Interview: Holly Blazina, “Transcendencia”

Holly Blazina - Transcendencia

In the time we’ve been writing this blog, it’s become even more apparent to us that Canada has a vibrant, talented, and diverse music community.  We’ve been wowed by the work of so many artists of all genres – and one that we are adding to that list is flamenco guitarist Holly Blazina, who recently released her first album, “Transcendencia.”  This is a terrific project, full of splendid guitar work, percussion, vocals, and many of the other features that make flamenco so alluring – while adding a few non-traditional surprises into the mix.

There are so many highlights on the album – the opener “Con La Corriente” for one (guaranteed to have you swaying to the music), and “S.O.S.,” a tango/rumba that also incorporates some terrific jazz stylings.  The gorgeous “Homenaje a Sabicas” features not only Holly’s tremendous guitar but also some lovely violin (both bowed and pizzicato), an addition that fits perfectly with the gently flowing melody.

If you’re not sure you’ll like flamenco, or you think flamenco is dull and one-dimensional (or you think it’s primarily about the dancing), I challenge you to listen to Holly’s album and still think that afterwards.  This is a thoroughly enjoyable project that I hope will not only win Holly some new listeners but also bring a new audience to flamenco music.

We’re delighted that Holly Blazina took the time to answer some questions about her album (and about flamenco!).  We also want to congratulate her on her Bronze Medal in the Global Music Awards for “Transcendencia” – well done!

It’s probably fair to say that a number of our readers may be only vaguely familiar with flamenco music. If you had to describe it in a few words (challenging, I’m sure!), how would you explain it to new audiences?

Flamenco is known as the music of the Spanish gypsies, but also has it’s roots in the Andalusian folkloric tradition. It has many influences, including Arabic, northern African, East Indian, Sephardic (Jewish), Latin American and jazz. Traditional flamenco is comprised of singing, dance and guitar, but modern artists include other instruments as well, such as the ones I’ve used on “Transcendencia.”

Holly Blazina

Your media materials mention that when you first heard flamenco music, you “knew you had found your home musically.” What specifically called to you from this style of music?

Wow, I remember the rhythms, melodies, exotic harmony and the way the guitar sounded so sensual. It was what I’d been waiting for but had only heard hints of until that point. I think one of the important things that continues to draw me to flamenco is that it incites complex and ‘unacceptable’ emotions. Maybe it’s just me, but I think emotions such as anger and sadness are being expressed more freely in our culture, which I appreciate, within reason. When I first began listening to flamenco, I felt that these emotions suddenly had a venue for me, that I could breathe.

There’s also a wildness to flamenco that is really enticing, both for myself and my audience. Since I was first exposed to the guitar, that’s where I heard it, but that barely controllable element is in the singing and dance as well.

You’ve chosen to add some other instruments (for example, saxophone and santur) to the more traditional inclusions of percussion, vocals, and handclaps. How do you balance between faithfulness to the musical tradition, and stretching yourself as a musician and composer with new and different sounds?

It was very natural to include those instruments because I have long histories with the players. The sax player, violinist and santur player are all well-versed in the flamenco tradition and have performed in the style for a long time on their respective instruments. So there isn’t a conflict between tradition and innovation. Each of these players has deep knowledge and respect for the art form. Even so, I consider the tradition carefully, because I value the respect I’ve earned from the masters I’ve studied with. I know there are traditionalists out there who don’t like any kind of fusion or modern influences, even from those who do it best. But I see them as an extension of the flamenco tradition itself, because it’s constantly evolving as a reflection of whatever is going on around it.

When I’m writing in a palo (flamenco form) that’s new to me, I often start by listening to traditional material and broaden it from there – perhaps many times until it bears little resemblance to the original seed. Yet, those who know flamenco can usually hear the tradition in what I’ve created, whether they can consciously place it or not. Each of the pieces on “Transcendencia” could be played as a solo guitar piece, and many of them have been done with traditional ensemble configurations. The other instruments enhance that framework without changing it materially.

The entire album is so enjoyable but I find “S.O.S.” especially delightful – it seems to me to be a blend of flamenco with jazz (especially in the piano and bass lines). Do you find that flamenco crosses genres easily?

Good ears! Because flamenco is a mixture of genres to begin with, it can, but with some caveats. We performed this piece in a fusion project a couple of years ago, and I put it forward as a piece that would work nicely in that setting, because of the 4/4 time signature and the set singing lines. I liked the result so well that I wanted to include it on the recording. It’s the only track on the album that has a chart written for it, which was done to accommodate the jazz players.

It becomes more challenging to cross genres for the forms that have more complex rhythms that are specific to flamenco – we have lots of 12-count forms where the rhythm is internalized so that we can improvise. Another challenge is that the singing is often improvised, so the accompanist follows the singer, which could be somewhat different every time. The more instruments following, the more complicated it all becomes! As I understand it, even the Spaniards are starting to create charts for large ensembles for this reason, which means that the music is more set than in the smaller ones.

You tweeted recently about a student who neglected to practice with a metronome (indeed, deleted the metronome app entirely!) – I can sympathize, having been both the student and teacher in that scenario. ☺  What are some ways in which you are passing on your passion for flamenco as a teacher – does teaching it differ from, say, teaching classical guitar?  (Other than tempo of course, which matters to musicians of every type!)

Hahaha, yeah, the metronome does seem to be a thorn in the side at first! Teaching flamenco is very different than teaching classical guitar – I’ve done both. Classical music in general usually centres around reading music. As I mention above, flamenco is starting to go in that direction, but I think it will always be primarily an aural tradition – that is, taught from one person to another. I incorporate a combination of teaching methods. Spainish guitarists rarely write anything down for their students. Here in Canada, I recognize that people need something to hang onto at first. I provide some material written out in tablature for beginners, but I try to wean them off the page as soon as I can, depending on the learning style of the student. I do this with a combination of functional fretboard harmony, providing chord charts, videos and audio recordings. I play along with the students a lot during lessons, so they really get the physical sense of the rhythms. I believe rhythm is understood viscerally, much more than intellectually, so experiential learning is key.

I also have a program in tandem with a dance school. I attend the classes weekly with my students and teach them how to accompany. This is also really important because everything about the flamenco guitar sound has arisen out of the ensemble. The attack and the tone have come from the need to be heard above the dancers’ feet. The rhythmic drive is a function of maintaining a percussive foundation for the rest of the ensemble to work from. I certainly understand that for players studying outside Spain it can be challenging to find all the necessary components to study flamenco in it’s fullness, and in some cases, books might be the only resource available. But it’s good to know that there’s much, much more to the art form, and that learning it from those other angles is a rich pursuit.

If listeners are really taken with your music – and I hope they are! – who are some guitarists who have inspired you, who they could explore next? (Until your next album comes out.)

Some of my favourite players are Paco de Lucia, Vicente Amigo, Tomatito, Diego del Morao and Moratio. But there are many, many more. I’ve just started making playlists on Spotify, so if your readers want to hear more flamenco, there will be lots for them to hear there as I develop more of those.

Do you have any touring plans in the near future?

I’ve got some irons in the fire, but nothing is set at this point. I’ll keep fans up to date with things as they develop on Facebook and Twitter.

~ L

Visit Holly Blazina’s website.

Preview and buy “Transcendencia” on CDBaby.

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