This Israeli Flamenco Guitarist Is Winning Over the Spanish Old Guard

To be a flamenca is to fulfill your burning desires with complete abandon. It’s a personality thing, a way of life, says Noa Drezner, and she knows whereof she speaks

Noa Drezner.
Gabriel Baharlia

To be flamenco, or flamenca if you’re a woman, is to fulfill what’s burning inside you with complete abandon. It’s a personality thing, a way of life, even before it’s a musical thing. So says the guitarist Noa Drezner, and she knows whereof she speaks.

Drezner showed that she’s made of flamenca material even before she knew how to play flamenco. It happened when she was 24 and living in Spain with an Argentine partner. For three years they wandered around the country in a mobile trailer, making and selling jewelry. Sometimes, during siesta time, Drezner played for her own enjoyment – not the guitar, the instrument she had played in her youth – but the sitar, with which she’d fallen in love when she was in India, before the Spanish episode in her life.

After three years on the road, Drezner was tired of living like a hippie; she and her partner found an apartment in Granada. One of their neighbors, an avowed flamenco buff, played albums for Drezner that are foundation stones of the style. Of course they included Paco de Lucia and Camaron de la Isla, the two great flamenco icons; but the album Drezner remembers most of all is “Nuevo Dia,” by Lole and Manuel, a singer and a guitarist.

“They bowled me over,” she says. “And then I started to take guitar lessons and got into it full blast. Very quickly there was a fight at home. My partner said, ‘You’re not working at all, you’re spending all day with the guitar.’ He also thought I had no chance. ‘You’re too old,’ he said, ‘you started 20 years late. To play flamenco you need to start at the age of five.’ So I told him, ‘Okay, it’s all over between us.’” These days, at the high points of Drezner’s shows, very frequently someone in the audience shouts “Olé!”. In a certain way, the moment when she decided to leave her doubting partner and devote her whole self to the music that thrilled her, was her first “Olé.”

Granada couldn’t hold her, either. “There’s lots of flamenco in Granada, but it’s very commercial and touristy. It’s not the truth,” she says. Drezner found the truth of flamenco in the city of Jerez. “I heard that interesting things were happening there, and I said, ‘Four hours, yallah, I’m going,’” she recalls. “I came to a sports hall bursting with people, and from ten at night until six in the morning, people never stopped getting onto the stage, playing and dancing. My heart jumped. I said, ‘Okay, where do you rent an apartment here?’”

Jerez has a rich tradition of flamenco, but “there was never a female guitarist there,” Drezner says. “Women’s status in flamenco, and in Spain in general, is not great,” she explains. “Women in flamenco have a place of honor as dancers and singers. As guitarists, no. But it turned on the people in Jerez that there was suddenly a woman guitarist in their city, and they encouraged me to perform. My first reaction was, ‘What, are you crazy? In Jerez?’ But I started to appear, in bars and in night celebrations. Long before I was ready, really.”

Reincarnation

Noa Drezner
Gabriel Baharlia

When Drezner played the guitar in her pre-flamenco incarnation, she was a member of a grunge band, and after that she played blues and jazz. “I loved all those worlds, but I didn’t feel it was my soul that was speaking,” she says. “When I got deep into flamenco, in Jerez, I felt for the first time that I was truly expressing myself. Maybe I was expelled from Spain in my previous incarnation, and now I’ve come to demand my place back,” she laughs. Drezner lived in Jerez for several years, and there she became a flamenco guitarist. One of the tracks in her marvelous debut album, “El Hilo Rojo” (The Red Thread), is called “La Jerezana,” woman of Jerez.

She recorded the album in San Fernando, Spain (the city where Camaron de la Isla grew up). But possibly the decision to make the album, despite all of Drezner’s misgivings, could have only been made in Israel, where she returned in 2016, far from the tough, suspicious core of flamenco.

“There was apprehension about what people [in Spain] would say,” she notes. “The flamenco community is very conservative. When someone new, and an outsider at that, enters that world, they need to tread very carefully. I’m not from there, but I am; and I am playing my music, but it is also theirs, because I preserved the flamenco framework. I was afraid they would say, ‘Look at her, what’s she doing?’ I knew I had to be very correct. It took me years to understand exactly how it’s done.”

The spirit of flamenco also helped Drezner get over her fears. “Flamenco is pure expression,” she says. “It is not aesthetic. Many times it does not show consideration for the listener. If the singer now screams and goes off-key a little, that’s ‘Olé!’. You have expressed something here, and what do you care? Flamenco told me, ‘Express yourself. Get up and say it. Be totally there.’”

The Israeli launch of the album took place last month at the Shablul Jazz Club in Tel Aviv; on December 11 Drezner will appear at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem. Two months ago, she and her trio, which includes the singer Yehuda Shveiky and the percussionist Hagai Leshem, did a tour in Spain. They played in Jerez, Seville, Chiclana, Algeciras (birthplace of Paco de Lucia) and San Fernando. It was the first time Drezner played her original material in front of people she calls the “heavies of flamenco.”

What were the reactions? “There weren’t all that many, and that’s a good thing,” Drezner says. “When the heavies hate something, they say so. If they like it, they won’t say anything. Or they’ll say, ‘That last song, we didn’t like it.’ That means they loved the album, but they have to say something.” (The final song on the album, called “Yala,” is in fact an exceptional piece, the only one that is not committed to the flamenco aesthetic. “It’s a small gesture to the period when I was a rocker,” she says.)

“The old guard, the hardcore of flamenco, very much preserves its character,” Drezner continues. She mentions the wonderful Spanish singer Rosalia, who interweaves salient elements of flamenco (rhythms, handclapping) into contemporary pop songs. “The flamenco world is seething because of her, says Drezner. “If it were still possible to crucify people, she would be a candidate. I’m also one of the old folks who love flamenco as it is and think that it hasn’t run its course and that the time hasn’t yet come to move on.” And if Rosalia should call and suggest that she play in one of her songs? “I won’t say no,” she laughs.

One person who has offered Drezner the opportunity to play with her is Antonia Jimenez, the leading female guitarist of Spanish flamenco. “The queen,” Drezner calls her. But the queen has no heir, at least not among Spanish women. There are a few female guitarists active in Spain, but like Drezner, they are not locals. The small number of female flamenco guitarists encouraged the unionizing of the women involved – a trend Drezner preferred to observe from the outside. “I don’t like to be in that slot,” she says. “To emphasize that I am a woman guitarist places me in a weakened position. I connect less with events that are for women only, or with the talk about empowerment. I am already empowered. By virtue of the flamenco.”

Articles and interviews that play up the gender aspect also stir Drezner’s suspicion. “I already know how it works,” she says. “If I were to tell about a thousand singers I appeared with and one who didn’t want to appear with me because I’m a woman, they’ll only write about that one isolated case. Two years ago, [the newspaper] El Pais ran a piece about female guitarists in flamenco. They wanted me to be part of it, but I knew what was going to happen. They wrote about how miserable the women are and they brought Tomatito [one of the great flamenco guitarists], put him on a chair and stood the women behind him. I told myself: What luck that I didn’t get involved in that article.”