Rebeca Vallejo was born in Madrid, Spain. As a child she was surrounded by a family of flamenco singers, flamenco is the traditional music of Andalusia in Southern Spain. It is a music characterized by emotive vocals, guitar, hand claps and dramatic dance.
As a young girl, Rebeca was mesmerized, but also daunted, by the force of flamenco. Now Rebeca works as a singer and composer. In October 2013 she released her third album Azúcar, Canela. Azúcar means sugar and canela means cinnamon. These are just two of the ingredients that make up sangria. Their sweetness and fire symbolize the mix of this music.
Not content to rest solely in flamenco, Rebeca studied jazz and Brazilian music on arrival in New York, and all three genres inform her music. This is not a fusion thrown together for fashion’s sake. This is a percussive music with Rebeca leading as an impassioned vocalist, George Dulin on piano and David Silliman on drums and percussion. The trio work well together. Think of the scatting of Ella Fitzgerald meeting Camarón de la Isla, a performer noted for his strong flamenco singing, and you begin to hear this sound.
Rebeca’s family had, “wanted me to a live a normal life,” but she could not resist the call to sing. While studying philosophy and politics in Wales, she first sang professionally. At an early gig, a friend came up to her after a performance and handed her a compilation of the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. She immediately fell in love. Listening to Ella changed her. In retrospect, she believes she needed to be challenged musically. She felt if she could sing like Ella then “other things would be easier.”
Returning to Spain after her studies in Wales, and working as a journalist, Rebeca knew something was missing. Always in the back of her mind was the thought that she would go to America. She explained to her mother that she had to go. In 2000, she arrived in New York City, knowing no-one. It was here that she studied jazz at City College. She says that, “when you have a vision, a passion for something, the universe helps you. Sometimes you need to fight for your dream. I was born to do this music, born with a sense of purpose, that sense of mission has kept me going.”
When I ask her if she sees a relation between flamenco and jazz, she says: “Slaves were singing about the plantation fields. My grandfather, Antonio Vallejo, also worked and sang about the fields in Andalusia, Spain. He was a descendant of generations of flamenco singers. The sound of the lament, that sense of grief carries through both flamenco and early jazz. Even the vocal technique is similar, singing from just beneath the eyes, from the nose. I would love the opportunity to look at the roots of early jazz.”
In 2009, through a scholarship Rebeca was able to return to study classical flamenco music in Seville, Spain. As a child, she was too intimidated to sing this powerful music, but now she was willing to give it a try. She thought flamenco would be all about improvisation. However, she was quickly proved wrong. She worked with a disciplined, traditional teacher, and learned that every note had to be precise and in order.
Although the CD has its gems, Rebeca’s real power as a musician comes to the fore on stage. Here she brings the drama and elegance of the flamenco to her performance as she stamps out rhythms alongside her heartfelt song. At a concert in late 2013 in the intimate setting of Cornelia St. Cafe, in New York, the music is fiery. The audience is focused as Rebeca weaves her hands in the elegant gestures of a flamenco dancer or uses finger snaps to punctuate her singing. There is a maturity in this music, of someone who has worked hard at her compositions, at developing her sound. This is not the kind of performance people could whisper through, her strong presence demands attention.
During the live performance it becomes apparent that this is not just the music of one person. There is a dynamic interplay between the three musicians that make up this band. Rebeca calls their trio, “A triangle of sounds.” George Dulin, hunched over the piano is reminiscent of Horace Silver in his elaborate and swinging playing. One of the songs Los Pilares de la Tierra (or pillars of the earth) is dedicated to her grandfather. When I ask about him, she says, “He was my role model, a poet, activist and idealist who served time in a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War. If I close my eyes I can remember him chopping wood and singing Argentinean Tangos. He loved to sing.”
The song Despertar (or Awakenings) is an intimate exchange between the Baiao rhythm of Northern Brazil and the Flamenco rumba. It is fun with Rebeca’s playful voice sounding over an accordion. Rhythm is vital here. It can be felt in the interplay between Rebecca’s scatting and the ornate sound of the accordion. Rebeca says, “I am in love with rhythm and melody. I am always thinking about rhythm.” The song Lullaby carries a slower rhythm. Here the piano playing breathes and stretches out. Lullaby is inspired by Brazil’s Bossa Nova. The sound is easy and seductive in feeling. Rebeca says, “Lullaby came to me on a subway ride. The whole song came to me in one shot. It is a comforting song. It was made as a surprise for two friends who were leaving the States to go to Europe. The lyrics are, ‘whatever you do in the world, shine with all your might and know that I am there for you’.”
Rebeca says, “This album represents a culmination of everything I’ve absorbed. It is an arrival for me. There is a mixture of flavors, but also very distinct sounds. There is a freedom in this music, but it finds its roots in Spain. The title track Azúcar, Canela is a positive song. It speaks of building things together, of being optimistic, of saying let’s do it.” And Rebeca Vallejo has done just that on her third album.
For more about Rebeca, you can visit: rebecavallejo.com
To purchase the album: Azúcar, Canela
Author: Dorothy Johnson-Laird
Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a freelance world music Journalist.