Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — General Flamenco Absurdities

Hits and Misses – Flamenco Guitar Hairshake Technique Tips and a Near Miss – by Brook Zern

I posted this to a discussion group in 2001:

Experts, who needs ‘em? I do.

Point 1:  I wasn’t crazy about Paco de Lucia’s version of the Concierto de Aranjuez, but I loved his De Falla album.  That one clearly violated the original score (I think), so it ain’t kosher but it worked for me.

About the Aranjuez video, Richard said “Paco does do the head back, eyes closed, hair shake, so that’s a plus:-)”

Yes.  I’ve been working on that head back, eyes closed, hair shake for a long time.  Just when I got the head back, eyes closed part, I found that I had lost too much hair for a convincing shake.  I blame the intensifying downward curve of my career on this.  (My Tomatito Toupee ® just doesn’t have the same vibrant responsiveness to shaking.)

Point 2:  Did Miles Davis copyright the saeta on Sketches of Spain?  As I recall, the trumpet does an impressively exact rendition of one of the favorite vocal lines for the saeta — the “arrow of song” sung to the massive passing floats with images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary during Holy Week processions.

There weren’t many recordings of saetas at the time — one of the most memorable was on a strange Folkways record titled “Flamenco” — white cover, sketch of a singer in the throes of singing.  A mixed bag of singers, field recorded but mostly forgettable.  The notes said the saeta was sung by a girl, twelve or fourteen.  It sounded terrific, and I wonder if Miles copped it from that disc.

Brook Zern

Okay, a year or two ago I was talking to José Manuel Gamboa, a neat guy who knows all and tells all about flamenco, during an increasingly hazy all-night flamenco session at the Colmao in Jerez.  I mentioned that discographic tidbit in passing, as if it mattered to anyone else on the planet.

His eyes lit up.  ”Jeez, where were you when I needed you?  I’ve been researching a book about flamenco in America, and I spent months trying to track down the source of that trumpet solo.  I finally found it last week.”

It was an honor to have almost been of service to him.

Brook Zern

February 9, 2015   1 Comment

Flamenco Science – Part 43

Date:  Thu, Apr 8, 1999 9:04 AM EDT
From:  Brook Zern
Subj:  Flamenco answers

Bob hoity-toitily informs us that the bulerías “speeds up because of the Coriolis effect.”

Only in the Northern Hemisphere, Bob.  Below the equator, dancers constantly complain that the guitarists keep slowing down.


February 11, 2014   No Comments

Flamenco Strategies – Rebranding Opportunities for Mass Market Penetration

A loyal correspondent concludes his joint proposal for issuing flamenco CD’s of our privately-recorded tapes of flamenco in Morón de la Frontera as follows:

“When a company like Sony acquires us, we will preserve our right to decide what material will be issued.”

Thank you, loyal correspondent.  Actually, I am confident that my erstwhile employer, Time Warner Music, will top any bid from rival Sony Records to buy out our start-up internet subsidiary, AuthenticDiego.com.

I say this after very positive preliminary talks with Warner’s West Coast Under Assistant Promotion Man, who did so much for the Rolling Stones.

He’s working on the late-night half-hour infomercials as we speak.  There’s just one thing.  He offered a terrific suggestion — we dub in the new-age guitar stylings of his nephew, who sounds just like a cross between Ottmar Liebert and Jesse Cook, in place of Diego del Gastor’s playing, which he says sounds slightly repetitive after a few minutes. (Actually, I believe his exact words were “boring, boring, boring.  Boring.”).

Oh, and in place of Fernanda de Utrera and Juan Talega, we’ll use vocals by Celine Dion and either Barry Manilow or Garth Brooks — I’m holding out for Garth, because of his earthier sound.  Beyond that, he promised absolutely no other changes, except for some orchestration.  (But don’t worry; I vetoed flutes, saying a flute would sound too ridiculous to anyone who knew anything at all about flamenco, and he agreed.)

Also, in the interest of political correctness, he suggested that the tentative title, Morón’s Greatest Hits, be changed to Person of Below Average Intelligence’s Greatest Hits.

I know you’re as excited as I am by all of this.  Don’t you have a cousin who does IPO’s…

Brook Zern, CEO, COO, CMO, JNTR, Morón Enterprises LLC

January 19, 2014   1 Comment

The Case of the Bloodless Bulerías, or They Call Me the Death of the Party – Note from a Flamenco Guitarist

A free-spirited correspondent, exhausted or baffled by my counting systems for guitar, says the proper way to interpret flamenco’s complex rhythms is to “just feel the pulse, baby”.

Last night, I listened carefully for the pulse of my bulerías and tangos and couldn’t find one.

You can hear this phenomenon for yourself on my forthcoming CD, titled “Flatline Flamenco Guitar”.

Other moribund cuts include the “Life-Support Livianas”, “Terminal Tientos”, “Anemic Alegrías”  and “Vegetative-State Villancicos”.

The recording is on the DNR label.

Brook Zern

January 18, 2014   1 Comment

Flamenco Professionalism

A correspondent has asked for a debate on the proposition, that “all professional musicians are prostitutes”.

Absurd.  I mean, has anyone ever met a professional musician with a heart of gold?

Brook Zern

December 5, 2012   No Comments

Flamenco Dance – Risque Business

A correspondent who loves flamenco dance writes with a question:  ”Have you seen Sara Baras?”

A:  No, but I’ve seen Joaquín Cortés shirtless.

Brook Zern

December 5, 2012   No Comments

Encounter: Strum und Drang — A Caper in Seville — 1974 New York Times Article by Brook Zern

Encounter: Strum und Drang — A Caper in Seville

By Brook Zern

I should never travel without a guitar.  If I don’t play the guitar for a whole day, my palms start to sweat and my mind gets foggy.  But bringing a guitar to Spain – and a flamenco guitar at that – seemed about as redundant as toting along a box of dehydrated paella or a personal supply of olive oil.

So, guitarless myself, I hung around with guitarists and played the odd flamenco.  Or I visited music stores, “examining” their wares.  Which led me, one afternoon, to Seville’s biggest music store, where I requested nothing less than the Arcángel Fernández guitar occupying the place of honor in the carefully shaded display window.

To play such a guitar, of course, it is necessary to first promise that you will buy it.  And afterward, of course, it is necessary to extricate yourself by explaining that you do not happen to have the money with you, but will immediately wire your bank in New York and have them transfer the funds.  (This is preferable to simply saying you have the money at your hotel, since it enables you to return on several subsequent days – while waiting for the alleged transfer – to retest the compromised instrument.)

And so I played the Fernández.  Perhaps it was Dr. Johnson who remarked of a card-playing dog that the wonder is not that he does it well but that he can do it at all.  Most Spaniards apply equally lenient standards to Americans who play the flamenco guitar, gaping in wonderment at the very idea while retaining an unshakeable conviction that such music can only be interpreted properly by one who carries it in the blood.  (I learned much of my flamenco from my father, which is a point in my favor; but my father is Pennsylvania Dutch, which is at least two points against.)  In any case, the net result of my performance was a few generous compliments and a complete identification of me with the Fernandez guitar.

The next day I headed back to the store for some more practice.  It was still early in the afternoon, and I noticed that the blinds were drawn behind the spotless window, presumably to prevent the guitars and other displayed items from exploding or melting in the sizzling sun.  I decided to look at some records before asking to play the guitar.

After a few minutes a nice-looking fellow in a gray suit came up, tapped me on the shoulder, lifted his lapel to display a badge of some sort, and motioned that I was to come with him.  I had a fleeting thought that perhaps he was a talent scout, but that didn’t square too well with the badge.  Then it struck me:  the police.

The car stopped at the huge police cuartel on Jesus and Mary Street, and I was led through the imposing wooden entrance doors to a small room upstairs.  And that’s where I was left, evidently to commune with my conscience, for what must have been a half hour.  Weird ideas entered my mind.  Would they call in all nine music store proprietors whose best instruments I had promised to buy?  Is there such a thing as breach of promise to a guitar?  Would they be satisfied if I really bought all nine of them?  Could I promise to testify against some higher-ups?

A very large policeman finally entered the room.  He took a piece of paper out of his pocket, put it down on the desk and said sympathetically that he understood why I had done it.

“Done it?  Done what?”

Since you yourself were the one who did it,” he said patiently, “it should hardly be necessary for us to go into that.”

There was a long silence.  To pass the time, I read the piece of paper on the desk.  It said that during the previous night, a brick had been thrown through the music store and a single guitar (the Fernandez, naturally) had been stolen.  Moreover, it said that the perpetrator bore a distinct resemblance to a suspicious character who had played that same guitar and even sworn to buy it that very afternoon.

Señor Capitán,” I volunteered helpfully, “I did not throw any brick through any window and steal any Fernández flamenco guitar.”

“And who said anything about a rock, a window, or a Fernández guitar?’,  he said slowly.

“It says it all there on that paper.  I just read it.”

“But you could not have read it,” he said, arising with a triumphant flourish.  “You see, the paper is facing me.”


“So from where you sit, it is upside down.”

“I can read upside down,” I said. “Here, put it on the desk again and I will read the whole thing out loud.”

“Nobody can read upside down,” said the captain.  “Besides, this is a confidential document.”  He folded it again and put it back into his pocket.  More sitting and more silence.  Finally I realized that my wife might be getting concerned.  I told the captain that I hoped they could send someone over to our hotel to explain the situation to her, and since her Spanish was still rudimentary, I pointed out that an interpreter would be necessary,

“By all means,” said the captain.  “I shall send the appropriate personnel immediately.”  My wife tells me that soon afterward, there was a knock on the door.  She answered it, and a man in a gray suit flipped up his lapel to show a little badge or something.  Simultaneously, he smiled at her and said in perfect English, “Hot.”

“It certainly is,” she said.  “Is there something I can do for you?”

He looked at her again, smiled even more pleasantly, and said, “Cold.”

And so he and his companion proceeded to go through the room and our luggage, obviously looking for something.  My wife, recalling a childhood game, told them that if they simply told her what they were looking for, she would tell them if they were getting hot or cold, but that drew no appreciable response.  Finally she realized that the interpreter, who had undoubtedly gained great prestige among his fellow officers for linguistic mastery, knew only those two words of English.

After ten minutes of apparently fruitless searching, the men left.  But on the way out, the other one pulled out my passport, pointed to my picture, and said reassuringly,  “O.K.”

Meanwhile, I had acquired my first ally at headquarters.  He was a lieutenant whose job was to grill me further, but he knew I couldn’t have done it.  “How could an American steal anything like that,” I’d heard him arguing out in the hall.  “Americans are all rich.  Would you steal if you were rich?”

We sparred for a while.  I asked him why I would steal a guitar that was associated with me.  He said that if I hadn’t played it, I wouldn’t have known it was worth stealing.  He played the guitar himself, and he knew just how it was:  I could not help myself – it was a crime of passion.

I asked him what kind of idiot would go right back to the store the day after pulling a job.  “Why do you think we had men there?” he retorted.  “Don’t you know that…”

“…criminals always return to the scene of the crime.”  We both finished the sentence together.

But because I was an American, and therefore rich, his heart wasn’t really in it.  And it was during his rather listless questioning – about the third time that he offered to let me use the telephone, in fact – that I realized something.  The police wanted me to call the American Consulate.  It seemed they would be able to resolve the whole affair rather neatly.  I would get off with an admonition, while the police would be able to claim they cracked the Great Guitar Caper but were unable to prosecute for diplomatic reasons.

Well, the hell with that.  This was getting interesting, and while I had no desire to end up in a Spanish jail, I was pretty sure they would have to drop the charges when they couldn’t prove I did it.  The police weren’t exactly delighted that I had eschewed the diplomatic solution, but I could tell that a few more of them were secretly rooting for me.

After a few hours, during which nothing much happened, I went so far as to ask how they planned to prove that I’d done it.  The lieutenant was taken aback.  “Prove you did it?” he said incredulously.  ”We don’t have to prove you did it.  It is enough that we simply say you did it.”

In a flash, something that I had heard in a civics class about a decade before came rushing back to me.  The presumption of innocence that is part of English and American law is not operative in the European system based on the Napoleonic Code.  It was getting late and I was getting hungry.  The telephone was looking better and better.

“If what you say is true,” I finally told the lieutenant, “then I am obliged to prove that I didn’t do it.”

“Well, that would perhaps be one way of proceeding,” he said.

“Good,” I said.  “Now, how do I go about it if I am stuck in this place?”

I have no idea what the usual procedure must be, but I could tell from his reaction that the question had never before been raised quite so bluntly.  He went out and started another argument with his fellow officers.

Reason prevailed.  If I was still certain I didn’t want to use the telephone, they would release me – under guard, of course – to do whatever it was I wanted to do.  It was all quite unheard of, but if I could find more than one witness to say I didn’t do it, I would be under lessened suspicion.  (The two-person rule did seem rather odd to me, especially since the upside-down paper I had read indicated that only one person had actually gotten a good look at the culprit.)

First, the lieutenant drove us back to the hotel where we picked up my wife.  Her absolute composure impressed the captain immensely.  “Things like this must happen to you all the time,” he said.  “She’s gotten used to it.”  Then we drove over to the store.  Within ten minutes, we had tracked down the key witness, a shoeshine man.  He took one look at me.  “That’s not the one,” he said.  “The one who did it was guapo.”

Guapo?” My textbook vocabulary included no such word, but as soon as the officers heard it I was off the hook.  “Just thank God you’re not guapo,” my wife said.

Things were looking up, but the deal had been for two witnesses.  We tried to find someone else who might have been around the night before, but didn’t get far.  Then the lieutenant went up to a lottery-ticket vender on the corner.  Yes, he had been there during the incident – not 40 feet away, in fact.  That was the good news.  The not-so-good news was that, like most of Spain’s lottery-ticket venders, he was blind.

The captain, who knew I was innocent because the crook was guapo, appeared unfazed.  “Did you hear the thief running away after breaking the window?” he asked the vender.  The vender said he had.  “Good,” said the captain. “Did it sound like this?”

He motioned for me to start running, and I did.

“That’s what it sounded like, all right,” the vender said.

“Yes, but surely not exactly,” said the captain.

“Well, perhaps not exactly.”

“Good.  Get in the car.”

It was after midnight when the six of us – the very large lieutenant, the captain, the shoeshine man, the lottery-ticket vender, my wife and I – emerged from the dinky sedan in front of the headquarters building.  The brief drive had tended to bring us all closer together, in every sense, and from that point on things went smoothly.  The police took a deposition from the shoeshine man stating that the crook was guapo and therefore couldn’t have been me, and from the vender, who swore that my footsteps differed in resonance, frequency and sonority from those of the felon.

Since my name had already been entered on the official records along with the presumption of guilt, we decided to go through the complex expungement procedures.  It took two days, and the police insisted that it wasn’t necessary at all unless we decided to live in Seville for more than six months and thus required residence permits.  In fact, we had resolved to do just that.

It was during our long stay that I finally learned the meaning of the word that had been the key to my exoneration.  In Spain, one who is guapo is handsome.

Note from 2012:  I wrote this for the New York Times Travel Section in 1974, when the Times asked for pieces about personal experiences for a series called Encounter.  It recounts events from the summer of 1963; two years later, my wife Kristin and I would go to live in Seville for nearly three years.

I really didn’t have any idea what guapo meant — to me, it sounded like one of the Spanish words for interesting deformities, like cojo (crippled) or tuerto (one-eyed).  I finally got the gist during Holy Week of 1966, when we were following the huge paso or float showing Seville’s most dearly beloved resident — the Virgen de la Macarena.  At four in the morning, after many stops where great flamenco artists sang penetrating and complex saetas or “arrows of song” to the carved image, the crowd broke into a simpler chant:  ”Virgen!  María!  Guapa, guapa, guapa!”

Oh, and I think that Dr. Johnson was referring to a female preacher and not a card-playing dog when he made the comment about the wonder being not that it was done well, but that it could be done at all.

Anyway, about ten years after the article ran, I was in Juan Orozco’s guitar shop and an American guy asked me if I was Brook Zern.  He said that in 1974 he was an exchange student in Spain, staying with a family in Oviedo, somewhere up north in Spain.  He said his parents had cut the article out of the Times and sent it to him, asking if it gave a realistic idea of the country and the Spanish mindset.  He thought the article was pretty good in that respect, and in fact he brought it to the dinner table and started to read it, translating it into Spanish for his hosts.  After a while, the father seemed to become disturbed and agitated.

He kept reading it, and finally the father said, “For God’s sake — I was stationed in Seville until I retired, and I arrested that kid!  I’m the one he calls the fat captain!  Does it say whether he stole the guitar?”

Small world indeed.

I was further delighted when New York Times writer William Safire, who wrote a wonderful column called “On Language” when he wasn’t writing wrong-headed rightist panegyrics, cited the title of the article, “Strum und Drang” as one of his favorite wordplays.


June 19, 2012   1 Comment

Best Night to Attend Flamenco Performances

A correspondent asks what would be the best day to attend the outstanding New York production of Soledad Barrios’s “Noche Flamenca” during its extensive run, adding that experienced aficionados must have solved this question long ago.

Actually, it doesn’t matter when you go.  With all flamenco events, whenever you go, it is invariably the case that you shoulda been there last night.

Except if you go on opening night, of course, in which case you shoulda been there the following night.

Brook Zern

November 19, 2011   No Comments