Fiery flamenco as intense as the story ‘Yerma’ tells
Juanito Pascual has been guitar-crazy since he was 3. Growing up, he says in an interview at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End, he played everything he could, from classical to jazz to rock. Then, a teenage friendship with the son of flamenco guitarist Scott Mateo Davies and a summer in Spain started the Jewish boy from Minneapolis down the path he’s followed ever since.
His passion for flamenco led him back to Spain, where he played unpaid for flamenco dance classes and made his living busking in the subway, then to Boston for a turn through New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation program. It’s sent him through venues around the world including Madrid’s Casa Patas, and recently — though he’s living in California now — he’s come back to Boston to provide music for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma,” in a new adaptation and translation by Melinda Lopez. “Yerma” runs through Sunday at the Calderwood Pavilion. Pascual will return to town for a gig at Regattabar on Nov. 1 with his own trio and a guest dancer.
“To kind of simplify it, [flamenco is] Spanish blues, or southern Spanish blues. It’s the music of oppressed people,” says Pascual. The cultural confluence of Andalusia enabled the mix of musical elements that became flamenco, with its Moorish, Romani, Jewish, and African influences, he says. From the start, flamenco had a familiar flavor for him, and he credits his childhood exposure to different styles of Jewish music. “It’s the musical style that comes from speaking or crying out about daily experiences, so . . . it’s usually intense. Whatever the direction, it’s intensely painful or intensely happy.”
“Intense” readily describes “Yerma.” The play’s title character yearns to bear a child and is driven to tragedy when she cannot. In the onstage village, daily life unspools in song, from Yerma’s desperate lullabies to lighthearted, erotically charged songs that the women sing while doing laundry.
Those songs for “Yerma” were composed by Mark Bennett, a veteran theatrical composer and sound designer who has worked on numerous Huntington projects. Bennett has no background in flamenco music, but Pascual was also part of the process from its beginning, roughly two years ago.
“They were pretty sure they wanted a flamenco element. They got in touch with me and brought me here to start trying ideas,” says Pascual. “In terms of the composition, there’s a lot of vocabulary that specifically comes from Mark that I never would have thought of. It’s not my vocabulary. But he was drawing on ideas that we bounced off each other.”
In “Yerma,” Pascual collaborates with Italian percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo, whom he met through a mutual friend after playing at the Cabot in Beverly this past Valentine’s Day.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re a percussionist, do you play frame drums?’ ” says Pirozzolo, of Stoneham. “ ‘Yes, that’s one of my specialties.’ ‘OK, I might have a gig for you!’ ”
Lorca’s work and the spirit of flamenco are deeply intertwined, says Pascual. Many of Lorca’s poems have been used as flamenco lyrics, and he also wrote widely about the idea of “duende,” an ephemeral, enhanced state of emotion and passion triggered through art or music.
“Duende is . . . sort of hard to define, but you can loosely say duende refers to this spirit that comes over a group of people when something special is happening. You can’t capture it,” says Pascual. “It comes in a moment, and can go in a moment, and you never know when it’s going to come. Flamenco invites that experience.”