Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Flamenco Authority Juan josé Téllez

“I Can’t Get Paco Out of My Mind” – Interview with writer and biographer Juan José Téllez by Tamara García – translated with comments by Brook Zern

Today’s Diario de Sevilla has an interview by Tamara García with the writer, author and journalist Juan José Téllez who wrote the terrific “Paco de Lucía en Vivo”. It begins with a quote: “I can’t get him out of my head” and the subhead says: “The author from Algeciras writes of the life of his most universal paisano, in “Paco de Lucía, El Hijo de la Portuguesa” (“Paco de Lucía, the Son of the Portuguese Woman”), published by Planeta on the first anniversary of his death. Here’s the story:

“Paco de Lucía is a personality who was interpreted by Francisco Sánchez for 66 years. And this book recounts the dialogue between the person and the personality; it’s an adventure story, a story of overcoming obstacles, because for me Francisco Sánchez is one of those Charles Dickens characters who emerge from a tough neighborhood to achieve their dream. The son of the Portuguese woman accomplished this through the guitar which, in a certain way, formed part of his body; one didn’t know where the wood ended and the melody began, but both elements were of flesh and blood, fiercely human. “ Those words of Juan José Téllez, written on a page or spoken in conversation, fill all the space, both physical and that space, as dark as it is light, that gives us form from within. In “El Hijo de la Portuguesa” we find Francisco Sánchez, but also, in the cinema of the author, we find Téllez in all his aspects.. The reporter, the poet, the novelist…With his camera, which is his gaze from the corner that directs our own focus.

Q; When you knew Paco, was there still an aspect of “the son of the Portuguese woman”?

A: Well, let me take advantage of that question to debunk the notion I’ve seen in recent media reports, the idea that I was an intimate friend of Paco de Lucía. I don’t see myself as his intimate friend, or even a distant friend, because I think Paco had very few intimate friends. He had friends that accompanied him all his life like Carlos Rebato and José Luis Marín, and others who were with him quite early like his compadre Victoriano Mera, but I wasn’t part of that intimate group as some have supposed, I had the privilege of looking at him and his work sporadically for more than 30 years, conducting numerous interviews and drawing near to his circles. With all those connections [matices], I think Francisco Sánchez retained [pervivia], right up to his death, the picardîa [picaresque, roguish aspect] of his early childhood.

The last time I saw him was in Fez [Morroco] , at the flamenco music festival in June of 2003; I could recognize the “hijo de la portuguesa” and also the Paco who messaged me on the eve of his death and told me that in Cuba he had found fascinating things, like a society that had no parabolic antennas and where the children had to play in the streets, and never had to leave. The deep country for a poet is infancy and childhood and Paco, who had the aspect of a poet, for all his life sought a return to that early childhood in the Algeciras neighborhood of Bajadilla.

Q: Early childhood as a paradise lost, Because there’s a passage in your book where after a juerga [flamenco session] they take him to Algeciras and he doesn’t seem to recognize it.

A: That’s because Paco’s mythical Algeciras, like mine, has disappeared. As Romero Peche said in the solapa [jacket] of one of his books, “Born in the vanished city of Algeciras”. The demographic growth has meant the urbanistic destruction of Algeciras, which is situatied in one of the most beautiful natural parajes of Andalucía. Paco was a son of that mythic Algeciras, that of his formative years, wrapped around the port and the Plaza Alta with its light and shade.

Q: In your book, isn’t there a certain tone of mutual reproach in the relationship of Paco and Algeciras?

A: Well, I think Algeciras is a very complicated city because, like all intense [apasionadas] cities, there’s a certain disconnect between the important people whom they’ve engendered, like José Luis Cano, the oldest and best critic of [Spain’s literary “generation of 1927”], or the philosopher Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, or Paco himself. There are people there who still ask, “But what has Paco de Lucía ever done for Algeciras?” And there’s a certain perception – and Paco was aware of this – that such people must become philanthropists who build hospitals and fund schools. But Paco titled many of his compositions with names of key places in the city and that, in my view, showed his real feelings and preferences [querencia]. Anyway, if it’s true that Paco reproached the city for its lack of interest in the music and for what he had done…I was at a concert there in the bullring in 1980, a spectacular concert attended by less than a thousand people and for which the admission was [only] 100 pesetas [little more than a dollar]. Also, in the pregón [announcement] of the annual fair there was a technical error and it sounded terrible… But that’s all in the past. Algeciras reconciled with Paco a long time ago, naming a roundabout for him in a new neighborhood, the statue [of Paco?] in/of Nacho Falgueras [?], and honored him as a Favorite Son; and at Paco’s insistence, it was in Algeciras where, the University of Cádiz named him Doctor Honoris Causa, [a doctorate that meant a great deal to Paco, who had very little formal education].

Q: From all the ways of approaching a life, you begin the book by noting the very real possibility that Paco might never have been born, because in 1936 his father was arrested. Is that deliberate?

A: Absolutely. Paco could have been a collateral victim of the barbarism and terror that followed the Fascist coup d’etat of 1936. Not just Paco, but his brothers Ramón de Algeciras and Pepe de Lucía as well as Antonio, would never have been born if his mother Luzia, her daughter María in her arms, had not gone to military barracks and headquarters begging for the life of her captured husband and if she hadn’t gotten the help of that friend. But I want to be honest with readers, and don’t forget the story that María Sánchez told me – that Luzia had tried but failed to abort Paco. Fortunately, I don’t hae the same feelings about women’s right to abortion as about the funestas consequences of a dictatorship, whatever its ideology. Ah! There’s also an intent, because it strikes me as so poetic, to point out the fact that the military quarters where Paco’s father was held will soon become the seat of the Paco de Lucía Conservatory of Music, a fact that hasn’t been recognized by anyone.

Q: Paco and Camarón – how much is true, how much is false in everything that’s been said about this situation?

A: Hombre, I’d say that both of them are steeped in legend, because they are beyond orthodox laws, and each have their own legend. Frankly, I think that only Paco and Camarón know about that relationship. Now, in my view, I think they were blood brothers who had taken an oath of brotherhood in music and in life. They played and enjoyed themselves together, creating new sounds, jumping onto tablados in Germany and sneaking out of Viennese pastry shops without paying, They were two golfos [wise guys, rascals, street urchins] and they were two geniuses and they were two young men in a changing world, and they were two men who decided to hold firm in their friendship, against winds and tides, against family disputes [discrepancias].I think a series of cantamañanas that were intended to defame him, calling him a ratero[thief -- for allegedly claiming copyrights on material that was not entirely his] at Camaron’s funeral, and embittering the mourning period. But the most immoral thing that all this stuff provoked is that you and I are talking about Paco and Camarón in terms of money and not magic – because that’s what their relationship really generated: magic, and emotional climates and melodies that became part of our lives and that will continue to be part of the lives of others.

Q: Why, how, and why this book?

A: I met Paco in 1980 but didn’t interview him until ’82 for Diario 16 – it filled one of those 90-minute cassettes but when I went to transcribe it I’d only recorded ten minutes (laughs). But beside that, I felt privileged. I realized that that conversation, and others that followed, were fuel for more than an interview and from that came my book “Paco de Lucia, Portrait of a Family With Guitar” that was presented in Madrid in 1994. I had the good fortune of being presented by [the eminent flamenco authority] Felix Grande, and Paco and [his wife] Casilda Varela on a very special day, Paco’s birthday. From that book my journalistic relationship with Paco gathered steam – he, always very shy and introverted, was taking me into his confidence and granting me many more interviews. In 2003, my book “Paco de Lucía en Vivo’ came out, adding new elements to the situation; and the fact is, I had hoped to close this circle with another book in another twenty years or so, but Paco’s death precipitated everything. I could have just revised that earlier book but I was tempted to try something different, to use a more narrative form, because the life of Paco is the script for a biopic.

Q: That’s when the Americans picked up the story and there was already a film…

A: Several, and some TV series as well. I remember that María Sánchez, Paco’s sister, once told me: “I’ve seen a TV series about the Jackson Five, and I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t a series on the Sánchez family be better than this?”

Q: Will the reader who knows a lot about this find some surprises?

A: I think Paco to a large extent tried to hide himself, and in this book, fortunately, I don’t pretend to tell the whole truth because there are mysterious corners that should be left as they are. This book is an approximation of Paco that isn’t beyond good and bad, done by a writer who sees reality from one corner of the story, with a certain promise, with some beliefs and particular tastes. There are probably episodes that won’t be to everyone’s tastes , but I hope that it would have pleased Paco, though I’ll never know because neither he nor I believed in the afterlife. But Paco was always on my mind and the only emotional respite during the year of mourning was to write this book – and the grief is still with me.

Q: The book has a lot of hemeroteca [material from archives] – how did you confront so much paper?

A: There’s life beyond Google, For example, I had in my hands two jewels, two interviews from the mid-seventies and two very young newspaperwomen, each by his side: Marjuja Torres and Rosa Montero. Reading how these two emerging writers saw Paco was a lot of fun; and so was reading the marvelous chronicles by Angel Casas in “Fotogramas”.

Q: What did you admire most about Paco?

A: His sense if humor. When he filled theaters and was applauded to the skies, he’d walk offstage and say to his compadre Victoriano, “Well, we fooled them again.” That kind of guasa [wising around] was a trademark of his – it came from his mother who loved off-color jokes and the songs of [the pop singer and guitar strummer] Manolo Escobar. I liked something he told me once: He got into a taxi and the driver said, “It is an honor to have you in my taxi, because for me you are the best guitarist there is – after Manolo Escobar and his brother.”

Q: Do you think there were too few authorities at his funeral?

A: His death hit like a bucket of icewater, but among those present were the Prime Ministers of guitar playing, of flamenco song, and of music; the Governing Council of sentimentality and sensibility and art – those were the authorities that Paco preferred. In any case, what should be commemorated is the day of his birth, the good news.

Q: I don’t want to end this interview without asking about the Portuguesa – “who came from the Atlantic coast region but had the character of a Mediterranean mama.”

A: Luzia was a survivor and was the happy note in the drama, Paco and his brothers respected the severity of their father Antonio, but it was their mother quien se regocijaban [who gave them joy].

End of interview. The original can be found at:


Interviewer’s comment: I don’t want to take credit for leading flamenco in general or Paco de Lucía toward the realm of jazz, because a) I never would’ve dreamed it could happen and b) I never really liked the idea, and kind of wondered who was to blame.

But in Juan José Tellez’s superb 2003 book “Paco de Lucia En Vivo”, when he finally leaves the early years of still-familiar flamenco and considers its later evolution, I was embarrassed to find the following passage:

“The first academic researcher ["estudioso"] to analyze the similarities in the cultural derivation of flamenco and jazz, and between the Gypsies of Spain and the blacks in America, was Brook Zern in 1973, who said: ‘It seems obvious that flamenco’s deep song styles owe their existence to the Gypsies, just as the blues were the creation of America’s southern blacks. Both of these alien and dark-skinned peoples constructed a new music of their own, though of course they employed in the task the musical ideas that they found in their adoptive country.’ A parallelism that, in Zern’s judgment, extended even to the commercial adulteration of both of these musical conceptions.”

Well, maybe more delighted than embarrassed, but it did seem strange somehow.

Shortly after Paco’s death last year, I was fortunate to play a role in initiating the effort to have a postage stamp issued honoring his life and his genius. It was the first time I had pulled rank by citing the fact that King Juan Carlos I had knighted me for furthering the understanding of Spanish culture outside of the mother country. The process of issuing a stamp, which normally takes years, was completed within just two months of his death. (Who says it takes forever to get anything done at the Post Office?)

Brook Zern

April 2, 2015   No Comments