A Beautiful Evening with Flamenco Legend Tomatito

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From left to right: José Maya, Morenito de Illora, Kiki Cortiñas, Tomatito, José del Tomate, Israel Suárez “Piraña”. Photo by Sari Makki Phillips

Flamenco guitarist Tomatito and his group performed for the first time in Los Angeles last Friday night at the Wilshire Ebell Theater as part of the LA Flamenco Festival. I was thrilled to have been there to enjoy this passionate, intense, and beautiful concert.

Tomatito has the singular distinction of being the late singer Camarón de la Isla‘s guitarist. He took over Camarón’s guitarist mantle after Paco de Lucia decided to go out on his own. Tomatito said of his time with Camarón, “The divine imprint of Camarón de la Isla is something I will carry throughout my lifetime. It can’t be any other way.” Camarón had died in 1992 at just 41 years of age. Tomatito’s collaboration with Camarón had elevated him to the ranks of flamenco immortals, and the accolades are well-deserved.

The show began with Tomatito playing solo numbers called rondeña, and I have NEVER heard a guitar sound so beautiful. The clarity and elegance, the fire and grace of his playing; you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. He was then joined by his excellent band, which included his son José on guitar, Kiki Cortiñas and Morenito de Illora as singers and palmas (precision clapping, essential for flamenco puro), José Maya as palmas, and Israel Suárez “Piraña” who handled percussion beautifully. When Suárez first emerged from the wings in fashionable clothing and a stylish beard, people in the audience teasingly cried out, “El Guapo” (the handsome one). He played hand cymbals, a large African drum, plus the standard cajón — the box drum that Paco de Lucia introduced to flamenco music after bringing it back from a tour in Peru.

The sextet went on to perform several alegrías followed by bulerías, two flamenco styles. Astor Piazzolla’s bewitching tango “Oblivion” was next. Later came a rumba, a soleá, a bolero, and more. Both singers, who are heavyweights in the flamenco arena, added passion and intensity with their gritty vocals. Near the end, José Maya danced a fiery number, his feet moving with incredible speed and electrifying the adoring crowd.

As an aside, I’ve noticed that many flamenco artists have interesting nicknames — Tomatito (the little tomato), Camarón (shrimp), Diego El Cigala (Diego the grasshopper). Even Tomatito’s son, a young Adonis who performed on second (rhythm) guitar and could have walked out of a Caravaggio painting, had a flamenco name: “José del Tomate” (Joe from the tomato). But I wonder: shouldn’t José have been “Tomatito” and his father “El Tomate”?

If you couldn’t make it the show, here is a taste of Tomatito and dancer José Maya:

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