Contemporary Flamenco


John Bell – AAP

Arrebato on tour with new flamenco moves – 5 September 2007

How do you out-flamenco the Spanish?

You don’t, because it’s a non-competitive art form, but Sydney’s Arrebato Ensemble comes very close.

The five member group, led by guitarist Greg Alfonzetti, has released a self-titled CD that has been three years in incubation and is the backbone of their current four city tour.

Using flamenco guitar, cello, double bass, saxophones and percussion, plus a few other non-traditional instruments, this CD soars above the bulk of “contemporary” flamenco that has been all too often variations of gypsy rhumba or “jazzenco” ad nauseum.

All original compositions, mostly by Alfonzetti, this collection is more evolutionary than contemporary, never straying from traditional and complex rhythms but outstanding for its refreshing new dimensions.

“The concept of Arrebato is to draw on the talents of musicians from other styles” says Alfonzetti who was ‘switched on’ to flamenco in the early 1980s and spent years studying guitar and living in Spain, mostly Seville. He has played guitar in prominent theatre productions and won Best Original Score for a short film at Tropfest Short Film Festival in 2001. “For at least two years, I did nothing but play guitar.” His main teacher was the late Pedro Bacan – “a big man with such big hands that you wonder how he did it” – who paid him a rare compliment for a teacher. “He said there as something sweet in the way I got the notes, and that’s something you can’t get by just practicing. Arrebato Ensemble is trying to make a statement in flamenco in an Australian context and it all goes back to then.”

Alfonzetti is a part-time solicitor and part-time musician – “one of only two of us with a real job”. “This suits me to a degree” he said. “Flamenco is not a mainstream thing in Australia – it’s not even a mainstream thing in Spain. There is only a small percentage of people in Spain who make a living out of flamenco.”

Alfonzetti has worked extensively with Strictly Ballroom star Antonio Vargas, both here and in Singapore where he and Vargas “basically did a solo” at the opening of the newly developed Art House. “Though it shot him to stardom, Ballroom was a little unfortunate for Antonio. He’s a much better dancer than that and has done a lot of choreography over the years” he said.

A major influence on Alfonzetti as a musician, and a precursor to Arrebato Ensemble, was his three months work with actor and director Judy Davis who chose him to compose and play original motifs and underscores for her adaptation of School for Scandal for the Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House in 2001. “The Sydney flamenco agenda is driven mostly by dancers” he said. “To break out of that, albeit almost accidentally, has been really good for me in respect of playing at that level in a theatre setting. It really made my mind much more creative about music and what I could do musically in terms of flamenco.”

Though drawn to Arrebato by Greg Alfonzetti, the other four members have awesome musical credentials ranging through flamenco, theatre, rock, rhythm and blues and jazz. Damian de Boos-Smith is a conservatorium-trained cello player who played cello and guitar with Paco Cruz, Juan Soto, Antonio Vargas and Joaquin Ruiz. Conveniently, he is also a sound engineer.

Double bass player Dave Ellis has a classical and jazz background which includes names like Peggy Lee and George Benson. He has played two royal command performances for the Queen.

“It’s really nice to have the double bass” says Alfonzetti, “for its deeper register when its bowed.”

Percussionist Lloyd Gyi is in great demand on the Sydney rock and rhythm and blues circuits. His “powerful feel” for flamenco is a firm foundation for Arrebato Ensemble’s unique style and its original but complex structures.

Andrew Poniris has played electric guitar, bass, saxophone and chromatic harmonica in various rock and jazz settings for over 20 years and began collaborating with Greg Alfonzetti in 1997.

Alfonzetti stresses that the band is a unit. “We are an instrumental group and we try to keep our musicianship at a very high level. We believe we can deliver flamenco to people who would normally be interested in jazz or classical music or almost anything else.”

To keep the standard high right through to the end, the CD was mastered in Madrid by Fernando Alvarez who has mastered for virtually everybody famous in flamenco. The result speaks loud and clear for itself. The group has done live performances in a lot of situations but this is its first formal tour, in conjunction with the CD release.

Though the CD is featured in the concert there are a few surprises. Two dancers will be doing “flamenco bodyline” movements with a couple of pieces. Though this is not flamenco dancing in a real sense “there is room for improvisation with footwork if the opportunity is there”

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