María Toledo, who performs this weekend as part of the Centro Cultural Español (CCE)’s annual FlamenGO series, has two Latin Grammy nominations to her name. She has won prizes at some of the most prestigious flamenco contests in Spain, and has shared the stage with singers like Miguel Poveda and Arcángel, among the most respected artists performing today.
And yet there are certain aspects of the 34-year-old’s biography that do not point squarely in the direction of a successful flamenco career. For starters, she was born, as her stage name proudly declares, in Spain's Toledo, far north of where her chosen art form has its roots. As a child, she didn’t study flamenco guitar, but rather classical piano, for a full 12 years at conservatory. But to really put the icing on the cake, she possesses — wait for it — a law degree. As far as we know, there isn’t another lawyer on the planet who has made it as a flamenco singer. She has that market cornered.
On stage, however, Toledo makes you forget all of that. With her long hair down her back, her trademark red nails and maybe a leather jacket, she’s definitely not ready for the courtroom. And when she opens her mouth to sing, she may as well have grown up in the gypsy neighborhood of Cadiz’s Puerto de Santa María, where her idol, Camarón de la Isla, hailed from. Her Castilian accent disappears and she slips easily into an Andalusian cadence. Art, after all, has no borders.
Toledo’s voice has a husky, sexy rasp that catches in her throat — “a blonde who sounds like a brunette,” is how she says a friend described it. Her sound is an amalgam of different influences: pure flamenco, jazzy undertones and that classical training at the core. She is a composer, as well, penning catchy, upbeat songs like “El sol, la sal y el son,” a hit off her 2012 album, “Uñas Rojas” (“Red Fingernails”). “My music is about love, falling out of love. I tell stories about life,” she said in a telephone interview. The melodies are flamenco, with “very open harmonies” that reveal that undercurrent of jazz.
Truth be told, in spite of all those years studying Bach and Bartók, Toledo and flamenco go way back. Her father was a fan, and growing up, it was the music that was always playing in her house. Toledo would imitate what she heard: legendary artists like Fosforito, Camarón, Tía Añica la Piriñaca. She was just a child when she gave her first show in her hometown, exactly 25 years ago. Soon, she was performing in much larger venues.
Culture was king in Toledo’s home: “My parents didn’t worry about having a big car, a big house — in the end, you either have that or you don’t,” she said. “What stays with you throughout your life is a great cultural knowledge. … You can’t pay for that. It’s an internal wealth.”
It was her father who would cart her to her afternoon piano lessons, and whenever there was a flamenco contest, he would load up the car and they would head south to Andalucía. There, she won many singing prizes. As her voice and style matured, she garnered awards from the prestigious Festival de Cante de las Minas as well as from national contests in Cordoba and Cadiz, among others.
In spite of their support of her artistic endeavors, her parents still wanted their daughter to have a backup plan. And so Toledo attended law school, graduated, joined a firm, and practiced for a year. “I’ve been a pretty good daughter,” she said by way of explanation. But she didn’t last long in the law firm. “It wasn’t my life,” she said simply. Singing was her calling, whereas being a lawyer was just a job. Just don’t try and fool her with a bad contract.
Toledo’s years at conservatory also ended up standing her in good stead. Early in her career, she realized that if she accompanied herself on the piano rather than just singing with a guitarist, she would be unique. “It’s the thing that makes me stand out,” she said. “It gets people’s attention.” Toledo has performed throughout Spain and around the world, but this is the first time she brings her music to Miami.
She will be accompanied by guitarist Luis Miguel Manzano, percussionist Julio el Indio and dancer Rober el Moreno, and, of course, her own piano playing. But most importantly, she brings to the stage an indefatigable positive energy and a passion for performing that beams out across the footlights. “You can’t go around on tiptoe when you sing,” she said. “I go out on stage every night as if it were the last time I was going to perform. I give it my soul.”
If you go
- What: María Toledo, part of CCE’s FlamenGO series
- Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St.
- When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Info: Tickets: $28; Centro Cultural de España members, $18;
- Information: MDCA 305-547-5414; CCE 305-448-9677; http://bit.ly/2FZ4gup