Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — H&M – Hits & Misses from the Recycled Post Bin

Judging Other Peoples’ Customs – Fair is Fair – Post by Brook Zern

Hits and Misses from Early Flamenco Forums

Note from 2014:  Seventeen years ago, in a discussion about cultural customs including Gypsy customs, I wrote this post bearing on human rights and, not unrelated, the distribution of wealth right here:

Subj:  Re: Roots and “Real Flamenco”
Date:  Mon, May 12, 1997 11:59 AM EDT

A member brought up a hot topic with this post dealing with the idea of progress and its conflict with tradition.

Today this issue usually centers on the Islamic/Western confrontation.  Yet that high-profile power struggle is really a mirror for many other aspects of the same issue — like genital mutilation in Africa, or (the member’s example from the NY Times) the status of New Guinea tribeswomen as objects.

Many of us in the “civilized West” assume we have the proper moral view of all this.  For example, I recently spoke to an old leftist who was proud of his wife’s work with women’s groups in Israel — both Moslem and Jewish — to strengthen women’s rights that are not strongly rooted in either tradition.

I asked if we had a God-given duty to meddle in other people’s business.  He said “What’s right is right.  Anywhere.  Anytime.”

I think he’s correct, in fact.  But it should be recognized that this attitude can generate some unexpected and possibly negative results as well as the desired positive results.

The absolute convictions we tend to share about, say, women’s rights, were simply non-existent right here in New York City — never mind Papua New Guinea — less than thirty years ago.  There’s been a vast attitudinal shift on that issue since my wife Kristin and I marched/strolled in the first Women’s Liberation Day Parade in 1970, pushing my infant daughter in a stroller and listening to the outraged taunts of male and female onlookers.

Now, though, we may be too quick to condemn those who’ve taken too long to catch onto this new truth.  Or to condemn entire other cultures who “just don’t get it” — who refuse to appreciate our new truths even thirty years after Betty Friedan and others reveal them.  (The Times article on the New Guinea tribe that’s having trouble with the concept mentioned that thirty years ago, they thought they were the only people in the whole world, and that their way was therefore the only way in the whole world.)

Yes, I think we are morally obliged to support and defend human rights, even if it entails the tragic loss of unique cultural traditions that may have had great social, economic or survival value in the past, and may still have some value.

I hope that we don’t get too carried away, though.  Because sometimes our high-minded anger reflects a subtle conviction that our basic way of life is superior.

In fact, many of the “primitive” people whose egalitarian kinship systems we disdain would be horrified by our strange custom, in which wealth beyond imagining is concentrated in the hands of a few while countless others have no hope of owning the tiniest fraction of such riches.  It would be interesting if we Westerners could get indignant about that particular bit of injustice; instead we support and foster it worldwide.

We tell other cultures how to behave toward women, but don’t seem to question our representatives from the World Bank who insist that these women, and men and children, remain permanently impoverished to pay off interest on debts incurred by their rulers in purchasing our weapons to further oppress them.

Yes — by our lights, some Gypsies may have a problem about the role of women in their “archaic” culture.  But the Gypsies also have another pressing problem: most people and most governments want to get rid of them and their archaic culture completely, and don’t care very much how this is accomplished.  We shouldn’t let some unfashionable and perhaps unfair Gypsy customs serve to justify the actions that are constantly taken against them.

We all have our own ugly and abusive customs to correct.  And the more power we have, the more imperative it is to look at our own failings first.

Brook Zern

February 5, 2014   No Comments

Reflections on Diego and Morón – Short article by Norberto Torres – long comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  Back in 2001, I sent one of the volatile flamenco discussion groups the following rendition of a brief article by Norberto Torres, who may still be Spain’s leading expert on flamenco guitar.  It was headed into a book by Fernando González about the “El Toque de Morón.”  I usually find Norberto’s stuff informative and sometimes impressive.  Here it is, followed by my usual long-winded windup from right now:


Contribution by Norberto Torres Cortés

We are dealing here with a style of playing that enjoys a certain prestige among lovers of the guitar and a large number of aficionados.  I think this is due primarily to the singular personality of Diego del Gastor and the international diffusion of his playing, encouraged by the North American guitarist and flamenco scholar D. Pohren.

I will begin my evaluation by first approaching it sociologically.  In the sixties, there appeared around music a new ideology and a new approach to living.  This was the sociological phenomenon called “hippie”, which accused and condemned the fundamental values of Western society.  It involved a total rejection of the cult of the almighty dollar, of the idea of man as an instrument of production and consumption, of the many contaminations of the spirit and the body, of war, capitalism and communism.

The “old” modern society did not permit man to be creative, to grow in the spiritual plane, to organize relationships in a context of non-violence.  The addicts of this ideology encountered in Andalucía and in the person of Diego del Gastor a place and a guide that responded to their vital aspirations.  A small town in Western Andalucia, Morón in the in the sixties was a site where the first hints of modernity in the Franco-era economy had not yet appeared, and it retained the enchantment/appeal of a community united in its human dimension in the face of poverty.  To this rural and primitive exoticism was added the lack of a materialistic mentality.  Within certain limitations, people shared what they had.  It is in this context that I would place the impact of Diego del Gastor in the community of “guiri” (outsider) guitarists who came to visit.”

End of Norberto Torres’ excerpt.  (Musical analysis may have followed.)

[My comments from 2001:]

Morón as hippie heaven?   As I recall, I didn’t get any free love, or even any expensive love, and I didn’t smoke anything strange or wear funny clothes.  I usually tried to wear a jacket and tie, to fit in better with the artists and townsfolk.

In fact, I remember the sixties, which means I must have missed them completely, thanks to spending too much time in Morón.

Come to think of it, though, I kind of like  the Spanish idea of Morón being the epicenter of all those sixties vibes.

“Where were you in the culture war, daddy?”

“Right where it was all happening, honey, except they didn’t speak any English and all the broads wore mourning black for fifty years after their main squeezes croaked.”)

Brook Zern

Okay, back to 2014.  It was, and remains, quite common for Spanish commentators to stress the idea that the Morón phenomenon — bunches of foreigners descending on that town to sit at the feet of Diego del Gastor and the other flamenco artists who came in to play for pay — was part of the hippie movement.

During the Diego Centennial Year celebrations, I went to a symposium in Morón at which a lot of people, including at least two of Diego’s very gifted nephews, talked at length about why foreigners came, and what they hoped to find.

(Surprisingly, to me, I was the only “guiri” at the event.  Everyone seemed to have a theory on why the foreigners had come, and they discussed them at great length.  Absolutely unsurprisingly, it never for a moment occurred to any of the perhaps 150 people in the room, many of whom knew I’d studied there, to ask me why I had come.)

The strangest aspect of the Spanish analysis is the conflation of us alleged hippies with the milis — the U.S. military personnel who remained behind the vast perimeter of the American air base from which our B-52′s (which, endlessly refurbished, are still flying today) headed onward to destroy Vietnam.  Yes, maybe it’s because we all look alike to Spaniards, but they still talk about the hippies from the airbase.  Or maybe tie-died khaki uniforms were in back then.

Were we hippies?  Put it this way: what’s the opposite of a hippy?

That would be someone who goes to a faraway place where communication is difficult and where premarital sex is all but unknown, to begin a process of learning about one obscure component of an alien culture — a process which requires endless hours of disciplined practice, and many years of learning basic structural elements before one can even begin to express one’s own creative inventiveness, if any.

Yeah, man, like, just, do your thing, man…

(No. We were there to learn to do someone else’s thing, even if it took forever.)

That was then.  Earlier today on Facebook, one of America’s most talented younger flamenco players offered to teach how to not play falsetas — those incredible melodic riffs by the great past and present masters that survive and are passed among us perpetual students like the jewels they are.  No longer, “Why play those same old falsetas by someone else,” was the pretty-exact gist of the post.  ”Just sign up and I’ll show you how to do your own thing.”  Now, that’s pretty hippy.

Well, that has always been one possible objective for many flamenco guitar students; but it was hard, because while the guitar playing was far less advanced back then, the music itself was in a foreign language, with a non-Western aesthetic.  (I never mastered that strictly-traditional Andalusian musical language, and still rely on the kindness of strangers for my material.)

Today, when flamenco guitar is reeking with non-Spanish influences like jazz and rock and reggae and fusion, I suppose nearly every semi-musical americano can make up stuff that sounds like flamenco today.  The harder trick would be to make up something that sounds like the flamenco guitar yesterday, when it was still a regional or national instrument and not a global or transnational one.

January 9, 2014   4 Comments

H&M (Hits & Misses from the Recycled Post Bin) – #1

H&M (Hits & Misses from the Recycled Post Bin) – #1

Note:  This blog feature recyles posts I wrote during the decade or so when early iterations of the Flamenco Mailing List emerged, blew up amid angry recriminations, reemerged and reexploded.  Since you ask — a Mailing List was sort of like Twitter with a 140,000 character limit, or Facebook with a “Hate” button instead of a “Like” button.

Backstory on this particular post from 7/11/97:  A guy got fed up with my long-winded pontificating and decided to let me know.  He wrote:

Hey, Brook,

That is the trouble with people like you who cannot play the guitar worth a damn. You sit in front of your computer all day long and spread rumors and talk about others who are far better than you. Turn off the computer once in awhile and practice your scales instead of running your mouth off about others like Paco de Lucia.”

I responded:

Hey, Lalo,

I’m flattered that you consider players like Paco de Lucía and Gerardo Nuñez to be far better than me.  I had always considered them infinitely better than me.

Oh, and the people for whom I nominally work — noting that I spend my absurdly-extended lunch hour practicing scales at the nearby American Institute of Guitar, and that during coffee breaks I sneak out to the even closer 48th-Street music stores to practice scales till I’m forcibly ejected, and that I sometimes even practice my scales right here on the cheesy guitar I keep in my office — say they wish I’d spend more time sitting in front of my computer and less time behind a guitar.  Jeez, you can’t please anyone these days.

But heck, at least my picado technique is in pretty good shape.  Good enough so I’m confident I could lick you in a picado race, if you play guitar, and either beat or place an honorable very close second to anyone else on the list, pro or am, as well as approximate some noted players in Spain.  (I also happen to play better material than anyone, anywhere, because I’ve copped the best stuff by everyone, everywhere.)

Do those hard-earned accomplishments make me a notable flamenco guitarist, or even a real good one?  Regrettably, no.  First, because I am a pretty poor accompanist, and that’s the acid test.  Second, because I’m not a good composer of flamenco material, and that’s the other acid test.  And third, and least important, because since about 1980 the level of guitar technique in Spain, which I had hoped was finally maxed out, has become so very high that I’ve dropped several giant steps behind post-Siroco Paco and the amazing wunderkinds.  Oops, almost forgot — I also don’t get very good tone out of my superb Arcangel Fernandez guitar, which certainly isn’t his fault; and my dynamics are poor (I tend to play too strong, or at least too loud); and I’m hard-pressed to play an entire piece all the way through because I always stop when a section needs work; and I can’t play if anyone’s paying attention (a rare event, fortunately); and other problems too numerous to mention.

(If you play guitar, Lalo, you may think you’ve created material that’s worthy of being played along with that of Ramon, or Sabas, or Paco, or Diego, or Perico.  And if I heard you play your stuff, I would probably tell you it was very nice, because I am.  But the chances are it would be laughable.)

Well, it’s break time and I’ve got to run out for some more guitar practice.  But as Ahnold says…”I’ll be back.”

Brook Zern

P.S.  In the vintage-car-racing scene that I love, I saw an elderly geezer of about my vintage with a T-shirt that said “Old age and cunning will beat youth and enthusiasm any day.”

Oh, and since my tendency to talk too much has been exposed to anyone who hadn’t already noticed it:  Does anybody recall what Death says to the American in the final scene of Monty Python’s immortal film “The Meaning of Life”?

(As I recall, Death approaches a Cotswolds cottage during a dinner party to claim his latest victims.  He puts aside his scythe, rings the bell, points a skeletal finger at an American visitor — who has eaten botulism-infected salmon mousse  and is desperately trying to argue for a pardon — and says in a ghastly voice:  “Shut up, you American.  That’s the trouble with you Americans.  You’re always talking.  You talk, talk, talk.  You say ‘I wanna tell ya’ and ‘Lemme say one thing’ and ‘If you ask me’.  Well, you’re dead now.  So shut up!”)


April 10, 2012   No Comments