The American who influenced flamenco

YOU would think my story a modern day fairy tale. Yet, it truly happened and in a time and place years back that shaped the modern musical world.

The tale concerns the deepest innermost “emotions” concerning Flamenco, and it was all done by an American from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Donn Pohren, long time resident of Madrid, Las Rozas, was a frequent visitor and home owner in the land of the Indalo.

I met Donn and his wife, Luisa Maravillas, in Tito’s discussing the show that was unfolding.

We exchanged casual comments concerning nothing until the stage musician thought he’d throw some flamenco songs at the audience. Instantaneously my new friend’s tired eyes came alight and a wizen grin swept across his continence.

His feet began a-tapping and his eyes darted back and forth across the performers.

“Do you know this music?” I had to enquire. “Yes, played it for 40 years until I could no longer strum my guitar.”

He held out his gnarled and crippled hands, frozen in contortion.

Now this guest obviously had a Spanish wife, and spoke in a handsome mid-western accent — I was confused.

He was in fact so perked up and juiced about the music I didn’t understand. He must have noticed the whimsical expression on my perturbed grin.

So, he announced that he’d also written a couple of books about Flamenco. My lower jaw dropped expressively open.

Blurred as my mind appeared I knew perfectly well whom I was with. In fact, I had bought his book, The Art of Flamenco, now revised and upgraded.

His Spanish life began as an accountant in then the most perfect place in all of Spain, the U.S. Air base in Moron de la Frontera, 60 kms. SW from Sevilla.

This was lucky as Moron was one of the few bastions of pure traditional flamenco.

Donn, already an accomplished guitarist, sauntered out one evening to find other musicians and was “swept away” by the rhythms and song.

The only major change he ever made adapting to their pure style was to add another “n” to his name so he wouldn’t be presumed presumptuous, being a “Don” as if he held royal lineage or heraldic background.

Within years he had a club in Madrid that prospered but it all became too commercial and he sold out and returned to Moron to rebuild an old cortijo to return to the traditionalists´ form of Flamenco.

He played his guitar their way; the flamenco way; in small settings and shared intimacy with his guests.

They too sang and danced if the mood was right with the muses and “duende” was created. Donn had learned so much and wanted to share with the world this emerging music.

Flamenco was in its early stages as an “art form”. It was largely a back-street affair and could be found in only the poorer sections of town.

He brought others in to sing and perform and before long he was either travelling on tour with his dancer wife, Luisa Maravillas.

Or, if you really wanted to see authentic flamenco, you had to visit Moron and Donn’s cortijo which became the established place on the planet.

When I contemplate the greats in front of whom he performed and the singers he accompanied, I get dizzy.

Here was a man that followed “the new music their way, which became–his way” and in the process did so much for Spain.

Donn Pohren is the only non-Spaniard ever awarded the Ultra prestigious title of “flamencologist” by the closed circle of writers and academics who make up the ‘Catedra de Flamencologia.’

His books have been praised by such Spanish artists as guitarist, Andrés Segovia and dancer, Carmen Amaya.

The most revealing statement Donn made to me was that real flamenco is almost lost. What we hear today is totally different, abstract, far from the base roots of what the music was.

“Flamenco then, was a life form, a way of being and living,” but “today it is a commercialized program, lacking soul”. Back in the 60´s and 70´s, the Church and Franco disliked the music.

It was too spontaneous, abrupt, and shocking. But, Mojaquero, Donn Pohren, and his wife have been the major ambassadors for almost fifty years of the authentic variety.

His many books include the only officially sanctioned biography of none other than his good friend, Paco de Lucia, and Lives and Legends of Flamenco, and Flamenco, A Way Of Life. Donn´s books read easily, just like having a conversation with him. His thoughts are clear concerning the subject.

“The flamenco juerga, or jam session, is the only vehicle for true flamenco expression” leaving little for misinterpretation.

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