Diego El Cigala
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Thursday, Nov. 20

Diego Jiménez Salazar made history last Thursday night with his first ever appearance in North Carolina, something the star acknowledged in his brief comments from stage at the Carolina Theatre. Better known by his flamenco name Diego “El Cigala” (a shrimp-sized crustacean, similar to a crawfish) that he earned as a young man for his slender build, the now-magisterial 45-year-old kept a steady flow to his café-style performance, pouring out song after song in a waterfall of melanchólia and alegría.

One could see flashes of the Madrid-born singer in his white suit pacing restlessly in the wings, as the band warmed up the full-house crowd with an instrumental. Not needing encouragement, Spanish fans were already calling out things like, “Olé!” and “Te amo Gitano! (I love you Gypsy!).” We knew it would not be long when a stagehand, to nervous applause, brought out an orange-colored libation (tinto de verano?) to the cloth-draped table next to the singer’s stool—the first of three glasses he would deliver that night, next to a plastic water bottle that remained untouched. Walking out with his signature mane loose and gold rings flashing, Diego El Cigala looked and sounded every inch the legend, launching into a song about “simple things” from his most recent release, Romance de la Luna Tucumana.

Diego El Cigala’s recent embrace of the twang of the electric guitar (audible on Romance featuring collaborator Diego Garcia) demonstrates his continuing hunger for innovation, as the musician who, more than any other since Paco de Lucía and Camerón de la Isla, has broadened flamenco’s traditional sound and internationalized its appeal. His brilliant young touring combo includes Israeli electric guitarist Dan Ben Lior, Cuban double bassist Yelsy Heredia and two Spaniards, pianist Jaime Calabuch and multipercussionist Isidro Suarez. Each contributed their own vibe to Cigala’s organic sound, in which flamenco is the Spanish taproot that reunites the shoots and leaves of the Latin diaspora, from Argentinian tango to Cuban danzón and even North American jazz and soul.

After the second number, pianist Calabuch stepped offstage for awhile, and Cigala and the trio did a set featuring lots of rapid fingerwork by guitarist Ben Lior. When Calabuch returned, he and bassist Heredia showed off their well-placed Afro-Cuban chops on an extended “Zamba de La Luna Llena” jam with “Caravan” intro. Suddenly, the brooding crooner of café ballads was leading a convincing salsa band, a feat that lured a few rogue dancers to stand up in their seats.

One world premiere debuted along the way, without any particular fanfare, as the guys put forth a new arrangement they had concocted in Durham just that afternoon: Cigala read lyrics from a sheet (for the only time all night) for the gorgeously triste “Lloviendo Ausencia” by Francisco Cespedes, set to an unexpected R&B beat.

This next-to-last show in a month-long North American tour moved in a well-crafted arc from new to older material, drawing to a forceful close with recaps from Lágrimas Negras, the Grammy-winning 2003 album of Cuban standards with late pianist Bebo Valdes. He let his young lions loose down these well-trodden paths; his masterful phrasing and ability to express being totally in the moment felt, once more, definitive. It’s interesting to see that this decade-old album hasn’t lost its power to connect with audiences, nor Diego El Cigala his power to invent new roads for his music.