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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

María José Llergo’s songs have flamenco roots. They raise a ruckus.

María José Llergo in Madrid, Spain, on Sept. 26, 2023. This Spanish singer’s debut, “Ultrabelleza,” experiments with a signature genre of her Andalusian homeland, creating an unexpected homage.

By Carolina Abbott Galvao

When Spanish singer María José Llergo talks about flamenco, it often sounds as though she is describing something springing from beneath her feet.

“The genre is rooted in my land,” she said in a video call from her place just outside Madrid. “It’s in our roots.”

Growing up in rural Andalusia, where flamenco was born, Llergo first became interested in music while watching her grandfather work on his farm.

“I remember him raking the earth, watering the plants and singing — everything from tangos to boleros,” she said in Spanish. Life for him wasn’t exactly easy back then. “My grandparents come from very humble — albeit very happy — origins,” said Llergo, surrounded by family portraits. She comes from that world, too.

Llergo, now 29, has developed a voice and singing style of her own, but she’s intent on keeping regional traditions alive. Infusing electronica and R&B with traditional Andalusian influences — including flamenco snaps and the off-kilter melodies of cante jondo, a guttural singing style common to folk music in the south of Spain — Llergo’s 2020 EP “Sanación” is a testament to the versatility of flamenco as a genre. “Ultrabelleza,” her debut album out Friday, takes this experiment a step further.

The record’s lead single, “Rueda, Rueda,” begins with a chant and handclaps before a sprawling pop chorus arrives. On tracks like “Visión y Reflejo,” Llergo even tries her hand at rapping.

“María had never done it before,” Zahara, a Spanish indie singer who was one of the album’s main producers, said in a video call. “But she managed to do it in one take when we were recording the song. It was super impressive.”

Llergo said she knows she isn’t the first person to traverse genres — and she’s not just talking about Catalan pop star Rosalía, whose debut album, “El Mal Querer,” is often credited with catapulting flamenco into 21st-century global pop. (Incidentally, she and Llergo both studied at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya in Barcelona under the same mentor, José Miguel Vizcay.)

“Flamenco has always lent itself to other styles. All you have to do to find proof of that is look back at people like Lola Flores and Camarón,” Llergo said, referring to Camarón de la Isla, the singer often credited as the 20th century’s “god” of flamenco. “It’s always been global.”

During the 1970s and ’80s, Camarón de la Isla, a Romani from Cádiz whose stage name is Spanish for “shrimp,” breathed new life into flamenco by adding instruments not traditionally found in the genre, such as the drums and bass guitar, to his recordings.

His heartfelt lyrics and acrobatic vocal range would also eventually earn him a reputation as one of the country’s top crooners: In his best-known song, “Como el Água,” he compares the strength of his love for someone to a river running through the sierra.

Llergo tends to speak in that language, too, drawing from the rich natural landscapes of southern Spain to tell stories about herself, her hometown and the people in it.

“I run through your body like water runs through a river,” she sings in the synth-heavy “Juramento,” in a nod to her predecessor.

While “Juramento” and other songs on the record don’t necessarily sound like flamenco, Llergo knows there are different ways artists can pay homage to the genre. Drawing clear demarcations around who or what fits into it isn’t one of them. “It’s flamenco’s ability to mix into other genres that makes it more appealing on a global level,” she said.

From the plucky guitar riffs on Madonna’s 1987 hit “La Isla Bonita” to the handclaps, or palmas, on Caroline Polachek’s “Sunset” from this year, there’s a long history of American pop artists’ experimenting with flamenco. As the market becomes friendlier to Spanish-language pop, listeners might find themselves looking for more of the genre.

“Folk music in general — take regional Mexican music, for example — is becoming increasingly popular,” Manuel Jubera, Llergo’s A&R rep at Sony Music Spain, said in a recent phone interview. “So it’s a good moment for flamenco to export itself.” Next year Llergo will bring her music directly to the United States with a show at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles in March and one at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City the following week.

“I remember the first time I went to New York, I couldn’t stop crying and taking videos on my phone,” she said. “I still think about the way the sun reflects on the buildings there.” When she’s on the road, she misses home, though. She beckoned her 1-year-old Chihuahua, Torres, to show him off on camera, but he was nowhere to be found.

When Llergo was in New York, she found herself reflecting on the culture of her homeland.

“I thought about Federico García Lorca a lot,” she said, referring to his book, “Poet in New York,” written during a 10-month stint in the city in 1929.

Like Llergo, García Lorca came from Andalusia. “And do you know what the street I grew up in in Pozoblanco is called?” she asked, looking straight at the camera, her eyebrows rising. “Federico García Lorca.”

These types of connections — including ones between America and Spain — are often on her mind.

“Flamenco is like the blues,” she said. It originated in Andalusia’s marginalized Roma communities. “The lyrics tell stories of survival; it’s always been a way for the most oppressed to escape.” Llergo, who said she faced discrimination at school because of her lower-class background, still finds solace in them.

Like many people, she also appreciates the communal nature of flamenco, an idea grounded in the concept of el jaleo, roughly “hell-raising” or causing a ruckus, which refers to the audience’s hand-clapping, foot-stomping shouts of encouragement during a performance.

Over the years, a number of people have encouraged Llergo to raise hell, too, and when she looks to the future, she can’t help but feel grateful for them.

“It’s crazy,” she said, “to think that when my grandfather was watering the plants in his field, he was also nurturing me.”

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