If you don’t make it to Spain this year to hear flamenco music in its natural habitat of Andalusia (imagine fortified hilltop towns with whitewashed walls and sun-splattered plazas, geraniums and graceful webs of wrought iron), there’s a lot to recommend pretending with Donn Dale, his cypress-bodied 1960 Jose Ramirez acoustic, and the chalky light of a single 75-watt bulb.
For a long time, Dale explains, this was the way many Spaniards got to hear the music: inside and quietly. Flamenco was an unwelcome guest under the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who took exception to the estranjero influences in flamenco and put it under house arrest by banning its performance from public places.
“Flamenco is riddled with Moorish influence,” Dale says. “Franco didn’t like it and he didn’t encourage it. If you were a stranger and defied the law once, you got a warning. If you knowingly played it again in public, they put you in jail.”
Dale is a forestry graduate, former professor at Salish-Kootenai College, and fluent Spanish speaker who now works as a flyfishing outfitter in St. Regis. He is old enough to remember the internal exile of flamenco under Franco, and he was there, too—in 1973, in the town of Maron de la Frontera, as a student of Andalusian flamenco master Diego del Gastor.
“I went over there to see the world and specifically I wanted to learn the flamenco guitar,” Dale recalls. “He saw me come into town, but I didn’t go up to him right away like everyone else. The others were on him like a coat of paint, so I waited a little until I could approach him on my own in the plaza. At the time, he was the finest guitarist in Spain and I didn’t even know it. He was a humble and kind man.”
This immersion approach to flamenco was and still is an absolute must, Dale says firmly, if a guitarist hopes to attain duende—one of those immeasurable and not entirely definable quantities that you either have or don’t have, a connection with the music that runs deeper than merely a deep feeling for it.
“The closest thing I can think of in English to compare it to is soul. In order to attain duende, you pretty much have to go there.”
After a short break, Dale readies himself for a second set, rubbing the nails of his picking hand with an emery cloth to minimize the glossy sheen of his nail strengthener—just one of those things, he says; one of those tools of the trade.
This is nail-heavy music, too: rhythmic tapping on the guitar body, powerful minor-chord downstrokes, melodies that emerge as individually plucked strings from a constantly humming matrix. What’s great about the bare 75-watt bulb overhead is that you can see the melody emerge as well as hear it. It’s the semaphore of strings shimmering as wide as ribbons on the neck of the guitar and the one that appears not to move. That’s what the melody looks like, and maybe the duende as well.
Donn Dale plays the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs this Saturday at 8 PM