Widely considered one of the most important contemporary interpreters of flamenco, Soledad Barrio is a commanding presence on stage: a diminutive figure conjuring volcanic, chthonic drama to the percussive rhythm of guitars, the cantaor's melodic poetry, the emboldening affirmations of her companions.
It's no great mystery why so many critics have spilled gallons of thunderstruck, fawning ink over these performances. It's like being present for an archetypal quest, the mythic struggle for independent assertion of the heart and soul. And Soledad Barrio may have been destined for this task. Her first name, translated into English, means "solitude."
Sounding refreshed from the late afternoon siesta, Barrio is surprisingly soft-spoken, consistently genial, articulate, and humble.
"My husband speaks of these things better than I," she laughs.
Speaking from their home in Madrid, Barrio says flamenco "awakens instinctive responses. It touches the heart very easily."
And even if flamenco belongs, culturally, to Spain, "the whole world understands it."
Flamenco is Spain's soul music, composed of three overt elements: music, dance, and poetry, all set in motion by a fourth, underlying impetus — passionate struggle.
Barrio and her husband, artistic director Martin Santangelo, have been communicating this passion around the world for over 16 years. Our conversation returns again and again to flamenco's universal themes.
"Flamenco was born from desperate circumstances," Santangelo says. "From social, religious, and economic repression of the people. And from this repression, there emerged el grito — a cry — and the cry was a song: 'We are human beings!'"
In fact, as contemporary Spain has emerged, fitfully, from its more feudal modalities, there has been concern in some quarters that genuine flamenco may not survive the cultural transition.
Santangelo and Barrio have no worries on that score. The root of flamenco is not threatened, they insist, because flamenco's essential impetus is neither music nor dance. It is the poetry, the cante.
"Everything we see in flamenco is born there," Barrio says. "In the cante and the guitar, and that's what makes it different from other dances."
In this sense, flamenco has an analogue in American roots music. As the conversation returns to the poetry of struggle, it comes as little surprise that Barrio's favorite souvenir of one stint in Chicago is her "Chicago blues" T-shirt.
Like American blues, flamenco is a structured improvisation.
"It is always very alive and fresh," Barrio says. "Even though the structure is set in advance, there's a lot of improvisation. It's something that is made in the moment."
Noche Flamenca's mission is to return flamenco to its rebellious roots. Even as they render the soul's journey in flowing, physical geometries and tempestuous, unrelenting rhythms, there is a sense that artists elevate their work along an arc of generosity.
"Flamenco belongs to the people," Barrio says.