Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Song Forms – Peteneras

Paco de Lucía Speaks – 1994 El País Interview by Sol Alameda – translated by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  Ordinary artists give ordinary interviews.  In the case of Paco de Lucía, an interview could become a deep dive into the soul and psyche of towering and revolutionary figure.  Read this astonishing document and, even with the losses inherent in translation, you will know more about Paco de Lucía than all but a few of his countrymen.  (There are many other Paco interviews in this blog, each one a revelation.)

At the end is the accompanying “sidebar” that attempted to situate Paco in the art he revolutionized.  Here’s the story:

Civilized Duende

[Recent Introduction]:  He can’t read music, but that’s okay.  He’s the world’s best flamenco guitarist.  An unquestioned myth.  A legitimate inheritor of two cultures, the paya [non-Gypsy] and the Gypsy, he knows how to extract the best essences of each without betraying either.  His latest recording, Live in America, from his shows in the US, is an new homage to the eternal duende of an ancestral art of which the genius of Paco de Lucía has taken out of the ghetto.

In his living room, in the new Madrid development of Mirasierra, there’s a big chair facing a TV set with a cover on the back.  That’s where Paco de Lucía sits when he returns exhausted from a three-month tour.  In that position he spends hours and hours staring at the television. It’s when, finally, he asks himself, “Why am I watching this garbage?” that he’s back in shape.  Then the laziness disappears and is replaced by a man who can work tirelessly.  In this duality, going from one extreme to the other, from savage to civilized, embracing his responsibility to his music or fleeing from it, lives Paco de Lucía (Francisco Sánchez. Algeciras, Cádiz, 1947), the world’s best flamenco guitarist.

Q:  “You admit to being the most neurotic person in the world.  That simplifies things – at least you know it.”

A:  Well, the consumption of art is dangerous.  A successful musician is obliged to make a record each year, and one just doesn’t have that capacity.  Especially if he’s also the composer of the works.  It’s different for a singer who wants to make a new record; they send him forty composers with many more songs to choose from, and then an arranger to make the arrangements.  But for the creator, each record is a birth, and the demand doesn’t allow enough time to feel and to live enough to renew himself and make a new work.  Yes, I’m neurotic, like everyone who spends many hours alone.  Composing is neurotic, and appearing live onstage, extroverted and communicative, is a cure for that.  But those who only live by composing, well, it’s scary to talk to them.  They look at you with the face of a crazy man.

Q:  You, in your exalted position, must be pretty sure about what you’re doing – or maybe not?

A:  That knowledge opens things up, but sometimes it’s preferable not to have any such awareness, and just to count on emotion, to be a savage.  A savage is much braver and more intrepid than an intellectual, more daring, and so there is the possibility of finding madness.

Q:  And when you work, is it more savage or more intellectual?

A:  I’ve lived my whole life abusing, you could say, my savage aspect, using it.  Using sensibility and intuition, but there comes a moment when you miss the thought process, the ratiocination.  Academic knowledge, for example: having gone to school to learn harmony and music theory.  There you get a batch of resources that, using only intuition, can make things pretty heavy and boring.  Because it makes you always be sensible, hyper-rational, to be able to do something, to compose.  And if you have formal knowledge, well, it’s easier.

Q:  Have you always regretted greater preparation, or is that just recently?

A:  It’s always been that way, but even more so with the passage of time; because with age you have less energy, less stimulus, less desire to close yourself up somewhere for eight hours to discover a melody.  In those moments you miss being able to manipulate the music, without having to work hard to find things that have already been discovered.

Q:  Are you still unable to read music?

A:  When I’ve had to learn the music of de Falla or Albéniz, or Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, I thought of working with another musician, but I wasn’t comfortable with that.  I soon saw that I had a printed method about reading music  and thought that maybe I could decipher written music.  And I did it, though it took forever to drag up a phrase or a chord.

Q:  Haven’t you ever decided to learn to read music once and for all?

A:  I’ve started many times, but my life is very irregular.  When I’m freed up for months, with all the time in the world, I want to get organized, to master this discipline.  But I’m soon off on tour again, and the craziness resumes.  My good intentions are shipwrecked.  Then I muster good intentions again, and that’s how my life goes.

Q:  Maybe at bottom you want to continue with your own particular way of getting what you want.

A:  Yes.  But it’s also indolence, laziness.  More than vague, I am incredulous, I don’t much believe in things and I’m afraid of being pretentions, of knowing a great deal.  I tell myself, “And what more is there?!?”  I’ve always lived this way, and so far it hasn’t done me any harm.

Q:  You were disciplined as a child, studying guitar for hours without regret.

A:  Yes, when I was starting out, from the age of 8 to maybe 12 or 15.  I was born into a family with economic problems.  My father was badly treated, having to find money for food each day, and as a little kid I had the idea that I must learn quickly to help out at home.

Q:  Is that the only real effort you’ve made?

A:  Yes, but I wasn’t sorry about it.  My father asked me, “How much time have you studied?” and when I said 10 or 12 hours I could see his happiness, and that was my reward.  And in fact, by the age of 12 I was earning money.

Q:  Was that when you went to the U.S., bringing your frying pans?

A:  I bought them over there, but travelled with them.  For me, going to the U.S. was as exciting as going to the moon.  I made $100 a week, and if I’d had to buy meals in restaurants I wouldn’t have had any money left.  And so my brother and I went from hotel to hotel with our post and frying pans.  And all the hotels threw us out because the smell inundated the whole building and the walls were covered with stewed tomato stains.  But all the members of the troupe cooked in our rooms.  I was very happy then.  Instead of going to school, I was traveling and making money at the age of 12.  At that age nobody suffers; one suffers when one starts growing old.

Q:  Did you read books at that time?

A:  Yes. From the time I was 17 I read a lot.  Now I don’t read at all, I’m so full of things that when I return home I just sit down and try to get my thoughts in order.  It seems to me that reading is like trying to live someone else’s life, and what I want to do is mull over my own concerns.

Q:  When you started reading, what kind of books were they?

A:  Books on philosophy, until I realized I was becoming very serious.  I come from a place where there’s a real sense of humor, and I soon saw that I’d been flying; when they told me something absurd, which today I’d find quite charming, I’d say, “But that’s not logical.”  I tried to reason everything out, and I began to become boring.  So I left the philosophy behind; this business of seeking truth is a vain pretention. The clearer you try to make things, the more complex they become.

Q:  Have you arrived at a definition of flamenco?

A:  That…Beside being a very rich music, with emotion, it is a philosophy, a way of life, a scale of values, something different.

Q:  Are you in agreement with those rules?

A:  There are things in flamenco that serve a purpose; respect for the elders, for example, strikes me as very positive; today’s society casts old people into elephant graveyards.  In our culture, in that culture, the old person is the patriarch until the end.  There are other norms that one lives by quite naturally, without realizing it.

Q:  Do you live according to those laws more than the laws of the [non-Gypsies]?

A:  With a mixture of both.

Q:  Does that create conflicts?

A:  At certain times and in certain situations I haven’t known which road to follow – that of the coherent logic of an evolving society, or that of a traditional society, marked by incoherence but very attractive and poetic.  What I’ve done is to extract the positive aspects from each culture and try to apply them.

Q:  Did a moment arrive when the flamenco culture seemed to be suffocating, and you wanted to get away from it?

A:  Yes, I left; definitely, I left.  I lived the flamenco life and world intensely, and then I decided to place myself in the world of the payos because it seemed to have interesting things.  That’s when I want to play with other musicians, American and English; I needed fresh air, I’d been living in a vicious circle; the same topics, the same values, the same gracias [attractive, charming aspects].  And the new flamenco people emerged, and they were like their fathers and their grandfathers, everyone equal.  I began to feel suffocated, and I left to seek another type of music.

Q:  It was an evolution, you never broke with that other world.

A:  I never claimed it was a revolution, but an evolution.  That’s what gave me the identity I have, and that identity is what gives you force or power as an artist.

Q:  When you went to the U.S. and began to play with John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell, how did you feel?

A:  Like a primitive.  For the flamenco people I was an evolved being; for the Americans I was a savage.  This was disconcerting, unnerving.  I knew that I didn’t know how to improvise, and they did.  I told them, “I’m going crazy.  How do you do that?”  And they laughed like mad, as if to say, don’t sweat it, don’t worry.  And they didn’t tell me anything.  I guess they saw something in me that I couldn’t see, and they thought it was beautiful to see me suffering onstage.  But for me the effort to avoid ridicule was just terrible.  I went out trembling, fearful, with terrible pain in my shoulders.  It was pure improvisation, in the jazz style, and I had never played that way.  I was at the point of throwing in the towel and going back home.  But something told me to get something positive out of this.  And that’s what happened.  I found a different way of playing.  I discovered the attractiveness of improvisation – something every musician should do, including classical musicians.

Q:  And now, is it easier to improvise?

A:  Now, at least my head doesn’t hurt.  If you suddenly happen to have one of those magical days onstage and you pull out an improvisation that even you can’t believe, and at the same time you have absolute certainty that you won’t lose the harmony and that you are in possession of the truth, that day will stay with you forever.  Now you’re always waiting for it to come again.  And it does, but only now and then.  Although when you’ve discovered it,  you’ll never stop seeking it.

Q:  At that moment, indolence didn’t drag you down.

A:  No.  I had an English manager and we got the idea of making a trio with three different guitarists: one classical, one jazz, and me.  But the classical player didn’t want to do it, because he couldn’t improvise, and so we sought out Larry Coryell.  And we went out onstage.  When I see it clearly, I threw myself into it without thinking twice.  It was tough to decide, but there was no one to stop me.  It’s my way of life: launch into nothing or the abyss, and let’s see if it flies.  And until today, I’m still airborne.  You have to take risks in life, but if you’re afraid of looking ridiculous it will stop you.  You only learn by making mistakes.

Q:  Your immersion in jazz – was that a risk?

A:  Jazz people are tolerant.  The ones who are sealed off and intolerant are the classical people.  If you aren’t classical and if you weren’t born into that environment, they automatically reject you.  I doesn’t matter how you play – they don’t stop to listen; they reject you right off the bat.

Q:  Is flamenco still disdained, disrespected?

A:  All my life.  Even as a kid I’ve had an inferiority complex fed by the classical people.  And that’s not just a feeling, something invented.  They made me feel it.  I thought I had come up with a way to play the Concierto de Aranjuez: from a flamenco perspective, and playing it the way I felt it.  Almost all the classical guitarists liked it.  But one day I saw in ABC an interview with the classical player Narciso Yepes who made me feel like a child molester.  He said horrible things:  How could I play in this shameful way?  He didn’t give reasons why he didn’t like it.  And what happened when I was little – I felt that same bad feeling.

Q:  You are indisputably a major artist; no one denies that; it must make you feel secure.

A:  Don’t believe that.  I know what I am.  Everything they give me beyond that is extra; what they may take away, I’ll lose.  I try to be a good professional, I’m on the raod, I try to arrive at a place where I like something I’m doing.

Q:  To be a sort of Pope, as you are for so many people – how does that sit with you?

A:  Sometimes I’ve done things I regret, and yet there are people who follow that path.  Knowing that there are people who look to lme gives me a responsibility.  But on the other hand, if I’ve had success in life it has been for that – for having  respected my tradition and my culture as I pass through here, that pleases me.

Q:  Are you sometimes afraid that good flamenco will disappear?

A:  No.  You could cut out the Gypsies’ tongues, but they would keep singing even then.

Q:  You are not a Gypsy.

A:  No, but I grew up with them, I know them well.  These people have deep roots in their culture.  I think flamenco is Andalusian, but the Gypsy, when he arrived in our country 500 years ago, integrated himself into flamenco and gave it his personality, his way of expressing the music; he evolved it, he perfected it.  The Gypsy always looks for an excuse for having a fiesta, a party, a jam session: it could be a wedding, a baptism, a birthday – any reason is good enough to spend three days singing.

Q:  In that culture, what do you like besides the music?

A:  Well, I like a lot of the Gypsy things.  Their capacity for happiness, there way of looking at life, every day, without  pretender to enrich themselves.

Q:  And their inability [incapacidad] to evolve?

A:  They are afraid of evolution… [rest of sentence omitted, a typographical glitch].  But there are young Gypsies who are more open.  They’ve been afraid of losing their past.  But a race must protect its culture, its customs; it must e careful not to become contaminated.

Q:  It’s curious that it is you, a non-Gypsy, who has evolved flamenco.

A:  Maybe I have less sense of tradition.  I’ve lived with them, but at the same time, I have the head of a non-Gypsy, without that force of tradition, of immobility.  It was easier for me; I have more of a sense of freedom.  Although I’ve lived with them, and wasn’t really aware that I was not a Gypsy until I’d reached a certain age.

Q:  To know you weren’t Gypsy – did that make you do things in another way?

A;  I began to look at the culture of other people, of other musicians.  I was basically a flamenco, I’ll always be a flamenco and I always want to be one; but I discovered that there was other music.  My father told me that anything that wasn’t flamenco was stupid [tonterías], it wasn’t music.  He had marginalized himself to such an extent that hew was ashamed to listen to a jazz player or a classical musician.  They said you were a flake, if they didn’t just think you were crazy.  But I discovered that there was also music beyond flamenco.  I was 20 years old at the time.

Q:  You functioned as a creole, someone who belongs to two cultures and who finally brings forth something new.

A:  I was born in flamenco territory; my father is a guitarist, my brother, my house was full of flamenco, of fiestas.  Maybe what happened is that I was born in a time of change.  The Gypsies were no longer closed off, living apart – and that was also true of the Andalusians, and of Spaniards in general.

Q:  You lived for a long time among Gypsies, but you didn’t marry a woman of that raza [literally: race; also ethnicity].

A:  The Gypsy women are very pretty. I’ve always respected their culture, in which marrying a payo isn’t looked on very well.  You don’t normally ligar [hook up] with a Gypsy woman, you marry her.  To hook up to get into bed [ligar para acostarse] is ugly.  I never tried anything with a Gypsy woman.

Q:  Is love an inspiration for your music?

A:  Yes, especially when I was an adolescent.  It was an incredible stimulus.  I fell in love with my wife [Casilda Varela] and never fell in love again.  You see a woman across a room and you like her, and all that, but…

Q:  Do you make a decision, or does it just happen?

A:  A bit of both.  Unconsciously, you make a decision; you have a family and some kids.  How are you going to play at love then?  The most you can hope for is echar una canita al aire.

Q:  Your wife is an aristocrat [daughter of a Fascist general, who may have been an aristocrat even before Franco’s victory.]  How was the adjustment process between two people from such different worlds?

A:  There are always different value scales, but she is intelligent.  She isn’t what they taught her to be, and I’m not what my education made me.  We try to be coherent.  [They separated not long after this interview, and Paco started a new family.]

Q:  Have you gotten over the depression caused by the death of Camarón?

A:  The pain will remain with me.  He was the most important singer in the history of flamenco.  I take consolation in knowing that he left some recordings that are a cátedra [a seat of higher learning].  From the moment I discovered him [desde que lo descubrí], I realized that he was ahead of the best.  To be precise, I knew it the second day I saw him.  We were at a fiesta, all night long and the next morning and until four or five in the afternoon.  That day I knew that Camarón was the best artist ever born into flamenco.  It was an inspiration for me.  I was making a living giving concerts, but I always had to come back and make another recording with him.  Now I’m bereft, without that record that we made together every year and a half or every two years, and that gave me such pleasure.  We finished our last recording [Potro de Rabia y Miel] two months before he died.  He was physically in bad shape, but we didn’t know what was wrong.  The next week, when he couldn’t go on, he went to Barcelona and discovered the disease [lung cancer].   I could see he looked bad, but he lived so fully, I thought it was a consecuencia de lo mal que se estaba tratando [a result of the bad way he was treating himself – an apparent reference to Camarón’s drug abuse].

Q:  Did you discuss this with him?

A:  For years it was an everyday subject of conversation.  He always me daba la razón [said I was right]  and said “I’m not going to do it any more.”  I insisted, although I knew it didn’t do any good.  He respected me a lot and always lo hacía detrás mío [did it behind my back,] so I wouldn’t see; it made him a bit ashamed.

Q:  Why do you think he chose to live like that?

A:  Exactly, it was a lesson.  And I justified everything he did because he was such a great artist; someone who’s not an artist can’t understand this.  At times you get apathetic, you don’t want to do anything, and soon you have to stimulate yourself to get a special sensibility.  I think that was his motive, and that in some way it dignified the matter.  I want to say that I justify what Camarón did because he did it for a noble reason – it wasn’t pure vice.  He did it to close himself up within himself, to hear music and to sing.  He has been a victim of his own sensibilidad [sensibility/sensitivity], or of his profession.  He was humilde [humble/simple], he never spoke ill of anyone, he had afición [passion for his art], he lived for his art alone.  And for me, that justifies a lot of things.

Q:  And you, what are you afraid of?

A:  Of old age, of being 80 and needing someone to wipe my ass; of something happening to my kids; of my wife dying.  And also, I’m afraid of people’s lack of sensibility.

Q:  What do you mean by that?

A:  People only thing of their own comfort.  I think a man should be just, fair, honest, and I believe in equal opportunity, so people can live better all the time.  But on the other hand, as I see it, having nothing is a stimulus to action; if you don’t have money, you fight harder.  I remember that when I was playing to help my father, I had more fuerza – more force, more power – than I do now.  What gives sense to a life is to have to go out every day to hunt for food.  That justifies a human being, and makes each day different.  Civilized life makes a man become weak and live discontented and depressed.

Q:  Are you telling us your own experience?

A:  Exactly.  It’s not necessary to be poor to do something valid in art.  I think man must progress, but perhaps civilization no es todo lo buena que creemos [isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be].

Q:  From your Gypsy part, do you have some superstitions?

A:  I have no superstitions, except one – a flamenco form that makes me afraid even to speak its name: the peteneras.  I’ve had bad experiences with it.  For example, I was in Chile, in a doctor’s house listing to a flamenco record and my brother Pepe [the noted singer] said, “Turn it off, turn it off!”  And as it began, the earth began to shake:  It was an earthquake.  And another instance: the dancer who had come with me had never danced the peteneras, and didn’t ever want to.  But one day they insisted on it, and although he fought the idea, the pressure was so strong that he had to dance it.  And just then the phone rang: his father had died.  There are many cases like these, many people have had things like this happen.  I told you the name only because you have to write this; otherwise, I never say the word, because just the word makes me afraid.  But that’s the case with all the flamencos.  All of them respect this,  I believe it all began about sixty years ago, when a dancer called Maripaz died while dancing that dance.

End of interview

Here’s the accompanying sidebar:

The Contemporary Tradition
by Nacho Sáenz de Tejada

The flamenco guitar is an art of emotion.  From its origin in the world of black sounds and fundamentals, with the base strings as the basis of playing, to the extraordinary moment it is living today with such prodigious technique and unbridled imagination, it has traveled a long road, paved with shivers and chills.

From past players whose style still seems near and familiar – Sabicas, Niño Ricardo, Diego el del Gastor, Perico el del Lunar, Melchor de Marchena, the Habichuelas – to the excellent artists of today – Gerardo Núñez, Rafaael Riqueni, Vicente Amigo, Raimundo Amador, Tomatito, Agustín Carbonell… — the evolution of flamenco guitar runs through one name:  Paco de Lucía.

The man from Algeciras has not only popularized the flamenco guitar, situating it “Between Two Seas” [Entre Dos Aguas — the title of Paco del Lucía’s breakthrough hit instrumental], linking it to new realms.

His musical intuition has been so rich that we can call it a revolution.  He destroyed the closed schematics of different forms without losing sight of its jondura or depth, situating the guitar at a crossroads with a thousand possibilities and revolutionized its harmonic possibilities.  With his innate ability and his great sense of rhythm and timing, he transformed the elemental technique into a fine and precise array of picados, arpeggios, rasgueados and tremolos, revolutionizing the way it was played.

With his restless spirit, he brought in classical music (de Falla, Joaquin Rodrigo…_) and in fusing it with jazz (Johm McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola…) he revolutionizes the borders that had confined flamenco.  With his inspiration, he didn’t really revolutionize anything:  He maintained the ancestral duende that links the purest tradition with a contemporary aliento.

End of sidebar.

Translator’s note:  This is the first Paco interview I’ve done since he died on March 25th.  It feels very different.  But somehow it seems that his words and his specific observations and attitudes are more important than ever.  The poignancy is palpable.

When I was writing an obituary for Paco de Lucía the day after his death, I fell back on the Spanish phrase “propio sello”.  It refers to the fact that a great artist will always have his or her “own stamp”, a way of imprinting their work with their own unique personal sensibility.

It then occurred to me that Paco de Lucía should have exactly that – literally.  I contacted my Jerez-based friend, the flamenco critic and author Estela Zatania, we drafted a proposal, and lo and behold, it was promptly approved.  On April 23rd, 2014, Spain will issue a postage stamp honoring flamenco’s greatest musician.  (Who says it takes forever to get anything done at the post office.) 

Further ruminations:  I play flamenco guitar a lot, and have for more than fifty years.  I’ve hardly ever played in public, since most people get bored pretty quick.  I’d like to think it’s the music’s fault, but maybe I contribute to the overall effect.  I don’t exactly play for fun, since it is so difficult and frustrating; but somehow it is rewarding beyond measure. I know lots of music by the great past guitarists mentioned in the sidebar, and I’ve studied with most of them.  I also play a lot of Paco de Lucía’s early music, from his first half-dozen albums. 

(Yes, it’s even harder to play than those other artists’ stuff, but it’s the pinnacle of flamenco guitar as a solo instrument, before Paco subsumed the guitar into a group situation by surrounding himself with other musicians as in his beloved jazz tradition.  At that point, I could no longer really understand, much less try to mimic, his genius.) 

For me, It’s always an honor to run Paco’s early ideas and compositional genius through my vastly lesser mind and fingers – I hope even a feeble imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.

I always hope to find something that he and I had in common.  For obvious reasons, there ain’t much.  But it was interesting to see that Paco, a rational man virtually free of superstitions, has one.  And like him, I never play the accursed flamenco style called the peteneras, at least not since 1960 when I learned that it was too dangerous to mess with.  I don’t even listen to it. 

Hey, you can’t be too careful.

Brook Zern  brookzern@gmail.com

April 11, 2014   4 Comments