September 6, 2010
By Claire Sykes
A single spotlight marked the strings of his guitar. The only person onstage, head bowed in concentration, he curled the melody through his fingers and strummed the rhythm within him. One by one, the others walked on and joined him: Two guitars, percussion, palmas (hand-clapping) and voice. Bass guitar and mandolin, flute and saxophone. The tension rose, and the dancer slowly uncoiled himself through feet and fingertips, then stamped and spun furiously, sweat spiraling off his face. Even after the hall had emptied out, you could still feel the heat of the music, now smoldering.
Paco de Lucia has slammed through the boundaries of flamenco beyond its folk roots and into fusion, from his first jazz performance with Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1967 to his world-renowned septet. Along the way, never has he strayed from the music’s basic tradition and sense of spirit.
As I think about my upcoming month-long trip traveling solo around Spain in October, Paco comes to mind. It’s been nearly ten years since I first met him, when I interviewed him in his dressing room at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was an hour before his concert (in the 2001 du Maurier International Jazz Festival, produced by the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society), which of course packed the hall and ended with a standing ovation that wouldn’t quit.
For two months before, I immersed myself in his music and life. I bought all his CDs and listened to them over and over. I read his biography, and every article on him I could find. I gazed at photographs of him and, for the second time, watched the movie, Carmen (directed by Carlos Saura), so I could see what he looked like while he played (before there was ever YouTube). I confess. I was in love.
Paco’s dressing room was small and plain. He was wearing a black t-shirt with “Los Bestiales” on it in The Beatles logo. He sat on a sofa, and I took the chair to his left. I immediately felt comfortable with him, as I switched on my tape recorder. I knew he had only about half an hour for me, so I got right to it.
“You’ve managed to transform flamenco, by stretching the traditional elements and incorporating new, nontraditional ones, while remaining true to the flamenco tradition,” I began. While I talked, Paco softly fingered the strings of his guitar, another way of listening, I thought. “How do you know how much to stretch and which traditional elements to include? And what must you adhere to, to be true to flamenco’s roots?” What a mouthful. And I had 49 more questions for him, knowing I’d get to only a fifth of those.
He told me then, “If the soul of flamenco is there, you can change some of the musical forms by incorporating syncopation or more harmony, and still say the same thing. Many people say that I play jazz or fusion, but I don’t claim to be anything other than a flamenco guitarist.”
No one would argue that Paco’s one of the world’s greatest—so famous in his native Spain that he bought a second home in the Yucatán where he could find relief in anonymity. I hear now that he lives in Mallorca. And he’s going to be performing in Spain in October, when I’ll be there.
Talk flamenco and there’s before Paco and since Paco. With his guitar, he has invented new tunings, introduced new chords and chord inversions, and played melodies normally sung. He has collaborated with John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Chick Corea and Al Di Meola.
I wanted to know what Al Di Meola thought of Paco, so I found out his email address and asked him. He wrote back, “Paco was the first flamenco guitarist with the vision and courage to step beyond the parameters of the music’s roots and expand into harmonies and scales not known or familiar to the older traditionalists.” The oud, sitar and electric bass, bongos, saxophone and flute all have made their flamenco debut with Paco.
And why not? Flamenco originated from diverse cultures. In the south of Spain, in the early 1500s, the music of Andalucia, with its Roma, Moorish and Spanish roots, gave birth to what in the 1800s became known as flamenco. A century later, the ever-evolving musical form would find its way into the eager hands of a seven-year-old born Francisco Sánchez Gómez (on December 21, 1947 in Algeciras, Spain). Paco’s father, a journeyman and guitarist, and older brother Ramón gave him his first formal lessons, in the style of Niño Ricardo, then Spain’s most influential guitarist.
At 11, Paco quit school to practice for eight hours a day, determined to put an end to the family’s poverty. Also in 1958, he made his first public appearance, with his brother Pepe, a singer, and the following year won his first award, in the Festival Concurso Internacional Flamenco de Jerez de la Frontera.
In the mid-60s, Paco de Lucia (his stage name, after his mother Lucia Gómez) toured with dancer Jóse Greco’s company, and made his first solo recording, La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucia.
Around this time, he met Camarón de la Isla, the legendary flamenco singer, and the two made more than ten records together over the years, until Camarón’s death in 1992. Influencing and inspiring each other, they revolutionized flamenco, and a new tributary of the art form surged on the scene.
When I contacted Chick Corea, whom Paco met in the early 70s and toured and recorded with in the early 80s, he told me in an email, “Paco’s music turned my musical mind around. I had never heard anything of such beauty and depth before. My familiarity with flamenco music, in general, then began to grow, but he has remained a favorite of mine, no matter what style.”
Purists blasted Paco for jumping into jazz and allegedly destroying flamenco. But the rapid-fire scale passages he volleyed with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola only pumped up the applause of a much wider, international audience.
Meanwhile, with little understanding of jazz harmonies then, Paco admitted to me that day in his dressing room, “I spent many concerts, at first, completely lost without knowing where I was, listening to the chords and trying to follow them like crazy. Even now, only about three times a year with jazz can I go with my intuition, without thinking. That makes me very happy.”
When it comes to improvising in flamenco, for Paco it’s mainly within a given compas (rhythm), such as the 12-beat cycle of the bulerías. While adhering to its strict structure, he syncopates the rhythm in anticipation of the down beat. “When I feel that I’m floating inside the improvisation, without having to think and everything’s easy—that’s duende, inspiration.”
He’s also inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane—“all the jazz masters. I listen to everybody. But Camarón is the most important, and now, of course, I miss him, and the two or three months we’d spend together every year making a recording,” their last one being Un Potro de Rabia y Miel (1991). “We opened up many doors for flamenco.”
“How is flamenco continuing to evolve?” I asked him, as he lit his second cigarette. He said, “When I was a kid, flamenco was immobile. Now there are a lot of people making their own flamenco music, not the music of their grandfathers like when I was young. Some of the music is good, some less good. But it’s moving, and that’s the most important thing. And yet, the tradition is safe because many people don’t want it to move. But the people doing crazy things with the music cannot change that.”
Chick Corea went on to say, “Paco’s guitar playing, composing and improvising have certainly set a very high standard for all other flamenco musicians to follow. The brilliant, young flamenco guitarist, Vicente Amigo is a prime example of Paco’s influence amongst the flamenco musicians of Spain.” So is Tomatito, considered to be Paco’s first “heir,” and one of Camarón’s accompanists.
Paco himself is “always looking to surprise my colleagues with something they don’t expect,” he told me. “I play only for them—and myself. If you try to play what audiences want, you’ll get lost. I know how to make a show, playing like a machine gun, but that doesn’t make me happy. I want to express more what I feel.”
He does just that in his CD, Luzia (1998), an introspective tribute to his mother, created and produced during the six months that she was dying. Fed by sorrow and serenity, it embraces an intimacy with flamenco that honors its past as much as it seeks out its future.
After the concert, I went backstage to Paco’s dressing room. A small crowd had formed by the doorway, and he motioned me in.
On the drive home, rain slapped the windows as tears streaked my face. I know. I was crying! But I didn’t want the night to be over. I wasn’t ready to leave Paco.
Sitting there silently and not wanting to talk, I thought about something he had said towards the end of our interview and that I still think about today, and not just when it comes to music:
“I don’t play one note more than necessary. If you understand this, you understand the core of flamenco. With any music, sometimes three notes can say much more than three thousand.”
For more about Paco de Lucia, see www.pacodelucia.org.
© 2010 Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.
See my poem about Paco.