Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Guitarist Pepe Habichuela Speaks

Flamenco Guitarist Pepe Habichuela speaks – Interview with María Valdovín – translated by Brook Zern

Flamenco Guitarist Pepe Habichuela speaks – Interview with María Valdovín – translated by Brook Zern

El Periódico de Aragón of May 1, 2013 has an interview with the great flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela by María Valdovín.  Here’s a translation:

Headline:  “I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years and every day I have bigger hopes and dreams [estoy más ilusionado]” – Pepe Habichuela appears in concert with Tamara Escudero and Bandolero

Pepe Habichuela was born José Antonio Carmona Carmona in Granada in 1944,.  As a kid he thought he was destined to be a baker, but he carried the art of flamenco in his veins and he knew how to express it so well that he became the king of the Gypsy guitar, as he is known today.  “I’ve had this instrument in my hands for fifty years, and every day I have bigger hopes and dreams.  What’s more, right now I am at a brilliant point in my career and thank God, I have offers of work”, says the artist.

Tonight he visits Aragón’s capital to play in the Teatro Arbolé, and says “I’m very excited about going to Zaragoza.  It’s a place with a lot of art, with its jotas and its bullfighting tradition.”  Onstage, he’ll be accompanied by the singer Tamara Escudero and the percussionist Bandolero.  “We’re going to offer a classic flamenco concert, with chirivillas [?], soleares, tarantas, bulerías and rumbitas.”

In the concert, he says he’ll be drawing on material from his three recordings, A Mandeli, Habuichuela en Rama and YerbaGüena, with his guitar revealing the ancestral echoes of the Arab, Jewish, Andalusian and above all the Gypsy cultures, with the rhythmic pulse [templanza] and deep knowledge [sabiduría].   Pepe Habichuela has been fusing his genuine flamenco styles “with other styles of world music,” as he puts it.  I have been able to share flamenco with artists from many different realms, like Chandru and Nothin Sawnhey who come from the Indian {“Hindu”] tradition, and with jazzmen like Don Cherry and Dave Holland, “ says the maestro.  “It gives me pride and pleasure to know that artists from other cultures want to fuse and blend [fusionar] their music with mine.  I like to “tirar por otros lares” [?] of the hand of flamenco, which is what I carry in my blood.”  With good reason, he sums up his long career with special pride in having shared prestigious stages with great  flamenco artists.  “I’ve accompanied the singers Juanito Valderrama, Pepe Marchena, Enrique Morente and Carmarón, and I learned a lot from all of them.  The work of these maestros was very important and magical.  From all those collaborations, I keep in my heart a very special tour of Spain in the seventies with Valderrama and Pepe Marchena,” he says.

According to Habichuela, flamenco “is at a very special moment; it has wide acceptance and tremendous [“bárbaro”] success, and the world’s great musicians want to fuse their music with flamenco and learn from it.”   He adds that  beyond the passion for flamenco beyond and within our borders, the continuity of flamenco is assured thanks to this new musical savvy [sabia].  Right now, in addition to working on his second recording with jazzman Dave Holland, he’s immersed in a project with four young flamenco artists who, he says, “may become great figures in the art.”

End of article.

Pepe Habichuela is nearly seventy, and his art can be cutting-edge.  Like his older brother Juan Habichuela, perhaps the finest accompanist in the business,  Pepe has total command of the flamenco guitar tradition.   Unlike Juan, his musical intelligence extends far beyond flamenco’s usual borders.  While countless young players are straying or rushing into fusion’s green pastures with often unconvincing results, Pepe’s work with jazz people is taken seriously in very discriminating circles.  But sometimes it seems to me that such fusions can be a one-way street – the flamenco artist learning new rules and striving to capture the essence of jazz or other musics, while the other artists don’t even bother to learn flamenco’s rhythmic system or compás, or use its fascinating Phrygian scale in any sensible way.

For me, it was interesting to confirm that Pepe’s taste in flamenco runs to the pleasant, easy-listening art of Juanito Valderrama and Pepe Marchena, the two greatest exponents of the so-called “cante bonito” or “pretty song” genre.  While those artists were wildly popular in mid-century, it’s safe to say that they aren’t often singled out by Gypsy artists as personal favorites.  Valerrama’s son Juan recently released a record called “Sonidos Blancos” or “White Sounds”, challenging the once-prevalent preference for what García Lorca called the “sonidos negros” or “black sounds” that characterize the typically deep and unpretty Gypsy song.

I first stumbled into that minefield while talking to Sr. Habichuela after one of the stupendous shows during the 1988 New York run of Flamenco Puro, when I made a disparaging remark about Marchena as affected and efectista (striving for easy sentimental effects rather than digging for deep and intense expression].  He gave me a dismissive stare and said, “You know what your problem is?”  I said no.  He said, “Your mouth is too big, and your ears are too small.”

Hoping for backup, I turned to Sabicas who was sitting to my left – yes, those were heady times in the big city.  He smiled, looked up toward the ceiling, and whistled a little tune, as if to say, “Schmuck, you’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Okay.  Point taken.  When two out of two geniuses agree on something, I reset my flamenco opinions accordingly.  And so it was that on the following night, at a Brazilian restaurant, I shared my brilliant new insight with the immortal Fernanda de Utrera, the greatest singer of soleares in the history of the art.  “You know,” I pontificated, “I used to think Pepe Marchena was a crummy singer, but lately I have realized that his art must be respected and taken very seriously.”

Fernanda de Utrera looked at me with a disappointed stare and said, “You know, until now I thought you knew something about this art.”


May 1, 2013   No Comments