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A new kind of flamenco, with a Chicago influence

A group of musicians is creating a new style of flamenco. Their twist? A touch of Chicago. Catalina Maria Johnson has the story of El Payo.


MUSIC: El Payo

Chicago is a long way from sunny Spain, but a local group is bringing the heat of flamenco to the Windy City. El Payo has been playing together for about five years now. The four-member band is celebrating the release of their new compact disc.

MUSIC: El Payo

The cover of the CD tells the beginning for their story. David Chiriboga is the group’s guitarist.

CHIRIBOGA: The concept behind it is a fusion; it has the bull representing Spain. The way it was painted shows that it’s handcrafted, polka dots, flamenco colors…but the background, urban look, brick background, old window. It’s our fusion where we’re all put together the Chicago connection and the Spain connection.

El Payo bases its Chicago-Spain sounds on a several kinds of flamenco. On the one hand, they work off traditional flamenco. That music includes Moorish influences and was originally developed several hundred years ago by Spanish gypsies.

MUSIC: Traditional flamenco

Becoming adept at traditional flamenco skills wasn’t always easy. Chiriboga himself started off by learning at the source.

CHIRIBOGA: It started with a first trip doing the typical backpacking trip through Europe in college. I brought back my first flamenco guitar and started taking lessons. That evolved into returning to Spain every few years, workshops, learning from the gypsies… The whole experience is kind of interesting. Learning, not a standard way of learning, but going to their house, it was pretty informal…

Though Flamenco music has gypsy origins, the name El Payo indicates the opposite. Raul Fernandez is the group’s percussionist and drummer.

FERNANDEZ: Gypsies from Andalucía call non-gypsies “payos”. We do Flamenco, a gypsy art, but we are not gypsies doing flamenco. So, non-gypsy equals payo. It’s jargon for non-gypsy.

El Payo’s unique sound doesn’t just end in traditional flamenco. Their fusions are also heavily influenced by “rumba catalana”, a genre that emerged in Barcelona. Chiriboga says the rumba catalana is distinguished on the one hand by its percussiveness.

CHIRIBOGA: If you’re playing rumba flamenca or rumba catalana you’re using your guitar as a percussion instrument as well, so basically every beat you are hitting the guitar, so you have to have something to protect it.

Another unique quality of the rumba catalana is its history. It mixes in other Latin sounds. Tom Kimball is El Payo’s bassist.

KIMBALL: From what I gather, rumba catalana was Flamenco musicians inspired by music from Latin America, especially Cuba. The first rumba catalana, sounds like a son played from Cuba. It’s an aggressive rhythm. It’s part flamenco, part Cuba part rock and roll.

MUSIC: Older rumba catalana

El Payo then added a touch of Chicago on the CD.

CHIRIBOGA: The cool thing about Chicago we have access to Latin jazz people, Middle Eastern musicians, classical, it’s perfect, we have Chicago influences we can bring in, maybe that’s the Chicago characteristic of our sound, it’s like a perfect spot.

This includes such musicians as virtuoso trumpet player Victor Garcia, well known in Chicago musical circles for his work with the Chicago Afro Latin Jazz orchestra, amongst other groups.

MUSIC: El Payo

Chiriboga says other instruments not usually found in flamenco were also included in the recording,

CHIRIBOGA: We did it to add extra colors and flairs…add what you can’t add live. There’s the oud and the cello on a few of our melodic songs.

MUSIC: El Payo

El Payo knows their brand of flamenco fusion may not entirely please traditionalists.

CHIRIBOGA: A little note for Flamenco police: “La noche”, it’s based off an alegria. But it’s technically not following the rules…we have just enough flamenco to get by.

Nevertheless, David Gonzalez, the group’s lead vocalist and primary composer, says the inspiration for the songs is universal.

GONZALEZ: They are mostly inspired by love of a woman. Flamenco is a very good vehicle for that, a passionate music.

For WBEZ, I’m Catalina Maria Johnson


El Payo will be celebrating its CD release at Martyrs tonight.

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