the notes. You have to understand how it all fits together,” he said.
And Chuscales is a master at it, according to Thompson. “He’s known all across the country,” he said. “Anyone who wants the best, calls him.”
While Chuscales modestly brushed aside some of the praise, he did note that he travels a lot and plays at festivals, for ballets, with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, and with anyone and everyone who does flamenco. You also can find him playing solo background music in hotel lounges or at the restaurant La Boca on Mondays.
After all, he and Mina Fajardo have four kids to raise, ranging in age from 12 to 15.
But while Thompson went to Spain from the United States to study flamenco, Chuscales moved from Spain to North America to make a living in flamenco.
While he was living in Spain, he started getting repeat contract work in Toronto, so he moved to that Canadian city. “I stayed there because there was so much opportunity,” Chuscales said.
Then, while in Toronto, he was introduced to María Benítez, the native New Mexican who for years performed regular shows through the Santa Fe summer. She hired him as a guitarist with her troupe and, after a few years commuting, Chuscales decided to make Santa Fe his permanent home.
“I’ve been here 18 years,” he said.
Between the efforts of Benítez and the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque, these two cities have become a major center for flamenco in this country, according to Chuscales.
“They have plenty of people who follow flamenco and like it,” he said of the two cities. People come from outside New Mexico to study flamenco at schools here, and then provide both an appreciative audience and an upcoming crop of new performers, he said.
Both he and Mina Fajardo have taught and continue to teach their arts to eager students, with Mina Fajardo currently teaching at Santa Fe Danceworks, Moving Arts Española, the Santa Fe Community College and Northern New Mexico University.
Because of all his travel, Chuscales said he usually takes students these days through private lessons or workshops.