BLANCANIEVES – Film in Concert with Flamenco - Interview with Juan Gómez “Chicuelo”

By Fernando Carmena (European FilmPhilharmonic Institute)

Juan Gómez “Chicuelo” (* 1968, Barcelona) is regarded as one of the most accomplished guitarists and composers of today’s flamenco scene. Throughout his career he has toured Europe, Japan and the United States, and performed with the most renowned flamenco artists, among them (and to name just a few) dancers like Israel Galván and Sara Baras, as well as singers like Enrique Morente, Carmen Linares, Miguel Poveda, Diego “El Cigala” and Silva Pérez Cruz; with Silva he collaborated for the original songs for BLANCANIEVES.

In 2012, director Pablo Berger approached “Chicuelo” with a new creative challenge: to compose songs and flamenco pieces for his personal retelling of the Snow White fairy tale set in Andalusia during the 1920s. At this point, composer Alfonso de Vilallonga had already been announced as the composer of the orchestral score, but due to the connection of the film with flamenco and bullfighting, Berger wanted to feature original flamenco pieces as well. These pieces would work, within the context of a silent film, as the voice and soul of the characters. The central song of the film, the bulería “No te puedo encontrar”, earned “Chicuelo” the Goya Award for Best Original Song.

How important is flamenco music for the story and aesthetics of BLANCANIEVES?

It plays a fundamental role. The grandmother of Blancanieves dances flamenco, the mother is a flamenco singer and the father is a bullfighter. Although the mother dies at the very beginning of the film, Blancanieves always stays in touch with her through her recordings. She may be dead, but the recordings remain. Furthermore, there is a sort of family bound between flamenco and bullfighting. They have always walked hand-in-hand.

And which kind of flamenco style did you conceive for BLANCANIEVES? Can it be regarded as “historically accurate” flamenco, plausible within the film’s 1920s setting?

Well, that's one of the things that I am most proud of: to have had the chance, thanks to this film, to express myself through a style of flamenco much older than the one I grew up with. I belong to a younger generation of flamenco musicians, but I have listened to flamenco down from its root, from the tradition. And this film demanded a traditional flamenco style, since the film takes us to Spain of the 1920s.

That is why you do not use the cajón flamenco [box drum], do you?

Exactly. You will find music for guitar and voice, but you will not hear the cajón because it did not exist back in the 1920s. The palmeros [hand clapping performers] are also very important, and they have to use their knuckle joints, too. That is how people used to accompany flamenco rhythms: using the counters of the bars and tabancos [street stalls] as percussion instruments. I adopted, therefore, a chameleon-like style based on this flamenco tradition from the beginning of the 20th century.

Which palos [types of flamenco forms] do you use throughout the film, and why?

I use several types of palos, and each of them has a very distinctive character. The zapateado, which has a joyful quality, sounds when young Blancanieves is dancing, very happily, while the grandmother is sewing a dress for her. It is a very rhythmic palo, already in high spirits per se. The song “No te puedo encontrar” [“I can't find you”] is a bulería, and it is also connected with a joyous scene in which Blancanieves dances with her grandmother. The grandmother wants Blancanieves to smile again, to recover from the death of her mother, but with such a twist of fate - the grandmother dies while she is dancing. It is so overwhelming! The bulería is quite energetic that you have to be careful ... or it can end up being counterproductive. I also composed a seguiriya for the moment in which Blancanieves becomes famous and goes to the bullring arena of Seville. This palo is deep and serious, in tune with the severity of bullfighting itself. Finally, I also use a saeta, which is a palo with deep connotations of death. This is the palo that you would hear during Easter time in Spain. It is sung to honor the images of the Virgin and the crucified Christ during the Holy Week processions.

As a performer, how do you deal with the live-to-film experience? How is performing flamenco within a race-against-the-clock setting, in coordination with Maestro Frank Strobel and the orchestral performance?

The experience is, at the very least, interesting. Your adrenaline rises when you wait for your entrance which is followed by sudden and very precise flamenco outbursts that need to be perfectly synchronized with the images. You always want to do it as flawlessly as possible, and the truth is that it is very difficult because you do not have a second chance! The film unfolds and you have to catch every scene right on time and play perfectly the music over it. This is only suitable for artists who welcome risk - as it is my case - because if you do not enjoy risk, then you can have a bad time! But, personally, I always have a lot of fun.

Finally, what do you think about Pablo Berger’s particular retelling of Snow White?

I think that it is very original. The Snow White story is well known, but Pablo Berger’s vision is unique. It is really a work of art. And it has a lot to do with us, with Spain - or at least with Andalusia. It is, truly, a film like no other.

Barcelona/Berlín, March 2017 

Special thanks: Diogo Pereira - Taller de Músics

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Juan Gómez "Chicuelo"