- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

MADRID (AP) - On stage, she cuts a striking figure. It isn’t her trendy clothes or Gypsy earrings, but her flamenco guitar: it’s a man’s instrument in a man’s world. Spaniards are even more startled to discover Caroline Plante is a French-speaking Canadian.

But the insular and machismo-fueled world of Spain’s most treasured music form has opened its arms to Plante, whose artistry has compelled even its most finicky fans to sit up and take notice.

At 35, after a life strumming and picking alongside flamenco singers and dancers, Plante (pronounced Plahn-tay) has just finished composing and recording what is considered the first complete record by a woman flamenco guitarist.

On it she is accompanied by no less than one of Spain’s top flamenco singers, Duquende, and the disc was cut in one of the country’s legendary flamenco recording studios, Musigrama.

“It’s rare to see a woman doing this. Culturally, it’s brilliant,” said Paco Garcia, a 50-year-old flamenco aficionado and photographer after one of her shows.

“Little by little, there are more women starting to play, but she’s plays perfectly. She may be missing that cutting edge some Gypsies have but she still has lots of time.”

Women have always played a key role in flamenco, but almost exclusively in dancing and singing. The instruments _ and especially the quintessential guitar _ have long been the domain of men.

“The idea of women guitarists is very complex,” said Paco Ortega, producer of Plante’s first record and owner of Musigrama. “It’s a mix of things, there’s the machismo, there’s the lack of education. Flamenco artists have never really been convinced that women can really play the guitar.”

Plante is not the first female flamenco guitarist _ some older Americans may immediately think of Charo, the exuberant TV comedy star, but her skills were far from top level.

Ortega can think of three who play seriously, two from Spain and one from Norway, all proficient but lacking Plante’s mastery, and they’ve yet to record their own discs.

“She’s the only female guitarist who can really play all the flamenco styles,” said Ortega. “Plus, she speaks several languages and has traveled a lot and is able to contribute a crossbreeding that is not common among flamenco artists.”

Juan Verdu, one of Spain’s top flamenco experts and promoters, presented her on Spanish National Radio in January as an example of a major new development in flamenco.

“She’s a genius in the making and she’ll get there,” Verdu told The Associated Press. “She plays very impressively, and is perfect in harmony and composition and plays with a lot of heart, something missing in a lot of flamenco guitarists who excel in technique.”

He said the flamenco world “still hasn’t realized what she is. Many male guitarists would love to play like her and they’ll tremble when they see her play.”

There’s no denying that flamenco guitar with its machine-gun speed picking riffs and dizzying helicopter-like ‘rasgueo’ hand strums is physically punishing. Most players have beefy arms and thick, powerful hands. By contrast, Plante is pixie petite with delicate wrists.

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