Sergio Aranda answers the phone from his home in Tokyo. There are nearly two hours before the flamenco show to which he has been invited begins, but he has to leave shortly. "This is a really busy city and you have to leave plenty of time to get anywhere," he says.
That is just one of the many changes he has had to get used to, as someone who grew up in the Puerta Blanca district of Malaga city. This artist, who has performed all over the world, has been in Japan for the past year, teaching flamenco and performing with Ayasa Kajiyama. She is his dance partner and is responsible for the turn his life has taken. Together they form an explosive cultural combination, and this Christmas they will be on stage at the Tablao Alegría in La Malagueta.
"When you see her dance, you can't tell if she is from Japan or Sacromonte. It's incredible how she has made flamenco her own," he says.
He is talking about Ayasa Kajiyama, who is a dancer in her own right. Aranda speaks of her with admiration and also with love. He met her in 2020, when he was contracted to dance at a flamenco club in Tokyo for a month.
That was a professional and also a personal success. It is where their relationship began, until coronavirus got in the way. Aranda had to rush home to Malaga. They couldn't see each again other until the summer of 2020, when the Japanese dancer flew to Malaga so they could get to know each other better. And then it became clear: they needed to be together.
"With the work situation in Spain the way it was, this was the only option," he admits. referring to the move to Japan. With most flamenco venues closed, some permanently, and international travel restricted, starting from scratch on the other side of the world seemed a salvation. He was not the first, and nor will he be the last, to take that step. Cultural exchanges with Japan have been a constant in the world of flamenco since the last century. His countrymen Chiquito, El Tiriri, La Repompa and Pepito Vargas took this route to the far East decades ago to earn far more in yen than they could ever obtain in pesetas.
"This is flamenco's second home. I'm continually surprised how much people here love and appreciate our culture," he says.
However, his motivation was not only financial. "I haven't come here because I wanted to live in Japan, I came so we could be together, it was the only way," he says. But the situation has enabled him to do something that would have been inviable in Spain in recent times. "Despite the pandemic, I haven't stopped. I haven't put my boots away once. A musician, whether he is a singer or a guitarist, can carry on doing that from the sofa in his house, but for dancers it's more difficult," he says.
Since January 2021, Sergio Aranda has been teaching flamenco to around 40 students. He admits that he was never "a very studious child", but his Japanese isn't bad. The first time he landed in Tokyo they wrote down for him how to count to 12, so he could mark the steps. Now he can give all types of instructions in Japanese and he proves it on the phone, giving directions in that language like someone reading out a shopping list.
He left Malaga last year with a visa for teaching, and that meant he couldn't perform on stage. He can now, though. In July, Sergio and Ayasa got married, and that has enabled him to take out Japanese citizenship (initially granted for a year, and then it can be extended). "Now I can do whatever work I want," he says.
Since then he has performed twice at the Tablao Alhambra in Tokyo, once on his own and once with his wife. And there will be more. Aranda is coming home to dance at the Tablao Alegría (the address is Calle Vélez Malaga, 6) from 20 December to 9 January. During one of those three weeks, Ayasa will perform with him. The dates they will dance together have yet to be finalised.
"If I dance with Ayasa it isn't because she's my wife, it's because I am certain she is of a high enough standard and she is in the category she deserves. She is very well prepared," he says.
In fact, the name Ayasa Kajiyama is well-known in flamenco circles. She used to be an elite athlete, a synchronised swimmer who was one step away from competing in the Olympics, but then she discovered flamenco. She studied the art in Japan and also immersed herself in Spanish culture during a long stay in Seville. "And now she almost speaks Spanish better than I do," Aranda laughs, proudly.