The sounds of heels clicking on wood and hands clapping were, as foreseen, ubiquitous in Seville, Spain, during the past week, marking the start of the southern Spanish city's annual Flamenco Biennial. What was not so expected was the sight that met dozens of people, who, called by the sound of acoustic percussion and flamenco guitar, rushed to join a fast-forming crowd on the stone-paved plaza in city's historic center.
A wooden box, named Carmen, was marking the rhythms familiar from the sound made by flamenco dancer's feet and palms slapping together. The patented "Flamenco Machine," as charming as an old-fashioned automaton, or any handcrafted wonder found in an old-time cabinet of curiosities, was being played by its inventor, Ignacio Rodríguez Llinares.
The percussive mechanical box, which can reproduce seven different common flamenco rhythms, is the result of two years of development in Rodríguez's Seville workshop. The artisan, who turned his interest in tinkering with machines into a career after abandoning a long stint as a chef, was sitting in a cafe when he first sketched the idea on a napkin. At the time, he wanted to create a seductive souvenir that could be sold to the city's many tourists that would represent Seville's emblematic relationship with flamenco.
"I was working on my inventions and I needed something that would bring in some income," he explains. He first imagined, and then created and copyrighted, a whimsical wind-up toy that lets amateurs easily play a flamenco rhythm.
That then developed into "Melquíades" - a large crankable wooden box with two wooden shoes on top and wooden balls which pound out the beats. Rodríguez calls it "an automatic musical instrument for Flamenco percussion" that allows musicians to select the bulerías, alegrías, soleá or other styles.
Carmen, which Rodríguez calls the "bulerías machine," is more complex, able to play the complete percussion for that fundamental flamenco style, including hand-clapping accompaniment, its upbeats and downbeats, and syncopation.
Rodríguez, who says he has no musical training, has been working with guitarist José Torres and other musicians as musical consultants. Rodríguez and Francisco del Campo Cortés -- who has taken on a project manager role -- have begun coordinating collaborations with artists, like the one that kicked off the Biennial, and others that will take place in theater lobbies and other locations until the festival ends on Oct. 2. Several of the machines have been sold at museums in the area.
The small boxes that Rodríguez first devised as souvenirs are also now back in production. The government of Andalusia ordered 10,000 of them to be used as promotional gifts. A limited edition of 1,000 of the "Zapatitos" ("Little Shoes") will also be on sale in Seville during the Biennial. Cortés assures that they wil also soon become available for ordering through the Flamenco Machine web site.