Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Authority José María Castaño

Paco de Lucía – Obituary by José María Castaño – translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  This obituary by Jerez flamenco expert José María Castaño appeared in his blog “Caminos del Cante” named for his radio program, and also in the newspaper LaRazon.es.  Links are at the end.  This translation has some defects; corrections will be welcome.

Paco de Lucía, the divine guitar (from Algeciras to Cancún)

by José María Castaño

Among the many messages igniting the social media networks following the sudden death of Paco de Lucía, I identified most readily with this one signed by my good friend Francisco López, the artistic producer and board member of the Villamarta Theater in Jerez:  “We are all Paco.  For that reason, we have lost a part of ourselves.  It is the loss that hurts the most; the loss of the intangible.”

In fact, the guitar of the mythical artist from Algeciras has always been with us, in our daily routines, in the constants of life.  Separated from it in such a heartrending way, we realize that we never really understood the true reach of his rhythms, of his harmonies, beating in time with our hearts.

Previous generations believe they have lived with great stars of the deep art of flamenco, but ours was privileged to live with the greatest musician in the history of flamenco, with no room whatsoever for any contrary argument.  Because no one ever reached so far into the realms of virtuosity and creativity as Paco.  That is reflected in a body of work for which the word “genius” seems too limiting, just as it does for the man who was born, bathed in the tang of salt in the province of Cadiz just 66 years ago.  His work extends through more than thirty LP’s of his guitar, as well as his countless collaborations in other recorded productions.

A thousand things can be said about this, because the artist gave three strong twists of the wrench to the music that he represented in its evolution from its roots.  He prepared the flamenco aesthetic for the language of the Twenty-First Century; together with Camarón de la Isla he wrote one of the most beautiful pages in this worthy pain that we call flamenco, the pain of a wound that doesn’t heal.  He dynamited all the temporal and geographic frontiers that confined this deep art to a little map, carrying it into the world’s most important theaters, which surrendered to its art in capital letters, and finally, he opened a dialogue among equals with the musical styles that ruled the planet, from jazz to classical, always bringing in those pieces of the heart that great guitarists like him carry in their fingertips

But of everything that can be said about such a transcendental personage, I’ll stick with a personal anecdote recalled from the month of March of 2007.  He was in his native Algeciras for the ceremony presenting him with his Honorary Degree, Honoris Causa, from the University of Cadiz.

An unknown Paco, at that university gala, listened attentively to the laudatory speeches for more than an hour as they recognized his merits and his worthiness to be granted such a well-deserved academic homage.  Then it was his turn, and the person arose, as if wishing to leave the international artist still seated.  With the shyness that always characterized him,  he barely needed two minutes:  “I come from an art that cannot be learned in books, but that is as important as books, and among other things I’ve come to Algeciras, because I needed to hear the echoes of my father and of my mother and of my home.”  He gave a half turn and sat down.

And… I don’t know.  It left me a bit perplexed.  The titan who beat his life against six guitar strings on stages seemed far away, the artist who needed no more prizes and who crammed the largest stadiums and auditoriums – they weren’t there.  Instead, there was the person himself, simple, naked, perhaps lacking  (desprovista de) intellect.

There was that child, a frustrated flamenco singer, who chose the guitar so he could hide behind it and look out at the world through the well of sound that is the open mouth of the instrument.

Admired by artists from Mark Knopfler (who on seeing him play said he had to admit he knew nothing about the guitar) to Carlos Santana, the great Paco de Lucía needed his home, and like an emigrant he felt he had to pick up a handful of sand to carry with him during the half his life that he spent in exile.  And within that exile, there was the voice of his father, hidden behind any corner of the Cuesta de la Bajadilla in Algeciras, walking to the beach that according to the singer Joan Manuel Serrat would connect us to Istambul, but also to Mexico where the maestro Paco said goodbye forever.

His was a spiritual search, perhaps.  A search that would show, once again, that the greatest artists of all time are in the end innocent dreamers of lost paradises that have nothing to do with bank accounts or mansions, but with the soul when it needs to remember what is truly essential.

Today Paco has left us forever.  It had to happen by the seaside, because in some way Algeciras had to be present in his goodbye even if it were from another shore.  And there it was, connected through the immense blue to embrace its favorite son who made half the world dream with just the six strings of his guitar.  To embrace this native son whose goal after reaching such exalted heights was to seek the echo of his father where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean join together on the Cadiz coast.  The echo that he has surely found in the eternal seas that today carry, and bring, the sound of one flamenco guitar.  The guitar of Paco de Lucía.

End of translation.

The original article is found at:


March 13, 2014   No Comments

A New Recording of Saetas by Manuel Agujetas and His Son Antonio – by José María Castaño – translated with comments by Brook Zern

From “Los Caminos de Cante”, March 13, 2014

Translator’s note:  Go to the link at the end of this blog entry to hear this recording.  Los Caminos del Cante is terrific radio program done in Jerez by José María Castaño, who literally wrote the book on that city’s flamenco, titled “De Jerez y Sus Cantes”.  (He sometimes lets me sit in on his otherwise-expert weekly panels, where my friend and expert informant Estela Zatania is an actual regular.)

This announces a rare event:  A flamenco recording.  No jazz, no flutes, no nonsense – not even any guitars, because this particular flamenco song form, the saeta, is accompanied only by muffled drums and, sometimes but not here, a brass band of cornets and trumpets.  They are the songs sung during Holy Week as the huge, heavy floats move through the nearly silent streets, when amateur and professional singers, sometimes overcome by emotion, speak directly in verse to Jesus or Mary as they make their annual passage through the town.  (A dimly-recalled verse: “Here he comes/ the best of all those ever born (el mejor de los nacíos)/ His hands bound so tightly/ it would crush a rock”.  As a true non-believer, incidentally, I find it problematic to navigate the emotional realm between my involuntary oneness with the singer and the song, and my complete separation from the underlying religious impulse.)

It’s hard to place the saetas into the context of flamenco’s hierarchy of song forms.  They can be intensely moving, and some versions – including those rendered here – are evidently indebted to the great deep song form called the siguiriyas.   In fact, they are attributed to the greatest Gypsy singer of all time, Manuel Torre.   (There is another kind of saeta that is simple, folky, and touching but without the terrifying depths of the versions heard here.

The main singer is Manuel Agujetas, referred to in the New York Times recently as “a great Gypsy singer”.  Yes, very possibly the greatest living Gypsy singer – not an admirable man, but a gigantic artist.  He is joined by his son Antonio, who I hope has overcome or outgrown some personal difficulties and who can be a powerful singer.

Here’s José María Castaño’s article:

We have received the new CD “Al Mejor de los Nacío” by Manuel and Antonio Agujetas

Manuel de los Santos Pastor “Agujetas” has sent us his latest discographic publication:  A recording dedicated to the saeta, with no additives except the presence of his singing son, Antonio Agujetas.

The disc, recorded in the studios at La Bodega de Jerez, with José Manuel García Pelayo in charge, includes nine new saetas from Manuel Agujetas, complemented with two by Antonio.

The musical lineage of all these saetas is clearly identified with those left to us by Manuel Soto Leyton “Manuel Torre” which we hear in his recordings.  This primitive saeta, stripped of any adornment, very corta [brief, limited, short] and direct with a profound flavor of the old street cries adorned with some dry and forceful sung “ayes” that evoke the siguiriyas.  These may be the “old, simple saeta por siguiriyas [saeta sung in the manner of siguiriyas] that Antonio Mairena spoke of, that arrived in Seville in the beginning of the last century.”

As is logical, despite the fount that is Manuel Torre, the Agujetas insert that unmistakable rajo de dolor [ragged cry of grief], born of that atavistic eco that carries us into this mysterious sound that resembles the first wail emitted by our human species.

All the saetas are accompanied by the drums that seem to cover the nakedness of this sacred message of Holy Week and the traditional verses, including some very primitive versions that surely have survived in the selective memory of this family of singers.

An authentic relic.

End of article.

To hear these saetas, and read the Spanish comments, go to:


March 13, 2014   No Comments

17 Complete Programs from the Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco Series – Plus Today’s Most Important Radio Shows – Now At Your Fingertips.

I’ve been lucky to know and learn from two of the most knowledgeable authorities and most important figures in the fight to document great flamenco and disseminate crucial information about the art.

José María Velázquez-Gaztelu has for decades presented a great twice-a-week radio program on Spain’s national radio and television network, RTVE.  It can be heard on podcast recordings at http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/nuestro-flamenco/

But Señor Velázquez-Gaztelu had another trick up his sleeve.  Around 1970, he was the key man and on-camera figurehead in the creation of 100 magnificent black-and-white half-hour TV programs of Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco that ran weekly for two years.

(Before I met him, I’d spent fifteen years trying and failing to get permission to pay RTVE to protect the films and make a first copy for the Ethnomusicology Department at Columbia University ; it was finally granted in 1987, and for about a decade I apparently had a monopoly on the series.  Then a poorly done and poorly documented commercial cassette version of most shows was released by Alga in Spain; and then, happily, Señor Velázquez-Gaztelu created a gorgeously restored DVD version containing 72 of the shows, each 4-program disc also featuring his newly added commentary and recollections with available English subtitles, and each bound into striking small books giving invaluable information about every cut.)

Yes, all flamenco aficionados have seen some random, confusing moments of often brilliant b&w performances from these programs scattered all over YouTube.  But the true greatness of the series derives from the integrity of the total package, including the scripting, interviews, location selections and establishing scenes that make every program an artistic whole – as well as a window into a vanished Spain just feeling the first breezes from what would soon become a hurricane of cultural, sociopolitical and musical change.)

In recent years that I spent largely in the flamenco epicenter of Jerez, I soon realized that José María Castaño, author of the definitive book “De Jerez y Sus Cantes”, was the go-to guy for flamenco info and insight.  His radio program, Los Caminos del Cante, is a treasury of great talk and great music, and his article on Jerez’s crucial Gypsy/flamenco families is translated in this blog.  (He lets me sit in on some panel discussions; my finest contribution, with momentary lapses, has been keeping my mouth shut and listening to a half-dozen genuine experts argue with each other.  Arguing, or listening to heated, rapid-fire arguments in the region’s mystifying Andalusian dialect, is the true key to flamenco knowledge – or it would be, if I could just understand half of what was being shouted.)

This dynamic documentarian duo comes together, at least virtually, in an article  written by Castaño and translated from the Jerez progam website, www.loscaminosdelcante.com  – which also includes his incisive articles and editorials signed with the program name,  Here it is:

The Rito y Geografía del Cante series is online on the website of RTVE

There is no doubt that this series is the most important ever done for television.  It inherited the mantle of the great Archivo del Cante Flamenco 3-record set created by the noted Jerez writer José Manuel Caballero Bonald.

Soon after those field recordings were made featuring a select group of emblematic artists, the decision was made to go out again, this time with TV cameras, to reveal a truly exceptional artistic generation.  From the singers Antonio Mairena to Manolo Caracol, through Terremoto and Fernanda de Utrera and the guitarist Diego del Gastor, plus a huge list of other artists – all were filmed for national television.

Heading the project were two great professionals, Pedro Turbica and José María Velázquez-Gaztelu who covered a large part of Andalusia’s geography to document an array of spoken and sung testimonies that remain an unequalled primary source and reference point.

The RTVE website has decided to let everyone enjoy every episode of the series, restored to an extraordinary audio and visual level of excellence.  It can be accessed by clicking on the following link:


End of article

(Hey, looky the one guitarist named above from a cast that included every major player in Spain — the one we gringos are often unfairly accused of worshipping unduly.  Yes, it’s Diegod el Gastor.)

Again, while the article doesn’t spell it out, there are just 17 of the complete shows on the RTVE website — though they’re among the best.  The artists, in alphabetical order:  Camaron (accompanied by Paco Cepero, not the other Paco), Manolo Caracol (2 shows), Fosforito, Diego del Gastor, Juan el Lebrijano, Paco de Lucia, Antonio Mairena, Jose Menese, Enrique Morente, La Paquera, La Perla de Cadiz, Siguiriyas (2 shows), and Triana.  (An additional show made quite recently features Velázquez-Gaztelu talking about the series with the very knowledgeable José Manuel Gamboa.)

What?  Free is good, but you want more for your money?  Well, if you’re willing to shell out a few bucks per show, you’re in luck.  The excellent commercial version done by Señor Velázquez in 2005 initially had four beautiful slipcases each containing four books-with-DVD’s, each in turn containing four shows — 16 volumes containing 4 shows each equals, um, 64 shows, but two more DVD’s were issued recently — Volumes 17 and 18.  Those 8 additional programs mean a total of 72 of the 100 shows are out there somewhere (just google the series, and you’ll stumble on all of them loose or in groups.  (Hey, if I’ve got unrestored copies of all 100 shows, does that mean I still have a monopoly on the remaining 28 shows?)

Brook Zern

December 29, 2013   1 Comment