I saw nothing unusual about a Chinaman kid dabbling in flamenco guitar. I liked it. Then Jackson Burgess, a writer from the South, sat down next to me as I practiced one afternoon. Teacher to student, father to son, brother to brother, friend to friend, he said the reason I played flamenco guitar was that I was a Chinese-American who couldn't accept either my Chinese or my American identity and was attempting to manufacture a new one as a Spanish gypsy guitarist.
At first I went. Huh? Then, Ooooh! I was impressed.
"No matter how well you learn to play guitar, or how well you learn to speak Spanish, or how long you spend in Spain living with the gypsies, you will never be a Spanish gypsy,' my friend said, Was I that messed up? I was that messed up. I thought I was a poet when I first got to Berkeley and tried to get into Thom Gunn’s class. The motorcycle poet took my binder full of poetry and asked me to come back in a week. A week later he shook my hand, offered me a cigarette, opened my binder to a poem that began,
“San Francisco. Chinatown-North Beach. / Night. About half past dead. Nineteen nifty. / On a roof. / Listen. / A Chinaman is playing flamenco,” written all over the page.
“Mr. Chin,” the Yale Younger Poet asked me, “do you have trouble with the language?”
“Mr. Chin, how long have you been speaking English?”
Was flamenco that weird? There was no conflict of Chinese versus American in me. I was neither. I never had a problem knowing who I was. But what about the other Americans who used to play? What happened to them? Is anyone still playing? Has any American become a Spanish gypsy?
The most articulate American flamencos used to be in San Diego. Jaleo magazine had come out of San Diego. You didn’t know anything about flamenco in America if you didn’t know Jaleo magazine. And everyone in San Diego associated with the magazine seemed to have played at a place called the Tablao Flamenco.
THE TABLAO FLAMENCO
Every drive into San Diego, screaming south down I-5 past Pacific Beach, I’d seen it out of the right of my windshield. The strange Moorish building with the domed tower facing the freeway. Red letters outlined in dead neon tubing spells “Restaurante Tablao Flamenco” across a large windowless wall. Moorish arches outline panels with large bas reliefs of flamenco dancers and bullfighters.
It always made me wonder. But once my mind is back on the road,
I’d forget it. But finally I had to have a closer look, got off the road, stopped, and found the doors closed, and two red matchbooks. The back cover read, “Spain in San Diego, Restaurante, Cocktails, Flamenco Shows Daily.” Now, closed or not, it seemed a likely place to find out what happened to flamenco in San Diego. It was built in 1982 by Francisco Ballardo, the owner of the medical building next door, as a self-indulgence.
Francisco Ballardo, a.k.a. Frank Ballard, is the Citizen Kane, if not the Orson Welles, of San Diego flamenco, and the Tablao Flamenco his Xanadu. A few years ago, for $23, you could, if you wore a jacket and tie, enjoy a Spanish dinner with Spanish wine and a flamenco show with Juana de Alba and guitarists Paco Sevilla or Rodrigo or David de Alba, son of the dancer.
Then poof! The Tablao Flamenco was dead. Closed. It’s been closed for the last three years. People who worked for him say Ballardo wanted to be the dictator of flamenco in San Diego. They say he wanted them to call him “Don Francisco.” What is a flamenco dictator? Flow do you do it? What about flamenco could a dictator dictate?
The way the flamencos of San Diego talk about Ballardo, I expect the man to be in hiding, a man of mystery and rude eccentricity. But there he is in the phone book. If he’s been hard to find, it’s because he’s been on the grand jury for the last ten months, he says. And right away, he admits he’s a nut.
"Yes, flamenco’s an obsession with me. Forever I'll love it. It’s the kind of thing that stays with you. You know, you might say it's a cultural thing. And some of us are a little nuts about the culture. And we tend to want to promulgate it, to enhance it, to uplift it. And so this was my tidbit.”
“I said, when I retire. I’m going to build something that reflects the greatness of Spain and elevate flamenco if I can. Sophisticate it. Like they did with the tango. Because I hate to see flamenco always down in the Mickey Mouse places. It deserves a better stature.
“I planned it at home for approximately four years. But it took me only six months to build it. Once the planning was all done, it was a lot easier to put it together. And I physically did a great deal of the work with my son, my grandson, and so on. You can see the architecture, the uniqueness of it."
Son. Grandson. In the Tablao are pictures of Ballardo as a young man in World War II. Fie looks good today for a man in his 70s. A thick, full head of hair. It’s white, but it’s real hair and it’s his. Fie has a handsome, classic profile. He’s slim and looks fit. His office is crowded with what look like pieces of the building, Spanish hats on plastic-foam heads, bullfight stuff, flamenco stuff, filing cabinets full of bullfight and flamenco stuff. The walls. The carpet. The pictures. The posters. The calendars. All Spanish.
The interior is all gold and fleshy gold details. He points to plaster roses in octagons that ornament the ceiling. The centers of the roses in some of the octagons are the sprinkler heads of the emergency sprinkler system. Yes, he's thought of every detail. Every detail is a treasure. The details like sparkling treasure crowd the big spaces of the tablao with intricate barroco. Fingertips and toes and lips and noses seem to be poking out of the walls and columns and ceilings.