If audience members at the second Philadelphia Flamenco Festival think they hear a distinct Jewish influence in the music, they’re not wrong. Elba Hevia y Vaca, artistic director of Pasion y Arte, the local flamenco center presenting the festival, will be the first to say so.
The La Paz, Bolivia native should know. Her grandmother was Jewish, and she is married to a Jewish attorney.
“I think that what grabbed me about flamenco was the Sephardic sounds, the tonality — it was something on an unconscious level that has to do with my history,” she explains.
The influence of Jewish music on flamenco, the Spanish blend of cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (hand claps), can be traced back to the Inquisition.
According to numerous theories, part of flamenco’s history was influenced by Jews who escaped Spain in the 15th century for the more tolerant environment of Flanders, which was occupied by the Spanish Hapsburgs for centuries. Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews settled in what is now part of Belgium. Spanish traders brought the unique musical scales and modulations back to the Iberian Peninsula. The word “flamenco” also literally translates to “Flemish” — the language or people of Flanders.
Whether it is the strains of an Eastern European high cantorial style echoing through the music or the distinctive Sephardic rhythms and lyrics like “Donde vas, bella Judia?” (“Where are you going, beautiful Jewish woman?”) in the flamenco standard “La Petenera,” the impact of flamenco’s Jewish origins are acknowledged as much as its Arab, Gypsy and Indian roots. In fact, the 54-year-old Hevia y Vaca, who began her dance career when she was sent to a conservatory at age 5, noted that two of the festival’s headlining acts from Spain, Rosario Toledo, and Israel and Pastora Galván, are Jewish.
Toledo will be doing a performance art piece called Vengo on March 9 at WHYY Studios in Old City, and the Galváns will be performing a contemporary work called Pastora at the Mandell Theater on March 13. Both performances highlight how Hevia y Vaca hopes to use the festival to change people’s views on flamenco as an art form.
“Flamenco was born out of angst, much like jazz and blues,” she explains. “What I’m looking for is artists who use flamenco to express their particular angst, and these artists are doing it by removing these structures, removing the idea of the dialogue between guitar, singer and dancer — this will fill up the stage in a very different way than traditional flamenco.”
When she isn’t running Pasion y Arte or the festival, Hevia y Vaca is a professor of dance at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Her teaching roots show through in the sheer number of educational offerings during the festival’s run, from master classes to seminars to the classic Carlos Saura film, Blood Wedding.
She seems happiest when she can help people to understand the essence of flamenco.
“It’s the idea of sadness,” she says. “We celebrate sadness: We dance inside it, we face it head on, we dive into it. The other component is finding humor in life.”
No wonder people think it has a Jewish influence.