Category — Flamenco and Classical Music
I posted this to a discussion group in 2001:
Experts, who needs ‘em? I do.
Point 1: I wasn’t crazy about Paco de Lucia’s version of the Concierto de Aranjuez, but I loved his De Falla album. That one clearly violated the original score (I think), so it ain’t kosher but it worked for me.
About the Aranjuez video, Richard said “Paco does do the head back, eyes closed, hair shake, so that’s a plus:-)”
Yes. I’ve been working on that head back, eyes closed, hair shake for a long time. Just when I got the head back, eyes closed part, I found that I had lost too much hair for a convincing shake. I blame the intensifying downward curve of my career on this. (My Tomatito Toupee ® just doesn’t have the same vibrant responsiveness to shaking.)
Point 2: Did Miles Davis copyright the saeta on Sketches of Spain? As I recall, the trumpet does an impressively exact rendition of one of the favorite vocal lines for the saeta — the “arrow of song” sung to the massive passing floats with images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary during Holy Week processions.
There weren’t many recordings of saetas at the time — one of the most memorable was on a strange Folkways record titled “Flamenco” — white cover, sketch of a singer in the throes of singing. A mixed bag of singers, field recorded but mostly forgettable. The notes said the saeta was sung by a girl, twelve or fourteen. It sounded terrific, and I wonder if Miles copped it from that disc.
Okay, a year or two ago I was talking to José Manuel Gamboa, a neat guy who knows all and tells all about flamenco, during an increasingly hazy all-night flamenco session at the Colmao in Jerez. I mentioned that discographic tidbit in passing, as if it mattered to anyone else on the planet.
His eyes lit up. ”Jeez, where were you when I needed you? I’ve been researching a book about flamenco in America, and I spent months trying to track down the source of that trumpet solo. I finally found it last week.”
It was an honor to have almost been of service to him.
February 9, 2015 1 Comment
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:
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org
April 11, 2014 4 Comments
Flamenco Guitarist Vicente Amigo Speaks – Interview by V.M.Niño – Translated with comments by Brook Zern
Vicente Amigo: “I don’t like to call something flamenco when it isn’t”
The musician will perform with the Sinfónica de Castilla y León in a program based on “Marinero en tierra”
From El Norte de Castilla, by V.M. Niño
A Cordoban born in Seville and formed in the school of Paco de Lucía, Vicente Amigo (1967) speaks through his guitar of voyages, of the fields, of emotions and of poetry. And with that last element, he’ll be coming to the Miguel Delibes Auditorium to play the verses of [the great Spanish poet] Rafael Albertí in a concert directed by Joan Albert Amargós with the collaboration of Gustavo Martín Garzo. It will be the writer from Valledolid (vallisoletano) who gives voice to the words of “Marinero en tierra.”
“De mi corazón al aire” [“From my heart to the wind”] was the guitarist’s first record, which was met with a deluge of prizes. A year later he debuted with the Sinfonica de Cuba the program we will hear in Valladolid.
Q: You first played this concert 21 years ago, What does Albertí have for you that makes you return periodically to him and the music that inspired you.
A: I’ve always thought that music and poetry have a close relationship. Giving order to the notes, and to the verses, are much the same thing. And a identify closely with the poets, with all the artists who seek beauty.
Q: Did you orchestrate this, and how does one go from composing for the guitar to envisioning the musical parts for each member of an orchestra?
A: No, it was orchestrated by [the Cuban composer, conductor and guitarist] Leo Brouwer and he created a magnificent work.. An instrumental disc is more complicated, precisely because you don’t want to be boring and it’s a way of avoiding that problem. I think that when making a recording, when making art, you are looking within yourself to give something to the listener, so it will be understood. And if it’s not understood…you’ll find out pretty quickly (laughs). This is the mystic aspect, but playing and composing is a matter of hard work. It’s work. But I give a lot of weight to that mystical aspect, at the moment of perceiving the art.
Q. Have your worked often with Joan Albert Amargós, the arrange who seems to work especially well with flamenco musicians?
A: Yes. In 2005, in the record “Un momento en el sonido” I think that in his very manner of being, Joan Albert works well with everyone. He’s a truly great person and of course a great musician. I always want to work with him.
Q: When a musician expressed himself through the greatness and the limitations of a single instrument, what about the rest of the group – are the there to complement the soloist, traveling companions, scenery?
A: For all of us guitarists, it’s a favorite torment. The guitar gives huge satisfaction to those who love it, but you also have some very good ataduras [connections beyond it?] I’m not a man who’s glued to the guitar, I like to enjoy a lot of things and then capture it all on my guitar, which the medium through which I express myself best, but…look, I try to create art, not just guitar music.
Q: An alumnus of Paco de :Lucía, you’ve worked with Camarón, José Mercé, Enrique Morente…How do you view the generation that has followed these masters?
A: The guitar is in a great phase. There are a lot of terrific talents out there today. They have interesting things to say; we can’t say that they all have the best technique, but each of them has something special. “En la viña de señor hay de todo” [In the vineyard of the Lord, there is everything] There are great instrumentalists, great artists, it’s a brilliant moment for guitar. Today’s players are prepared to hit the heights in all circumstances. Flamenco today has lot of music, it’s bringing a lot of music, and it’s letting people from all musical cultures come together. And that’s not because it’s an exotic style of music but because it sounds like true, real music to people.
Q: In flamenco, what does the word fusion tell you”
A: My music is a sort of fusion without labels… because that’s my way of being, of living. I go outside and find interesting thing from different places, in different styles and in very different people. That’s the way my music is. What’s very true is that I don’t like to call something flamenco when it isn’t. But it’s also true that there are things in my music that are very flamenco and other things that aren’t. And I don’t have to put any barriers on my imagination.
Q: Records, Grammys, other prizes – can you rest on those laurels or does the road beckon?
A: The stage is where I find my inspiration, it’s where I connect with the public and receive the most important criticism in the form of applause, or its absence.
Q: You’ve been in South America, Japan, Cordoba, Seville – how is your art received outside of Spain? Do they experience it as flamenco?
A: Flamenco – I don’t know. But my music – it would be unfair if I didn’t give the same importance to every town where I play. I think music is something that can connect with the hearts of everyone. The guitar is a universal instrument and flamenco is a style that is becoming universal right now. I’m fighting to have my music, which is flamenco, recognized as exactly that: as universal…Although there’s a part of my music that I don’t know ho to define, nor do I want to put labels on everything. What I’m doing is fighting and carrying my music with dignity; and what I see is my music , whether it’s played in France or Japan, transmits what I’m doing.
Q: Is poetry what inspires you, and what are you reading today?
A: Everything interests me. But I don’t have time to read as much as I’d like, or to listen to everything I’d want to, or see all the films, or play all the guitar I’d like to. As for reading, I just finished a book called “La Cara Oculta” [“The Hidden Face”].
End of interview. The article is found at: http://www.elnortedecastilla.es/20131226/cultura/vicente-amigo-gusta-llamar-201312262053.html
Translator’s comments: An eloquent call for artistic freedom from an always-brilliant musician and a sometimes-flamenco guitarist — but with the welcome caveat that it’s incorrect to call things flamenco when they just plain aren’t.
The astonishing breadth of Vicente Amigo’s interests and talent made him one of the few great flamenco guitarists of the first post-Paco generation. And made it inevitable that he would do what virtually no pre-Paco guitarist could have done, as he leaned into the new realms of jazz and poetry, and saw new possibilities in music theory and the guitar.
His innovative guitar tunings were a second revolution in flamenco, and a huge frustration for us confused, feeble, amateur would-be imitators until some savant finally took pity on us and taught us how to retune as Vicente did.
We diligently tracked down a Japanese videotape of Vicente Amigo, because it apparently had his baffling newfangled alegrías on it.
But we weren’t prepared for the new world of flamenco marketing for the music video generation. The music faded in, and there he was — Vicente Amigo, naked to the waist, barefoot, looking just stunning on an alabaster steed, riding bareback on a golden shore, his own beautiful black mane and the horse’s white one undulating in unison in the wind as he rode effortlessly through the breaking ocean waves.
Well, maybe that was what a gazillion women and numerous men had been hoping to see, but we just wanted to watch his sexy fingers play the goddam notes…
At least that’s the way I remember it, but then I only watched it once before selling it to a lady who made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. As for those fingers, no wonder he could play rings around everyone up till then: They were four times as long and three times as slender as mine, never mind the stubby bratwursts that that classical guy, Andrés Whatsisname, and that flamenco guy Sabicas, called fingers.
Some guys have all the luck. (Woddya mean, “skill”?)
January 3, 2014 No Comments
Flamenco Guitarist Manolo de Huelva on Flamenco – article in Guitar Review by Virginia de Zayas – Part 1
Note by Brook Zern: A few weeks ago, I added Part Three of Virginia de Zayas’s very long article to this blog. It was preceded by my combination introduction, explanation and warning about the article, which I’m inserting again right here:
In the mid-1970’s in Seville, I contacted Virginia de Zayas, in whose large house the legendary and secretive flamenco guitarist Manolo de Huelva was living. I knew that her husband Marius had arranged for the historic 1936 Paris recording session that documented the solo art of the great Ramón Montoya, and hoped to somehow obtain recordings or written versions of Manolo de Huelva’s playing.
I was the Flamenco Editor of Guitar Review magazine, an elegant and authoritative publication dedicated primarily to the classical guitar — Andrés Segovia was the Chairman of the Advisory Board and was a regular visitor to the offices, and I arranged for his only interview about flamenco to run in the magazine.
Ms. [somehow, "Madame" seems more appropriate] de Zayas was interested in explaining Manolo de Huelva’s views and telling his stories, and offered to write an article for the magazine. I agreed, and the long article appeared in three parts spread over time. This is the third and final part, from issue 47 dated Spring 1980. The others will appear soon in this blog.
At one point in our conversations, I reluctantly corrected Ms. de Zayas on a point of fact, despite her vastly greater knowledge. She may have known that I was right, but she said something interesting. ”Mr. Zern, please do not correct me on flamenco matters. When I talk to you, I am speaking as Manolo de Huelva — that is, I am repeating what he has told me over the years. That is my value — that I can speak for him. It really doesn’t matter so much whether what I say is correct or incorrect; what matters is that it is what Manolo de Huelva thinks.”
Well, she had me there. I actually had to agree — because I desperately wanted to know what he thought, and not what Ms. de Zayas felt at the moment.
And for that same reason, this is an important article and I want to bring it to the attention of the few people — mostly Spanish authorities — who will be interested in these old stories and arcane but often valuable information, assuming someone is motivated to translate this.
Everyone else is excused — but hey, if you’re serious about flamenco, you just might find something illuminating here.
Remember — this article takes us into the heart of flamenco creation, as witnessed by one of the greatest guitarists in the history of the art. It comes from a now distant past, where seventh chords were considered far-out and radical innovations. It is source material for any advanced course in flamenco history and aesthetics. And while many authorities today cast aspersions on the worth of unprovable and malleable recollections, and while the exact words may not be Manolo’s, it is yet another example of the value of oral transmission in understanding flamenco, or any subject that involves human beings.
But I never got to hear Manolo de Huelva, or obtain recordings of his playing at its best. Shortly before he died, Mrs. de Zayas invited me to visit in hopes that he might give me something, but it was too late. He was determined to keep his music from being learned by other players, and regrettably, he succeeded. He is heard as the accompanist to some noted singers on numerous old 78’s, often reissued in new formats; but as he said, he never revealed the amazing abilities that made him the favorite player of countless great artists and knowledgeable aficionados of his era. Ms. de Zayas later released a double LP which contained, in addition to excellent material by Ramón Montoya, some cuts that once again failed to reveal Manolo de Huelva’s true genius.
That was my introduction to Part Three. For this Part One, let me simply reemphasize that we are entering Mrs. De Zayas’s world, which to a large extent reflects Manolo de Huelva’s views – views formed in the early part of the Twentieth Century. So when Mrs. De Zayas uses the term “modern school of flamenco”, for example, she is talking about flamenco that was becoming outmoded sixty years ago – well before the radical changes wrought by the great guitarist Paco de Lucia and the great singer Camarón de la Isla changed the art forever, and nearly eradicated the once-immutable sound of flamenco as it had been for several generations.
I happen to believe that flamenco didn’t emerge suddenly as a completely new kind of music – instead, I think some of the key primordial song styles were forged over time, possibly more than a century, within the confines of certain Gypsy families. If they were not precisely described in books or newspaper reports, that doesn’t mean they did not exist; it is possible that they were not bandied about in public in an era when royal decrees made it legal to kill Gypsies.
But while these songs – notably the few so-called cante jondo or deep song forms – may have a lengthy history, there is no reason to believe Mrs. De Zayas’s romantic notion that anything resembling flamenco existed back when the Romans did indeed bring dancers from Cádiz to the empire’s capital around the time of Christ.
Clearly, some of the views here are those of Mrs. de Zayas – Manolo de Huelva probably didn’t talk about ancient musical modes, or Arabic zejels, or things that may have happened in Roman times. But it’s not too hard to separate the her views and theories from his ideas and recollections.
The idea that the polo is the oldest flamenco song – as Manolo was told by the oldest flamenco people he knew – was accepted seventy years ago, but is no longer fashionable. The polo is now viewed as a sort of one-off – not as the progenitor of the solea. Likewise, the caña (the “mother of the soleá”, as the polo was called “the father of the soleá”), is now considered “autoctonous”, a word that implies little relation to other styles.
Her remarks about the flamenco scale seem very informative. She focuses on what I consider the most important distinction between flamenco music and our familiar Western music – that it is properly viewed as drawing its power from a scale that descends toward the tonic, instead of one that rises. This reversal of a scale’s direction and the different aesthetic that results from an incessant “downwardness” is the key to understanding the pull, the gravitas, the attraction that characterizes the entire art. Our major scale inherently goes up – C D E F G A B C. Their scale doesn’t use the white notes of the piano from C to shining C — instead, it uses the white notes from E to E. But it is best conceived as going down — E, D, C, B, A, G, F, E. The importance of the descending nature of the scale is underlined by the so-called Andalusian Cadence — when E is the tonic note or root note or chord, the descent is A minor, G major (or G7), F major and E major. (It’s interesting to note that the tonic E chord has a G sharp note within it — though the G sharp is not part of the scale itself, except as an accidental.)
(What about their happy music, like the alegrias (the word itself means happiness)? Easy, it’s not in the modal scale or natural (Phrygian) mode that defines flamenco, but rather in our own major key.)
Also note, at the end, Manolo de Huelva’s insistence that the most flamenco guitar falsetas are the “más monótonas“. It seems that the word here doesn’t mean monotonous in the usual English sense, though it’s related; it means that they are mono-tonal; they have a limited range, they aren’t “fancy”, and they don’t use complex chordal conceptions. This aesthetic may be the one that attracts some people to the music of Diego del Gastor, who also relied on thumb-driven playing. Many of them seem “all alike”, but the subtle distinctions are a key to their brilliance.
The article is followed by a three-page transcription of the polo sevillano by Virginia de Zayas — a guitar introduction and then the vocal line over the guitar accompaniment chords; I hope to put it onto this website soon. (For anyone with a guitar, the characteristic “chorus” for the sing is identifiable as a chordal rise and fall: E F G F E).
My interjected comments are in brackets — the parentheses are Mrs. De Zayas’s.
Here is Part One:
Although flamenco is the traditional music of Andalusia, southern Spain, a deep fascination for flamenco – guitar, songs, and dance – has increased the popularity of its rhythms and harmonies throughout the world. Flamenco was a success as far back as two thousand years ago, when dancers were brought from Cádiz to ancient Rome.
I shall write of the origin of the oldest flamenco songs, the derivation of the flamenco scale, flamenco’s traditional rhythms and their possible sources; in other words, the origin of the modern school of flamenco guitar music.
Polos, Caña, soleares, bulerias, siguiriyas, martinetes, and Cádiz dancing songs [i.e., the alegrías family] are all considered to be pure flamenco. I use the word flamenco to designate the music and the people who perform it.
The word flamenco means Flemish. Flanders, now northern Belgium, was the birthplace, in1500, of the future Emperor Charles V, who was also king of Spain. When the young king arrived in Spain he was accompanied by many Flemings, including Flemish singers from his chapel. Carlos Almendros has settled the much discussed question of why flamenco singers are called flamenco by finding early 16t century Spanish music in which the words flamenco and first flamenco – placed at the beginning of the staff – means cantor or singer. (Flamenco magazine, July 1975, p. 39.)
While in France, during the Spanish Civil War, I met a number of the best flamenco performers. I was full of admiration for them, for their artistic perfection and precision. The one I found most interesting, because his answers to my questions were so clear (perhaps because he himself has asked questions all his life) was the flamenco guitarist Manuel Gomez, “Manolo de Huelva.”
Donn E. Pohren, author of “The Art of Flamenco”, writes in his book “Lives and Legends of Flamenco” (1964, p. 278): “How does one begin to talk of the wondrous Manolo de Huelva? Perhaps by stating that he has quietly, semi-secretly reigned as flamenco’s supreme guitarist for half a century?… Andrés Segovia became so inspired, in fact, that he devoted the major part of a thesis to Manolo de Huelva…When he [Manolo] becomes inspired his playing drives aficionados to near-frenzy, striking the deepest human chords with overwhelmingly direct force.” Speaking of Manolo’s “blindingly fast and accurate thumb,” Pohren continues, “his manipulations of the compás (rhythms) are fabulous… Manolo’s left hand has been marveled at by Segovia… He [Manolo] is flamenco’s most original and prolific creator.”
Manolo de Huelva was born in 1892 in the ancient mining town of Rio Tinto, near the Atlantic port of Huelva, Andalusia. Besides a brief apprenticeship with him in 1937-38 and during my intermittent trips to Spain between 1953 and 1958, I have been studying with him continuously since early 1966. Little by little, I have found Manolo to be a walking encyclopedia who knows not only all the authentic flamenco songs but also, the traditional guitar music.
As with folk traditions everywhere, in Andalusia information is passed on by word of mouth. Books and articles have been written about flamenco singers or the lyrics of flamenco songs, rather than about flamenco music itself. My husband and I taped and bought records by the best singers of the 1953-1966 period, I have transcribed many of these tapes as well as several pre-war records, and have then sung these versions to Manolo’s accompaniment. But it was only by coming back again and again to details that I discovered the older versions, the ancient tradition.
Traditional rules become clear by studying the details which influence the artist’s performance; details such as whether the guitarist had strong fingernails, or whether the sound made by his nails was clear enough so that he would not have to resort to less flamenco substitutes. Furthermore, by transcribing guitar accompaniments and then singing the lyrics, I could see how the singer matches the song to the guitar accompaniment. This was made especially clear to me, because I was working with such a precise player as Manolo.
I asked Manolo which are the oldest flamenco songs. He told me, “The polos are the oldest songs. All the old men said this when I was young. I heard it first from the oldest singer I have known, Antonio Silva “El Portugués,” a Spaniard from the province of Seville, though Silva is a Portuguese name. I met him in Huelva, where I had just finished learning to be a tailor. My father brought him to the house, and Antonio came with his guitar. That was when I first heard the polos.
“When I arrived in Seville in 1910, and became a professional guitarist, there were three Sevillian singers from the Triana district, and they sang the polos. There names were Pepe Villalba, Fernando el Herrero (the blacksmith), and Rafael Pareja – none of them Gypsies. The people who listened to them would ask for the polos. Others who sang the polos were Antonio Chacón and Diego Antúnez, a Gypsy singer from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. By playing for these older men, I learned how to accompany these cantes (songs) with their exacting rhythm. But after about 1920, the new generation of singers no longer sang the polos: they turned to different cantes.
Origin of the Oldest Songs
What about the origins of the polo? Although there are no written records about flamenco music before 1830, oral tradition tells us that the three oldest singers whose names are still remembered lived at the end of the 18th century. We can learn much about the origin of the oldest songs by examining the literary and musical structure of the polos as they exist today and comparing them to the structure of a popular song which existed in Andalusia in the 8th century (and probably even earlier).
As far back as the ninth century, the Arabs in Spain wrote books of songs which, as they acknowledged, had a popular Andalusian origin. These songs were called zajal in Arabic (zejel in Spanish), a word meaning “to raise the voice” (as in song). (Baron Rodolph d’Erlanger, La Musique Arabe, 6 vols., Paris, 1936-1959.) The Arabs wrote their songs in Arabic, while the Andalusians sang theirs in Romance (ancient Spanish), occasionally using Arab words.
The zejel is generally begun with two lines of verse which state the theme or subject of the whole poem. These two introductory lines are called markaz in Aarabic – and the literal translation of this word into Spanish is polo. Markaz and polo mean center or pivot, as “pole” does in English.
The markaz or polo (also called estribillo in Spanish) was followed by four-line stanzas which comment on the subject as stated in the two-line polo. These stanzas are called machos (males) by the flamencos; perhaps as one of a pair, at a stage when each polo had one macho. The markaz or polo was sung by the principal singer with the other singers, and. at times, even members of the audience joined in. The markaz (polo) was repeated in chorus after every macho stanza. In the Arabian zejel, the rhyme of the markaz was repeated in the last line of all the stanzas.
Polo is now a flamenco word used to describe the ancient zejel. Although we do not know when it was first used, the word or its equivalent may be assumed to have existed before the Arabs came to Spain. The zejel runs throughout early Spanish literature; its “polo” (center, pivot or theme) was usually composed of two lines. A beautiful example of the two-line Spanish refrain (or estribillo) as it was used in the 16th century has been published by Rodrigo de Zayas [son of Mrs. de Zayas] in Guitar Review 38 (1973), En la Fuente del Rosel (At the Rosebush Fountain).
According to Rodrigo de Zayas, the zejel is still sung in Arabic-speaking countries, and may be heard any day on the Damascus radio. This is not surprising, because since the eighth century Arab singers frequently traveled from Cordoba in Andalusia to Damascus in Syria, to Baghdad in Iraq. Because the zejel was a poem written to be sung, European musicians soon popularized it as quickly through Europe.
The mixed Spanish and Arab population in Andalusia is reflected in the following excerpt of an Andalusian zejel which combines Romance and Arabic words. The Romance, or Spanish words, are italicized:
Ya, Mutarnani Salbato,
Tu’n hazin tu’n penato
tara al-yaumaa wastato
Lam taduq fih geir luqema
(Oh, my crazy Salvado, you are sad, you suffer, you will see the day wasted without tasting more than a little.)
One Arabic writer of the 11th century has described this mixture of poplar Arabic and Romance as being: “the aroma of the zejel, its salt, its sugar, and its musk” The zejel became a literary form in Arabic, and the great 11the century Cordoban philosopher Aben Hazem wrote: “Among the excellent qualities of the Spaniards… was their invention of the zejel. (Ramón Menéndez Pidal)
Although the zejel (and the polo) are originally of Spanish influence, many have been preserved in books by the Arabs since the 9th century. The influence of native Andalusian music has been underestimated: the native population clung to its own traditions, in spite of the arrival of the Arabs.
There are two polos still known: the Sevillian polo and the polo of Tobalo. The songs appeared before the 19th century, although the date is not known, Following is an example of the way the Sevillian polo is sung when it is performed:
Ere el demonio, romera, que
Que me viene a tentá
No soy el demonio ni el diablo, que
Que soy tu mujé naturá
(You are the demon, traveler, who comes to tempt me. I am not the demon or the devil, I am your true wife). This dialogue is the culminating stanza of the Romance del Conde del Sol, the “Ballad of the Count of Sol.” As in the old English ballads, the word “ballad,” here, has the meaning given in Grove’s Dictionary: “a piece of narrative verse written in stanzas and occasionally followed by an envoi or moral.”
The above romance or ballad was printed in 1847 by S. Estébanez Calderón. It tells of the Count going off to fight in the war with Portugal, leaving his very young wife with her father. After fifteen years, she follows him and finds him on the day he is to marry another woman. She puts on her velvet gown and goes forth to ask him for alms. Needless to say, the ballad ends happily for her.
Estébanez Calderón wrote his article about a night in Triana, Seville, spent listening to flamenco music. He printed the entire ballad and changed the above stanza to read as follows:
Sois aparición, romera,
Que venisme a conturbar?
No soy aparición, Conde,
Que soy tu esposa leal.
(Are you a spirit, traveler, who has come to disturb me? I am not a spirit, Count, I am your loyal spouse.)
The words “spirit”, “disturb” and “spouse” (aparición, conturbar, esposa), are probably substitutions, following the 19th century custom of making popular texts more literary.
The polo of Tobalo has several different letras (verses). The following polo was written by Rafael Pareja, who sang it for my husband and me. Pareja was a good folk poet, as well as being a singer.
En er queré no hay sabé, que
Compañera mía, lo tengo experimentao
De lo que siempre he juío, que
Compañera mía, un Devé me ha castigao,
(In love there is no wisdom, Wife, I know it from my experience, as I have always thought, Wife, God has punished me). The fact that the words “que” (that) and “compañera mía” (wife, companion) are obligatory, indicates the traditional origin of this polo. Devé, or, more correctly, Devel, is the Gypsy word for God, and is close to the ancient Sanskrit word. The above spelling is taken from a book about Gypsies, written by a college-educated Gypsy, Juan de Diós Ramírez Heredia. Gypsies who sing flamenco originally came from part of Pakistan, and have a language of their own, akin to Sanskrit, called caló.
The only macho left to us is one belonging to the polo of Tobalo. As has been said above, the macho must use the main idea expressed in its polo. For example, a polo whose theme is “God has punished me,” would have the following words for its corresponding macho:
Harza y viva Ronda!
Reina de los cielo,
Un Devé A…un Devé
Me ha castigao…
(Hail and hurrah for Ronda! Queen of the Heavens, God, A… God has punished me.) The praise of the Queen of the Heavens (the Virgin Mary) reminds us that the zejel was used for songs written to her during the 12th century, in Castillian, and even in Scottish. The long vowels are sung to the notes of the modal cadence. The occasional Gypsy words are, again, a reminder that Arabic and ancient Spanish words were mixed in the same verse,
Today, most people think there is only one polo, because modern singers have not had the opportunity to hear both polos sung correctly. There is even a record on which parts of the two polos have been combined. Was this a Gypsy joke originally?
Manolo tells me that the old singers had never heard the polo choruses sung by anyone except the principal singer, singing alone. Yet there must have been a time, long ago, when other singers joined in, because this is the way the choruses were sung in another ancient song related to the polos and still remembered today: the Cante de la Caña.
The Cante de la Caña
El Cante de la Caña (the Song of the Cane) is so called because a cane was used to mark the rhythm of the song. The people who sang this song usually did not have guitars. To beat the rhythm they would use a short length of dried bamboo, especially prepared. The soft center part would be cleaned out and the hollow cane split about two-thirds of its length. I have seen the tribal Filipinos in the mountains of Luzón use a similar instrument. Many years ago they made a gift of one to me, and I noticed that the split is not a mere slit: it must be a little wider so it will give a good sound swhen it is struck against the palm of the hand.
I once saw two performers in a flamenco night club who had heard of the bamboo but evidently did not know how to use it. They had a piece of green bamboo (still uncured), which was much larger than a hand instrument. They had it placed vertically, fixed on a stand, and they twirled it with a piece of string or wire – making a humming sound!
Old men told Manolo de Huelva that the correct way to use the cane or bamboo is to strike it against the palm of the hand to keep the rhythm. These old men also said that they knew the chorus of the Caña had formerly been sung by everyone present – but they themselves had never heard it performed that way. However, we have verification of the oral tradition which tells of the chorus of the Caña being sung by the whold group in the article by the journalist S. Estébanez Calderón, who heard it performed that way. He says that the chorus of the Caña was sung by all the singers, to a guitar accompaniment. He does not mention the bamboo – probably because there was a guitar present, and no canes were used.
The structure of the ancient Caña is a little more complex than that of the polos. The Caña begins with a melodic phrase sung to the exclamation Ay! – which sets the mode (scale) in which the song is to be sung. Following the Triana tradition, this is followed by a chorus sung on the vowel “A”, and then the polo, or main theme, is begun. This structure seems to date back to the time whent the audience ceased to join in the singing of the polo itself, and began, instead, to sing a cadence using only a single vowel sound sung to chords.
A modern variation has developed in which the exclamation Ay! Is sung in the chorus, instead of the vowel “A.” This custom was begun by Curro Dulce, a Gypsy singer from Cádiz, from whom Ignacio Espleleta, himself a Gypsy from Cádiz, learned it. La Argentinita learned it from him and popularized it. It is not correct.
The Caña has no macho. The famous flamenco singer Antonio Chacón (1869-1929), known especially for his singing of malagueñas (songs from Málaga), used to sing the Cante de la Caña, adding to it at the end, the macho belonging to the polo of Tobalo. But this was just his own idea, as he admitted to Manolo, who accompanied him in performance. He did follow the ancient tradition of repeating the subject of the song in the macho.
As far as we know, the polos and the Cantes de la Caña were not danced, because both either discuss a subject or tell a story. The famous dancer La Argentinita was the first to dance the Caña, followed by here sister, Pilar López. The Caña has now become a “mummified” relic for night clubs and the stage. Recently I saw the famous dancer, Antonio [Soler] dance the Caña, turning it into a dramatic and humorous display intended to make people laugh. For his act, the singer sang only part of the song, to identify it to the public.
The Caña should now be ripe for a serious revival.
Flamenco and the Arabs
In a discussion of the flamenco scale, how this scale is harmonized, and the oldest flamenco rhythms, it will be necessary to refer to Arabian music (since the Arabs occupied Andalusia for eight centuries), as well as to regional songs and dances.
Both flamenco and Arabian music are not folk, but art music. Andalusians generally sing regional songs, such a fandangos, sevillanas, verdiales (from the mountains above Málaga), and granadinas (from Granada), not flamenco. In ancient times what is now known as Andalusia was the most civilized region of Spain and must have had its art music. (See the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo, 2nd century A.D.) Something of this art music was bound to remain in flamenco music; its scale and rhythmical accentuation did survive in flamenco.
Accentuation of regional songs is the exact opposite of flamenco, although the same scale is used in both. Flamenco is accentuated on the third beat of a group of notes, while the regional songs are accentuated on the first beat of a group of notes. Our own music and most Arabian music are both accentuated in a manner similar to that of Andalusian regional music, suggesting that the rhythm of Andalusian regional songs may have been derived from Arabian music, or from music from other regions is Spain. This is why most Andalusians, when they clap (palmas) for bulerías, start on the wrong beat.
Since flamenco became a public spectacle about one hundred years ago, malagueñas , tarantas, etc., began to enter its repertory, but these additions do not obey the rules of pure flamenco.
It has been suggested that flamenco music was brought to Andalusia with the Arab invasion of 711. Certain similarities such as rhythmic cadences may have been derived by both Andalusians and Arabs from as far a way as India. However, rhythmical guitar effects, which (combined with characteristic harmony) constitute the basis of flamenco playing, are more likely to have been developed by guitar players, that is, by Andalusians. The guitar is basically strummed in chords which give the meter and harmony.. The Arabian lute, on the other hand, is played in single notes with a plectrum (pick), with an occasional octave, fifth or fourth. It is significant that Spaniards did not adopt the pear-shaped lute [oud] which the Arabs always preferred. Spaniards continued to cling to their flat-backed guitar, with its own technique.
When we speak of the influence of Arabian music we must remember that before the spread of Islam the Arabs lived in cities like Mecca and Medina as well as in the desert. Later they conqueres many lands and were brought under the influence of the (late Greek) Byzantine music of Syria, as well as the music of Persia, brought through Iraq, and containing even influences from India. Such influences could have reached Andalusia through the trade routes, before the Arabs spread out of Arabia. Thus, we must turn to a period earlier than the Arab invasion of Spain and speak of the principal ancient Greek scale, which is the basis of flamenco.
The most fascinating thing about flamenco is the strange scale (mode) with its cadences. The combination of this scale with our major chords on the guitar produces an unusual clash, because on the beginning chord of a song and to end a cadence, the scale may have a natural note in the voice, while the guitar has a sharp. This is combined with equally strange rhythms and accentuation, with percussive effects on the guitar.
The Flamenco Scale and the Greek Dorian Scale
Here is a comparison: Our own scale is a rising one: C D E F G A B C, with the leading note being B, and the important note being G (the fifth above the tonic). To make the comparison easier, let us transpose this C scale to the key of E major: E F# G# A B C# D# E. Here the leading note is D# rising to the E at the end of the scale. The important note is B, the dominant, the fifth above the tonic.
The flamenco scale is the opposite: it is a descending one, beginning with the upper E. The notes are, in descending order, E D C B A G F E. The leading note is F, which leads down to the E at the bottom. The important note of this modal scale is A. The note is a fifth below the top E, contrasting with our own dominant, B, a fifth above the tonic.
This flamenco scale is the same as the ancient Greek Dorian scale, the principal Greek one. In fact, our scale and the flamenco Dorian scale are as a mirror, in which the functions of the notes are reversed. Our scale leads upwards, and theirs leads downwards. The dominant note of the Dorian scale, the A, was called mese (the middle note) by the Greeks. In the Dorian, as well as the flamenco scale, there is a B flat which is sometimes introduced, producing a heart-rending effect which makes our musicians think the music has modulated. This is not so, as the guitar proves by continuing with its same harmony. This B flat was recognized by the ancient Greeks and was introduced into a song in a group of four notes called a “tetrachord symnanon”,. It is interesting to note that Manolo de Huelva tunes his second string, the B, slightly lower than do classical guitarists. (This observation was made by Rodrigo de Zayas.)
The practical result for flamenco listeners is that we must learn to think of the music as leaning or falling downwards, instead of reaching upwards. What seems like a minor scale (the Dorian), with a minor third when counted upwards from the lowest note of the octave, is really a major scale with a major scale when counted downwards from the highest note of the octave. We may view this scale as minor and sad; but the Greeks, in their treatises, said that theirs was a happy music – just as we may say that our major scale is a cheerful scale. We must change our thoughts about flamenco music: it runs the gamut from sad to serious to joyous, musically speaking.
The ancient Greek descending scale changed direction during the later Byzantine Greek period with the result that Byzantine scales are rising, beginning on the lower G of a two octave extension. As the Arabs adopted this rising scale when they came in contact with Byzantine civilization (Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, op. cit), they cannot have influenced the Andalusian scales and melodies, which take the opposite direction, even though Arabic philosophers bases their musical treatises on the ancient Greek ones. Early European ecclesiastical scales are also rising, as given by Boethius.
There are many discussions about the practical application of this ancient Greek scale, but in flamenco music we find the same scale, with its downward pull, combined with our major chords with their (to us) upward pull on the guitar. Flamenco melodies are mostly in conjunct motion. Singers will fill in the spaces. The Greek melodies left to us have larger intervals, but these may well have been filled in with ornaments, just as Italian 16th and 17th century melodies were. This filling in was left to the singers.
The Oldest Flamenco Rhythm
Strange and exciting rhythms are found in flamenco, rhythms which stir up foreigners as well as many Spaniards. The oldest flamenco rhythm is that of the group which includes polo, Caña, soleares, Cádiz dancing songs [i.e., the alegrías and several related major-key songs], and bulerías. What makes this rhythm strange to us it that it is “martelé”, French for “hammered.” Every beat and often half-beats are accentuated, especially in the cadences where the eighth-note accents are multiplied. Arabian and other oriental music is martelé, as was European music until harmony and bass notes developed. Then the harmonic accent was placed on the first of any rhythmic group of notes, so the harmonic and rhythmic accents coincided. The first note of any group came to have a stronger accent, which is how we usually play music today.
When the guitar plays for this polo-soleares rhythm it continues straight ahead as if for dancing. Indeed, it was traditionally danced. The guitar does not wait for the singer; he must fit the melody and accents to the words of the accompaniment. The measure, also called the rhythmic period or rhythmic cycle [or compás], is a long one compared tour usual shorter measure: it has twelve quarter-note beats. Orchestral players count our measure of 12/8 in groups of three beats, accentuating slightly on the first of each group of three. Arabian music also accentuates the first one of almost any group of notes (see examples in R. d”Erlanger, op. cit.).
The polo-soleares rhythm is composed of twelve quarter-note beats, accentuated thus: one two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve. This rhythm is just the contrary of ours (accentuated on the first [of each three]. Again, it is like a mirror with everything reversed. The verbal accent should generally be placed on these strong beats. However, the accent on beat nine shifts back to beat eight, probably under the influence of the guitar accentuation, but also to be nearer to the last syllable on beat six (the syllables of a word must not be too far apart). If the poem [verse] has too many accents or if it sounds awkwardly fitted to the melody under the usual rules, the verbal accent is placed on a weak beat or on the half beats so as not to disturb the rhythm.
[Note: Guitarists and dancers who learn to count the accentuated beats in a given compás or 12-beat unit almost always stress the third, sixth, eighth, tenth and twelfth beats. Mrs. de Zayas seems to be thinking in terms of the singer’s concept of the rhythm, and then theorizes that the stress on eight rather than nine results from the guitarist’s influence. But nowhere does her concept leave room for the stress on beat ten; so from a guitar or dance standpoint at least, it doesn’t make sense.]
The ending of a tercio, or line of verse, on two longer notes (for example after several eighth-notes two quarter-notes will be sung if ther beats are quarter-notes as they are in flamenco) must be an old Spanish tradition. In 16th century Spanish villancicos [Christmas songs] the verse ends frequently on two half-notes. This ending is even found in Italy in that period. The two longer notes, preceded by notes of smaller value, mark a kind of rhythmic cadence.
I may be asked how it is that I know that the measure begins on beat one, whether the first two notes before the accent are not an anacrusis, and why I do not place conventional bar lines before the third beat as in our music. My answer 1) because this is what the flamencos say, 2) because I know from singing these songs since 1937, 3) because of the syncopations, 4) finally, because this is the way the long measures, rhythmic periods or cycles, are written for oriental music. I place the bar lines for our convenience (as I might for Palestrina’s music) and they do not imply an accent. There are dotted bars for this rhythm. I place an ordinary bar to mark the end of each rhythmic period of twelve beats. This is the way the flamencos think their music and the way in which the dance steps are arranged.
To perform flamenco music one must learn to feel and think in periods of twelve beats, with their proper accentuation, and not in short measures of two or three beats, as is generally the case in our music. In bulerías there are passages of six beats, especially desplantes (passages of syncopation). The guitarist Pedro Elías told me that he has heard measures of three beats inserted, but I have never seen Manolo do this, and he is a stickler for rules.
When the guitarist plays falsetas, the ligated [hammered on or pulled off by the left hand alone] give light and shade of three strengths. This gives an effect of syncopation which traditional flamenco elaborated on purpose. Wen the scale-like passages are all pulsated [played by plucking the strings with the right hand, or picado] these values disappear completely. All gracia (grace or wit) is lost, and everything takes on a mechanical sound, full of speed to show that the modern flamenco guitarist can play as well as the best classical guitarist. He especially shows that he can play exercises with the utmost velocity. He loses sight of the fact that exercise are for the studio, not for the stage. The rejection of true flamenco explains why so many players like well-exercised race horses reach top billing. They astonish us at the iron willpower shown. There will always be an audience ready to be astonished, but the few perceptive listeners may have little opportunity to hear true flamenco if it is never played (listen to the excellent Sabicas).
Many passages are evenly stressed, the highest or lowest note standing out. The tenth beat is particularly accentuated because this is where the base not falls. It is followed by an arpeggio to the third, second, or first string, in falsetas (variations).
[Note: Indeed, most compases resolve to the tonic note not on the final or twelfth beat, but on beat ten, with beats eleven and twelve holding that thought by arpeggiating that tonic chord. Note that for Mrs. de Zayas (and therefore also for Manolo de Huelva), this arpeggiating should not be done following a strummed or rasgueado cycle – instead the tonic chord should be strummed. Few guitarists insist on that convention today.]
In accompaniments, the guitar particularly accentuates beat three, which is the pivot note on which voice and guitar should coincide. [Note: In our Western music, the voice and guitar would normally coincide throughout. It is a baffling peculiarity of flamenco that while the guitarist maintains a steady beat and strong chords, the vocal line frequently seems to become unglued from the strict guitar rhythm – except at certain points, notably including beat three as Mrs. de Zayas states.] Beats seven, eight, nine and ten are evenly stressed in the rasgueado and balance the accent on beat three, thus providing equilibrium to the rhythm. Manolo never accentuates beat six, but I noticed that the late Diego del Gastor did. However, Manolo accentuates beat six as well as the rasgueado when he plays alegrías. [Note: It may be unusual for a guitarist today to differentiate between the alegrías and the soleares/caña/polo family since they are often viewed as sharing the same rhythmic pattern.] Heavy accentuation ir required when playing for dancers. After listening to Manolo play soleares for me over the last ten years, I would almost venture to say that he puts the four rasgueado stresses in the stellar spot, relating them to beat three.
Beat twelve, while receiving the word accent in this rhythm, is distinguished from beat eleven. On beat eleven the direction of the stroke is down, toward the upper strings while on beat twelve it is up, towards the lower strings.
A difference may be heard in sound, not in intensity. Beat twelve is also a principal one of the bulerías, the beat at which the first strong word accdent of the beginning a a bulerías falls; the singer begins the bulerias on beat twelve.
I have heard young boys at their games such as hide-and-seek or hop-scotch in the streets count as follows: one two three four five six seven eight nine ten. If the count were to be extended to twelve, ten would not be accentuated . This rhythm has been ingrained in the Sevillian people for centuries.
As can be noted in his records, Tomás Pabón would begin his soleares on the third beat, although of course he knew better than to do this. Perhaps he was influenced by the siguiriyas gitanas in which the song usually begins on this beat. Perhaps he thought that this manner of singing soleares was “more Gypsy.” (Pabón often spelled Pavón.)
Rests are an important part of rhythmic music and should not be forgotten, as they frequently are. Much use is made of rests in the cycles of Arabian and Hindu music As in flamenco, half-beats and even quarter-beats are often accentuated. What is the rasgueado but four equally stressed beasts struck with four fingers down on a quarter-note beat followed by a quarter-note up beat played with a single finger up? Such rests and stresses are an integral part of the rhythm and sometimes a rhythmic ornament. In song, the accents are multiplied at the cadences, falling on eighth-notes and ending with two quarter-note stresses. This seems to be the pattern which soleares follow. Manolo pointed this out to me, so he is conscious of it..
It is the accent on every beat (martelé) which makes the music sound flamenco. In the quarter-note passages of soleares, every beat is strongly stressed and must be sung with accuracy and firmness, showing a command of the rhythm. I am now notating the alegrías of [the great Jerez guitarist] Javier Molina, as played by Manolo de Huelva. They are in G major, with some falsetas in G minor. Manolo stresses all the notes between the beats, and some passages are like trumpet calls. Manolo, who has not specialized in dance music, learned this alegrias of Javier when he was young, captivated by its beauty. He played it in the film danced by La Argentinita, screened a number of times at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and at the Museum of Modern Art in the fifties. The film was initiated, artistically directed and produced by my husband, Marius de Zayas. I cut the film because the person whom we engaged to do the cutting could not understand the music. I had to go to Joinville, near Paris, to the cutting room to go over the film in great detail with the girl who cut negatives, impressing upon her the importance of observing my marks. It was essential to have the steps of the foot coincided with the musical beat. The alegrías is the most difficult dance, for man or woman. I cut this dance once at ordinary speed and then repeated it with portions in slow motion. I was able to do this because of the discipline of the periods of twelve beats and the fact that slow motion was four times slower than normal speed. The film was made in the spring of 1938 and a little later Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire made a film in which they danced dream-like passages in slow motion, but for which the music was specially composed. We had intended to enter our film in the Cannes festival of 1939, but events [probably WWII] overtook us.
Accidental Notes and Transpositions
In monodic phrases, both in guitar and voice, besides the aforementioned B flat, other accidental notes sometimes occur. The G, c, and D are often sharp when the phrase is about to rise, becoming natural when it descends. This is also found in the music of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and in the singer’s oral tradition. The flamencos call thes semi-tones “tonos menores” (minor tones, as opposed to whole or major tones). These chromatically altered notes may be an influence from our music. I have noted down an older form of siguiriyas without these sharps and a version with the sharps inserted by Manuel Torre, another great Gypsy singer. Tomás Pabón was also partial to these sharps. However, we must not overlook the possibility the the sharps are remnants of the chromatic mode used by the Greeks.
The flamenco guitar is played, with few exceptions, either in E or A. All the falsetas of Paquirri, the great source of traditional guitar music, were transposed into either key. The siguiriyas gitanas and the chuflas (bulerías) as well as the cantiñas (alegrías) , and other songs for dancing, are played traditionally in A. The A major chord sounds its bass note that is the fifthe string, in the rasgureado. The E chord does not sound its bass note, or sixth string, in the rasgueado, because the thumb is held against that string. Therefore the guitar sounds quite different in these two tonalities.
The chuflas (bulerías) are rarely played in E because the fingerboard of the guitar does not give much field for the harmonico-rhythmical effects peculiar to that toque (type of rhythm). Voice and guitar in some bulerías are in our major or minor keys.
The cantiñas (alegrías) are usually in our A major key, accompanied by our dominant and tonic chords. The change of chords occurs on the seventh beat of a measure of twelve beats (this will be discussed more fully later). Javier Molina accompanied them in G. These cantiñas are said to have been brought to Cádiz by Spanish soldiers from the north who came to fight Napoleon’s invasion. He did not take Cádiz, which is on a narrow peninsula. These soldiers would have brought the jota of Navarra or Aragón. The people of Cádiz put these chords to their own polo rhythm and at first these songs were called “jota of Cádiz.” I have one very old melody which is reminiscent of the jota, but most of the older ones are lost. People now sing the cantiñas of Enrique el Mellizo.
The Ancient Guitar and Chord Inversions
This brings us to the tuning of the flamenco guitar and its effect on chord inversion. Rodrigo de Zayas has described guitar tuning in a historical perspective to be published in a future issue of Guitar Review. I shall confine myself to a supposition of the popular guitar some centuries ago. To begin with, in the modern guitar the lowest of the six strings gives a bass note to the cadences in E, which ar played with the thumb. The polo and soleares are played in that key. The low E string does not always sound because the right thumb is held against the sixth string [i.e., it rests on the sixth string] in rasgueado accompaniment. It is loosely held and thus thumb and string part company slightly at times. All six strings sound only in final cadences. Therefore, the chords are usually inverted, unless an occasional one should be based on E on the fourth string. The inversion of chords and frequent lack of a bass note is strange until one becomes accustomed to it, but it gives a characteristic flamenco effect and especially suits “mirror music.” (Also, chords are often incomplete and these are especially appreciated.)
On an ancient guitar with the lower string A, if it were played in A, the above would be true, but if it were played in E the effect would be even stranger. Inverted chords, lacking a bass note, were probably characteristic of the popular guitar since ancient times. One thinks of Rodrigo de Zayas’ description (in Guitar Review 40) of some of Gaspar Sanz’ chords. Ambiguity alternating and contrasting with clear cadences is the basis of the flamenco guitar.
On Manolo de Huelva’s Playing
If the ancient flamenco guitar had the first as well as the sixth course of strings missing and remained with only the four inner strings, it might possibly account for the way Manolo de Huelva plays almost exclusively on the four center strings of his modern guitar. The first and sixth strings are rarely used except in the cadences of falsetas and sometimes on the finals of falsetas and, of course, when he uses the bass or treble strings in a falseta intentionally and not mechanically. He is more inclined to the bass strings, and frequently composes very flamenco repetitious phrases. Even his falsetas often end on the third or second string rather than the first. Manolo thinks that playing on the four middle strings is “more flamenco.” Because he constantly uses the traditional flamenco technique of playing with the thumb, this concentration of playing on these four strings requires a precise and practiced thumb. In the rasgueados and accompaniments, he stops the high E string from sounding by holding his right fourth finger against it and on the soundboard. This steadies his hand and permits greater rhythmic exactness. His four fingers are held straight, with his nails against the tapa (guitar surface), where he has almost made the beginnings of a hole in his practice guitar because his fingers are so much longer than the wooden or plastic guard made for shorter fingers.
Sevillians for whom I have played one of Manolo’s tapes of bulerías notice his general avoidance of the first high string unless he especially wishes it. They know little of flamenco, but they missed the constant modern sounding of the first string, the high E.
As a youngster, Manolo began by learing traditional flameanco as well as some eighteen classical pieces. He had speed and, as he is a composer too, played in the style of the modern school. But he gradually turned more and more to developing the traditional school, with thumb and ligados (ligated notes), leaving aside the contributions from the classical guitar, the arpeggios, scales, and tremolos. He has a lightning thumb, very long, with a strong nail, and bent backwards. He said he would not take a million pesetas for his thumb. He must have practiced a lot to develop such a thumb. He is particularly outstanding in the siguiriyas, with curious dissonant chords. In bulerías he has complete control of the very difficult rhythm, upon which he improvises rhythmically and melodically with tremendous variety and inspiration. Due to his dislike of making records—and because his falsetas are purposely very difficult, beyond the ability of most flamenco guitarists – he has not had much influence on the modern school.
Although it is possible that this technique of the thumb resting on the lowest string was not used in the older flamenco guitar, when we remember that the flamenco guitar is more than anything percussive and rhythmic, it follows that the thumb-resting technique has as its primary purpose the development of steadiness in the rhythm. One can still see today poor guitarists, accompanying themselves in fandangos and sevillanas (songs of Seville), who use a free sweeping strumming. This is easier than subjecting the thumb. Manolo de Huelva says that the rhythm is very much steadier with the thumb resting on the lowest string, and steady rhythm is the most important thing for a flamenco guitarist. In any event, the thumb technique was used by Paquirri at the end of the 18th century. Manolo always keeps the rhythm going. Even if he wants to repeat when practicing a new falseta, he does not simply break off, but ends the vuelta so as to make the periods or cycles continuous. Then he begins again (these vueltas, or measures, are twelve beats in the soleares).
Manolo thinks ahead as he plays or, perhaps, his hands act with muscular continuity, accustomed as they are to the sequences of positions on the finger board. His left hand forms the next choir almost before he has left the last one. He plays with fully formed chords even when only a couple of its notes are pulsated. When I write down music, he often tells me: “this is the chord,” and I must explain that in our musical notation we only write the notes actually sounded. Of course, this does not apply very much in his lightning punteado (plucked string) passages [i.e., picado passages]. From his early playing of classical guitar he has retained command of the chords of the upper reaches of the fingerboard, and he is quick to transpose or find the same chord in alternative positions. He also accentuates strongly, using these accentuated notes upon which to pivot the sequence. He will tell me: “These accentuated notes, whether in the song or the guitar part, are what gives sense to the phrase… Accents make the music come alive.” This is true in singing as well, and gradually he has made me accentuate songs more and more strongly.
Manolo also has a showman’s technique of making the end of a phrase very much softer before beginning a brilliant falseta and then attacking it strongly. Thus for such reasons I imagine that one could break down his playing into sections, divided rather than in a continuous flow as some Wagnerian opera. Continuous flow is given to flamenco until the end is reached. One might call it essentially a rhythmical rather than a harmonic music, in this sense.
“Cuando má monótonos son las falsetas, más flamencos son,” says Manolo (the most monotonous falsetas are the most flamenco). “Many times they are almost the same notes but with different values. These are the enchantments of the flamenco guitar. This is why musicians have gathered together with flamenco guitarists to find themes for their music.”
To be continued.
End of Part One. Part Three is already on this blog, and Part Two will be added in the near future.
February 7, 2013 No Comments
In March of 1997 I participated in a concert and educational event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. An otherwise distinguished panel discussed the obvious influences of flamenco on Manuel de Falla, among other Spanish composers.
The musicians and experts seemed to take the influence for granted. But at that time, and in later versions of the event, I crankily insisted that I could not actually hear much actual influence of flamenco. Granted, the music seemed evocative of Spain, and Spanish music. But in reality, it didn’t seem to use flamenco’s metric system or compas, the cycle of twelve beats of which five (!) are accented (beats three, six, eight, ten and twelve). It also didn’t seem to evoke the flamenco way of employing the Phrygian mode as it functions in flamenco singing. (For that matter, it didn’t evoke or employ flamenco’s way of driving home its emotional points, or the strange near-insanity, the knife-edge balance between the normal world and some transcendent place, that marks great flamenco performances.)
Both that mode and that metric system are evidently Spanish, and not exclusive to flamenco. But I thought that Falla didn’t use the metric system at all, and his use of the mode seemed Spanish but not particularly flamenco. Or so it seemed to me, but not to the vastly more qualified authorities on the panel who certainly carried the day.
Here’s a New York Times review of the event by the very savvy critic Alan Kozinn, which doesn’t address my main points but still makes a good case for saying that classical music can have a clear connection to flamenco:
Flamenco, as Itself and as It’sBeen Tidied Up.”
by Allan Kozinn
“Nationalist schools of composition have always been defined by their crossbreeding of folk styles with classical forms, but in most cases the classical side is unquestionably dominant. Typically, in fact, composers have used folk elements to temper either modernist or distinctly individualistic styles with recognizable, earthy roots. Bartok and Stravinsky did this; so did Gershwin and Copland.
For the Spanish nationalist composers — or, for that matter, for non-Spanish composers who wanted to evoke Spain — flamenco was the obvious motherlode. Yet composers like Falla, Albeniz, Granados and Turina did not want merely to mine flamenco as a local flavoring. They hoped to elevate it to classical stature, and to that end, they poured its vital dance rhythms, its Eastern-tinged melodies with their Gypsy, Arabic and Sephardic Jewish influences, and their modal harmonies, into the refined timbres and symmetrical forms favored by composers elsewhere in Europe.
Flamenco, both on its own terms and filtered through the sensibilities of the nationalist composers, was the subject of a series last weekend at the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The Brooklyn orchestra has been undertaking musicological adventures of this sort for the last few seasons, and it has the concept well in hand. A thick, nicely illustrated program book, with informative historical notes by Pablo Zinger and Brook Zern, proved a useful tour guide; lectures and a panel discussion offered further (if spottier) enlightenment. And films of flamenco singers, captured at work in taverns and living rooms in the 1960′s, put the live performances in perspective.”
The Saturday evening installment (which had also been performed on Friday) was mostly orchestral, with dance and traditional flamenco singing providing a link between the raw and processed forms. Robert Spano conducted the orchestra in bright, outgoing accounts of Turina’s ”Orgia,” with its Puccini-like wind scoring, Carlos Surinach’s vibrant ”Sinfonietta Flamenca” and Roberto Gerhard’s ”Alegrias.”
End of Allan Kozinn’s review of the event. I think the headline made the most important distinction, the one I was hoping to make — that when all is said and done, the composers were not working in the realm of flamenco itself, but were presenting something that they had deliberately or unwittingly “tidied up”. Frankly, I prefer the term “neutered”.
February 18, 2012 No Comments