Flamenco, the traditional folk music of southern Spain, enjoys exceptionally wide popularity in New Mexico. There are, in fact, as many opportunities to experience live flamenco locally than one might find in Spain.
Joaquin Encinias, the Artistic Director and Founder of Yjastros: The American Flamenco Repertory Company, attributes it to both early settlement of European Spaniards in New Mexico, as well as the state's long history of supporting a diverse array of innovative artistic endeavors through patronage and large enthusiastic audiences.
"New Mexico in general, is a hotbed for flamenco and I think there's an affinity here for the Spanish culture based on our roots, but I also think it goes beyond that as well," Joaquin explained. "I think it has to do a little bit with our demographic and our socio-economic stature here in New Mexico that allows an art form, a little more niche art form, to cultivate and grow quite vigorously here.”
Joaquin is the third generation of flamenco artists who helped establish the genre in New Mexico, and attributes some of the current popularity to his family's efforts. "I would like to think it's because of the work of my grandmother and mother, as well as my aunts and uncles who did a lot to establish a flamenco community here in Albuquerque."
For anyone attending a flamenco performance for the first time, it is a compelling and dramatic experience. Colorful costumes, stirring guitars, and melodramatic singing create a thrilling concert.
The wailing nature of the vocalizations reveals its North African roots. Arabic, Moorish, Jewish, and Gypsy influences came together in Southern Spain to create Andalucia's signature musical genre.
Carlos Menchaca, one of Yjastros' dancers, characterizes flamenco as, originally, the music of the disenfranchised.
"Flamenco has a tragic overtone at times. It speaks of anguish, of ill-treatment of the poor or the immigrant. It is almost an outcry. It can also speak of the tragedy of forsaken love. However, sometimes it also paints beautiful poetic pictures of everyday village life," he said.
To appeal to New Mexican audiences, who have a long history of appreciating avant-garde and experimental art forms, Yjastros has a somewhat revolutionary approach that combines the structured improvisation of traditional Spanish flamenco with modern American repertory dance.
The dance company's name is Spanish for "stepchildren" and it aptly describes a new Southwest culture of flamenco, yet one that is still deeply rooted in its Spanish heritage.
"We draw a lot of artists from Spain who come here and leave their stamp on our company through their choreography. We're a living archive of those pieces and a real important group of dancers and musicians that set the bar for a lot of young dancers to aspire to," explains Joaquin.
The company has achieved international recognition for its innovative interpretations of classic flamenco and regularly features some of the world's finest flamenco guest artists in their performances for New Mexico audiences.
In February, Yjastros will perform at the prestigious Festival de Jerez in Spain. Their performance, entitled Xicano Power, will feature multiple choreographers from the group and will embody the mix of European Spanish and Indigenous culture of the Southwest US. The groups regular interaction with Spanish flamenco artists gives them an opportunity to influence the traditional European form of the music.
"I don't think that there's a lot of places like New Mexico, and I also don't think there's a lot of places in the world where flamenco happens like it does here. We're a very interesting community and a very deep community when it comes to the art form," Joaquin said.
Members of Yjastros perform regularly at the Tablao Flamenco in the Hotel Albuquerque as well as other venues. Details are on their website: nifnm.org/the-company-yjastros. Their phone number is 505.242.7600.