Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Guitarist Mario Escudero

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 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