MADRID -- 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 musical 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 composed and recorded 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," Paco Garcia, a 50-year-old flamenco aficionado and photographer, said 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 always have played a key role in flamenco, but almost exclusively in dancing and singing. The instruments, and especially the quintessential guitar, long have 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.
For flamenco fan and former Spanish national ballet dancer Jose Merino, she is further proof of the universality of flamenco and why it was voted part of UNESCO's world heritage in 2010.
"I think it's admirable what Caroline is doing, being a woman and from Canada, in how she respects and plays flamenco so well," said Merino. "It strikes me as very daring. There are very few women guitarists because it's always been a closed world or one not as easily accessible to women."
Released last September, Plante's CD, "8 Reflexiones," has been warmly received and recently was voted No. 4 out of the top 5 world music records by the prestigious Canadian newspaper Le Devoir.
On the CD, you can hear strains from her classical piano background, but she also blends in a variety of international sounds including hip-hop and African choruses.
"I have listened to so many other types of music, so I wanted to make it personal," she said. "I am not a Gypsy, I am not from here."
Plante has been invited to play three nights in the Montreal Jazz Festival, which opens June 25 this year with the king of flamenco guitarists, Paco de Lucia, playing with Duquende, the singer on Plante's disc. The appearances promise to be the culmination of lifelong dedication and determination.
"I have been listening to flamenco since I was born," she told The Associated Press. "I have pictures of my dad playing to me when I was 3 years old."
Plante is a daughter of Marcel Plante, known as "El Rubio" (the blond one), a Canadian who has dedicated his life to flamenco guitar in Montreal. He practiced his craft in the hours allowed by his job as a schoolteacher and later director. He still accompanies dancers and singers in the city's flamenco halls.
"I was always waiting for Friday or Saturday night to go and see him play. That was my big night out," she said.
Bitten by the bug, Caroline began playing when she was 6 and composed her first flamenco 'falseta' decorative riff when she was 8. By 14, she was doing the halls with her father. She got her first paycheck for playing at 16.
But even back then, she remembers there was opposition from the Spanish flamenco players. "They didn't like there to be a girl playing the guitar and on stage, and they were friends of my father's," she says.
She got her first taste of the real thing when her father lived up to a lifelong promise to bring her to Spain in 1997 and they toured the hallowed flamenco haunts of Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Seville and Jerez.
"I was raised watching videos of Paco de Lucia and (late renowned singer) Camaron in the '70s but to come to the country where the flamenco is, when you're walking in the street you hear people singing sometimes, it was really amazing," she says.
She persuaded Canada's Arts Council she was worthy of its grants -- "They sort of bet on artists the way you bet on horses" -- and came to Spain three years in a row, taking private lessons from flamenco experts in Seville before moving to Madrid in 2005 and meeting the man who is now her husband, flamenco dancer Mariano Cruceta.
She acknowledges having a flamenco partner has smoothed things but also notes her long, uphill battle in the guitar world.
"It's male, very male," she says, adding that on many occasions when she sought lessons people thought she was looking for something else. "There was always some comments, you know 'the girl, the foreigner' but I think that now in 2011 people are more open."
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