26th February 2015
A whole year has past since we woke up to the terrible shock of our Paco’s sudden, untimely death, since that feeling of darkness invading us as we contemplated a future without him. Yet the fact still seems unbelievable to many of us in the flamenco community. We couldn’t have imagined flamenco in the future without his towering figure, without the anticipation, delight and thrill we felt awaiting his new ideas, the fruits we knew would arrive from his current projects; we couldn’t imagine a world without the new paths into the future that the maestro was certain to lay with any new activity occupying his mind, ideas that would enrich the lives of all flamenco aficionados one more time. We are still lonely without him and the void he left is as huge as it was a year ago.
Soon after his death I was asked to prepare a talk in which I might reflect on Paco, his artistic legacy and his personal qualities as I knew them from having enjoyed his friendship for may years. In my talk I placed him, Paco de Lucía, among the other great guitarists that have changed the course of the flamenco guitar, noting also some personal experiences that, I hoped, would help bring into focus the great person as well as the great musician we all know he was.
Some reflections about Paco de Lucía, the artist and the friend.
Years ago I was writing some words for publication about the passing of Sabicas, the legendary guitarist, and I was compelled at that time to reflect on how chance, or history has, from time to time, placed in the flamenco sphere stars that have lit up their entire, current generation of guitarists. Artists whose talent and artistic ambition opened up, and pointed to, new roads.
That way, I briefly recounted how Ramón Montoya had been an inexhaustible fountain of musical ideas within flamenco. A true innovator who got close to classical guitar techniques and, with them enriched the ones in flamenco, changing forever the starting point for a flamenco guitarist. Apparently the sheer magnitude of his art seemingly stunned all the guitarists of his generation and only a few younger ones could follow his lead.
Without question the young Manuel Serrapí, “Niño Ricardo” must have listened, moved and transfixed, to that source of inspiration and with all his receptive keys turned full on, Ricardo then, spurred by Ramón’s playing, added to his playing his own creative fantasy, a strong commitment and a deep feeling of tragedy and earthiness that made the artists of his generation feel and express flamenco in a new dramatic and poetic way.
Then came Sabicas, the subject of that article, who had caused an enormous shock among guitarists, whether professional or aficionados. He was practically unknown in Spain at that time, but with his recordings he amazed everybody. The way he executed complex and difficult passages with total ease and flawless technique was a revelation, as was the endless repertory of beautiful ideas, full of style and true flamenco expression, but distinct from the familiar playing of the day - mostly inclined to concentrate on the discipline of accompanying the song. Life changed then, and aficionados in Spain started to fall in love with the solo guitar, something that, believe me, was wholly uncommon at that time.
All that culminated a few years later with the coming of Paco de Lucía. We all know what cataclysmic changes his life and his career have brought about in the flamenco world. We know that ever since he took off nothing was and nothing will ever be the same again.
I first met Paco in Madrid, in one of the tablaos of the city. I was there because “you had to be in Madrid”. You had to be seen, in your best suit and tie; such was the life. Paco always came with his father at that time. We saw each other on several occasions.
Later I met him in London after he had become more independent, and I want to tell you how we met there.
I had been playing solo for quite some time, and after a few years and after getting a bit of recognition I decided to start a small company, as flamenco, in its complete form, was my first love and I just had to go back to it. Well, pretty soon I was invited to present a whole show for BBC TV. When I arrived with my few fellow artists, ready for the recording, we discovered that a wonderful, big studio had been prepared, with an area for audience, with tables, drinks, tapas and with plenty of room for cameras to move around etc. I thought it was a bit strange to have such a large space for a tiny company like mine, but in truth I felt a bit puffed and very pleased really; but then I found that they were going to have another show THE NEXT DAY! To which we were of course invited as audience.
I went to the recording and it turned out to be a very big show called Festival Flamenco Gitano, with an ample cast. I then understood why the studio was so big! Anyway, among great artists such as dancers La Singla, who was heading the cast, La Tati, El Guito, Diego Pantoja, singer, dancer, good-humoured and funniest presence on stage, who lifted up everybody's spirits; guitarists Paco Cepero, Pepín Salazar; singers (I seem to remember) El Perrate and Orillo; and among that lot there was a Paco de Lucía! And, would you believe, I also noticed, singing for the dancers in the group, a young voice of rare depth and pathos: one Camarón de la Isla!
You can imagine how I felt. This tremendous group, following my tiny contribution of he day before. I tell you, I am glad it was that way round; the embarrassment would have been profound if they had been the ones coming to my programme.
It was of course a great performance and I remember instances when Paco, playing in the group, produced the most incredible runs and phrases, sometimes right in the middle of something like a Soleá but making absolute sense; things that had never been heard before, especially in such pieces. And I remember him looking at me (we were already fairly good friends) with a cheeky, knowing smile, as though joining in with me in the fun of my discovery and my astonishment.
He was already an artist of stature and he had two solo spots in the show. One was his Alegría in Eminor which he played beautifully. Later he played Panaderos Flamencos by Esteban de Sanlúcar and I must tell you what happened: my friend Adrian Lynch was there with me in the audience and when the piece started he looked at me, his face full of despair and sadness for this poor “boy” guitarist. The piece had taken off at such speed that he assumed the young Paco had panicked and had started way too fast; Adrian knew with certainty that Paco couldn’t get to the end but was instead heading for catastrophe, and he felt really sorry for him. He could hardly believe it when, inevitably, Paco delivered flawlessly!
After the company did their scheduled London concert I brought them to my house and we had a very special time. There was plenty of food and booze, and some of the guys got a bit tired. I remember Cepero fell asleep and some of them, including Paco played a big joke on him. Cepero was furious when he awoke!
Paco was a jolly, young guy, who loved to laugh and to joke around. Maybe he wanted to catch up on all the fun and mischief he inevitably must have missed in his childhood, when his father had made him practice many hours of the day, something he may have regretted at the time but that later he acknowledged as having been fundamental for his eventual achievements. On the other hand, maybe he just liked to have fun and play tricks on close friends. He put me on trial a couple of times, although not in joking matters; and to this day I am not sure if I came up to the mark on either occasion!
It is beyond question, is it not, that in flamenco there is a ‘before and after’ Paco de Lucía. That must be one of the truest notions in the history of mankind? But apart from that general fact which relates to his existence on this world, I think there is another ‘before and after’, or even perhaps many such landmarks in the life of this remarkable genius.
There was one period when, after hearing him play, discussing him at length and, finally after the enjoyment of listening to his first solo album, all of us, aficionados, received Paco with the recognition of having in front of us a whole new order. At 18 or 19 years of age, Paco was somebody who had gone further and deeper than anyone else involved in the adventure of living flamenco in whatever capacity, performing it, or enjoying it… whatever… We had discovered someone who had reached a space where only our dreams had ventured. I knew and we all felt that there was much more expression to get out of the music we lived with; we were aware that there was a vast potential we all wanted to bring out. We all strived to bring it out and there were of course some good ideas propping up occasionally. But no artist had yet been able to find the way to that other imagined, magical layer; and Paco, pointedly and assuredly had done so at his 20 or so years. It was a revolution and we all loved it… and him.
And yet, living with the wonderful shock of his ‘arrival’ in our lives, we found, I certainly have found, how wise and how appropriate can be the old English saying, or perhaps American saying: “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. We of course knew nothing yet, nothing of what was coming, nothing of what was stirring Paco’s mind. After the first wonderful solo record, a new one came out with a very different character, a different language; and that was when I think he put me through a test. He cunningly asked me which one of the two I preferred… From memory, let me tell you, it was a very difficult question to answer. The new recording was wonderful, and I said as much. The flamenco compositions were more structured, designed with a more sophisticated approach, on top of the ease and precision of which he was capable; there were great innovations in the harmony, the compass, and certainly one could hear his ambition to express things in a new, different, stirring way. As for the other more classical pieces he had included on the record, I actually was familiar with them; I had played some of them myself, learned from Andrés Batista, with whom I had worked in the past as second guitar. As a result they were less surprising, if nevertheless they were, and remain masterful performances of unique beauty, fluidity and virtuosity.
But I said I also still liked the exuberance of his young first effort; the unstoppable determination to tell the world: “I am here!” And perhaps the minor flaws, the slightly rough edges surrounding a mature and authoritative performance, the vulnerability that may show through that, accompanied of course by the huge, clear promise of better things to come. I loved the second LP but I also did like those things from the first recording.
Alas, he never told me but I think he would have preferred to hear my clear preference for the second recording. And he was right to want that, of course. He wanted to go on his personal journey and he urgently needed to get to the ‘after’, and leave behind the ‘before’, in the analogy I used earlier. And of course Paco de Lucía did that many times, all the time, throughout his life. He might have been testing whether myself or other people understood where he wanted to go. But he had found his path and was determined to follow it; he needn’t have worried, if ever he did, about other people’s opinion; not only did everybody understand but everybody followed him and relied on him to take them on to ever newer territories!
Many albums followed on from those initial ones, and every new recording was awaited with glee by all aficionados as it was always a new discovery containing a different direction to go; whether solo or with ensembles of various descriptions, incorporating instruments never before associated with flamenco guitar; techniques that reproduced new, exciting sounds never explored before; bringing into flamenco experiences he had lived though in his contact with other musical disciplines… or in his wonderful collaborations with Camarón de la Isla, where he transformed beyond recognition the art of accompaniment to the song, and where both Camarón and Paco arrived at a truly equal partnership of guitar and voice that probably will never be surpassed in its beauty and depth of expression. The stages of his artistic search constantly gave flamenco the landmark that sent everybody in a new direction, a new way to go. I don’t believe anybody in flamenco can honestly say they are not influenced by Paco de Lucía.
It must be said that there was perhaps a downside to this hurricane… A price that a whole generation of excellent guitarists had to pay (not least his older brother Ramón, a great and famous artist before Paco came into the scene) as they inevitably were relegated into the shadows, overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of Paco’s revolution, his output and its incredible drawing power. Simply, the world of flamenco would not be the same or behave in the same way ever again.
It must also be said that in their ecstatic admiration of Paco’s playing, young guitarists trying to imitate and follow him, didn’t always understand how deeply connected his innovative ideas were to the core of flamenco’s essential message, and as a result, even if guitarists were producing incredible pieces in terms of technical prowess and dizzying virtuosity, not everything appearing on the horizon for many a year had real value. As I have said in previous occasions, my impression now is, I am happy to say, that guitarists in recent times are acquiring a new maturity, and things are looking much better on that front.
I was once spending time with Paco in his Madrid home and he showed me what he was fascinated with at that time. It was the music of Manuel de Falla. He put me to the test again; he played me music on his gramophone and said that that was the way to go, that he had found in the music of Falla almost everything you might want to express with the flamenco guitar. Perhaps I didn’t understand him quite correctly but I was weary about accepting that assertion; I loved HIS playing too much, and even if I absolutely love, as I do, the music of Manuel de Falla, and thought it might be great for him to study and assimilate it, it might be wise not to be totally sold on the idea. This time he understood my concerns but assured me he was never intending to go on the path of becoming a classical player; he was really happy immersing himself in the new world he had discovered and, again, I am not sure I said what he would have preferred to hear!
In the end, as we all know, he embraced Falla and other classical composers, as well as so many other musical territories, and he has always come out with something new and exciting to tell from the experience. Indeed, in my opinion, the colours and the rich emotive content of Falla’s harmonies is deeply embedded in a lot of Paco’s playing, and that, ultimately, is perhaps what he was trying to tell me his aim was at the time!
On a later visit to London of the company I talked about earlier, Paco, Camarón, Cepero and the rest of the musicians and singers came again to my place; I think it was the year 1971, and I had just collected a new, wonderful guitar from the Córdoba maker Miguel Rodríguez. It was a palosanto, or rosewood guitar, my first such instrument and it was amazing! Paco played it and said it was the best guitar he had ever held in his hands. In that case, I told him, that guitar could not be in better hands, and I gave it to him as a present. A year later Paco told me he had found some difficulty with the tension on the basses (I imagine his whole approach and technique were constantly going forward and reaching new levels of perfection) and it was no longer suitable for him. So he gave it back to me, all scratched up from having been well and truly used! I was very touched by his honesty and integrity. He could have kept the guitar of course, as I had given it to him; but he obviously felt he must return an instrument he knew I also loved.
So there we have it. Paco de Lucía was a shining beacon in the history of flamenco, the like of which may never visit us again. A huge influence on musicians and audiences of all kinds of cultures throughout the world, he enriched the musical landscape of his time beyond the wildest imagination; and his legacy remains and will always stay on with us and with those that will come after us. But Paco was too, fundamentally, essentially, a good friend of his friends and a good, principled man. Now, a year after he left us, we remember and greatly miss the unique artist that was Paco de Lucía. We also miss and remember the man very fondly… The world shall never forget him.