There was a little snap of castanets. There was a stamp or two. There was the swing of hips. There was a swish of petticoats, and a patter of conga drums, and a ripple on the piano.
But most of all, there was the voice.
The voice of Carmen París is so powerful that we wondered if she needed a microphone in the Little Theatre in Kingston on October 23. It was strongest when she sang a cappella. Then it truly rang to the rafters. Her range was quite remarkable, moving easily from slightly husky low notes to a fierce contralto to an entreating soprano in one song.
The Embassy of Spain brought Ms. París to Jamaica in collaboration with the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation and TSK. She was to perform in Montego Bay on October 25. Her concert was entitled En Síntesis – meaning, “in short” or “in essence” in English. However, there was nothing short in her performance, although there was plenty that was sweet. The concert was more of a distillation of the award-winning singer’s 35 years in music – not only as an artiste, but as a songwriter and pianist.
In her introductions to each song, her depth of knowledge – and her love of the many Spanish/Latin musical genres – became apparent. She was comfortable with each of them, whether it was Cuban cha-cha-cha, the Islamic-tinged Al-Andalus music or the traditional genre of Spain, the jota. Oh, and there was a flirtation with the smoothness of Frank Sinatra in one or two of the songs; Ms. París definitely has a feel for jazz. So she mixed it all up, something that she has become famous for. It was a fusion of traditional and modern, mixing melodies and rhythms from the Mediterranean, Africa and the Americas. It was quite a satisfying blend.
Carmen París has become famous for her interpretation, and indeed revival, of the Aragonese jota – a genre that takes a specific form and rhythm, which she explained to us. It was apparently considered rather old-fashioned, but it sounded very fresh and lively to us. Although it varies across regions, the jota is common to the entire Iberian peninsula (including Portugal, that is) and dates back to the 18th century. It is not only sung, but also danced, often with castanets. It is said to be a precursor to flamenco, which is probably much better known to audiences outside Spain. The Aragonese version is perhaps the best known, and this is where Ms. París comes from – the city of Zaragoza, to be precise. According to her, the women of Zaragoza are a force to be reckoned with; she spoke of the city’s history and its resilience when besieged by Napoleon in 1808. Ms. París is a passionate interpreter of her proud heritage.
Apart from the voice, there was the dance. Vivacious but never flamboyant, Ms. París tripped back and forth across the stage in her bright red and green dress, every movement beautifully controlled. She fanned herself throughout her performance. Singing and dancing at the same time under hot lights is hard work. However, her energy did not wane, although she did not take one break and only sipped a pale pink drink out of a glass once or twice at the back of the stage.
The two musicians who accompanied Ms. París were marvelous. The craggy-faced Uruguayan pianist, Diego Ebbeler had a strongly jazzy feel and an effortless style, sliding across those syncopated rhythms. I sensed that the Madrid-based percussionist Jorge Tejerina might have wanted to burst out into a little flamenco singing at one point (both musicians provided some backing vocals); but he limited himself to quietly smiling over his conga drums, sometimes almost disappearing behind them.
I particularly enjoyed the bolero – a Latin song/dance that has different forms. I love the slow, languid feel of the Cuban version, with its sudden pauses filled with yearning. Ms. París told us she had spent some time in Havana writing songs, which resulted in an album she cleverly called “InCubando” (Incubation).
Meanwhile, Ms. París so thoroughly enjoyed herself on stage that she did not seem to want to leave. Ambassador Josep María Bosch Bessa, who had been hovering on the step with a bouquet, returned to his seat until she had sung her final, final song – the last one accompanying herself on the piano. I noticed how sincerely pleased she was when she saw the faces of the audience – and the size of the audience, which she commented on. Indeed, it was not just the music that appealed. The singer endeared herself to us all with the warmth of her personality. A failed attempt to make a joke in English (at least I didn’t get it!); her references to a former lover who just rode off into the sunset one day, but inspired several songs; and above all, her self-deprecating humor. It was all delightful.
So, it was more than the voice. But the voice remains with us, almost hypnotic, pulling us in. The evening was memorable for the voice alone; the rest of it was icing on the cake.
Sincere thanks and appreciation to the Embassy of Spain and the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation for making the concert possible. Carmen París was also due to perform in Montego Bay this evening (October 25). Western Jamaica is in for a treat.