Why TV journalist Ian Sinclair is stepping back from his media career

by Ian Sinclair / 19 August, 2018
Photography by Adrian Malloch.

Flamenco dancer Isabel Rivera Cuenca with writer Ian Sinclair.

When veteran TV reporter Ian Sinclair was six, he was given his first flamenco record – beginning a lifelong love affair that’s finally taken him from the screen to the stage.

“Ian, are you feeling nervous?”

Isabel Rivera Cuenca is fixing golden combs in her jet-black hair. From the shawl to the shoes, she looks the epitome of the flamenco dancer: big black eyes, aquiline nose, white teeth and feet that spit out staccato rhythms with machine-gun precision.

Am I feeling nervous? If I wasn’t before Isabel asked, I am now.

Beyond the dressing-room wall is a theatre packed with people concealed behind the spotlights in inky blackness. Isabel has a “beyootiful idea”. She knows I will love this: she wants me to open the show with one of my own flamenco compositions. Ulp.

That’s easy for her; not so for me. Isa was born in Barcelona, to parents who set up what is the city’s oldest flamenco cultural centre. As Spanish as paella, flamenco’s folk-music roots go back centuries to gypsy, Jewish, Christian and Arabic cultures. Rhythm is everything, which makes the intensity of the music – with its dancers, singers and guitarists – such a dazzling revelation for New Zealanders.

Isabel was raised on these rhythms from birth and started dancing at the age of three. She’s since performed all over Spain, Mexico and South America. I, on the other hand, have swapped my role as TVNZ’s Sunday correspondent for a guest-artist billing with her wonderful troupe of flamenco musicians.

The invitation to join them came after we met several years ago, when Isabel asked me to perform with her on a visit to New Zealand. She was intrigued by the idea of a Kiwi guitarist playing flamenco at the bottom of the world – and that eventually led us here, to Wellington, for the New Zealand Fringe and CubaDupa festivals. These guys will win over every local audience with their dark eyes, mesmerising rhythms and spontaneous laughter. Olé!

I look in the mirror and see a face that just doesn’t fit: typical New Zealand Scots and Irish heritage, no aquiline nose. My wife Zarina, a cosmopolitan blend of Māori, Indian and Persian-Afghani, looks the part – our gypsy friends have urged her to take up dancing. So what is this gringo doing in a troupe of roving flamenco artists? I want to crawl back to the safety of the Sunday programme and serious journalism.

In the rising panic, I start thinking how good TVNZ has been to me. Over the past three decades, I’ve gone on assignment to almost every continent, meeting everyone from the Queen to the Taliban (guess who was scarier!). The job was a ringside seat on history. I sat on Jonah Lomu’s couch to watch the famous 1995 World Cup final against South Africa, covered wars, tsunamis and hurricanes. The tally sits at nearly 2000 stories and some 6000 interviews.

Yet here I am, terrified by the prospect of playing flamenco guitar in front of a Kiwi crowd. If I crash and burn, it won’t be pretty – my media colleagues are already tickled by their mock headlines on the mild-mannered reporter who’s run away to join the circus.

Sinclair and Rivera Cuenca, photographed at The Wintergarden at The Civic, Auckland.

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Stepping back from my TV career to act like a gypsy rover isn’t the expression of a late-life crisis, however. I’ve long had a yearning to get serious about my love of flamenco. In fact, the idea hit me in a flash, on my sixth birthday.

Music came from my grandmother, who taught me to sing. Mary George was born in Arrowtown during the Otago Gold Rush, back in 1879. Nana dated from an era when people made their own entertainment. She taught me to sing before I could walk, though that was due less to any musical genius than slow physical development. For reasons that baffled medical science, I was a very late walker.

Mum later told me that when I was about six months old, my legs suddenly went from kicking to floppy. Polio was the first suspect, but apparently proving that seemed impossible. There was a great deal of medical head-scratching, but I continued to crawl around like a rock spider until I was three and a half.

Nana thought my inability to walk was actually a blessing. At least I couldn’t be conscripted into the army, like her two stepsons and brother, all of whom died in World War I. With her, there was a bright side to everything.

Nevertheless, with a combination of blackmail and bribery, it was she who got me up and staggering along. But I was seriously weakened. When I first started school, I could last only for a couple of hours a day. My sister Ann has since told me I looked as if the wind would blow me over.

At the age of six, I was taken into a ward at Auckland’s Green Lane Hospital, where my feet were put in a porcelain basin. Nurses in starched white uniforms put electrodes under my feet and turned up the dials; I remember a kind of vibration running up through my legs. I was also given exercises to do at home.

Sinclair, aged 6.

Decades later, specialists told me I’d probably had Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that mimics polio by attacking the nervous system. It stayed with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt until his death, but in most cases, it disappears without trace.

It vanished from me, too, but left a floppy-legged kid everybody wanted on the other team. Rugby was a tragi-comical prospect; track and field left me unlucky last.

But Nana already had plans. Figuring I might at least be musical, she promised me a ukulele for my sixth birthday. My big brother, Anthony, was dispatched to music shop Lewis Eady on Queen St. Instead of picking up the uke, he returned with a three-quarter-sized kid’s guitar and a flamenco record.

From the moment the needle went down on the vinyl, I was hooked. The syncopated rhythms, the primeval cry of the singer, the stamping of the dancer – all with a 50s echo that left me simply mesmerised. I had to be a flamenco guitarist. It was a pivotal decision that would alter the path of my entire life.

I may have been born with the wrong legs, but I was definitely born into the right family for art and music. It’s a tradition that persists today. Our elder son, Stefan “Spider” Sinclair, shuttles between customers in Hollywood and at his Auckland studio, Two Hands Tattoo. Across Ponsonby Rd, his brother Rohan was a resident DJ with the Yam Jams at legendary venue Golden Dawn for several years.

I grew up in an age of rugby, racing and beer, when art was hardly seen as a real job, but Mum gave us a lot of freedom to pursue our creative urges. In our rambling old house crammed with books and records, we had everything to play with, from oil paints to marionettes and chemistry sets. Nana even used her pension to buy me a ventriloquist doll.

When my parents separated, Nana stepped in to help Mum with the four of us kids. Dad, now living in England, sent Anthony a home-movie camera – he wanted to see what we were up to. So we made colour movies, roving across the screen flourishing cowboy pistols and toy machine guns. Anthony would play cameraman and younger brother Phil and I were actors. Sister Ann didn’t have much time for our war movies, preferring to design and make clothes instead.

That camera taught me the basics for my own future career as a TV reporter. But still no flamenco. Of all the music to fall in love with, I had picked the worst to learn how to play here. New Zealand is the furthest spot in the world from Spain – and back in the 60s, distance was even more of a tyranny. But by the age of 11, I’d learned enough basic guitar to get up and play in front of the school, teaching myself rumbas and a bit of fancy finger-picking.

A young Sinclair interviews Kiwi flamenco guitarist and artist Darcy Lange for the Taranaki Herald in 1977.

Phil Read, an English classical guitarist, taught me the basics of flamenco from a book. But when he left for India, I had to rely on listening to records. Then, when I was 20, flamenco suddenly gave me something back.

Brother Phil introduced me to staff on the University of Auckland newspaper Craccum. As a flamenco guitarist, would I like to interview the renowned French musician Manitas de Plata and his band of gypsy nephews? Indeed I would.

The writing was clumsy and pedantic; I cringe when I read it today. But it opened up a whole new vista of possibilities. By the time I was 21, I’d interviewed Elton John and Joan Baez, hung out with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, and stumbled across a local band in the university cafe called Split Enz.

Oddly, though, it was moving to Spain in search of flamenco that turned me from music writing to hard news.

I arrived in Seville at the age of 22. Zarina, then my girlfriend, followed shortly after. It was like stepping into a very badly drawn war comic. Security forces looking like Hitler’s lost legion patrolled the villages at dusk. In 1975, the Spanish were still living the nightmare that began when Hitler and Mussolini put General Francisco Franco in power a generation before. Franco was on his last legs and the country was getting nervous. When he died, what would happen next?

On my way to music class one day, I stumbled upon a bizarre scene in Seville’s main square: a gaggle of generals dripping gold braid were praising Franco from a balcony, while arms raised in fascist salute below. Around the edge of the main square stood massed security forces in grey uniform, with German-style helmets and Nazi-issue rifles dating from another age.

It looked like one of those flickering scenes from a Nuremberg rally in the 1930s – until a young guy with a tie-dyed T-shirt, faded Levi’s, a hippie haircut and a guitar ambled into the scene. Something was very wrong with that picture. And plainly it was me.

As I wandered up to the ranks, I caught the eye of a fascist, who peered out from under his helmet with the grimace of a man who’d like to eat my liver. Plainly I was spoiling the effect. I backed away and continued on to guitar class, but I knew I’d witnessed a significant moment: one of the last fascist rallies, held by the last Axis power.

That first taste of the excitement of witnessing history set me on course for a career in journalism. Yet here I am, 40 years later, a bundle of nerves before what feels like the biggest performance of my life.

I turn for advice to New York-born musician Hershal Herscher and his Kiwi jazz-singer wife Linn Lorkin, who studied at the Sorbonne. They’ve come to watch the show. “Hershal,” I ask. “Do you ever get stage fright?”

“Of course!” he replies. In his opinion, it’s good to be a bit nervous. I’m on in half an hour, so this is comforting to know. “Just drink a glass of wine and a cup of coffee.”

I have two glasses, for good measure. Then it’s the curtain call. We stumble on stage through inky blackness towards the dim lights that mark our places. Incredible to think this journey began in the mind of a six-year-old so long ago.

We take our seats. Up go the lights. Isabel gives me a broad, warm smile. I’m up first. For the past seven years, I’ve made regular trips to Seville to study under gypsy guitar legend Juan del Gastor. His advice: “Slow down!” I take a deep breath.

Our opening piece is “I AM”, a composition I wrote as the soundtrack for a story I shot in Spain for the Sunday programme about a New Zealander, Griff Maclaurin, who died in the Spanish Civil War. Spanish historians told me Maclaurin, armed with a machine gun, was part of a tiny band of British volunteers who stopped fascist forces from crossing a bridge and taking Madrid in 1936. His bravery, they said, helped change the course of Spanish history. That day, the combined forces of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini lost their chance to seize the Spanish capital, until they finally broke through in 1939.

Eight minutes later, my performance – punctuated by syncopated flamenco hand-clapping, singing and “olé” – is over. A fractional silence seems to extend for eternity. Then applause, even cheers. Relief floods over me.

“Ian!” says Isabel later, beaming backstage. “You didn’t miss a single beat!”

She insists I must do a solo concert tour after she leaves. It’s a deal. I’m hooked on this flamenco business. And when did I last get a big cheer on the telly?  

For more on Ian Sinclair’s love affair with flamenco and upcoming performances in New Zealand, visit is-facingthemusic.co.nz.

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

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