Paco Pena’s Solera packs a punch | Review

Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin.

It is always a treat to learn not only a new word, but a new concept. And I did just that at Sadler’s Wells watching Paco Peña’s Solera.  

The word was this – ‘solera’ – the process by which you keep old wine fresh by folding in a new batch. The wine gets its unique deliciousness from a blend of old and new; of tradition and of modernity. Solera is conceptually intrinsic to Spain. As my Spanish novio puts it, how many countries have such a stark generational divide? Grandparents grew up under Franco’s dictatorship, parents during the transition, and generation Z onwards in a liberal democracy… It is a chasm evident in much Spanish cultural output, from the variety of Rosalía’s album covers to Almodóvar’s films (especially the recent Parallel Mothers) and even Drag Race España… And now in Paco Peña’s Solera. Peña, a world-renowned flamenco guitarist, undoubtedly belongs to the ‘grandparent’ category. If you feel you need more information on this world music legend, check out his website, and marvel at the accomplishments. He will be 80 in June. But much like the wine of his native Andalucía, Solera portrays his repute as more a force of nurture than of intimidation. 

Joining Peña onstage were two fellow guitarists (one of whom, Dani de Morón, was considerably younger), two traditional flamenco singers (again with the one older, one younger pattern), and a percussionist. As well as that there were three traditionally trained flamenco dancers, one (Angel Muñoz) a mature and established titan on the scene, and the other two (Adriana Bilbao and Gabriel Matías) younger and more genre-curious. A small enough group that I felt I began to know them. That came later though; the piece started with not an ensemble but a random collection of nine strangers, each entering the stage in phone-absorbed anonymity. We saw a cluster here, a huddle there, then suddenly a line formed and phones were thrust out screen-first. This movement seemed to jolt the group into harmony. They curved round the stage into an imaginary studio and began to shed their outer layers, revealing rehearsal Adidas joggers and vest tops. Julio Alcocer (aka Percussion) initiated the atmosphere with his drums – even Paco Peña couldn’t resist a little warm-up boogie. As uncomplicated as it might be, I liked this opening, how it portrayed that despite the constant phone usage and disconnection of modern times, the flamenco studio is a place where strangers come together in homage to this beautiful old art form. 

So begins the Solera – little cadences of music starting to sound, chance impulse pairings of dancer here and singer there, the sweetness of artists in tune. It sounds moreish. Adriana and the mature singer, Immaculada Rivero, have an impromptu twirl together. It is the picture of encouragement, familial even. Then it stops, and in Spanish (thanks to mi novio for the interpretation here) Angel Muñoz asks Alcocer “Were you recording?” He replies, “No.” Muñoz responds, “Well, we’re not gonna get that again.” Muñoz is not really sad though, more frank. He knows (and thus divulges) the ethos of flamenco, of the whole show… The pasión that underpins every great flamenco movement, the soulfulness that imbues Peña’s guitar talent – it is inimitable, fleeting, pursuable only if running at full pelt with every fibre of the soul. No wonder pasión contains each letter of Spain. The Spanish dancers show us you cannot have one without the other.

Once transience is clarified, the piece unfurls itself. Act One is nine pieces (I now realise one for each artist) in the format of a jam session. There is jumble, variety… After ‘A moment of calm’ we blend seamlessly into ‘A moment of fun.’ The mix of tradition and innovation is well balanced, as in the duet between Peña on la guitarra and young Matías on the dancefloor. We hear music that is at once delicate and crisp, while seeing movement that is both sharp and fluid. Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble accumulate in a casual, cosy ring and encourage them with claps and Olé’s. It puts me in mind of dancing in the living room in front of family; older people with more life experience that you know will encourage you. 

Standing out for me is one of the elders – Angel Muñoz and his devilishly impressive control. While the legs dole out heel-stomps, flamenco shuffles, and stage-slaloms at maximum onion-chopping speed, the torso remains stoic and poised. Muñoz is accompanied by Peña’s mastery of the guitar and flamenco singing’s mortal vessel, the young but by no means timid Iván Carpio. The whole thing together is loud, intense but somehow absolutely marvellous. In the moment, I can’t really imagine any other form of expression – it is that all-encompassing. Yet at the same time, almost as though he’s aware of this, Muñoz ricochets off his castmates with smiles, jokes and claps, giving the immense showmanship a laid-back feel. And to finish – a kneel in deep appreciation of Paco, just to be sure we remember who Muñoz owes his pasión to. 

How does a rehearsal end? With renewed spirits, camaraderie… And simply, people picking up their bags and exiting the room chatting away. That is precisely how Act One concluded – and I know that of course it was all choreographed, planned etc, but I was taken in by the charm of it. It is something I haven’t seen on a dance stage before. And how does a Second Act open? Always with more conviction; but rarely with as much contrast as Solera’s Act Two. White spotlights ripped through the black emptiness and illuminated again, a line of humans, this time though with slicked hair and attitudes. Immediately we know: a Show as we know it is starting. 

The dancing in Act Two commences with a beautiful duet between flamenco-of-the-future Adriana Bilbao and Iván Carpio on the vocals. It is a change in tone, a different shade of pasión; Carpio is a capella, and Bilbao the dance version of that. I suppose I describe her like this because Solera encourages me to think of the dancing and the music as cut from the same cloth, as wine from the same barrel. Her body moves less loudly, with less intenseness – but no less passionate or stirring. Statuesque shapes mix with grounded, contemporary movements in a manner similar to Martha Graham’s Errand Into the Maze and Annabelle Lopez Ochea’s Broken Wings, pieces I think you could definitely link with the idea of solera. Bilbao is stunning in a midnight green dress, a colour perhaps less traditionally associated with flamenco but somehow capturing its essence. And I must pay my respects to Carpio, whose quintessentially Spanish singing provides the backdrop that the stage itself lacks. I will turn to the program notes to provide the best description of his voice: “a meloja (made of honey) voice that twists in the meslismas (short melodies) and the anguish of the cante (flamenco singing), a voice that fails to whisper without fear, a voice that asks for a place up front.” Like the lyrics too, I don’t really get it, but I follow. 

We see Peña at his finest and winest in Act Two. He proves himself to be the only sentient object that can move faster than Muñoz’s feet, with a finger-picking pace that has truly matured with age. While performing in a guitar trio, Peña at once shows how it could be done, should be done and would be done if we had the choice. I know that many of the audience came to Sadler’s as a sort of Paco Peña Holy Week pilgrimage, and they certainly get what they wanted here. The applause is rapturous. Peña is not only a maestro of pasión but an infuser of it. However, he is far from cocky. I see him low-five his younger counterpart during the song to congratulate him on his prowess, and it’s a really sweet moment. Again, something we rarely see onstage – solera between generations in the moment. 
So all in all, how successful was Solera? For me, it is beyond that. Its purpose, its lifeforce and its accomplishment was to show how success can be reached. A mix of sorts; of tradition but also novelty; of collaboration and also appreciation of individuals; of the magic of improvisation and the polish of the finished piece. All have value, and are enriched by one another. To Paco and the performers of Solera: ¡salud!