Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Guitarist Sabicas

Flamenco Forms – The Rondeña – From José Manuel Gamboa’s book “Una Historia del Flamenco” – translated with comments by Brook Zern

The Rondeña: Flamenco Authority J.M. Gamboa’s take on the rondeña

The rondeña is a remarkable and haunting piece from the flamenco guitar repertoire, the only flamenco guitar piece without an associated song — though there is a sung rondeña that can be accompanied on guitar. Here’s a description of the rondeña from the excellent book “Una Historia del Flamenco” by José Manuel Gamboa:

“We know the rondeña of [the noted Spanish classical guitarist Julian] Arcas. We know that [the great classical guitarist] Francisco Tarrega, his disciple, interpreted works of the master, and that Miguel Borrull Sr. [a famed early flamenco guitarist] was an indirect student of Tarrega. It is only logical to suppose that it was Borrull who brought the rondeña to Madrid, home of the young Ramón Montoya [considered the father of the developed flamenco guitar, and often called the creator of the solo guitar version of the rondeña].

This was confirmed by [the important flamenco singer] Pepe de la Matrona who said, “The first person to play the rondeña was Borrull Sr. This refers to the guitar solo, with its distinctive altered tuning, that Montoya improved and and introduced to a wide audience, since Borrull’s flamenco activity was limited to the usual resources of the instrument, namely strumming [rasgueado] and plucking with the thumb [pulgar]. The rondeña used a lot of that. Moreover, in Borrull’s era no guitarist had decided to record concert pieces of this nature. That’s how Borrull’s rondeña passed into history through the hands of Ramón Montoya. In any case, we still don’t know who wrote down the scordatura applied to that concert version of the rondeña, since we don’t find it among the works published by the maestros cultos [the cultured masters of the classical instrument]. Was it a Borrull’s concept? What we do find, already in Arcas’s written works, is the concept. It’s reasonable to suppose that Tarrega and others had the word…not to mention Rafael Marín [another noted transcriber of early flamenco guitar pieces]. That talented individual writes – and publishes as early as 1902! – flamenco works of enormous complexity for the time, where all kinds of techniques are used, the full range of the guitar fingerboard is employed, and there aare even scordaturas, as the were called.

What is clear is that Ramón Montoya – and through him other great players like Niño Ricardo, Sabicas, Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlúcar and Victor Monge “Serranito” – are the inheritors of Julián Arcas and Francisco Tarrega, each adding to the collective wisdom found in the piece. And there you have it, in its significant sense.

If we have traido a colación the concert version of the rondeña – the sung version is one of the oldest known forms in the flamenco genre – the dates don’t correspond because the instrumental version has the characteristics of the version of the fandango sung in the Eastern regions of Spain which gave birth to the form called the tarantos. Let’s look at the relationship.

Ramón Montoya “sings” with his guitar – he plays a melody that, not long afterwards, the [legendary dancer] Carmen Amaya would sing in her productions and would record with the nephew of Ramon, [the great virtuoso] Sabicas [not actually a nephew of Ramón Montoya – that position was occupied by Carlos Montoya, who became the most famous flamenco concert guitarist]. Carmen recorded it with two verses, “Dame veneno” and “Abre, que soy el Moreno”. At the end, she bursts into her energetic footwork. Sabicas accompanies her in the key used for mineras. And it’s titled rondeñas. The comediógrafo [what’s that?] Alfredo Mañas, believing that this was just a labeling error and it should have been titled tarantos [a term that would subsequently be used for a rhythmic, danceable version of the free-rhythm tarantas], told Carmen as much. She answered tajante that there was absolutely no mistake, ant that this was indeed the rondeña, now and forever [de toda la vida – all her life].”

End of section. Thanks to José Manuel Gamboa for this insight, for his book, and for the hours we have spent in conversation at El Colmao in Jerez.

At a recent New York conference dedicated to the many forms of the fandango — the rondeña is one such form, as are the granainas, the malagueñas, the tarantas, the mineras and several other song and guitar styles — I attended one session which presented a very early version of the rondeña as it was played before 1850 by the Granada guitarist Francisco Murciano and transcribed by the noted Russian composer Glinka. It was fascinating, and to my surprise it sounded a lot like one of the fandango forms as played on guitar decades later.

A lot of today’s experts insist there was no such thing as flamenco — not guitar, not dance and not flamenco song — until after 1850 when flamenco burst upon the scene in some Andalusian cities and also in Madrid.

I can’t understand why, if the guitar music of the flamenco form called the rondeña existed before 1850, today’s authorities insist flamenco didn’t exist until after 1850.

(I believe in the comical theory that flamenco had a gestation period, and that some of the songs that were until recently attributed in large measure to the Gypsies of Spain were being developed and performed below the radar for decades. This is called the “hermetic period”, and is ridiculed in decent company. (Maybe it’s because the “proof” is that there are no records and thus no proof that there was such a period. On the other hand, if there were such proof, it wouldn’t have been a hermetic period, right?)
Brook Zern

January 28, 2017   No Comments

Flamenco Singer Manolo Caracol speaks – 1970 Interview by Paco Almazán – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s introduction: This blog’s many interviews with great flamenco artists of the past are important. They can also be surprisingly relevant, shedding new light on contemporary arguments and issues. They let serious English-speaking aficionados understand the thoughts and feelings of those who shaped the history of the art.

As an example: No singer in my lifetime has been greater than Manolo Caracol. None came from a more illustrious artistic lineage, or more completely embodied the entire known history of the art. None were as prodigious — winning a historic contest at about twelve years old. And I think no recording reveals the emotional power of flamenco song as well as Caracol’s double-LP “Una Historia de Cante Flamenco”, on which he is magnificently accompanied by the guitarist Melchor de Marchena.

This interview by Paco Almazán from Triunfo magazine of August 8, 1970, goes to the very heart of the art. It served as a response to an earlier interview in that publication where Antonio Mairena, the leading singer of that time, had challenged the greatness of the other Gypsy giant, Manolo Caracol. Caracol would die not long after this interview appeared.

The interview can be found in the blog of Andrés Raya Saro called Flamenco en mi Memoria, at this url: http://memoriaflamenca.blogspot.com/2017/01/las-entrevistas-de-paco-almazan-ii.html?spref=fb

(My attempted clarifications appear in brackets.)

Sr. Almazán writes: Manolo Caracol started by weighing in on the casas cantaores – [the few crucial families who were immensely important in the early development of the art.] He claims that in reality, his family is the one and only real deal when it comes to bloodlines or heritage:

Manolo Caracol: The house of the Ortegas [Manolo Caracol is the professional name for Manuel Ortega] is actually the only one we know of. In the rest, there were one or two singers, but not a whole branch of them. I know of no other, because the house of Alcalá [a town that produced notable singers] is not a single family. Los Torres [the family of Manuel Torre, who remains the supreme paradigm of male Gypsy artistry] have produced some artists, and so have the the Pavóns [the family of the La Niña de los Peines, the maximum female Gypsy singer, and her brother Tomás Pavón, one of the four or five most revered male singers]. Pastora, Tomás and Arturo – three siblings, and that’s it. My great grandfather, [the legendary singer] Curro Dulce, who was my father’s grandfather; and on my mother’s side, [the legendary singer] El Planeta who was the inventor of the [important early song] polo, and was the world’s first flamenco singer. Or who created the polo, because I believe that flamenco songs are not made. Furniture is made, clothing is made, but flamenco songs are created. El Planeta was older than El Fillo, and from there on, and the Ortegas emanate from them. El Fillo was an Ortega, and was the first “cantaor” [singer] who was “largo”— who had an extensive repertoire. A great cantaor, a grandiose cantaor – that was El Fillo, and he was from Triana. Before me there were several cantaores. Now, in the Twentieth Century the most famous – well, I think that was me, and for that reason I say that even children know me and me biography. But I’d like to talk about today’s problems.

Interviewer’s note by Paco Almazán: Remember Caracol’s beginnings, after being one of the winners of the 1922 Concurso de Cante Jondo of Granada – he says “when I won the prize” [a stunning achievement for a twelve-year-old boy]. He traveled to Madrid and triumphed on the terrace of the Calderón Theater, reaffirming that Madrid plaza’s importance.

Interviewer: But Manolo, everyone accuses you of just that. Of having taken the cante into theaters, degrading the purity of flamenco! Don’t think that everyone thought it was a good idea!

M.C. It’s not a good idea? Well, what’s good? If right now the inventor of penicillin, Doctor Fleming, hadn’t shared it with the world, the sick would not have been cured. If I don’t take flamenco song to the people who might like it, and understand it, or at least welcome it. You can sing with an orchestra, or with a bagpipe – with anything! Bagpipes, violins, flutes…the man who has real art, real personality, and is a creator in cante gitano… You have my zambras [his rendition of sentimental popular songs with a flamenco aire, which had enormous sales], and my cantes [flamenco songs, which had more limited sales], all with roots of pure flamenco song, not fixed in a cosa pasajera!…But if this business of pure song [cante puro] has become popular now, starting about ten years ago, when the flamencologists decided to speak of flamenco and the purity of flamenco! Es un cuento! It’s a story! [A fairy tale]. This business of the purity of flamenco is a story! Singing flamenco and speaking of whether it’s pure flamenco…and they chew on the idea, and they talk, and talk [a clear reference to Antonio Mairena]. That’s not flamenco singing! That’s a guy giving a sermon. Cante flamenco and cante puro – not even the singer knows what’s what. He’s a cantaor who has been born to sing above him. The rest are just copying. That’s why today there is no creation, when before there was creation.

Paco Almazan’s note: How happy Caracol must have been after these statements! He goes on and on, and when Almazán asks him which artists he liked most or influenced him as a youngster, he gives us this gift:

M.C. There were different aspects. Who moved me the most, whose singing reached me most deeply – that was Manuel Torre. Who was most pleasing to listen to – that was Antonio Chacón. Tomás Pavón was pleasing, and also reached me. And another great artist, La Niña de los Peines [Pastora Pavón, sister of Tomás], the greatest cantaora [female singer] that was ever born. She was a singer who had everything, had altos and bajos [high and low registers]. And any singer who doesn’t have a good low register is worthless. There are many singers from that era who sing de cabeza [using headtones? In a studied way?], sing songs that never existed and that they couldn’t have known, and who call them cantes de Alcalá, or cantes del patatero [songs of the potato seller?] or of Juan Perico. [This again refers to Antonio Mairena, who probably invented certain styles of important song forms and attributed them to other, perhaps fictional, artists.] That’s worthless! It’s as if we dijeramos un aperitivo [served an aperitif?] to cante flamenco. Sing – sing and create – take command the way a great torero does, improvising. That’s real singing!

There are fewer real singers today. Today, as far as I know, among the younger singers I like Camarón [who would become a revolutionary and the most important singer of his generation], and among the veterans I like Pepe Marchena, a creator in his own style [the established master of a pleasing style of singing, with clear tone and a strong vibrato]. Juanito Valderrama [another pleasing singer, in the “cante bonito” or “pretty song” style] is an extraordinary artist [both Marchena and Valderrama, like Chacón before them, were non-Gypsy artists who represented a cultural counterbalance to the great Gypsy artists like Caracol; Caracol himself shows appreciation for both camps, when many others were partisans of one side or the other.] Valderrama doesn’t really reach me, but he’s a great artist and I like listening to him nonetheless. Those girls from Utrera [Fernanda and Bernarda de Utrera] are true cantaoras, and a lot of admired artists today are copying them. The places with the best singing are Triana, Jerez and Cádiz. In Alcalá what there are is bizcotelas. That’s what you’ll find in Alcalá, bizcotelas and dust for the alberos of bullrings. Among the guitarists, there’s Sabicas and this boy [este muchacho] Paco de Lucía, who plays very well, although not on the level of the maestro [Sabicas]. And Mario Escudero, who has come here from America. And among the Gypsy players [in addition to the Gypsy artists Sabicas and Escudero] we have Melchor de Marchena, Niño Ricardo, and that other guy, Habichuela [presumably the great accompanist Juan Habichuela]. Manolo de Huelva is retired now, but is a phenomenon, although he’s eighty. [Many people who saw this guitarist at work say no one was better, or as good.] And in dance, after Carmen Amaya, from this period I don’t know anyone among the dancers, neither in this era nor before [delante de] Carmen Amaya. I don’t know anyone.

Paco Almazán writes: The interview is long. Almost at the end, the newspaperman asks if flamenco loses something with the new verses that some younger singers are using.

M.C. Hombre, if the verses come from the sentiment of the song and the person who’s singing, and if they’re good… You can’t sing a martinete [a tragic deep song form] and tell about a little birdie singing in its nest. Now, anything that touches on pena [grief, misery], of love, of the blacksmith’s forge – all that is worthwhile.

Then the final question:

Paco Almazán:. Can you put the word “airplane” [modern, unpoetic, unexpected and possibly inappropriate to some] into a cante?

M.C. It’s all according to what’s being sung, and how. You can put it into a bulerías [a lighter form], “Ay! I went in an airplane, I went to Havana…” and there you have it. They can create precious new verses as good as the old ones, with more profundity and more poetry.

Comment by Andrés Raya: Remember that in its day, this interview, as well as the earlier one with Mairena, generated a lot of response among the flamenco aficionados of Madrid, giving rise to long arguments and heated discussions. Even beyond Madrid. In its Letters toe the Editor section, Triunfo published letters from many provinces. I’ve got copies of many, and may rescue them from the telerañas.

A press comment [about the Cordoba contest] confirms what Caracol says here. It’s from ABC of Madrid, dated August 9, 1922, and already the Caracol child is named “the king of cante jondo”.

Translator’s comment: Interesting indeed that Caracol singles out Camarón — who would become the ultimate rule breaker — as the most important young singer.

At the time of this interview, aficionados were choosing sides. Manolo Caracol had incredible emotive power, but he broke certain rules — as evidenced by his insistence that flamenco could be sung to bagpipes or anything else. (Today, that inclusive view dominates flamenco to the extent that a flamenco record featuring just a singer and an accompanying guitarist, once the norm, is almost unheard of.) He owned the genre called zambras [not to be confused with the zambras performed mostly in the caves of Granada, that are rhythmic Arabic-sounding songs and dances.]

The opposing view was embodied by Antonio Mairena, who obeyed (and invented) rules — to the extent that if he created a new approach to a known style, he might attribute it to some shadowy name from history to give it validity. Mairena rarely projected the emotional power of Caracol — he was almost scholarly in his renditions, giving what critics sometimes called “a magisterial lesson” in flamenco singing, rather than jumping in headfirst and just letting it all hang out. (In private, though, he could be pretty damn convincing.)

I tend to believe that early flamenco song had a gestation period, a “hermetic” stage when generations of Gypsy families forged the beginnings of the deep-song forms (tonás/martinetes, siguiriyas and soleares, which deal with Gypsy concerns from a Gypsy perspective) outside of public view due to the intense persecution of Gypsies in that era.

Caracol, who ought to know a lot better than I do, says that his great-grandfathers [Curro Dulce, El Planeta] were not just the first known flamenco singers but the first flamenco singers, period: they invented the whole genre. (It’s hard to defend the idea of this “hidden period”, especially since the “proof” is that it by its very nature it would be completely undocumented anywhere. (I’m not so sure that these alleged hidden sessions would have been reported in the Seville Gazette when they were essentially illegal and dangerous.)

For that matter, Caracol, like most authorities today, views the idea of “pure flamenco” as absurd or meaningless, while I kind of like the notion. I never liked the gifted singers like Pepe Marchena and Juanito Valderrama who specialized in the cante bonito or “pretty song”, now back in vogue, while Caracol always admired them.

Oh, well. It’s still a privilege to hear from the man best qualified to talk about flamenco history, and that’s why these interviews are so valuable.


January 27, 2017   1 Comment

Flamenco Guitarist Mario Escudero Speaks – 1984 Interview with Francisco Vallecillo – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

“Mario Escudero – With the Bienal as Backdrop” by Francisco de la Brecha [Francisco Vallecillo] — originally published in Sevilla Flamenca No.8 [1984?]

“I want flamenco fans to know who I am, starting with Andalusia”

Mario Escudero was born in Alicante in 1928. As a child he was taken to Madrid where he spent most of his youth. He was presented in public for the first time in France by Maurice Chevalier at the age of nine. Then dancer Vicente Escudero presented him in the Teatro Espanol in 1944 together with Ramón Montoya in a program of traditional flamenco that included singer Jacinto Almadén. For a long time, he studied with Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. His career started out in intimate juergas and on the “Opera Flamenca” stages, traveling throughout Spain with artists such as Tomás Pavón, La Niña de los Peines, José Cepero, Antonio Mairena, Juanito Mojama, El Sevillano, Canalejas, Pepe de la Matrona, Pericón de Cádiz and an endless list of other major singers of the era. He has also recorded duo guitar arrangements with Sabicas.

Before he was 25, he had traveled widely as first guitarist with Vicente Escudero, Carmen Amaya and Rosario and Antonio. After his trip to the U.S. with Vicente Escudero, he found a lot of interest in the flamenco guitar in that country and decided to emancipate himself from flamenco troupes and try to establish the flamenco guitar as a solo instrument in concert halls.

In 1956 he began his career as a concert player after long musical study in New York, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Los Angeles, continuing the studies he had begun with Daniel Fortea in Madrid. When he gave his first concert in Carnegie Hall it was a complete success. Since that auspicious beginning he has recorded more than 30 LPs and played in many Hollywood movies including “Cafe Cantante” with Imperio Argentina, “Brindis a Manolete” and “Jalisco Canta en Sevilla” with Jorge Negrete and Carmen Sevilla. He continues to give concerts around the world, and has just enojoyed another success in New York’s Town Hall.

That’s a brief biography of Mario Escudero, with whom we spent some time listening to his opinions, refreshing some old memories and exploring his profound artistic sensibility. This last item is not difficult, for Mario is an open person, expressive and sincere, even brave in his judgments although he seems rather shy. In our extensive chat one April morning we touched upon some topics that might interest the readers of Sevilla Flamenca in relation to the personality of this maestro of the flamenco guitar…

Q: Mario, we’d like to follow the course of your professional life through the key people you’ve accompanied in your long and brilliant career. We remember meeting you many years ago in Madrid, when you were a kid who had already earned fame as a revolutionary player, in the area of the Plaza Santa Ana and Plaza del Angel, near that legendary flamenco “university” that was called Villa Rosa, around Calle Principe, Echegaray, and Victoria. One afternoon you introduced us to an unforgettable master of Gypsy dance, Francisco Ruiz, whose artistic name was Paco Laberinto. You were accompanying the [flamenco and popular singer] El Principe Gitano, who aspired to be a bullfighter, no less. Going back to that era, let’s talk about Vicente Escudero. Don’t you think his fame was greater than was warranted by the reality of his dancing, in which there were some marked deficiencies?

A: The passage of time and my good memories of Vicente prevent me from openly pursuing the thread you’ve started here. Yes, in fact, perhaps you’re not far from the truth here. But he had a distinctive line and a very personal style, and he was enthralled by the dance and by gypsies. Vicente Escudero was the first to dance siguiriyas. I started out calling him “Señor Escudero” and he vehemently corrected me. “No, I’m not Señor Escudero to you — I’m Tío Vicente [Uncle Vicente]”, and that’s what I ended up calling him.

Q: Your opinion of Carmen?

A: What can I tell you about Carmen Amaya that hasn’t already been said? She was the greatest living genius of dance, the eternal and inextinguishable flame; she represented the glory of pure inspiration, because she never danced anything the same way twice. Her successes were enormous and knew no frontiers. She danced for Toscanini and for Franklin Roosevelt.”

Q: You played with Ramón Montoya and Niño Ricardo. To what extent were these men the roots of flamenco playing? And can you compare them?

A: Ramón was a great innovator of the flamenco guitar; Ricardo, who followed this same line, came later. With Ramón one must also talk of Jerez guitarist Javier Molina, another innovator. And with Ricardo, one must think along the different lines, but always innovative, of Manolo el de Huelva. The very personal style – and so clearly Andalusian, if one can say that – of Ricardo was extremely important. That was also true of the man from Huelva. But Ramón and Javier were the real pioneers in the innovation and perfection of flamenco guitar playing. All of them brought a great deal to the huge process of seeking new forms and to the evolution of the guitar: the evolution of playing toward what I call the three A’s: Aggressive, Accelerated, Arrogant.

Q: You’ve accompanied such exalted singers as Pastora Pavón “La Niña de los Peines”, her brother Tomás Pavón, Antonio Mairena, Juanito Mojama. Who had the most meaning to you when you get right down to it?

A: All of them. To make a comparison between these colossi would be sheer vanity on my part. There is no way to select a favorite. But the deepest and most indelible memories I have are of Tía Pastora [Pavón]: sweet and not cloying…a thousand years could pass, and there will never appear another singer like her.”

Q: What about your compadre, “El Nino de las Habicas” [the Kid of the Beans, Sabicas, who loved his "habas" as a child], Agustín Castellón — do you think he has influenced your playing?”

: A: Of course! He had a great influence on me, and in fact the guitar in general owes this genius from Navarre a wealth of contributions and new ideas.”

Q: Do you think there’s room in Spain for the concert flamenco guitar, for this spruced-up style whose rise you have contributed to?

A: I have no doubt that there is. This concert guitar, whatever clothes it may wear, today represents a kind of music that is unique in the world, and people are enthusiastic in their admiration of flamenco guitar. Why shouldn’t concert guitar have a place in Spain? One thing is certain: Outside Spain it’s valued more highly than in, and followed by multitudes of fans. But it’s gaining ground here, gaining strength, and with good reason, because it’s a genuinely Spanish art, just as Spanish as the instrument upon which it is played.

Q: You were in New York in February, and in April you’ll go back to play concerts in many states of the union. Are you thinking of establishing yourself definitively in Seville?

A: I sure am! What happens is that sometimes man proposes, and circumstance disposes. I have many obligations that must be met. But my decision to reside in Seville is definitive. I want flamenco fans to know who I am, starting with Andalusia. I’d like to do some teaching here,and I wish to live, be and work in Spain, because one’s homeland, that homing instinct, it’s very strong…

Q: Our mutual friend, Brook Zern, said in The New York Times of February 3rd that you are not only a guitar virtuoso, but also one of the players who has most significantly extended the style and range of flamenco music, and who had great influence on the most popular of Spain’s younger guitarists, Paco de Lucía, who included your composition “Impetu” on his first album. What do you think of the fabulous Paco de Lucía?

A: For me, he is a remarkably complete artist, with enormous personality and individuality, who follows the path laid out by Niño Ricardo better than anyone else and who has discovered a way to create an inimitable and unmatched personal style or “aire”; fabulous: imitated by many, equaled by no one.

Sincere thanks to Brook Zern for the transcription and translation of this interview”

Translator’s note. Thanks to Francisco Vallecillo for interviewing my friend Mario after he had gone to live in Sevilla.

I loved Mario — you had to get on line, because so many others did, too. Around this time, I ran into him on my way to my hotel on Calle Sierpes, and he insisted I instead stay at his apartment in the Heliopolis section of the city. (We spent many hours wandering the streets, unsuccessfully looking for the jewelry shop where he had left his diamond ring to be cleaned.)

Years later, in the nineties, he was often at the American Institute of Guitar on 56th Street in New York, where I spent my inexcusably extended lunch hours while allegedly working at Time Incorporated. His compañero Sabicas often joined him there. It was pure joy to share his time, his opinions and his memories.

Not long ago, after I had published yet another article waving the flag for the idea that Spain’s Gypsies are now being shortchanged by contemporary scholars (some of whom call me a racist for stressing the importance of the gitano contribution to flamenco) I received a note from Anita Ramos, Mario’s wife.

She wrote: “Brook — As Sabicas and Mario Escudero both said of you ‘Brook es un payo muy gitano.’ (“Brook is a very Gypsy non-Gypsy.” I don’t know if that contradicted or supported my thesis, but I consider it a very high compliment indeed.

(Vallecillo, incidentally, is still villified for his stance on the issue decades after his demise. He was not only a gitanista, but a devout mairenista — a follower of the great Gypsy singer Antonio Mairena, who insisted that there was something called “razón incorporea” or incorporeal reason — an inherited quintessence of something-or-other that gave them the ability to transcend normal expressive barriers in their flamenco artistry. The term seems idiotic, and the whole notion is beyond problematic — it’s hard enough being suspected of gitanista leanings without seeking a pseudoscientific justification for the failing.)


January 22, 2017   No Comments

A truly historic 6-CD recording plus DVD finally reveals the art of the guitar genius Manolo de Huelva (plus film of dancers La Argentinita and Pilar López)

Manolo de Huelva may have been the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time.

Okay, okay — we all know that title belongs to Paco de Lucía for perfecting the pre-existing virtuoso tradition around 1970 with stunning imagination and unprecedented technique, and then reconceiving the guitar concert with a jazzier ensemble sound for a broader audience. And the runner-up would be Ramón Montoya, the giant who around 1900 turned an inchoate mixture of styles and ideas into a coherent art form worthy of the name. And third place would go to Sabicas, for being the greatest flamenco virtuoso for a half-century before Paco dethroned him.  And if none of those perfectionists were the best exponents of raw power and funky punch — by one measure the central challenge of great flamenco guitar — the title would default to Melchor de Marchena, the preferred accompanist for the greatest singers in flamenco’s recorded history, or to Juan Habichuela who around 1970 took over Melchor’s role as the best backup man.  Or to the endlessly inventive Niño Ricardo, the main influence on Paco de Lucía and most other flamenco players in Spain.

Manolo de Huelva?  Well, he was determined to become the most revered flamenco player in Spain — and that’s what he did.  Between 1920 and 1975, if you mentioned his name in Spain, you would get no response.  Unless you happened to be talking to the artists at the absolute pinnacle of the tradition, the people who knew more than anyone else.  They had heard him, and that was all it took.  They spoke of him with awe, and of his playing as a thing apart and above.

Others just didn’t know, and that was how Manolo de Huelva wanted it.  He was determined to conceal his art from others, particularly other guitarists, and he did this with stunning success.  Only on rare occasions did he give other players a glimpse of his majestic accompaniment and musical creativity.

In 1963, after an astounding night of flamenco in the legendary Zambra (or was it the Villa Rosa?) in Madrid, I was generously invited to go see Manolo accompany some of that venue’s great singers, including Pepe de la Matrona.  As I was getting into one of the taxis, a guy asked to look at my hands.  He noticed my right-hand nails were longer than my left, and said I wasn’t allowed to join the group.  I started to argue, and said — not in jest — that I’d bite the long nails off.  He looked at my left hand fingertips, saw the tell-tale calluses that only come from serious practicing, and told me to scram.  He said that Manolo often inspected strangers’ hands, and might refuse to play at all if he suspected a guitarist was in or outside the roadside Venta Manzanilla where he reigned supreme.  I was just a kid, and couldn’t have retained thirty seconds of his music if he’d wanted me to, but I was still frozen out.

Ever since, I have been dreaming and scheming, hoping to hear Manolo playing at his best — as did my friend Don Pohren, the leading foreign authority on flamenco, who realized that he would never hear anyone better.  (Don also shared my admiration for the guitarist Diego del Gastor, who unlike Manolo refused to make any commercial recordings but generously allowed us devotees to make hundreds of hours of tape recordings of his solos and accompaniment.)

Manolo made a batch of 78′s before 1950, accompanying some noted singers, but it was clear that he was concealing his real art.  In the mid-seventies, I went to the Seville home of Virginia de Zayas, an American woman whose Spanish husband, Marius, had recorded the Ramón Montoya’s historic Paris sessions around 1937.  Manolo lived in her house, and she agreed to write about the man and his art for Guitar Review, the elegant New York publication of which I was the Flamenco Editor.  (You can find those three long articles in this blog by searching for “Zayas”.)  She also told me that she would arrange for me to meet Manolo the next time I was in Spain, and possibly be allowed to transcribe some of his variations or falsetas — in any event, Manolo died before that could happen.  (A double LP was later issued by de Zayas, one with Ramón’s old material and the other with some confusing snippets of Manolo de Huelva’s playing that failed to do justice to his art.)

This blog also contains a Guitar Review interview with Andrés Segovia, who — contrary to prevailing opinion — had enormous respect for what he called “true flamenco”, citing the art’s greatest female singer, La Niña de los Peines, and its greatest male singer (okay, male Gypsy singer), Manuel Torre, and heaping high praise on just one guitarist — yes, Manolo de Huelva.

Years ago, I gave up hope of ever hearing the man at his best, or learning his crucial music beyond the few fragments that were allegedly from his hand.

Earlier today, I got an email from my friend Estela Zatania, author and critic for deflamenco.com, relaying news from the noted French authority Pierre LeFranc that the important Spanish label Pasarela had published a massive 6-CD set-plus-DVD titled “Manolo de Huelva acompaña…”

And the singers he backs are formidable.  The great surprise is a batch of stuff by Aurelio de Cádiz, whose first recordings with Ramón Montoya date back to the twenties or thereabouts.  (I inherited some of those 78′s from my father, who also taught me my first flamenco licks.)   These “new” songs are a priceless addition to Aurelio’s sparsely-documented art — he always promised to make a worthy anthology but never did.  (A translation of a long interview of Aurelio appears in this blog — search for the author’s name Climent.) Other singers include Luís Caballero, an elegant singer who worked as a bellhop in the Hotel Alfonso XIII, which recently reclaimed its stature as the city’s best.  La Pompi, an important early singer and sister of the great Niño Gloria, is heard, as is the still-admired but otherwise unrecorded Rafael Pareja; finally, there’s the very significant Pepe de la Matrona with his immense knowledge — an early inspiration for Enrique Morente who as a very young artist appeared along with Pepe at La Zambra.

As for the DVD, it finally brings to light a film I’d seen long, long ago at the Museum of Modern Art and have been trying to find ever since. It shows Manolo de Huelva — or rather, it shows glimpses of his hands as he remains in shadow — as he accompanies the legendary dancers La Argentinita and Pilar López. (I actually saw it once again, at the Andalusian Center for Flamenco Documentation — then the CAF, now the CADF — around the corner from my apartment in Jerez. I even managed to sneakily record the soundtrack on my iTunes player (I had a separate mike for it). But now here it is, glorious picture and all — a true treasure for dance historians and all lovers of flamenco dance.

Decades ago, after hearing a theorbo or vihuela concert by de Zayas’s son Rodrigo, I approached him to plead and whimper that he had a duty to reveal Manolo’s music — something I had also done to Pepe Romero, the flamenco and classical guitarist whose family was evidently close to Manolo, also to no apparent avail.

Or so I thought.  Today the often fractious flamenco community is forever indebted (I presume) to Rodrigo de Zayas and that eminent family, which must be the source of those recordings that span a period from about 1940 to the mid-seventies.

Before I list the contents, let me add more backup to the claims about this man. And if a rave from Spain’s greatest classical guitarist isn’t enough, how about a rave from her greatest poet?

In his wonderful 1964 book “Lives and Legends of Flamenco” Don Pohren quoted Federico García Lorca’s appraisal of Manolo in “Obras Completas”:

“The guitar, in the cante jondo, must limit itself to keeping the rhythm and following the singer; the guitar is a base for the voice, and must be strictly subjected to the will of the singer.

“But as the personality of the guitarist is often as strong as that of the cantaor, the guitarist must also sing, and thus falsetas are born (the commentaries of the strings), when sincere of extraordinary beauty, but in many cases false, foolish and full of pretentious prettiness when expressed by one of those virtuosos…

“The falseta is now traditional, and some guitarists, like the magnificent Niño de Huelva, let themselves be swept along by the voice of their surging blood, but without for a moment leaving the pure line or, although they are maximum virtuosos, displaying their virtuosity.”

Thanks, Federico. As for Pohren’s personal opinion — and he had heard Manolo in top form — here’s his opening salvo:

“How does one begin to talk of the wondrous Manolo de Huelva? Perhaps by stating that he has quietly, semi-secretly, reigned as flamenco’s supreme guitarist for half a century? Or by stating that in the eyes of many knowledgeable aficionados and artists he has been the outstanding flamenco guitarist of all times? Truthfully, a separate volume, accompanied by tapes or records demonstrating Manolo’s evolution as a guitarist, which could only be played by Manolo himself, would be perhaps the only way to begin giving Manolo his due. This, I fear, cannot be accomplished; Manolo himself has seen to this by his elaborate, unbending covertness, his lifelong refusal to play anything that he considered to be of true value in the presence of any type of machine, often including the human.”

Pohren continues:

“Manolo especially dislikes playing when other guitarists are present. How many professional guitarists have actually heard Manolo cut loose? Very, very few, but those who have consider the occasion as having been sacred. Andrés Segovia has, and has called Manolo the greatest living flamenco guitarist. Segovia became so inspired, in fact, that he devoted a major part of a thesis to Manolo de Huelva. Melchor de Marchena has, and proclaims Manolo the greatest guitarist he has ever heard, This covers some ground, including Ramón Montoya, Javier Molina, today’s virtuosos and Melchor himself. Many singers and aficionados have, and they unanimously agree that in the accompaniment of the cante, and in the transmission of pure flamenco expression, Manolo is far off by himself.

“Just what makes Manolo’s playing so exceptional? To start with, he has the best thumb and left hand in the business. He is flamenco’s most original a prolific creator. He has a vast knowledge of flamenco in general and the cante in particular, which causes his toque to be unceasingly knowledgeable and flamenco. He is blessed with the same genius and duende that separated Manuel Torre from the pack; as was the case with Torre, when Manolo de Huelva becomes inspired he drives aficionados to near-frenzy, striking the deepest human chords with overwhelmingly direct force.

“As is so rarely the case, Manolo’s playing, when he is truly fired up, is truly spontaneous; he plays from the heart, not the head. His toque is full of surprises, of the unexpected. His manipulations of the compás are fabulous, his lightning starts and stops at once profound and delightful. His is a guitarist (this is important) impossible to anticipate – his genius flows so spontaneously that often not even Manolo knows what is coming next…

“By the time he reached his twenties, his toque was mentioned with awe in the flamenco world. He had everything: a naturally flawless compás that was equaled by no one, a driving, extremely flamenco way of playing, great duende, and the sixth sense that permitted him to anticipate the singers, without which an accompanist is lost. Cantaores began calling Manolo first, before Javier or Ramón or any of the others. Soon Manolo was known as the top man…

“Sabicas once invited him to join in a record of guitar duets. Manolo felt highly insulted, firstly because Sabicas should consider himself in the same class, and secondly that he should be propositioned to play such nonsense as guitar duets, On the other hand, upon asking Manolo whom he liked best of the modern guitar virtuosos, he instantly replied that Sabicas has the best compás in the business (next to his own). This is as far as he would commit himself.

“Technically, Manolo relies on his blindingly fast and accurate thumb and left hand for most of the astounding effects he achieves. His entire right-hand technique is subordinate to his thumb: that is to say, his right hand is held in such a a posture as to give he thumb complete freedom of movement. When he wishes, his picado is unexcelled and his arpeggios are sound, though he uses them sparingly. Little is known of his tremolo, as he holds this flowery technique in great contempt.

“The Gypsies like to believe that flamenco surges exclusively through their veins. It is impossible to explain that environment is what counts (were it not, someone would long ago have begun selling pints of Gypsy blood to payo [non-Gypsy] aspirants.)…Generally speaking, Manolo is above being included in the eternal rivalry. Knowledgeable Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike hold him supreme.”

End of Pohren’s appraisal. And now, without further ado, here’s what you’ll find in this new revelation. And no, I haven’t heard it yet — but I’ve ordered it. I know it may be just another perversely elaborate tease, where this strange man again conceals his true art.

But I prefer to believe that we will hear the real Manolo de Huelva — finally, and at long, long. last.

Note from a few days later: But wait!! I suspected there might be some glitches or problems with this project, but assumed it would be with Manolo’s customary refusal to reveal his best playing. Instead, the first problems are with the attributions of songs to singers. According to the expert Antonio Barberán, there are only a few songs by the great Aurelio (though some are very important). Some stuff attributed to him is by Manuel Centeno, another noted singer, while he may not do any of the many saetas or sevillanas attributed to him. (It had surprised me that Aurelio would record these songs — the sevillanas seems too trivial, and the religious saetas just don’t seem to be his thing.) So ignore those glitches — I’ll fix the notes when the experts have had their say. Here are those problematic attributions, most correct but many just plain wrong:

Note from a few weeks later: But wait!!! I have received my copy and changed the entries below to reflect my notions of who is singing — followed by the original attributions in brackets and quotation marks. Fire fights have broken out on some insider websites such as Puente Genil con el Flamenco, but the dust is settling.

Here is the latest version — a few more attributions might be revised in the future. And again: minor glitches aside, this is a wonderful contribution to the world’s treasury of flamenco, made possible thanks to Sr. de Zayas and the de Zayas family.

CD 1:

Siguiriyas “Mi ropa tengo en venta”
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  4:29

Bulerias “Cuando me daba” (truncada) 0:47
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  4:29

Bulerías “Cuando me daba” (entera) 3:45
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  3:45

Bulerías “A mi me duele”
Luisa Ramos Antúnez “La Pompi” con Manolo de Huelva  1:52

Bulerías “A mi me sigue”
La Gitanilla con Manolo de Huelva  2:01

Bulerías “Que cosita mas rara”
La Gitanilla con Manolo de Huelva  2:55

Manolo de Huelva, guitarra; La Gitanilla, palmas  1:29

Siguiriyas falseta  0:37
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Malagueñas “Que te quise y que te quiero”  2:12
Manuel Centeno con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Que te pueda perdonar”  2:42
Manuel Centeno con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “A que tanto me consientes”  4:53
Manuel Centeno con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá  3:53
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

La Caña  3:22
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Soleá  3:58
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

CD 2

Malagueñas “Más bien te agradecería” 7”14 [empieza con afinación de guitarra]
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “A veces me ponía”  2:56
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Allí fueron mis quebrantos”  3:28
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Tarantas “Viva Madrid que es la corte”  6:36
Luís Caballero con Manolo de Huelva

Alegrías “A mí que me importa”  5:32
Luís Caballero [?] con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Hay pérdidas que son ganancias” 7:40
Luís Caballero [?] con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Morena tienes la cara”  8:13
Luís Caballero [?] con Manolo de Huelva

CD 3

Alegrías “Ya te llaman la buena moza”  4:29
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “Llévame pronto su puerta”  3:56
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “En el patrocinio”  1:56
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “La que me lavó el pañuelo”  1:41
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Con paso firme”  1:41
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “Al cielo que es mi morada” (a duo)
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Silencio, pueblo cristiano”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Fandangos “Ay, sereno!”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Dios te salve, María”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Bien sabe Dios que lo hiciera”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “No vale tanto martirio”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Ni que a la puerta te asomes”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Saeta “Pare mío esclareció”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Y a visitarte he venío”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Bulerías “A mí no me hables”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “La torrente”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Solea “A Dios le pido clemencia
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Tangos “De cal y canto y arena”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Solea “Las campanas del olvío”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Tangos “Yo te tengo que querer”
Aurelio de Cádiz con Manolo de Huelva

Sevillanas “Seré por verte”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Sevillanas “Es tanto lo que te quiero”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Sevillanas “Mi moreno me engañó”
Unknown ["Aurelio de Cádiz"] con Manolo de Huelva

Tanguillos “Yo tengo una bicicleta”
Aurelio de Cádiz [?] con Manolo de Huelva

CD 4

Bulerías “Al campo me voy a vivir”  3:52
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Que no me mande cartas”  9:18
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Que tenga mi cuerpo”  5:43
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Contemplarme a mi mare, que no llore más”  8:12
Felipe de Triana con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá con Polo “Eres el Diablo”  5:36
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Malagueñas “Cuando yo esperaba” 3:17
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Porque faltó el cimiento”  3:22
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Que te salvó la vida”  4:05
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá con Polo “Eres el Diablo”  6:18
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Como hiciste tú conmigo”  1:39
Rafael Pareja con Manolo de Huelva

CD 5

Solea “En feria de Ronda”  12:06
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Que bonita era”  4:55
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Soleá “Redoblaron”  2:48
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “Ventanas a la calle”  8:21
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Tangos “Estabas cuando te vi”  6:58
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Peteneras “Compañera de mi alma”  9:52
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

Siguiriyas “A la Virgen de Regla”  6:45
Pepe de la Matrona con Manolo de Huelva

CD 6

Soleá “La Babilonia” 1:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá Petenera  1:29
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá Apolá  2:16
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Polo Natural  2:22
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Le dijo el tiempo el querer”  1:54
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “A una montaña”  1:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Una rosa que fue mía”  1:34
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

El Polo de Tobalo  2:30
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Solea “No todavía” 1:20
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Los pájaros son clarines”  1:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Toquen a rebato las campanas del olvío”  1:53
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Soleá “Con mirarte solamente, comprenderás que te quiero”  2:14
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

La Caña  4:14
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Siguiriyas “Mi ropa tengo en venta 2:42
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Macho de la Serrana 3:20
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Bulerías “Cante corto de Jerez” 2:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Siguiriyas “Mi ropa tengo en venta 2:42
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Macho de la Serrana 3:20
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña

Bulerías “Cante corto de Jerez” 2:32
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, anuncia y acompaña


Sevillanas – introducción
Argentinita y Pilar López, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Argentinita, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Argentinita y Pilar López, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Tangos de Cadiz “Dos Tangos de Cadiz”
Argentinita, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

“Canción” [?] “Hermanito de mi corazón” o “Tango del escribano”
“Cádiz, tacita de plata, es un verdadero encanto”
Manolo de Huelva, guitarra [?]

Alegrías – alternando ralentí sincronizado
Argentinita, baile. Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Manolo de Huelva, guitarra, con palmas y pitos

La Caña “A mí me pueden mandar”
Argentinita, baile; Manolo de Huelva, guitarra

Here’s the Pasarela url with buying info:


Brook Zern

January 5, 2015   5 Comments

A New World to Conquer: How The Flamenco Guitar Took Manhattan and America – by Brook Zern

A New World to Conquer:
How The Flamenco Guitar Took Manhattan and America

Note:  This was written for inclusion in the elegant catalog that accompanied the Lincoln Center Library Exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York”

Flamenco music, a product of Spain’s southern region of Andalusia, has a mixed pedigree at best.  It started with some distinctive songs that packed an emotional wallop – songs that first drew public and press attention in the mid-Nineteenth Century but may have been brewing long before that.

Inevitably, the music reflected the mélange of peoples and cultures that had defined the area – Celts, Vandals, Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, the Moors who occupied the region from 711 until 1492, and the Gypsies who had wandered from India to the western end of the then-known world.

Inevitably, too, Spain’s glorious folk and formal dance traditions meant that a new style of movement would arise, appropriate to the specific rhythms and emotional mysteries of these song forms.

And Spain’s emblematic instrument, the guitar, was on hand to provide the rhythmic underpinning and melodic support to hold it all together.

Flamenco was ready for its close-up.  By the 1870’s, it had coalesced into a distinctive style of singing, dancing and guitar accompaniment that would be immediately recognizable today.  By the early 1900’s, flamenco consisted of more than fifty forms, each defined by a specific rhythm, key and melodic structure – and each with its own emotional landscape.

But flamenco wasn’t finished creating itself.  A few Spanish visionaries shared an impossible dream – a dream of appearing alone in a spotlight in a concert hall, and distilling each flamenco form into nothing more or less than a blaze of music emerging from a single guitar.

One was from Madrid in the center of Spain, one from Alicante on the Eastern coast, and one from Pamplona.  All were beginning professional journeys that would lead them to Eighth Avenue and 55th Street in Manhattan, give or take a block or two.

Why was this strange self-exile an intrinsic element in the creation of the concert flamenco guitar?  Because Spain wasn’t interested.  In Spain, everyone knew that the guitarist was simply a supporting player, hired to enable the nation’s star flamenco singers and dancers to shine.

A flamenco guitarist in the spotlight?  On a concert stage?  Absurd.  Where were the real artists?  It was as if – well, in American terms, it was as if a blues musician had decided his instrument was so fine, so complete, so evocative  that he didn’t need to sing at all, but instead would give two-hour concerts of incessant guitar.  All by itself.

As for flamenco guitar solos, well, Spaniards knew you’d have to be crazy to voluntarily sit through twenty of them.  Or – is this so different? – you’d have to be an American.

Americans loved flamenco dance, all right.  That art, or its Spanish-dance predecessors including classical and bolero-style dancing, had been packing us in since before the Civil War, and by the 1940’s New York City was infested with the troupes and troopers who would become legends – the incomparable Barcelona-born Carmen Amaya, Pilar Lopez and La Argentinita from guess-where, the young Brooklyn-born José Greco, and dozens of other lesser lights.

On the other hand, Americans hated serious flamenco singing.  That may seem like an overstatement, but even today, with our professed love of diversity and tens of thousands of hours of reggae and salsa on the air every year, you will not find serious flamenco singing on American radio, anywhere, ever.  And since flamenco song is far too assertive to generate indifference, the remaining response is outright distaste.

(One of the few U.S. records of flamenco singing, from the early LP days of stereo and sound effects, was titled “Music to Speed the Parting Guest”, and it did exactly that.)

Enter the pioneers of the concert flamenco guitar.  The most successful figure was a Gypsy from Madrid who had already made a name for himself accompanying many of the greatest dancers of his time.  His name was Carlos Montoya, and his uncle thought his playing was inferior.  This might not normally be a problem, but in this case it should have been catastrophic.

His uncle was named Ramón Montoya, and he held the patent on flamenco guitar.  Starting around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Ramón Montoya had solidified the still amorphous sound of the instrument into dozens of distinctive guitar forms.  He had raised the previously lax technical standards of flamenco into the realm of genuine virtuosity, and had also introduced new mechanisms borrowed from the classical guitar, notably arpeggios and tremolos.

Ramón was revered as an accompanist, and was sought out by the greatest divo in the the history of flamenco, Don Antonio Chacón – that “Don” was an unprecedented honorific in an art form, flamenco, that was usually associated with low-lifes, alcoholics and worse.

Ramón was the towering progenitor of this art form, and in 1936 he made the first flamenco guitar album – not in Madrid, but in Paris.  There was simply no audience for this in Spain, and he returned to the role of backup man.

Carlos Montoya, born in 1903, had a broader ambition.  In Spain, he accompanied many leading dancers and singers.  Then, in an unusual career move for a Gypsy, he joined the army – knowing this would entitle him to passport when he got out.   Soon he was touring the world with great dancers including La Argentina, La Argentinita, Pilar López, La Malena, La Macarrona, Vicente Escudero, Antonio de Bilbao, Faíco and Carmen Amaya – it is reasonably certain that no other guitarist has ever appeared with such an illustrious array of dance figuras.

He finally settled in New York with his Scottish-American wife Sally, who had a love of flamenco and a gift for promotion.  He began building a concert career, and his success was phenomenal.  He radiated charisma, connecting with new audiences who simply assumed that a flamenco guitar concert was the most natural thing in the world.

Montoya’s solo career coincided with the advent of the long-play record; in 1950, he made the world’s first flamenco LP for Folkways records in New York, and by the end of the century he had made at least fifty more for many labels.  The records were so ubiquitous that nearly every young American who became obsessed with flamenco guitar would say it was a Carlos Montoya record that ignited the passion.  The concerts and recordings were a potent combination, mutually reinforcing Montoya’s astounding public impact.  At the peak of his fame, he filled entire stadiums – an achievement never equaled by other soloists.

Carlos Montoya was the world’s most successful flamenco concert artist.  In 1973, at the Spanish Institute, I had the honor of introducing him on his 25th year as a soloist as he was presented with Spain’s Order of Civil Merit.   In 1983, he celebrated his 80th birthday with a Carnegie Hall concert that marked the culmination of his career.

But you can’t have everything, and in the flamenco business there is no necessary correlation between public adulation and insider admiration.   For initiates, Carlos’s playing was sometimes interesting but often imprecise and efectista – straining for effect at the expense of substance.

In fact, these people knew the greatest flamenco virtuoso of the era was also living in New York.

It had been a long, strange trip.  He was born in the Spanish city least likely to generate a flamenco artist, and indeed there is no sign it ever produced another.  Pamplona is the beating heart of the Basque country, where secessionism runs strong and Spanish can feel like a foreign language.

But in 1912, when Agustín Castellón was five, someone gave him a guitar.  Since no one played flamenco in Pamplona, he started listening to records and copying the guitarists.

He acquired his nickname from his childhood love of beans – habas, diminutively called habicas.  He was playing onstage at eight years old, and accompanying important singers in his teens.  In his early twenties he was Sabicas, which is to say he was the most adept flamenco guitarist in the world.

With his beloved brother Diego, he left Spain in 1936 to tour South America and Mexico as part of the company of the fabulous Carmen Amaya – two geniuses at the pinnacle of their art, squandering sheer magic wherever they went.

By the mid-fifties, Sabicas had settled in New York City and begun laying the foundation for a solo career.  It was his Town Hall concert of May 22, 1959 that amazed the audience and stunned the critics, who stated that for the first time, we were in the presence of a true flamenco guitar virtuoso.

He went from triumph to triumph, and his records were a revelation.  In 1959, his first LP, Flamenco Puro, provided marching orders for hopeful players in America and gradually filtered into Spain to reset the bar for every player who aspired to true virtuosity.

(I had started studying flamenco guitar in 1959, continuing a family tradition started by my Pennsylvania Dutch father in the mid-1940’s.  I learned from him and then from his teacher, Fidel Zabal, a fine Spanish player and a good friend of Sabicas whose material he showed to my father and to me.  Two years later, I was studying guitar in Spain with a noted professional – hoping to find “real” flamenco material – when he asked what I already knew.

“Nothing special,” I said apologetically.  “Just stuff from Sabicas.”

His jaw dropped.  “What!?  You know the music of Niño Sabicas!?  My god, how we have missed him.  Don’t move!”

He picked up his phone.  A half-hour later, I was surrounded by a half-dozen professional players, laboriously but correctly showing them Sabicas’s great falsetas (melodic variations) – which they immediately and joyously re-rendered in a way I could only envy and never equal.)

Sabicas ruled the realm of solo flamenco guitar for several decades, virtually unchallenged.  But he soon had worthy company – a younger compañero and escudero (the Spanish word means squire or shield-bearer, and refers to a knight’s right-hand man) appropriately named Mario Escudero.

Mario was inevitably overshadowed by his idol, but he was a genius in his own right, as demonstrated by his many fine recordings including breathtaking historic duets with the maestro.  His approach to guitar had a more classical sensibility, reflecting his prowess in that area.  For years, his presence and his personality graced the New York guitar scene.

Sabicas, meanwhile, continued his illustrious concert career, and sometimes played in the intimate Chateau Madrid in midtown.  His guitar had an unequalled clarity and sonority, his seemingly effortless technique set new standards, and his mastery of flamenco’s fiendishly difficult metric/rhythmic system called compás was absolute.  He created hundreds of superb falsetas, treasured and traded by lesser guitarists everywhere.

He also kept his hand in as an accompanist, making records with singers including Domingo Alvarado, Enrique Montoya and Dolores Vargas.  He never learned English – his guitar did the communicating.

But no one reigns forever.  And on a Manhattan evening in 1965 some local artists and aficionados took an eighteen-year-old phenomenon to meet the maestro.  The new kid on the block had been called Paco de Algeciras before he wisely switched that home-town moniker for his mother’s name and became Paco de Lucía.

The famous New York-based dancer José Greco, who had the wisdom to work surrounded by superb artists (including El Farruco, widely considered the finest male flamenco dancer of the last half-century), had brought Paco to town, as he had a few years before.

Sabicas listened to him play.  Like nearly every other Spanish guitarist of the era, Paco was hugely influenced by the brilliant and endlessly inventive Niño Ricardo.  Sabicas, possibly with a tinge of jealousy, told Paco to stop copying Ricardo and to find a different response to the challenge.

Paco took that advice to heart, and a few years later he had casually transcended all previous technical limitations, and was devising a new concept of how the instrument should sound.  In fact, he was even criticizing his venerable elders, including Sabicas himself, for their failure of nerve in merely polishing instead of reconceiving the flamenco guitar.

Paco would soon return to the Big Apple, billed as “the Paganini of the guitar”. A few months ago I wrote a blog entry for my website describing that event:

In 1970 or 1971, Paco de Lucia played in the small auditorium of the Spanish Institute in New York.  Afterwards, Sabicas went backstage to talk to Paco, alone.  Maybe I was reading into it, but I felt I was witnessing the passing of the torch — though that didn’t mean that Sabicas actually liked what Paco was doing, music-wise.

But the true media star of that predominantly brunette evening was the towheaded Andy Warhol, accompanied by some Velvet Undergrounders and other denizens from the Factory.  Warhol stood in the back, dressed in black, with that expressionless lizard look of his, but you could tell he was impressed by Paco’s playing, or his persona.  (The young Paco could seem almost eerily beautiful, I thought.  I took pictures of them both, but they didn’t come out.)

I had been shilling for the concert on Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, playing cuts from Paco’s “Fabulosa Guitarra” and “Fantasia Flamenca” LP’s, but nobody seemed to notice.  I was impressed that Warhol had the zeitgeistiness to somehow glom onto to this newest world-class musical genius.

(In the film “I Shot Andy Warhol”, about the woman who did exactly that and almost killed him, there is some flamenco guitar music played by Paco Juanas, a veteran New York player.  At a Spanish restaurant many years later, Paco Juanas let me sit in with him for a rendition of Paco de Lucia’s amazing alegrias in E minor when Sabicas walked in.  I quickly switched to one of Sabicas’s finest falsetas, entrusted to me by Fidel Zabal in 1960, but it was too late.  For the first time, the man we always called maestro seemed disappointed in my taste in flamenco guitar music.)

Not long after that blog post, I received a lovely note from Paco de Lucia’s son, Francisco Sánchez Varela.  He said that Paco had in fact been given a picture of himself with Andy Warhol, and that he treasured it and was very upset to have lost it, and that he hoped I might have another such photo.  I really wish those pictures had come out.

Indeed, Paco’s new vision quickly prevailed, nearly eradicating the wide and wonderful array of pre-existing approaches to the instrument.  Soon his endless search for new answers led him to explore other musical styles – most notably, jazz.

And with that small step, or giant leap, the days of the solo flamenco guitar were numbered.  For Paco so loved the idea of jazz ensembles that he hired some talented sidemen – horn players, percussionists, bassists, saxophonists, electric guitarists and anyone else who fit his musical mood of the the moment.

Today an ambitious first-rank flamenco guitarist in New York or anywhere else will not go onto a stage alone – or won’t remain alone after the first number or two.  Instead, he will be fronting a sextet or septet, subsuming his personal genius and the sound of his guitar into a musical mélange that, for better or worse, is the new context of instrumental flamenco.

I once spoke to Sabicas about this evolving turn of events.  He clearly considered it an unintended consequence of his long-ago intervention, expressing continued admiration for Paco’s genius but reservations about this new aesthetic.

Yet there was an almost palpable paternal pride in his words.  He picked up a guitar and showed how some of Paco’s key innovations were firmly based on his own prior revelations.

Sabicas knew that his advice on that fateful New York night had forever determined the future of his chosen art.

Brook Zern

February 3, 2014   2 Comments

“Rito y Geografía de la Guitarra Flamenca” Series – Program notes by Norberto Torres

The flamenco guitar expert Norberto Torres Cortés wrote the following detailed comments describing the six programs in the”Rito y Geografia de la Guitarra Flamenca”.  That was the guitar-focused series that was intended to complement the great “Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco” series, using much of the guitar-centered stuff from that show and also  lots of other material from Spanish Television’s archives.  It enumerates the pieces and then offers savvy critiques.  A useful resource for serious seekers of great guitar in what  is now called the old style.  It’s based on the Alga Editores version of VCR cassettes, which was badly done; it was supplanted by the better-made Television Española cassettes.  Now I hope it’s available on TVE DVD’s.

(No, it isn’t a fun read.  It isn’t really a read at all.  But I include lots of specialized and dry material like this in my Flamenco Experience blog because it becomes searchable-outable; that makes it far more useful for researchers and dedicated aficionados than if it were left in one of those old inert, non-interactive, carbon-based soft-drive devices — what were they called? — oh, yeah: books.)

And as always:  Chances are that the performances cited here have all migrated to YouTube — enter the name of the artist and the flamenco form, and there he’ll be, for your viewing pleasure.

This translation isn’t mine — I found it somewhere on the web, already translated [into English, I presume] by the outstanding French expert Pierre Lefranc.


by Norberto Torres Cortés

The year 2000 opens with an event for years undreamed of by guitar players, aficionados, and music lovers in general: the release in the form of videos of most of the archives of Spanish Television (Televisión Española) concerning flamenco guitar.

They range from the year 1964 with Niño Ricardo, Ricardo Modrego, and a then 16-year old Paco de Lucía, to Tomatito at his most gypsy in the 1979 record La Leyenda del Tiempo.  In between they include Serranito, Manolo Sanlúcar, Enrique de Melchor, Pepe Habichuela, Diego Carrasco, Paco Cepero, Andrés Batista, Pedro Bacán, Paco de Lucía and Camarón in 1972, together with those classically-oriented: Melchor de Marchena, Diego del Gastor, Manuel Morao, Pedro Peña, Felix de Utrera, Manolo el Sevillano, and… Sabicas “live” in one of the last concerts he gave. Thus a total of 16 years of flamenco guitar are made available visually.

The period 1964-1979 was an extraordinary one for flamenco, owing to the coexistence of tradition and a rising new generation, then innovative, now classical, which was establishing the foundations of today’s toque (style of playing). If we add to this the interviews and commentaries made in those days, mainly by José María Velázquez and Fernando Quiñones, we can evaluate the undreamed of magnitude of what is being offered to us by Alga Editores.

Although, unavoidably, most of the images are in black and white, and the sound is of a less high quality than it would be today, one can submit that this is an added merit: it brings us in contact with the authenticity of a period in which the detestable “play-back” was not yet a standard technique.


NIÑO RICARDO, PACO DE LUCÍA:  “Poema de la Guitarra”, from the program FLAMENCO, Antología de Cante y Baile Andaluces — includes “Sevilla es mi tierra” (Soleá) by Manuel Serrapi Sánchez ‘Niño Ricardo’ (Sevilla, 1904-72); guajira flamenca by Paco de Lucía and Ricardo Modrego; and views of Paco de Lucía practicing in a barber’s shop.

PACO DE LUCÍA: from the series Rito y Geografía del Cante — includes an interview of Francisco Sánchez Gómez ‘Paco de Lucía’ (born Algeciras, 1947), and shows him playing Tarantas, Bulerías, and accompanying his brother Pepe de Lucía; Camarón playing Bulerías; Paco practicing; Ramón de Algeciras and Paco de Lucía fine-tuning a Bulerías falseta (variation), playing Soleares, and Rumbas with Carlos Rebato as a second guitar.

PEPE MARTÍNEZ: interview of José Martínez León ‘Pepe Martínez’ (Sevilla, 1923-84), who is then seen playing a Granaína, interpreting the choros “Xodó da Bahiana” by the Brasilian composer Dilermando Reis, giving guitar classes, and playing a Colombianas, a Zapateado, and a Guajiras in D major with the sixth string in D.


A moving recording of Niño Ricardo in Soleáres, and the earliest images of Paco de Lucía, at sixteen, already preparing his future records with Ricardo Mondrego, with a stunning Guajira in which one can already find one of the variations of his famous “Guajira de Lucía”.  Also, from the Flamenco program of Spanish Television, images shot in 1964 under the guidance of Antonio Sánchez Pecino, the father of Paco de Lucía.  It may be owing to this that Paco is particularly prominent in the series (we even see him dressed up as a barber in a barber’s shop, practicing Tarantos), and we believe that his guitar can also be heard in the video’s opening, in nothing less than Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D flat (BMW 565).

The program dedicated to Paco de Lucía comes from the series Rito y Geografía del Cante, shot between 1971 and 1973, and it can be dated 1972.  We hear him in Taranta variations found in his records Fantasía (1969), La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucía (1967), a forerunner of Fuente y Caudal (1973), and other pieces then still unpublished; he also plays Bulería variations from ”El Tempul”, “Plazuela”, and “Punta del Faro”, and accompanies Pepe de Lucía in the grip of duende (flamenco exaltation); we see him at home in his pajamas, in a practice session with Camarón, working alone on the Taranta and accompanying Pepe de Lucía “Fuente y Caudal”, and fine-tuning with his brothers Pepe de Lucía and Ramón a Bulería variation found in one of the early records of Camarón.

The series continues with the Soleares “Cuando canta el gallo” and the Zapateado from the record El Duende de Paco de Lucía, and it ends with a Rumba halfway between the “Rumba Improvisada” from the 1971 record Recital and “Entre Dos Aguas” from Fuente y Caudal (1973) which belies the legend of this famous piece having been improvised and shows that all that Paco de Lucía recorded was the outcome of earlier maturations.

Another pleasant surprise in this video n° 1 is the possibility of listening to Pepe Martínez, a great concert-oriented flamenco guitarist as was Ramón Montoya, and now unjustly neglected. The interviews enable us to evaluate the impact of Pepe Martínez in London and the eminent role that he played in spreading the knowledge of flamenco in Great Britain. All this is a delight for the lovers of the classical toque, and the Colombiana and the Guajira in D major offer a particular homage to Sabicas.


MELCHOR DE MARCHENA: from the series Rito y Geografía del Cante; Melchor Jiménez Torres ‘Melchor de Marchena’ (Marchena, 1907 – Madrid, 1980) is shown with his family in Marchena, playing Seguiriyas, being interviewed, accompanying Manolo Caracol and Beni de Cádiz in Fandangos, playing Tanguillos de Cádiz; then his son Enrique plays Soleares and Melchor concludes them with a variation of his own.

ENRIQUE DE MELCHOR: from the program Flamenco, in color, presented by Fernando Quiñones — Enrique Jiménez Ramírez ‘Enrique de Melchor’ (b. Marchena 1950) with Luis (bass), Pedro (flute), Josele (flamenco guitar), Martín (bongos), playing Colombianas, in an interview, playing Bulerias in the tonality of Tarantos, and playing Rondeñas.

From another and earlier program, also presented by Fernando Quiñones, we hear José Cobos and Paco Heredia (guitars); then follow an interview, a Serranas, and Rondeñas with the same Cobos and Heredia.


These are historic and moving images of the toque and speech of Melchor de Marchena, one of the greatest of all accompanists for singers and the one preferred by La Niña de Los Peines, Manolo Caracol, Antonio Mairena, etc., to name just a few of those he accompanied.  The video concludes with two programs devoted to Melchor’s son Enrique de Melchor.  They can be dated 1974 and 1977 (for the one in color); they are from the time of the launching of Enrique’s concert career, and we see him interpret various pieces of his first record as a soloist, La Guitarra Flamenca de Enrique de Melchor (1977).


PACO CEPERO: From the program Flamenco presented by Fernando Quiñones – Francisco López Cepero García ‘Paco Cepero’ (b. Jerez 1932) plays “Gaditana” (a Jaleo) with La Polilla de Madrid, Lolita Baena and Carmen Heredia (palmas), then is interviewed, then plays Tarantas and Tarantos, Tientos and Tangos, a Farruca, “Amuleto” (a Rumba), and Bulerías.

DIEGO CARRASCO: from the program Flamenco, in color, presented by Fernando Quiñones — Diego Carrasco Fernández ‘Diego Carrasco el Tate’ (b. Jérez 1954) is accompanied by Luis (acoustic Ovation guitar), Miguel Angel (bass), Pedro (flute), Tito and Rafa (flamenco guitars), and Pedro (bongos); they interpret ”Luz de Farola” (Bulerías); he is then interviewed, and sings and plays Bulerías, including “Bulerías del 7″.

ANDRÉS BATISTA: presented by F. Quiñones, who interviews flamenco authority Paco Vallecillo, then Andrés Batista (b. Barcelona 1937) on flamenco in Catalonia; then Andrés Batista plays Granaínas, Guajiras, Bulerías, Danza Mora, Fandangos, and a Zapateado.


Together with the launching of Enrique de Melchor, we witness Paco Cepero’s career as a soloist, and hear him perform various pieces found in his first and only record as a soloist, Amuleto (1977).  Also, the unquiet tocaor and singer Diego Carrasco already proposes, in these late 70’s, a reinterpretation of the Bulerías of his native Santiago district, with influences from Chick Corea’s group “Return to Forever” and a markedly oriental coloring which makes us think of the present group Radio Tarifa, and of the theme “Reino de Silia” by Vicente Amigo in the estribillos (refrains) of the “Bulerías  del 7″ which served as introduction theme for the program Flamenco presented by Fernando Quiñones.

Then Andres Batista, the Gypsy guitar-player from Catalonia, describes the hotbed of flamenco experimentation that was the Catalonia of the 70’s (which explains the present fertility of Catalonian flamenco) and performs six pieces of a classical turn in a modern technique.


PEPE HABICHUELA: introduced by F. Quiñones — José Antonio Carmona Carmona ‘Pepe Habichuela’ (b. Granada 1944) performs Soleares, is interviewed, plays Alegrías in E major, Taranto, Seguiriya, and Tangos with Carlos Carmona ‘Habichuela’ and Benjamín Santiago (guitar players).

From Flamenco (in color), we are given Bulerías with Juan Habichuela ‘hijo’ (guitar), Jaleo in the tonality of a Minera with Juan Habichuela ‘hijo’ (guitar), Guadiana, Chocolatillo, and Ángel (palmas).

VICTOR MONGE ‘SERRANITO’: introduced by F. Quiñones — Victor Monge Serrano ‘Serranito’ (b. Madrid 1942) is heard in a Taranta, Soleáres, an interview, in “Popular Themes” and a Zapateado with Alejandro Winia and Manolo Sison (guitar players).


We are first given a black-and-white Pepe Habichuela at the outset of his career as a soloist at the beginning of the 70’s, with toques still influenced by his brother Juan, Sabicas, and Paco de Lucía, though his special mark already emerges (particularly in Soleáres); then the same Pepe Habichuela in color, at the end of the 70’s, with his personality now better defined and matured, is heard in toques from his first record A Mandelí (1983) and of the record Despegando which he made in 1977 with Enrique Morente.  The second guitar is that of his nephew, then known as Juan Habichuela ‘hijo’, who later became Juan Carmona ‘El Camborio’, and is today the established leader of the Ketama group.

The video ends with fascinating images of the astonishing Serranito, “a guitar-player for guitar-players”, in full possession of his virtuosity: Tarantas and Soleáres played solo, “Popular Themes” which are nothing else than the Tarara on a Tientos rhythm and in E minor, and his famous Zapateado for three guitars, “Punta y Tacón”.


DIEGO DEL GASTOR: from the series Rito y Geografía del Cante — Diego Flores Amaya ‘Diego del Gastor’ (Arriate, Málaga, 1908 – Morón de La Frontera, Sevilla, 1973) is heard in Alegrías, an interview, and Seguiriyas.  He then accompanies por Bulería (in the rhythm of Bulerias) a series of Alboreás sung by Joselero de Morón, and plays Soleares.

TOMATITO: from the program Flamenco in color, presented by F. Quiñones – José Fernández Torres ‘Tomatito’ (born Almería 1958), together with Jorge Pardo (flute), Carlos Benavent (bass), Juan Habichuela ‘hijo’, Rubén Dantas (percussions), Romerito de Algeciras, Guadiana, José Soto ‘Sordera’, Tino de Madrid (palmas), are heard in Bulerías, an interview, in Bulerías in the tonality of a Taranto, and in tangos.

MISCELLANY N°1, WITH MANUEL MORAO, PEDRO BACÁN, PACO DE LUCÍA, MANOLO SANLÚCAR:   Interviews of Rafael del Aguila (Jérez, 1900-76); Manuel Moreno Jiménez ‘Manuel Morao’ (b. Jérez 1929) plays Soleáres; Pedro Peña Fernández ‘Pedro Bacán’ (Lebrija, 1939-1997) plays Tarantas; Paco de Lucía plays Bulerías; the cantaor Juan Peña ‘El Lebrijano’ is interviewed; Manuel Muñoz Alcón ‘Manolo Sanlúcar’ (b. Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 1945) plays Seguiriyas.


Again we see moving images of the legendary Diego del Gastor shortly before his death, taking a walk in Morón, in a gathering with friends, talking about the toque, interpreting Alegrías, Seguiriyas, and Soleáres solo, and accompanying his cousin Joselero in Bulerías in masterly fashion and with a duende worthy of his legend.

Tomatito, emerging from his recent recording of La Leyenda del Tiempo (1979) with Camarón, interprets various rhythmic pieces with the intensely Gypsy expression which sets him apart from all others, accompanied by a first version of the Paco de Lucía sextet, Juan Carmona the second guitar of the Ketama group, and the palmas of the no less famous celebrities of today: Guadiana, José Soto ‘Sorderita’ (then ‘Sotito de Jérez’) and Tino.

Then follows an interview of Rafael del Aguila, the disciple of Javier Molina and master of the current generation of Jérez guitar-players; Manuel Morao in one of the earliest expressions of that unmistakable Jérez toque; a youthful Pedro Bacán interpreting with great virtuosity one of his earliest Tarantas; Paco de Lucía in Bulerías accompanied by Camarón’s knuckles in a flamenco gathering; Turronero and Paco Cepero; Juan Peña ‘el Lebrijano’, then a youthful upholder of the classical flamenco tradition, expressing his opinion on the toque of the early 70’s; Manolo Sanlúcar playing por Seguiriya his ‘Elegia al Niño Ricardo’, the master who had just died when this recording was made in 1972 (Sanlúcar recorded this piece that same year in vol. 2 of his Mundo y Formas de la Guitarra Flamenca).  These documents form a superb miscellany which illustrates the coexistence of the traditional toque and the renewal then in its early stages.


MISCELLANY N° 2 — WITH MANUEL MORAO, MELCHOR DE MARCHENA, PEDRO PEÑA, PACO DE LUCÍA, DIEGO DEL GASTOR: from the series Rito y Geografía del Cante, with Manuel Morao playing Seguiriyas, Melchor de Marchena playing Tarantos, an interview of Pedro Peña who sings and plays Soleáres, Paco de Lucía playing Rondeñas, and Diego del Gastor playing Bulerías.

MISCELLANY N° 3 — WITH FELIX DE UTRERA, CONDE HERMANOS, MANUEL MORAO, MANOLO SEVILLANO: from the series Flamenco, Antología de Cantes y Bailes Andaluces, Felix de Utrera is heard playing Tientos; comments on the making of guitars in the workshop of the brothers Conde; Manuel Morao plays Seguiriyas; El Calderas de Salamanca (song) and Manolo Sevillano (guitar) are heard in Peteneras, and Juan Cantero (song), Matilde España (dance) and Manolo el Sevillano (guitar) in Tangos.

SABICAS:  a performance in homage to Sabicas, on the occasion of his demise in 1990, with views of his funeral and of Pamplona; Sabicas in Alegrías in A minor and in “Temas del Pueblo”, la Niña de la Puebla, Pepe Montoya ‘Montoyita’, and Laura Toledo evoke Sabicas who plays “La Comparsita” and a Granaína.


The Miscellany which opens this video completes that of the previous one by illustrating several toques by traditionalists and solos by the current renovators, with some curious shots of the guitar-player-cum-singer Pedro Peña Fernández ‘Pedro Peña’ (b. Lebrija, 1939), father of the piano-player Dorantes, brother of the singer Juan Peña ‘El Lebrijano’, and cousin of Pedro Bacán.  Pedro Peña achieves the feat of singing and accompanying himself in Soleares, with his mother La Perrata embroidering on the rhythm with her knuckles.

We also see Paco de Lucía performing his famous Rondeña “Doblan Campanas” from the record El Duende (1972); he concludes it here with the ending of his quote; from earlier Rondeña recorded in La Fabulosa Guitarra (1967) and revealingly includes allusions to the Rondeña “Cueva del Gato” which he recorded four or five years later in Almoraima (1976): one more proof that maturity came to Paco de Lucía before he made records.

The last miscellany shows us the “official” guitar-player of Hispavox, Felix García Vizcaíno ‘Felix de Utrera’ (born in the Canaries 1929), playing Tientos, a la Niño Ricardo; it takes us on a visit to the workshop of the Madrid guitar-makers Hermanos Conde, against the musical background of a Zorongo played by Ricardo Modrego; Manuel Morao at his most sublime in Seguiriyas; the toque of Manuel Antilla León ‘Manolo el Sevillano’ (Marchena 1910 – Madrid 1988), accompanying Felix on Peteneras Rafael Salazar Motos ‘Calderas de Salamanca’, and Juan Cantero in Tangos Extremeños danced by Matilde España.

The series could not end better than by rendering homage to Agustín Castellón Campos ‘Sabicas’ (Pamplona 1912 – New York, 18 April 1990) one of the greatest guitarists of all times, with a report on his native town and house, his multitudinous and grief-stricken funeral, an evocation of his friends and admirers like la Niña de la Puebla, Montoyita and Laura Toledo, and various extracts from one of the last concerts Sabicas gave, with his famous Alegrías in A major which incline towards the jota, “Temas del Pueblo”, the popular tune “Los Cuatro Muleros” as arranged by the master, the most famous Río de la Plata tango by M. Rodríguez ‘La Comparsita’, which the Gypsy from Pamplona included in 1969 in his record Tres guitarras tiene Sabicas, and a tremendously modern Granaína.

End of Norberto Torres description of “Rito y Geografia de la Guitarra” Flamenca”.

Gracias, Norberto.  And I can’t help noticing that the  magical keyword for flamenco greatness of expression appears in only one instance, repeated here:  ”Again we see moving images of the legendary Diego del Gastor shortly before his death, taking a walk in Morón, in a gathering with friends, talking about the toque, interpreting Alegrías, Seguiriyas, and Soleáres solo, and accompanying his cousin Joselero in Bulerías in masterly fashion and with a duende worthy of his legend.”

So it ain’t just us gringos.

Brook Zern

January 10, 2014   No Comments

Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Review of new book about Carmen Amaya – article by Juan Vergillos from Diario de Sevilla 12/30/2013 – translated with comments by Brook Zern


The Myth of the Taranto

Montse Madridejos and David Perez Merinero close this Centennial Year of Carmen Amaya with the publication of a biography in images of the dancer, and a defense of the thesis that she was actually born in 1918

By Juan Vergillos

Carmen Amaya. Montse Madridejos y David Pérez Merinero.  Prologue by Juan Marsé.  Edicions Bellaterra, Barcelona, 295 pp.

The present-day image of flamenco has been built in part upon myths.  Above all, those which originated, and from which current myths are based, in the period when there were no investigators with adequate tools to understand (conocer) the past, or even the approximate realities.

Many of these myths have been undermined thanks to the investigative research of José Luís Ortiz Nuevo, Faustino Nuñéz, José Manuel Gamboa, José Luís Navarro, Gerhard Steingress, Antonio Barberán, Manuel Bohórquez, Rafael Chávez and many others, among whom we can now include the authors of this new work.  Of course, one should not forget the work of pioneers like Anselmo González Climent or Luís Lavour.

Nonetheless, the myths of flamenco, including the most tendentious and those most lacking a factual basis, remain with us despite their faults.   In flamenco historiography, more than in any other discipline, the old journalistic saying still reigns:  “Never let reality ruin a great story.”  What do they say about Carmen Amaya frying sardines in her room at the Waldorf Astoria?  Well, someday it will become clear that this fraudulent (“supercheria”) notion was perhaps an astute commercial move by Sol Hurok, the impresario who led Carmen Amaya through the entresijos [ins and outs] of “show business norteamericano”.  It’s all rather curious:  Carmen Amaya went from being crowned Miss Morena of 1935 in Spain to being The Queen of the Gypsies in 1942 in the U.S.  Of course, the Spaniards, delighted to buy into any American product, ate up that Carmen Amaya was dubbed Queen of the Gypsies – the image that is still sold both within and beyond our borders – forgetting, for example, not just Miss Morena of 1935 but also the artist who made cine social (socially conscious cinema?) with [the great avant-garde filmmaker] Luís Buñuel.  And so we see that Carmen Amaya, viewed logically, is many Carmen Amayas.

This book by Montse Madridejos and David Pérez Merinero analyzes these and other myths that comprise the larger myth of flamenco.  The publication, nonetheless, is basically a book of photographs: it reconstructs the life trajectory and artistic arc of the dancer through the authors’ well-stocked visual archives.   Despite the various myths that, in my view, the work disproves in its brief text: that she was born in 1913, that it was Sabicas who presented her in Madrid in 1935…and of course that business of the fish fry.  The best of the sardine myth-building is the 1988 portrait by Eduardo Arroyo titled “Carmen Amaya frying sardines in the Waldorf Astoria”.  But curiously, the authors never address one of the major Carmen Amaya myths: that in New York in 1942 she invented a new dance called the taranto.  The fact is that in 1942 there was no flamenco style called the taranto, although there was a form called the taranta and also the minera, the latter form being what we now call taranto.

My impression, once I checked it against the program for that event, thanks to my friend La Meira, is that Carmen Amaya danced an instrumental number composed and interpreted by Sabicas and titled El Taranto, probably, as the title indicates, based on an estilo minero [one of the song forms from the mining districts of southeastern Spain, notably the cities of Almería or La Unión] . The word taranto alludes to the miners of Almería but in 1942 it didn’t refer to a flamenco style.  For that, we have to wait until 1957, the year in which [the great singer] Fosforito, applied the term to one of his mineras, according to Rafael Chaves and José Manuel Gamboa.  The reason for this nomenclature change is known only to Fosforito himself.   But the way Carmen Amaya danced that form – using a binary rhythm [2/4 or 4/4, relatively uncommon in traditional flamenco] – gave us a new formula that would stay with us, though there were precedents in the dance of La Malagueñita and in the great Encarnación López Júlvez, “La Argentinita”; so says José Luís Navarro.

And in fact, reality is always more interesting, rich, complex and marvelous than the blinkers [anteojeras] through which we sometimes look at people.  Reality is so fascinating that by comparison myths are just child’s play.  Doesn’t it seem miraculous, for example, that the first woman ever to appear in a moving image was a dancer from Almería named Carmencita Dauset?  And it’s equally marvelous that the most famous and influential dancer in flamenco’s history was born in the Somorrostro district of Barcelona [despite the persistent story that she was born in the Sacromonte, the Gypsy district of Granada].  And that the date, despite the current centennial celebrations, was not 1913 but 1918, which is the hypothesis of the authors of this book.  And which I agree with, backed by data, of course, above all that of the padrón [census record] of Barcelona in 1930.

And so we will again return to Carmen Amaya’s centennial year in 2018.  And you’ll see it happen.  As [the early flamenco historian] Anselmo González Climent said in the 1960’s, in his essay titled “Toward a Historiography of Flamenco” – a truly visionary text – “deep archaeology must have an objective character, y no gendarme [the word refers to a police officer, as in France.]”  And that’s true because myths are tendentious and partisan.  So is history, of course, but it demands of itself a minimum standard of objectivity.  And that minimum is what gives us life, what this marvelous work provides to help us enjoy even more the myth and the reality called Carmen Amaya, the flamenco dancer of the Twentieth Century, and the most famous ever.

Carmen Amaya (1918-1963) was the most popular flamenco artist of her time and remains the best-known in her chosen realm.  And all that as a result of the Spanish Civil War, from which she fled in 1936 to head for Buenos Aires via Lisbon.  In her voyage form the Argentine capital to New York, the city que recala [where she made landfall]  in 1941, she toured all of Latin America, including Brazil, and appeared in several films and on several recordings made in Argentina, Mexico and Cuba.  In 1947 she returned to Spain as the world’s most famous flamenco dancer, thanks to her work in New York and Hollywood – although in Spain, she was not well known at that time.  She had to rebuild her national career, combining her international tours with appearances in Spain.  She settled in Begur [near Barcelona] at the end of the fifties, and died there in 1963 of kidney failure.  She didn’t live to see her last film, Los Tarantos, directed by Rovira-Beleta.

End of story.

Juan Vergillos, a well-known expert, gives an informative review of the book at hand, and also gives a mini-history of the fundamental change in flamenco studies over the past few decades.

I’ll comment on those changes in a separate entry.  For now — glad to have a chance to spell co-author David Pérez Merinero’s name correctly; Estela Zatania, an admirer of his work, recently set me straight on that.  Also glad to see the eminent dance scholar and Carmen Amaya authority La Meira cited in this review; it was a pleasure to learn about flamenco’s long history in New York when I helped her and Nina Bennahum set up their very successful exhibit and conference series at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center last summer.

About the taranto that’s discussed in this article: the word was applied to a song form long ago, and appeared on Manuel Torre’s amazing rendition of the song.  Still, I used to define it as a sung “cante minero” that had a steady, binary rhythm (which Torre’s version didn’t have.)  But Fosforito may have invented that sung version to accompany a dancer who wanted to use the form’s darkling, dramatic guitar-chord shapes (make a barred F-sharp chord on the second fret, then lift the bar enough to free up the first and second strings — presto, that haunting tonic chord alone is the infallible identifier of the tarantas, or the taranto.

Who first danced the form?  Carmen Amaya way back when, with Sabicas?  La Malagueñita or La Argentinita, before that?  Another bailaora in the fifties, GloriaRomero?  I’ve heard stories, but of course, stories are the same as myths — except when they are true, of course, as they often are…

(Note that Carmen Amaya cooked up a phenomenal piece with Sabicas for their “Queen of the Gypsies” record.  It was called a rondeña, — yet another song tied to the tarantas/taranto/minera family — but instead of it being just Sabicas’s restatement of Ramón Montoya’s great guitar-solo-only original, it was a gripping duet face-off between two giants at the top of their game.

December 31, 2013   10 Comments

Guitarist Paco de Lucía Speaks – 1986 Interview by Diego Caballero – Translated by Estela Zatania

A while ago I was digging around my basement for stuff to add to the displayed items at the new Lincoln Center exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in New York” that just got a rave review in the New York Times.  I found a 1986 issue of the magazine called “Puerta de Sevilla” that I’d bought at that year’s Flamenco Bienal.  I slipped it to Estela Zatania, the author and the critic for the invaluable web publication deflamenco.com that always offers extensive English-language news and reviews as well as stuff for sale.  She ran it there on March 28th, added smart commentary, and also provided a fine translation which saved me the angst.  Like all Paco interviews, it’s a gold mine of frank comments and fascinating reflections on his art and his life.

For example:  ”Without doubt, it’s the Gypsies who know the most about flamenco.”

Here it is, followed by a few of my observations.  The deflamenco.com url is:


The Son of Lucía

The maestro arrived as workers had just finished placing the last chairs on the inlaid stone floor of the Patio de la Montería, when the rest of the group had been rehearsing for a good hour or more.  He had just arrived from Athens and was soon on his way to Argentina, as casually as someone who just stopped by to pick up a newspaper and a loaf of bread, but not without first putting the crowning touch to the fourth Bienal de Arte Flamenco, if only to dull the memory of the terrible reviews Seville critics gave him just two years earlier.  The maestro is timid and closes his eyes, but spits out passionate statements when the topic is flamenco and his unorthodox approach.  The shining star is reflected in the prophetic rippling in a cup of coffee, while caressing the sinuous curves of his blond instrument.  Paco de Lucía is performing for an audience of flamenco fans.  The Reales Alcázares seems to require starting out breaking with tradition and without forgetting the roots: a minera crossed with fandangos, a perfect pretext for making good music.

“Guitar is changing and I have an obligation to my followers to open new paths”.

The maestro Sabicas doesn’t like it when you join up to play with strange people like Al Di Meola and Chick Corea, he thinks you don’t need that to be the greatest.

It’s an opinion I respect as if it came from my own father, because we must all be at the feet of Sabicas, but it’s still just an opinion.  We flamenco musicians don’t know about chords, and we weren’t able to attend a conservatory to learn music.  Flamenco is in a very special moment, it needs to receive every possible contribution in order for us to learn things we’re not accustomed to in our own music.  For me personally these encounters have been very useful.  Guitar is changing and I have an obligation to my followers to open new paths.  Mike Oldfield is a great musician who’s not part of our world and from whom we have a lot to learn, that’s why I seek out his music.

A trying experience.

There were times it drove me crazy, I even had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep; it was really quite a challenge I’d undertaken.  Sabicas thinks flamenco shouldn’t evolve, that it has to be monotonous and always sound old-fashioned.  In my opinion it has to be left to sound the same, but with a new vocabulary.

It had been announced that you were going to take part in Camarón de la Isla’s new record, but you never showed up.  What happened?

Simply that I was on tour, far away, and it was impossible to return for the record.

Is it very different playing in Seville compared to Moscow or Japan?

Anywhere is easier to play than here.   There are people outside of Spain who really know music and they listen in a different way.  Here, people are looking for a certain feeling, basically if it sounds flamenco, but abroad no, they hear you as a musician which is exactly how I feel most relaxed and the least nervous.  In Seville I have to consider playing things that are simpler and more flamenco, outside you have more freedom.

Someone recently called you a machista, only half-jokingly.  Can’t women learn to play guitar?

One thing is for sure, in order to play flamenco it takes a lot of physical strength and a lot of nerve.  You have to caress the guitar and then destroy it, the dynamic must be very strong.  Anyhow, many women wouldn’t be able to sit eight hours a day, guitar in hand, it’s thankless work to have to be practicing all the time.

Paco de Lucía believes women and guitars are the same gender, which is why he feels they are incompatible, with their sinuous curves, beings who will never be dominated although appearances seem to indicate the contrary as explains the son of Lucía with no qualms whatsoever, glancing at his well-manicured cat-like hands in case a nail has dared to threaten its very valuable place and mission.  “We machistas think like that…we think of having women under our thumb, completely dominated, but that’s fiction.   Maybe that’s why they don’t get along, and why there are so few excellent women guitarists, because they’re so similar”.

Is it just hype, or is it true you have a double in Moscow who calls himself Paco de Rusia?

The Association of Russian artists gave me a tribute some months ago, and it included a surprise, the live performance of someone I was told is a faithful fan.  He calls himself “Paco de Rusia”, and he combs his hair just like me.  I do the comb-over to hide my receding hairline, but he does it to look like me even though he has hair.  No, he doesn’t play badly, he’s just beginning.

In your previous concert within the Bienal, they did everything but throw rolls of toilet paper at you as they did with bullfighter Curro Romero.  It was as if there had been a secret agreement to bad-mouth Paco de Lucía.

There’s an easy explanation, it’s because in Seville there are flamenco critics who don’t have the vaguest idea what flamenco is, they’re individuals who, rather than write about something they know, they just string sentences together, but they do know that no matter how well a gypsy sings or dances, none of them is capable of writing for a newspaper.  Without a doubt, it’s the gypsies who know the most about flamenco.  But as far as the reviews, I refused to have the concert recorded live because the sound system was terrible.  They think they have power and a bad review is enough to ruin anyone’s career.  It’s laughable, they give you a bad review for purely personal reasons.  It didn’t bother me, but it’s infuriating that authority they think they have.

Tell us about how you go about your work.  Why do you always play with your eyes closed and a look of rapture?

Playing guitar is very hard, you need complete concentration.  I’m a timid person who prefers to be in the audience rather than on stage.  I wasn’t born to have everyone hanging on my every move, so many people looking at you.  You have to have a very balanced emotional state, that’s why I close my eyes when I play.  If you open them and see people talking, or some guy yawning, the whole performance falls apart.  When I close my eyes, I manage to focus much better.

Playing with contemporary musicians, the “strange people” like Sabicas calls them, you have to forget about your background a little to get into their mainstream world of pop music.

Playing with them, I had to play their music and forget about flamenco, that’s why I had such a hard time now and again, but on the other hand, it was worth it for the learning experience.  Aside from that, I’m defending a culture and a race which is the flamenco people, discriminated against for centuries until Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca came along and initiated a process of dignification.  It used to be shameful to be a flamenco.  We have a lot to be grateful for to Manuel de Falla and to all the musicians who bring in new blood.  We’re musicians and flamencos, that’s our place.   I won’t abandon my roots, and will try to do new things without losing the aroma and the flavor of flamenco.  In my work there’s a great deal of rage against this discrimination which still exists, although somewhat less than before, because fortunately things are changing.

Do you have everything planned out before going on stage?

Of course not.  There’s a very big margin for improvisation in my shows.

Does a person learn to play in the stony silence of the theaters, or in the impulsive heat of battle of nighttime gatherings?

Most of us learn to play getting drunk in the street in the wee hours of the morning.  That’s why I said that about women.  This isn’t the best atmosphere for them.  Aside from that, a women will always lift less weight than a man, it’s something ordained by nature.

We’ll let you go now, you’ll be needing to warm up…

You’d be surprised, I don’t play much to warm up my hands, I do it to record or play a concert.  And the guitar doesn’t really need to be warmed up.  An hour before a performance I do take it out and play for a while, file my nails, get focused…but not when I’m at home.

After Seville, the power and imagination of Paco de Lucía moves on to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, then back to Spain and afterwards Asia.  In the middle of all these comings and goings he must find time to make a record with his friend Manolo Sanlúcar and formalize a contract with the record company.

“I prefer Moscow to Seville because here audiences know too much about flamenco and there are times when your psychological state just doesn’t let you play”.  The son of Lucía of Algeciras, is getting paid a million and a half [pesetas], more than Sabicas and Chiquetete combined, but this time he left a smooth cloak extending from flamenco and directly to the heart.

End of interview.

A few random notes: Paco’s 1.5 million peseta paycheck was probably about 15,000 U.S. bucks at 100 pesetas to the dollar.  In that pre-Euro era, countries could jiggle the value of their currencies at will, avoiding the disasters we see today when they must conform to the dictates of Angela Merkel’s Germany as it engineers more austerity for them, and more prosperity for itself.

In the mid-sixties, I remember the sensation caused when the sensational bullfighter El Cordobés pulled in a million pesetas — which was worth 16,000 U.S. bucks, because the exchange rate was just 60 to the dollar.

I’m sure someone can explain why the current carefully engineered suffering of Spain is a good thing, since it builds character and promotes fiscal discipline and besides, prosperity is just around the corner, due as early as 2021.  But I’m not sure the Euro is worth it — and in fact, a lot of savvy economists say it’s time to call Berlin’s bluff and see what happens, since it couldn’t be much worse and could be much better.

But I digress.

I shall now digress from that digression:

The bullfighter the interviewer refers to, Curro Romero, was indeed booed almost every time he entered the ring, because he acted in a cowardly fashion.  (What’s the opposite of cowardly in bullfight terms?  Bullardly?)  We screamed at him and threw our rented seat cushions, a 20-peseta investment, at him, and then had to sit on the hard hot concrete.  And we did it week after week.

Were we stupid?  Did we never learn?  Well, here’s the deal:  In the exceedingly unlikely event that Curro Romero was good, he was very good.  No, not very good like other bullfighters including the much greater Antonio Ordoñez.  Very good like on a totally different plane, stashed in another dimension, wrapped in an utterly separate reality.

Yes, Romero could take the whole crowd of ten thousand spectators to Duendelandia, a special region of Andalusia where clocks slowed down, or stopped (a typical headline: “Curro Romero Stops the Clock”) or, in one case I think I recall, actually ran backward.  Curro Romero did that, which is why he got contracts to fight at least a hundred times a year.  Because while other toreros who fought that often cut to cut a hundred or a hundred and fifty ears (two bulls and four available ears per fight, remember), Curro Romero would cut a piddling eight or nine.

But each of those ears, weighed on our handy Duendometers, weighed 48.7 times as much as the ears cut by human beings.  Just as the flamenco siguiriyas, on that same scale, weighs 35.67 times as much as a fine malagueña and 62.3 times as much as a charming colombiana.

Curro Romero, from Camas right outside of Seville, was one of two guys who pulled this off.  The other was Rafael de Paula, of Jerez.  That’s two out of about three hundred bullfighters.  And that percentage is about the same as in flamenco, where six or eight people can do the same trick out of about a thousand artistes who secretly or openly wish they could.  I won’t say who they are, but as Paco always says, “it’s the Gypsies who know the most about flamenco.”

And finally:  He hauls off and punches Sabicas a few times, smiling all the while.  I can’t recall the maestro ever saying he thought “flamenco shouldn’t evolve, that it has to be monotonous and always sound old-fashioned.”

Paco’s judgment of the maestro (whom he calls “tío”, a word we applied to Sabicas’s charming and competent brother Diego but never to Sabas) is hard and harsh.   (The interviewer, of course, begins by calling Paco de Lucía “maestro”, an honorific he richly deserves.)

Paco followed up later by accusing Sabicas of a failure of vision or nerve in not supplanting flamenco with a new kind expanded-harmony-based art form, like Paco’s.

He adds, “In my opinion [flamenco guitar] has to be left to sound the same, but with a new vocabulary.”  Hmmm.  Does French sound the same as Chinese, but with a new vocabulary?

I have saved the best for last, and invite any women to comment on Paco’s appraisal of a woman’s place in flamenco…

Brook Zern — www.flamencoexperience.com — brookzern@gmail.com

April 1, 2013   2 Comments

Sabicas at 100 – 1981 Interview with Sabicas by El Niño Chileno – from Jaleo magazine, April 1981.

Sabicas at 100 – 1981 Interview with Sabicas by El Niño Chileno – from Jaleo magazine, April 1981.

Note from Brook Zern:  This interview with Sabicas is a marvelous document, done by the noted aficionado known as El Niño Chileno.  It appears in my aging copy of Jaleo, the excellent American magazine that was edited by the flamenco authority and author Paco Sevilla whose books on Carmen Amaya and early flamenco in the age of Silverio Franconetti are major contributions to flamenco scholarship.

In this centennial year of Sabicas, the interview is a significant source of information and insight about the man who was the supreme flamenco virtuoso of his time.  I hope it will be seen by interested aficionados who might otherwise have missed it.

El Niño Chileno wrote:

The call from Gino D’Auri came at three o’clock in the afternoon:  “El maestro has agreed to meet with you for lunch on Thursday, can you make it?”  I said yes, I could.  If it was the last thing I ever did.  Sabicas!  The living legend.  The name alone is enough to inspire reverence in the heart of any flamenquista.  For over half a century, Agustín Castellón , better known as Sabicas, has reigned as the undisputed monarch of the flamenco guitar.  The opportunity to meet him in person came during his last visit to Los Angeles where he was to appear in concert at Mt. San Antonio College and at UCLA’s Royce Hall.  Gino D’Auri, the well-known flamenco guitarist in Los Angeles who has become the unofficial host to visiting flamenco greats, was instrumental in arranging my interview with Sabicas.

Thursday, February 5th, we met at 2 pm in front of the Mark Twain Hotel in Hollywood, an older establishment that Sabicas has patronized for almost thirty years during his visits to the City of the Stars.  A few minutes later the maestro appeared through the hotel doorway.  Sabicas greeted me warmly as if I had been an old friend he had not seen in years and, after a few brief formalities, everyone agreed on lunch at the Chile Lindo, a small – Chilean, of course – restaurant on nearby Sunset Boulevard.  The idea suited my own Chilean tastes just fine and we proceeded to the restaurant in my car.  During the short ride I presented Sabicas with some recent issues of Jaleo which he reviewed with approving comments of, “Fantástico, eso no se ve ni en Epaña!”  [“Fantastic -- even Spain has nothing like this!”]

Trim and erect of posture, Sabicas looks remarkably fit and quite limber for his sixty-four years of age.  He is a warm, affable yet intensely private man, who was visibly reluctant to talk about his personal life.  I chose therefore not to press that type of question.  He does not conceal, however, his pride in his accomplishments as an artist, speaking freely and with great gusto about his adventures on and off the stage.  Soft spoken, yet forceful in his mannerisms, he punctuates his phrases with constant gestures of his small, powerful hands.  At times his voice would taper to a barely audible thread when recollecting some fond memory; the next minute he would break into hearty laughter while relating some of his saucy escapades.

Sabicas exudes a deep love of his art and of life in general.  He refers constantly to other younger guitarists as “los muchachos” as if they were his own sons, and feels very fortunate to have been able “to teach a little.”  Sabicas enjoys good food and particularly ice cream immensely, grabbing a cone whenever he can.  He does not take alcohol, however, and stopped smoking and drinking about five years ago.  “Coffee makes me feel like I want a cigarette, so I gave it up, too,” he states.  His roving eye for beautiful women seems very much alive, however, and he is obviously flattered by their attention.

In spite of his accomplishments, Sabicas remains a true gypsy at heart.  He comes across as a simple, down to earth and modest man, sometimes to the point of being self-effacing.  He usually travels alone, carrying important contracts, checks and documents stuffed in his coat pockets, as if he does not fully trust the mail service.  “I do no know what to do with all these papers before the concert,” he say, “they will not fit in the pockets of my tuxedo.”

It is difficult to spend time with Sabicas and not only develop an increased admiration for the artist as well as a good deal of liking for the human being.  Lunch at the Chile Lindo stretched for nearly three hours.  The more “formal” part of my interview was about one hour long, as I did not deem it proper to keep the tape recorder on at all times.  The following is a transcription of my interview with him, with only a minimum of editing done for readability.  Inevitably, some of the flavor of his comments has been lost in the translation, as Sabicas speaks little or no English.  We hope, however, to give our readers a further glimpse into this most extraordinary artist through this “conversación”.

JALEO:  First of all, on behalf of all Jaleistas, let me thank you for agreeing to meet us today.  There is much written about you, some of it true, some of it probably false.  I’d like to begin by asking you to give us a biographical sketch of your first years in Spain.

SABICAS:  Well, I was born in Pamplona.  At the age of five I began to make noise on the guitar, and at eight or nine, I can’t remember, I appeared in public in a theater for the first time.  Afterwards I moved to Madrid where I began to play professionally.  I won an award at the Teatro Novedades, a very beautiful theater in Madrid, and well, that’s how I got started.  After a while, when the war broke out in Spain I left for Buenos Aires, then toured South America and later the United States, and eventually I stayed there.

JALEO:  You began playing at a very early age.  What was it that awakened your interest in the guitar and particularly flamenco music?

SABICAS:  Bueno, we gypsies love that form of art.  My father played a little; he was never a great guitarist but he liked it very much.  I used to watch him and loved the way he played.  An uncle of mine, who was not a guitarist but who knew a couple of positions, took the trouble to show them to me, and thus my uncle became my first and only teacher.  That was enough for me.  In about a week I was strumming a small guitar they bought for me.  I played tunes that I picked up from blind men in the streets.  There I got started with flamenco and, according to people, I had some aptitude for this sort of thing, and for that reason I have been able to do something with the guitar, perhaps more than anyone else.  I have traveled throughout the entire world with the guitar.  I have always tried to do things well with the guitar, mainly for “los muchachos” who are up and coming, trying to straighten them out – although I wasn’t that fortunate myself.  No one taught me anything.  But be as it may, I have always liked to teach whatever I could, and do whatever I could for others.

JALEO:  Are there very many aspiring artists who come to you for advice?

SABICAS:  Yes, they do seek my advice.  I give it to them freely.  I have done nothing but teach all my life to anyone who wanted it.  They ask me, “Do you like this, or that?”  I am always glad to give advice, always, always.  Others charge money.  Not me.  “How are things coming along?” I ask them.  “Give me the guitar, try this,” I say to you, to anyone.

JALEO:  You have been a source of inspiration to many guitarists throughout the world.  Who inspired you in your development as a guitarist?

SABICAS:  There were two more guitarists whom I enjoyed listening to very much.  They were the absolute best there was at that time.  Ramón Montoya, who died in 1949, and El Niño de Huelva [Manolo de Huelva], who is also deceased now.  One in the classical flamenco, the other in the gypsy form.  I loved listening to them, their recordings.  I used to say to myself, “If I could only play like that!”  I admired them very much.  I listened, but I never copied anything from them.  Ever since I started playing, I always did it my own way.  I played whatever sounded right to me, and it seems that it also sounded right to others.  Thus, I stayed with my own things because in those days, well, there was much “afición.”  The guitar is, of course, very fickle, and you must be with it all the time, as much as you can, and even that is not enough; sometimes after you have been practicing a certain piece for hours, you still make mistakes.  “Why am I making a mistake? You ask yourself.  “My fingers are all right.  Why?”  I have always found the guitar very difficult. Now I find it more difficult than ever.  The guitar is very fickle, very fickle indeed, very difficult.

JALEO:  Did you come in contact with dancers and singers who helped you develop and improve your style?

SABICAS:  Yes, yes, of course.  In Spain I played for all the good singers and dancers because that is the way it was done in those days.  The flamenco guitar was never played solo.  When I tried it, the artists would laugh at me.  But I went ahead anyway.  Sitting on my chair, I played whatever I thought I could play, wherever I could.  And people liked it.  I was fortunate and began to play solos more and more, but at the same time accompanying dancing and singing for all the great artists in Spain.

JALEO:  Do any particular artists stand out in your mind?

SABICAS:  Yes.  One of them was Carmen Amaya.  When we were young, I saw her for the first time in Barcelona.  She was performing at Casa Almanquet.  I saw her dance and it seemed like something supernatural to me.  She was very young then.  She went to Madrid after that and eventually we saw each other in Buenos Aires after the (Spanish Civil) war.  I never saw anyone dance like her.  I don’t know how she did it.  I just don’t know.  As far as singers, I liked La Niña de los Peines and Manuel Torres; I also liked Tomás Pavón, the brother of Niña de los Peines and a few others.

JALEO:  When you began playing the guitar, did you have any inkling of the impact you would eventually have upon the musical world?

SABICAS:  No, “que vá..” I never thought I would be able to play at all!  I was five years old when I started making noise with my guitar.  My mother, poor dear, would say to me, “Please, go to bed, it is already 3 o’clock in the morning!”  I would reply, “Yes, yes, Mama” while still going tram, tram, tram on the guitar.  I loved it then and continued doing it all my life.

JALEO:  What happened after you left Pamplona as a child?

SABICAS:  Well, I was eight or nine years old and I went to Madrid with views toward becoming a professional artist.  I took my entire family with me.  I always took my father and my brothers anywhere I went.  We stayed in Madrid until we left for Buenos Aires in 1937.  We stayed in Buenos Aires until 1940.  In the meantime we toured the Americas, but returned to Buenos Aires in 1940.  That year we signed a contract with Sol Hurok who brought us over here.  I remained here with Carmen (Amaya) and the family until 1945, when we moved to Mexico.  In 1955 Carmen came back and together we came to the United States.  I remained here after Carmen left for Spain permanently.  I have resided in New York ever since.

JALEO:  Do you have any intention of moving?  Are you happy in New York?

SABICAS:  Well, yes, I guess so.  I have gotten used to it.  You live there and you get used to it.

JALEO:  I enjoyed listening to some of your adventures  off and on the stage.  I was particularly amused by your being caught in 1939 by a major earthquake, the “Terremoto de Chillán” in Valparaiso, Chile, when 15,000 lives were lost.  I was in that city, too, at the time, but I was only a few months old then.

SABICAS:  Yes, it caught me in the middle of a farruca.  People began jumping from their seats and running out of the theater.  For a while I thought they didn’t like the way I was playing, but then I saw the big chandelier swinging from the ceiling.  To tell you the truth, I had no idea what an earthquake was.  If I had known, I would have dropped dead then and there.  Luckily, nothing happened to us.  The building housing the theater was new and stayed in one piece.

JALEO:  Have their been other similarly memorable episodes in your career?

SABICAS:  Every artist is faced with the unexpected.  One could almost write a book with the almost daily occurrences.  Especially someone like me who does not speak English.  I am embarrassed because I have been here for forty years.  Some people I meet ask me (Sabicas speaks in English) “How long have you been here?” and I say “Two weeks.”  “Oh,” they say, “your English is very good for just two weeks.”  If they only knew I’d been here forty years, they’d throw me out!

JALEO:  You were away from Spain for a good many years, weren’t you?

SABICAS:  Yes!  Almost thirty.  They called me after thirty years.  It seems there were some “certamenes,” guitar awards, and they honored me.  I was not in Spain at that time.  They sent an emissary from Malaga from the “Cuarta Semana de Estudios Flamencos,” who said they wanted to present me with the Gold Medal for the flamenco guitar, but that I had to go to Spain to receive it in person.  And I did it.  In 1967, almost thirty years to the date from the time I had left.  I travelled to Malaga and returned to New York the same year.  Later I traveled to Japan on a tour.

JALEO:  How did it feel going back to Spain after so many years?

SABICAS:  Oh, what a great thrill!  You see, after almost thirty years!  What emotion, to see the places where you grew up.  There wasn’t enough time to see everything, as I was over there for only four weeks, two in Malaga and two in Madrid.  I would have liked to stay for six months or a year, but I had other commitments.

JALEO:  Did you give any concerts during your first visit?

SABICAS:  No, but I could not help appearing on television.  I was not going there to work, but the television found out and they talked me into it.  I told them I wasn’t prepared, that I had not studied anything, but I just couldn’t get out of it.  Ever since, every time I have been back, I have had to do a television appearance.  I recorded a few albums once.  In 1971 I went with the “Festivales de Espana”, which is one of the best groups of its kind there is.  We did a tour of Spain, and in 1974 I went back for the last time.  I have not been back since because there are no ships from New York, and if there are no ships, I won’t go.

JALEO:  Your aversion towards flying is well known.

SABICAS:  Yes, yes.  Airplanes, no.  I had to go to Japan once and spent eighteen hours in the air, besides all the waiting around.  In other words, almost a full day, and to tell you the truth, that is too much flying for me.  Time goes by so slowly.  It seemed like an eternity had gone by, but when I looked at my watch only ten minutes had passed.

JALEO:  Do you feel any different when you appear before Spanish audiences as compared to the way you feel in front of American audiences?’

SABICAS:  Well, the American audience knows quite a bit, understands the guitar very well, particularly the aficionados.  Very much!  As much as anywhere in the world, maybe more.  When I appear in this country, particularly in the big cities, I know they well understand me, more or less.

JALEO:  How did you develop the compás in your own playing?  Was it the influence of dancing and singing; or were there other factors?

SABICAS:  Well, yes, it was the “ambiente” (environment).  Without ambiente you cannot do flamenco.  A guitarist by himself, playing only what he wants may have the fingers and the talent but alone he cannot do it.  He needs the ambiente, the palmas, the singing, the dancing,  Every single day.  That helps very much.  Without that it is very, very hard.

JALEO:  You have been quoted as saying that in order to be a good soloist you must accompany dancers for twenty years and singers for another twenty.  Do you care to elaborate?

SABICAS:  Yes.  The flamenco guitar, as I said in one of my records, represents three careers in one.  The way it used to be, the guitarist never rehearsed with the dancer, If she said to him, for example, to play “por alegrías”, he could do it with his back towards her if each knew what had to be done.  Nowadays, dancing is very different.  Now they tell you, here you do a falseta, here you end, and so on.  That makes it different.  So, your first career is playing in a cuadro flamenco for twenty years, for everyone who dances – naturally, without rehearsing.  Singing may be even more difficult.  You have to “measure” the singer’s voice, to see at what speed he sings.  There are some who sing slowly and if you play to fast he will drown – and vice versa.  You have to play exactly the way each person sings; this is very difficult.  And then, of course, you must play correct, as we say “por derecho” (on your own).  Each one of those phases takes twenty years.  Now, there are some who take less tan sixty years and think they can do it in thirty or fifteen.  There are those who play well for the cante, but not for the baile, or well for the baile, but not for the cante.  There are those who are “corto” (have a small repertoire) or “largo” (have a larger repertoire).  To be complete and well-rounded, however, is very, very difficult.  To know all there is to know in the flamenco guitar is very difficult indeed.

JALEO:  Are there any flamenco guitarists that you personally enjoy listening to?

SABICAS:  (without hesitation) Paco de Lucía.  He plays very well.  He plays everything very well.  I like him very much.

JALEO:  Could you relate to us some of your experiences with Paco de Lucia?

SABICAS:  Yes,  Paquito came to New York when he was fifteen years old.  He reminded me of myself when I was getting started.  I liked him very much.  A very good boy, very well educated.  He plays very well.  He spent some time with me.  He was just learning then, but already played very, very well, and always will.  It is natural for him to do so.  There are other muchachos who also play well, like Serranito, Manolo Sanlucar, among the better known.  There are other boys who accompany dancing and singing very well like [Juan Carmona] el Habichuela and many others in Spain,  But Paco (de Lucía) is playing very well.  Better than ever.

JALEO:  How do you feel about Paco de Lucía’s experiments in non-flamenco music.  [This is evidently a reference to Paco's work with fusion guitarists, such as John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola.]

SABICAS:  I do not believe he needs that.  He is a great artist and he does not need to do that because it doesn’t even suit him.  It can only take away from him.  You cannot ever leave flamenco.  If you take on another style, if you want to do something else you will lose what you have,  He has no need to play other things because it is just not for him.  It will not benefit him in any way, nor is it for him.  No, no, I do not know why he has done it.  He spoke to me in April over the phone.  He said he was coming to do this, that he liked it and that he wanted to learn about it.  He has nothing to learn from it!   He plays flamenco extraordinarily well.  What need does he have to play these other things?  Besides, he is out of place with those other boys who are very good in their field, the best there is.  Paco will not continue to play that.  He will continue to play flamenco, in concerts, which he does very, very well.  So, I cannot conceive he is playing that.  I have not been able to tell him.  As always, I tell him exactly how I feel.  He knows I have always spoken to him as a father to a son.  But now, it seems that he has left the normal path and I cannot understand why.  I do not know why.  He doesn’t need it at all.

JALEO:  What is your opinion of American flamenco guitarists?  Is there anyone who has impressed you particularly?

SABICAS:  Well, there are some muchachos who play very well, but as I said, without the “ambiente” it is very difficult.  Nevertheless one must admire their dedication because it is really admirable.  There are some who go to Spain.  They want to work, even for free.  The same for the Japanese.  They go to Spain and they get into a cuadro flamenco.  They want no money.  That is really admirable.

JALEO:  Do you believe it is essential to go to Spain to find the ambiente, or is it possible to find it elsewhere?

SABICAS:  No, no.  Your must go to Spain.  That is where it is, and you must immerse yourself in it.  Otherwise, you may have good fingers, good technique, but to play the true flamenco, in compás, you must go to Spain.  There is no other way.

JALEO:  Are there any non-Spanish guitarists who have particularly impressed you?

SABICAS:  Well, no.  I have not seen any really outstanding one.  There may be some, but I have not seen them.

JALEO:  What about dancing and singing?  Do you also feel they must be learned in Spain?

SABICAS:  It is the same.  For anything that has to do with flamenco, you must go to Spain and get into a cuadro for two, three, four or five years.  In that way you can become a good artist and have the knowledge you need.  Otherwise it is very hard, and I do not think you can ever make the mark.

JALEO:  With all the changes that have taken place in Spain lately, what course do you feel that traditional flamenco will take in the next few years?

SABICAS:  You have to consider the large number of tourists who travel to Spain.  In that country we have some thirty million citizens, plus another thirty million tourists.  One must work for them many times.  Naturally, most of them know nothing about flamenco, and one has to give them something they can understand, be it in the guitar, singing, or dancing, and  the art is becoming all the time, shall we say, less and less flamenco.  Flamenco, then, is being lost… well, maybe not being lost, but they are trying to give the public something it can understand.  In other words, the true “cante gitano” [Gypsy song] is heard very seldom in Spain.  It may exist for small gatherings, but no for the wider audiences.  One can hear good cante in some festivals, but outside of that, the public wants to hear lighter things like rumbas or bulerias which it can understand.  And one must live with all people.

JALEO:  What about the gypsy culture which gave rise to flamenco?  Do you think it can survive in this modern era?

SABICAS:  We gypsies normally carry on with our customs.  True, some sixty or seventy years ago, a gypsy rarely married a non-gypsy, but nowadays it happens commonly.  Things are looser now.  Well, the world has changed.  It continues its course.  And who knows what will happen in the next twenty or thirty years?

JALEO:  Do you believe that flamenco should continue in its traditional form, or that it could be favorably influenced by other forms of music and still retain its flamenco character?

SABICAS:  Well, much of the music from the Americas comes originally from Spain.  Flamenco will continue its own course, because otherwise it would not be flamenco.  Now then, there are a few things that when played in the flamenco style may be well received at the moment.  For example, there are some Chilean songs that are played “por bulerias” which sound very nice.  This sort of thing can be done.  But true flamenco, pure flamenco, must always continue in its course.

JALEO:  What type of guitar do you have presently?  What qualities do you look for in an instrument?

SABICAS:  I have a Ramírez guitar.  But for example, what we look for is the “pulsación” (action; feel of the strings) and how it suits us, because the “pulsación” is something personal to each flamenco guitarist.  Classical guitarists can play almost any type of guitar.  What we flamencos are interested in is that it fits us well, “que nos vaya bien”.  When the “pulsación” is right you can get more sound out of the guitar.”

JALEO:  What type of strings do you prefer?

SABICAS:  I like strings a little on the high tension side, but still with a little “give” for them.  There are some guitars that are so stiff that I just cannot play them.  Mainly, with my string technique – if you play very strongly, “a martillo” as we say in flamenco, almost “en la tapa” (fingers hitting the face of the guitar) you cannot play a hard guitar, a classical style guitar, you just can’t.  In other words, it is just the opposite of what many people believe.  A guitarist who has a strong technique needs a soft guitar, while those with a soft attack, who play barely touching the strings, do better with a stiffer guitar.

JALEO:  What string height do you prefer?

SABICAS:  I prefer average in most cases, not too high not too low.  Perhaps a little on the low side if possible, but not too much.  For me, the guitar should not b e too stiff nor too soft, not too high nor too low.

JALEO:  What about your strings?  Do you mix them?

SABICAS:  No, I do not.  Whatever type I select I use all six of the same brand.

JALEO:  Do you have strong preferences about “clavijeros,” that is, machine heads or wooden pegs?

SABICAS:  In many ways, machine heads are very good because you can tweak them slightly to tune while you are playing without having to stop, which, of course, you cannot do with wooden pegs.  But wooden pegs are lighter, so personally I like them better.

JALEO:  Do you have any advice with respect to the care of fingernails?

SABICAS:  Well, it depends pretty much on the way you play.  There are some guitarists who have constant fingernail problems.  They break them often, and not necessarily from playing too much.  I just do not know why.  Maybe it is the way they strum or tap.  I don’t know.  There are others who use their fingernails too much while playing.  That is not good technique, because they do not play with “seguridad” or strength.  The fingernail should be as short as possible, almost t the level of the flesh, maybe just slightly longer.  That is enough.  You will have more security and perhaps your nails will not break as often.

JALEO:  Do you reinforce your fingernails?

SABICAS:  Sometimes I apply some of this stuff that “los muchachos” use… what do you call it?  But not too much, because as my nails get too thick, it becomes harder for me to play; a thick nail does not produce good sound.  It is good to prevent your fingernails from chipping, though.

JALEO:  You were telling me earlier that you should spend many hours with the guitar…

SABICAS:  …as much as possible.  The more the better.  Nowadays, the way things are in the world, one does not have enough time.  Normally, though, two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening should be enough, but no less than that.

JALEO:  What method of practice do you recommend?

SABICAS:  You must do everything.  You cannot do just one thing, because you will improve on that, but the rest will suffer.  You should do fifteen minutes of picado, tremolo for another fifteen minutes, thumb work another fifteen minutes.  After one hour then you should go over whatever you think you need.  For example, if you do everything well but the picado, you should spend more time practicing it in order to bring it to the level of the rest.  If everything is equally good, then fifteen minutes to half an hour of each should be sufficient.

JALEO:  You told us before that sometimes you feel you have not played well enough, even though the audience my be very enthusiastic.

SABICAS:  That happens to every guitarist in the world; in fact, to every singer and every dancer, too,  Some days we do it well, while other days we do not, or at least not as good as we would like to.  This, of course, only the artist knows.  The public will not notice unless you have made gross mistakes.  Only the performer knows what he wants to play, how much feeling he wants to put on a given passage.  It is something very personal.

JALEO:  What differences are there between the Sabicas of 1980 and the Sabicas of the 1940’s as far as style, technique or repertoire?

SABICAS:  Well, I very seldom like to talk about myself.  I think it is in poor taste to talk about oneself.  The public must do the talking.  Some people ask such strange questions.  Once there were two bullfighters in Spain, Joselito and Belmonte, the greatest of their time.  Someone once asked Belmonte, “Say, is it true that Joselito is better than you are?”  The same has happened to me many times.  People ask me, “Is it true you are the best guitarist in the world?”  What am I supposed to answer?  I just shut up, turn around and leave.  It is in poor taste, not nice at all.  The public is the one who places the artist where he belongs.  The public pays to see you and is the ultimate judge of your talent.  How could anyone possibly say, “I am the best”?  In order to be someone, you must contribute to the art of the guitar.  Playing what others play, even if it is arranged and you play it better, is not all.  One must put something else into the guitar.  For example, certain picados, arpeggios on all strings, or “alzapuas” on almost all strings were not known.  Not because it is difficult, because the muchachos can do anything.  Some have enormously strong fingers.  The problem is knowing how to use them, and that is difficult.  I have good fingers.  How do I use them?  Not by racing over the strings.  Racing is not good for the most part.  Thus I have contributed towards the guitar in almost every aspect of modern technique, which is what the boys play today.   They arrange it, they copy it, they turn it around, and that is it, anywhere in the world.  When people ask, “What is this?”  What is the solea?  The rondena?  The taranta?” they reach for a record of Sabicas to find out.  There are hundreds of muchachos who do many things that have nothing to do with “el toque” [the art of playing the flamenco guitar].  What is hard is to do things well in “el toque,” and not just do new things.  Take the solea, for instance.  Some say “I’ve done this or that with it,” but I say, “No, sir, don’t do anything with it!”  Within “el toque”, you can eat your guitar [play with blazing technique], but follow the proper path.  Do not deviate.  That is that!   In the flamenco guitar, nobody creates anything anymore.  The one who created the most was Ramón Montoya, who died in 1949, as I said before.  He was the best guitarist of his time, fifty years ago.  Nevertheless, not everything he played was his.  All the other great guitarists died and he was left alone.  He took some 60% or 70% from others and he contributed 20% or 30% of his own.  For sure, he gave it his own “gracia,” his “sello” (stamp; personal style), his way to arpeggio, and tremolo, and his “gusto” [taste].  That was Ramón Montoya, the best guitarist we had fifty years ago.  The man did not play in the pure gypsy style, but he did play very well and he was, of course, the best of his time.  So, to be able to really do something with the guitar one must contribute.  If you do not, it is very difficult to make history.

JALEO:  How do you compose?  On the guitar?  On paper?  Mentally?

SABICAS:  Mentally, or rather, in every single concert, I do something new.  I only prepare 50% of what I play.  The rest, I compose as I go along according to God’s wishes.  That is the way flamenco is.  You never know when you are going to “rasguear” [strum] or when you aare going to do something different.  Someday it may not work out, but it hasn’t happened so far.  It doesn’t matter what you have prepared in advance.  In flamenco there is no such thing as “Variation Number 1” or “Variation Number 2” – at least for me.

JALEO:  Do you write music?


JALEO:  Have you seen any of the transcriptions that have been made of your music?

SABICAS:  Yes, I have seen a few, but you see, true flamenco cannot be written; flamenco is a thing of the moment.  Sometimes iyou play very well, other times you can’t play at all.  No one knows whyl  Maybe you do not feel well.  I just do not know.  Sometimes you are happy and everything comes out fine.  Other times you sound like a bad aficionado.  That is the way it goes.

JALEO:  Do you have any ambition to do something different or new in flamenco that you haven’t already done?

SABICAS:  As I said, flamenco has to be pure.  You cannot leave its path.  The muchachos are trying to leave it.  They do strange things that are not in “el toque,” For instance, they play “por bulerias”, very nicely.  Bulerias are very beautiful, very nice, but tht is not all.  One has to play twenty other toques of flamenco equally well, and that is very hard.   Flamenco has changed a little, in that cantes without compás, such as the rondeña, taranta, malagueña, granainas and others are not sung very much and played even less.  People stick to the soleá, bulerías, siguiriyas, and the “toques de compás” only.  But they are leaving, well it is not as much that they are leaving, but rather they do not listen to other things, and therefore those tunes are getting worse all the time.  In flamenco, you must do everything, because everything is good when done properly.  Sadly though, as I said, flamenco is shrinking, becoming smaller and flatter.

JALEO:  How many concerts have you done on this present tour?

SABICAS:  Eight in all.  I will return to New York and do four more.

JALEO:  On the average, how many concerts do you do a year?

SABICAS:   Well, not many.  One is not young anymore, and it is hard being on the road all the time.  Your nerves are not twenty years old anymore.  So, I do not do too many concerts.  The ones I do though, are well paid and I do them in places I like and where I can have a good time.  That is the way to do it.  Once, a long time ago, I did seventeen concerts in twenty-one days.  I couldn’t even conceive of doing that anymore.  Now I like to take my time, visit places I like and do it properly, “todo bien, todo bien.”

JALEO:  How far in advance do you book your concerts?  Do you know when you will be back in Southern California?

SABICAS:  I never know.  My manager handles all that.  He just hands me my schedule and my reservations.

JALEO:  Tomorrow you perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall.  When was the last time you were there?

SABICAS:  To tell you the truth, I do not know.  I can never remember one place from another.  I would make the worst policeman in the world.  If the suspect wore the slightest disguise, I would never recognize them.  All cities look alike to me.  I stick to my guitar, think about my music, and pay very little attention to anything else.

JALEO:  I understand you always stay at the same hotel in Los Angeles.

SABICAS:  Yes, ever since the first time I came here.  I have a proverb, “Mas vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer”  [Better something bad you know than something good you do not.]  If a place is all right I always return there.  I normally stay at the Hiltons, or the new ones – what do you call them – the “Inns”, I believe, but not here in Los Angeles.  I went to the Mark Twain twenty-six years ago, in 1955, and I liked it.  It is like a private home.  You can come and go as you please, and it is close to everything.  Other hotels are so far from everything, no place to eat, nothing.  Here in Los Angeles, I just go back to my hotel.

JALEO:  Does it bother you to be recognized in public places and approached by strangers?

SABICAS:  Well, you come to expect it,  It does not frighten me anymore.  I have gotten used to it.

JALEO:  Do you like to eat late in the evening?

SABICAS:  No, except when I give a concert.  I never eat before a concert,  But when I am not working I eat at 7, 7:30, eight o’clock at the latest.  This is something I have gotten accustomed to here in American because in Spain we eat very late, 9 or 9:30 at night.  You don’t get done until eleven and then you go out for a walk to digest the food.  New York, however, is the only city in the world where you can go to a restaurant at any time, day or night.  If you feel like eating a paella at 3 o’clock in the morning you can get it .  The only place in the world.

JALEO:  Are you planning any new recordings?

SABICAS:  Not for the moment.  I have recorded a lot, fifty-three long-play albums.  That is enough.  I did the very first recording with an orchestra some seventeen or eighteen years ago…. We recorded it and people seemed to like it.  We have done another one and that is now finished and I am not sure whether we will record it or perform it.  We’ll see.

JALEO:  Do you plan to appear with a dance company again?

SABICAS:  No, not anymore.  It is very expensive, and promoters are not interested,  If you can fill a theater with just a soloist, why should they be interested.?

JALEO:  Maestro, on behalf of all Jaleistas I thank you for sharing this time and your thoughts with us.

SABICAS:  Encantado, encantado; el gusto ha sido mío.  [Delighted – the pleasure has been mine.]

End of El Niño Chileno’s interview with Sabicas in Jaleo, April, 1981

July 1, 2012   1 Comment

Paco de Lucia’s New York Debut – I Shot Andy Warhol

In 1970 or 1971, Paco de Lucia played in the small auditorium of the Spanish Institute in New York.  Afterwards, Sabicas went backstage to talk to Paco, alone.  Maybe I was reading into it, but I felt I was witnessing the passing of the torch — though that didn’t mean that Sabicas actually liked what Paco was doing, music-wise.

But the true media star of that predominantly brunette evening was the towheaded Andy Warhol, accompanied by some Velvet Undergrounders and other denizens from the Factory.  Warhol stood in the back, dressed in black, with that expressionless lizard look of his, but you could tell he was impressed by Paco’s playing, or his persona.  (The young Paco could seem almost eerily beautiful, I thought.  I took pictures of them both, but they didn’t come out.)

I had been shilling for the concert on Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, playing cuts from Paco’s “Fabulosa Guitarra” and “Fantasia Flamenca” LP’s, but nobody seemed to notice.  I was impressed that Warhol had the zeitgeistiness to somehow glom onto to this newest world-class musical genius.

(In the film “I Shot Andy Warhol”, about the woman who did exactly that and almost killed him, there is some flamenco guitar music played by Paco Juanas, a veteran New York player.  At a Spanish restaurant many years later, Paco Juanas let me sit in with him for a rendition of Paco de Lucia’s great alegrias in E minor when Sabicas walked in.  I quickly switched to one of Sabicas’s best variations, but it was too late.  For the first time, the man we always called maestro seemed disappointed in my taste in flamenco guitar music.)

Brook Zern

February 17, 2012   No Comments