Before I even start, let’s just get something out of the way — this is San Antonio, not Seville, and I know no one in Andalusia is checking out our local flamenco scene to see who’s hot and who’s not. But the great thing about flamenco is that just being able to be in the ball game requires some serious skills. To do flamenco, you better know how to sing, play, and dance.
Chayito Champion is the daughter of Willie Champion “El Curro” and Teresa Champion, arguably Texas’ premier flamenco authorities, and what she and her team do every Thursday at Luna is the real thing, not a watered-down flamenco-pop concoction.
Even though she does some dancing, Chayito mostly sits, sings standards, claps, and sends her group out to the flamenco wood floor placed on top of Luna’s regular dance floor. And that’s where the sparks fly. Literally.
Chayito’s younger sister Elsa, “La Chispa” (The Spark), gets into a corner and begins slowly hitting her heels on the floor. In perfect sync with the guitar’s subtle strumming and the group’s clapping, her pace gradually increases until it reaches a critical mass, and then she stops on a dime. We’re not talking Joaquín Cortés or Belén Maya here. But all of Chayito’s dancers (the other two being Eduardo Madrigal and Anita Bravo) have what any flamenco dancer should have: an acute sense of rhythm, great power of concentration, and lots of stamina.
Guitarist Cristóbal Arispe is a young, classically trained musician who may not be Paco de Lucía, but who has more than enough chops to keep things going. And the whole group doesn’t just “do flamenco” — they dissect it, exploring some of the genre’s main palos (styles, streams), from the most serious cante jondo (“big” singing) to the lighter cante chico (“small” singing) and all the hybrids in between, without ever falling into frivolous, crowd-pleasing nonsense.
The group could use a little more percussion. The cajón playing is not amplified (emphasis is given to the voice, guitar, and dancing) and Madrigal and Elsa take turns caressing the instrument but never really go all out. Which is fine with me: the cajón is a Peruvian instrument that was introduced to flamenco in the ’70s by Paco de Lucía and, even though it’s hard to think of flamenco today without a cajón, you can (and should) be able to get by without it. My advice to Chayito: either get a cajón player, tell Elsa and Madrigal to really hit the damn thing, or forget about it. No big deal.
In “Tus labios pa mí,” popularized by Remedios Amaya, Chayito sang in caló-derived Andalusian Spanish (not to be confused with Chicano caló), an ancient hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese. And all through the night she sang with conviction and was a funny-as-hell emcee, explaining to the audience what they were watching and hearing along the way.
Too bad that audience was less than 40 percent of the room’s capacity. But Chayito played as if the room was packed, and it all ended up with children dancing onstage with the band (yes; there’s food being served, so even though it’s a bar you can bring the kids on Thursdays).
“Flamenco either grabs you quickly or it lets you go,” Chayito said. Wrong. When it is performed with this raw honesty and devotion, there’s just no way to escape its grip.