Paco de Lucia's flamenco odyssey:
expression, serenity & feeling

by Hank Bordowitz

Guitar Player, April 1, 1994

"Paco de Lucia, in opinion, is the greatest flamenco player alive," says John McLaughlin of his friend. "Working with him really was a great experience." * Perhaps the most consistently popular albums either artist has recorded bear both their names. Passion, Grace & Fire and Friday Night In San Francisco, which feature McLaughlin, de Lucia, and Al Di Meola in a trio setting, have been steady best-sellers since their release in the early '80s. Every time the Columbia catalog is reissued in a new format - CD to Half Speed Master to Mini Disc - the live Friday Night is always among the first offerings. * "John is a great musicians," says de Lucia, returning the compliment. "He has very good taste for harmonies and a very delicate touch. I don't know what I learned from him directly, but when you play with a good musician, really listening, you get a lot." * The high level of recognition de Lucia has gained in non-Iberian Europe and America through these collaboration is minuscule compared to his musical legacy in Spain. De Lucia broke flamenco - essentially a hidebound regional folk music - out of its geographical and musical constrictions, inventing a whole new context for flamenco techniques. His bands from the late '70 and '80s fused flamenco with jazz rock sensibilities, putting into motion the current nuevo flamenco wave of new Spanish music. Records by Paco's erstwhile sidemen, wind player Jorge Pardo and bassist Carles Benavent, and bands like Ketama, Pata Negra, and the Gipsy Kings, continue to reflect his great innovations. Yet as with most artists who break with convention, de Lucia started out learning and working within rigid traditional strictures.
He was born Francisco Sanchez Gomez on December 21, 1947, in Cadiz, one of the major ports of Andalusia. For his stage name, the young guitarist adopted "Paco," the diminutive of "Francisco," and "de Lucia," in honor of his mother. His father and older brother all played traditional Andalusian guitar at juergas (jam sessions/performances) in nightclubs and inns. By some accounts, Paco first picked up the guitar at around five years old; by others, he learned to play before he could talk.
"In a way, both accounts are true," de Lucia clarifies. "My families grew up with the Gypsies. My father and all my brothers played guitar, so before I picked it up, before I could speak, I was listening. Before I started to play, I knew every rhythm of the flamenco. I knew the feeling and the meaning of the music, so when I started to play, I went directly to the sound I had in my ear. That's a real big part of what helps you to grow up - to have a base as a mucisian and as a player."
Though today de Lucia is well known as a soloist, traditionally the guitar has always assumed a secondary role in Gypsy flamenco. Since the days of Columbus, the Gypsy guitarist merely accompanied the fiery singers and dancers with whom most people primarily associate flamenco. "Solo concerts of flamenco guitar are still relatively new," affirms de Lucia, who accompanied dancers and singers until he was 18 years old. At age 12 he visited the United States for the first time, staying a full year as a member of the Jose Greco Ballet. He performed with many of Spain's greatest dancers and singers, including the late, great Camaron de la Isla, until his own name was sufficiently established.
Paco came to prominence at a pivotal time in flamenco's evolution. A century ago, as the music moved out of the Gypsy camps and cafes, a class of professional flamenco players was born, spawning keen competition among guitarists who rapidly became more skilled and technically ambitious. Around the middle of the twentieth century, the guitar gained ground as flamenco's focal point. Players like de Falla, Montoya, Nino Ricardo, and Sabicas helped bring guitar to the forefront. The latter two were major personal influences on young de Lucia.
"When I was 11 years old, I played the music of Nino Ricardo all the time," he recalls, "until I found Sabicas in New York. Sabicas told me that a guitar player to play his own music. So from that moment I forgot everything I knew before, and I started to compose my own music."
As de Lucia began composing, he slowly began to reconstruct flamenco's foundation, being careful to avoid destroying the house in the process. "When I started to make new adventures with my music, a lot of guitarists like what I did, but many purist people thought I was crazy," he recalls. "Sometimes I didn't respect the tradition enough. But through my records, I created a new style - my own style - that everybody followed after that. But it was not easy to evolve this music, I still don't feel free when I compose new things for flamenco. I have to take great care with the tradition. The pure flamenco people don't accept any movement, so you have to be subtle and do it very carefully."
Years later, during a press conference preceding a Carnegie Hall tribute to Sabicas, the old master took a couple of backhanded shots at the monster he felt he had at least partially created. After de Lucia spoke on how influential Sabicas had been to his own style, Sabicas pointedly commented, "In flamenco guitar playing, only the fingers have evolved."
To comprehend how de Lucia revolutionarized flamenco, you need at least a cursory understanding of the music's mechanics and underpinnings. Since the music has been with the Andalusian Gypsies for at least half a millennium, the rules are pretty well ingrained. Several basic rhythms, like bulerias, solea, and fandango, make up the root and core of flamenco, as do some basic harmonic shapes. "A flamenco guitarist uses only four chords, but he can relay an unfathomable type of music," John McLaughlin once pointed out. "The same thing can be said about a blues guitar player. With only two or three chords, you can do anything."
"Four chords, more or less," de Lucia concurs. "There are four chords in the cadence of traditional Spanish music. For example, Am-G-F-E is the flamenco cadence in the key of A minor." Among Paco's greatest contributions has been his jazz-inspired stretching of the form's harmonic boundaries, a departure from the traditional Phrygian minor cadences like Am-G-F-E and major cadences like C-Am-D-G7.
"Still, you cannot forget the basics," de Lucia stresses. "For instance, I don't change the basic rhythms. It is a kind of 3/4, but there are other tempos. See, there are 12 measures in flamenco. [Flamenco pieces are based around 12-bar toques, rhythmic cycles made up of compas, or measures, with specific rhytmic accents.] It's like Indian music where one bar is a long one, as in an Indian raga. The bulerias is like that - one fast, one slow. I change the harmony and the tension of the rhythm, but not the basics. If you change the basics, it's not flamenco."
With his sextet, de Lucia introduced a new vision for flamenco that almost went unnoticed by Western ears, but in Spain inspired cries of blasphemy. Playing flamenco with a full band? Unheard of. De Lucia hired Benavent on electric bass and Pardo on woodwinds, and augmented the traditional palmas (hand clapping) with congas and other percussion, including a wooden box called a cajon that he maintains he introduced to Spain. Because of its portability, the cajon has become a favorite among the Gypsies. "It has the sound of a dancer's foot," explains de Lucia. "The Gypsies don't want big instruments, like drums. But you can take the box to any party anywhere. They're light and small, and the sound is right."
Following last year's brilliant Verve release Zyryab, de Lucia's most recent album strays farther from flamenco puro than ever. This time, rather than challenge convention, de Lucia challenged himself. Accepting a dare from a concert promoter, de Lucia mastered Rodrigo's classic Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra in a little less than a month, for a concert tour of Japan. This piece is demanding even for a gifted sight reader; for de Lucia it was doubly difficult, since he is not an adept reader.
"I went to a house in the Caribbean where I was completely alone," he recounts. "I would spend the whole day working on the Concierto. I learned that piece with a book on hand, so I could look up what the value of the note was. I would look at the score, and if I say any signs, I would look in the book to see what it meant. I translated like I had a letter or a book in Russian. You read what one word means in Russian and you go to the dictionary and translate it. After I spent half an hour reading, I'd get one note.
"At the same time, I listened to the music. The notes were okay, but for the rhythmic parts I had to listen to the tape, by ear. I didn't know how to play some phrases on tempo. I got the notes by translation, but it was difficult to get the tempo, the value of every note, whether it's one bar, a half bar, a quarter of a bar. I bought four or five different versions by classical guitarists to see how different each of them was and get my own version. In every one, I found something that I liked.
"Physically it was no more difficult than flamenco," de Lucia stresses, "which is the most difficult way of playing the guitar. It's a very tense, thick music. You have to be playing very fast in some moments. The difficult question with the Concierto was to find the right sounds, the right expression of this music - to not have problems with the purists of classical music, because purists exist all over. Also, with classical music and an orchestra, they have a lot of rubatos. The tempo is moving all the time, and that makes me feel very insecure. To play with an orchestra, you need good memory and discipline, which I don't have."
About the only similarity de Lucia found between flamenco and classical guitar were the instruments themselves. Though he could choose from a wide range of instruments, de Lucia has played the same simple flamenco guitar for about 20 years. "It's a special guitar made by an old traditional family of luthiers," Paco says. "It started with Domingo Esteso, who made the guitar my father played. The nephews of Esteso make the guitars until I found the one that I feel comfortable with." The family-based makers, Hermanos Conde, build a Paco de Lucia Concert Guitar.
For all his renowned virtuosity and the radical rhetoric that de Lucia inspires in the flamenco community, his attitude towards playing is as simple as his instrument. He may have enviable technique, but it is strictly in service of his duende, the passion and soul behind the technique, without which true flamenco cannot exist.
"If you think you are going to make a mistake, that your fingers will not arrive at a point, that they won't play the right note at the right moment, you are lost," de Lucia intones. "You forgot the most important thing; the expression, the serenity, and the feeling."