Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Prairie Weekend

Heading west on a Saturday, which was turning gray, with worse to come. Why west? There are birds out there that we will never see here in the Cities. And expanses.

It’s a mind-boggling fact that from our house to Lac Qui Parle State Park takes almost the same amount of time, whether you take Highway 12, Highway 7, or Highway 212. The drive is not quite three hours—though it takes longer when you stop along the way.

We stopped in Dassel to poke around a few garage sales and buy a donut or two at the bakery downtown, which has obviously been modeled after the Louis Sullivan Bank in Owatonna.

Our next stop was the world’s biggest ball of twine—made by one person—which sits just south of main street in Darwin. The public library in Litchfield is always worth a visit. They have a shelf of give-away books, from which I selected a hardcover copy of Finland in the Twentieth Century by D.G. Kirby. You never know, I might read it some day.

And in the metropolis of Willmar we stopped at Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant downtown, where they make a killer burrito for $5.99. We ordered a large and a small but the man at the counter advised us that a large would be plenty for us to share.

We thought we might pull off at a city park on our way west on Highway 40, but there was none to be had, so we ate our burrito a half-hour later in the gravel parking lot of Milan’s grain elevator complex. A pheasant was dashing around in the grass on the near side of the highway as we ate.

If you find yourself in Milan, you might as well stop in at the Folk Art School just off Main Street. Last time we were there some men were learning how to make furniture, and several were splitting the wood out in the front yard with axes. It looked like a scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. This time, mutatis mutandis, there were a group of women inside making jewelry out of broken pieces of china and silver filings caked in clay.

At the state park office a few miles down the highway the ranger told us about the location of an owl’s nest. Once we’d checked into our camper cabin, perched on a hilltop overlooking Lac Qui Parle,  we went down to the dam to find it. Yes indeed. There was the baby owl, peering out from a hollow in a tree near the highway.

Later, we saw some teal, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers in the backwater sloughs of the lower park. We thought we saw a golden eagle, too—it was a huge bulky bird with a distinctly rich brown caste, unlike the more steely brown of an immature bald eagle. But the location and the time of year argued vehemently against such a sighting.

There were Boy Scouts wandering here and there in the woods, engaged in what we used to call “orienteering.” Now they call it geo-caching. We used a compass. They use a sophisticated GPS device encased in Space Age orange plastic.

The weather had begun to look ominous by the time we got back to our little cabin. Just slightly. We walked down the hill to cut a few switches for the hotdogs. By the time we got back it had begun to drizzle.

The hotdog was the best I’d ever had. Really. Hilary felt the same. (Cold weather will do that.)

A pheasant was wandering around in the tall grass nearby, and when he came out onto the mowed path, we got a very good look at him from the window inside the cabin. Pheasants are far from rare in these parts, but it was a pleasure to examine one a length at close range. Magnificent bird…too bad it’s not a native.

That night we listened to waves of thunder lope across the  landscape like wild horses at a bowling alley. It sounds different when there’s nothing around to stop it and you can follow its course. The windows turned suddenly white, then dark again, like a theater set, as the lightning struck. Once or twice the blast was so immediate that I was sure we’d lost power. But that never happened.

The next morning, in the Riverview Restaurant in Montevideo, we sat across from two women, one of whom was carrying a bird guide.

“See any birds?” I asked.

“Well, our group saw 130 species,” one of the women replied. “I doubt if we saw half that.” They’d seen most of them on tiny Salt Lake, a half-hour drive to the west down 212, on the South Dakota border.

We’d seen perhaps 30 species the previous day, though we weren’t counting. But  the women were talking about “those little birds that swim in circles in the water.” Phalaropes? And it was only 8:30. We decided to drive out to Salt Lake.

You would never find Salt Lake if you weren’t looking for it and also had some inkling where it was. No sign will lead you to it. I had a little trouble finding it myself, heading too far north toward Marietta before turning west on gravel roads. As a result, we hit the lake on the northwest side…and that’s where the phalarope was.

I must confess that the entire way out to Salt Lake I was saying to myself: “Is this really a good idea, in the rain? With a 3½ hour drive back to the Cities?”

One look at the phalarope and the answer became obvious. Good idea? Yes. The phalarope made the trip. I haven’t seen one anywhere near Minnesota for a good twenty years. The last one I saw was in a tiny harbor on the south shore of Lake Superior.

They’re spotted regularly at Salt Lake, year after year. Yes, but I hadn’t gone there. I hadn’t seen one. They’d dropped from the radar of what one  might see. Yet the previous day sixteen of them had been spotted at Salt Lake.

And it’s a beautiful bird. A feverish, beautiful bird.

As we circumnavigated the lake, we saw a raft of canvasbacks—another beautiful bird. A few hundred yards on, we drove by a nondescript church, the parking lot of which was overflowing with cars. What a God-forsaken place to put a church, I thought. But perhaps the congregants were bird-watchers!

On the other side of the lake, we got a chance to watch horned grebes and eared grebes drifting side by side, along with a few ruddy ducks.

From there it was a long drive back to the Cities, with a brief stop for Dunn Brothers coffee in Hutchinson.

The serious rain didn’t start until we got to Waconia. We were practically home!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed - the film

There are some beautiful souls among us who never shed their youthful idealism or their commitment to helping others find their way along the path. This is a film about one of them.

Antonio (Javier Camera) is a high school teacher in a small Spanish town at the end of the Franco era who uses Beatles songs to teach his students English. He’s inventive, kind-hearted, chubby, bald, and full of humor and intelligence. He’s also single and slightly lovelorn.

He tapes the new Beatle songs on Belgian radio before they're available in Spain, but some of the words remain obscure. Hearing that John Lennon has flown in to make a film in nearby Almeria province (Richard Lester’s How I Won the War), he decides to drive there on a long weekend to ask the famous Beatle to help him fill in the blanks in his transliteration of the song lyrics. It’s a naïve and Quixotic quest, but Antonio is confident he’ll be able to penetrate the film set and catch John’s attention somehow.

Along the way he picks up two hitchhikers, both of whom we’ve already gotten to know in other scenes. One is a young woman named Belen who’s pregnant and fleeing the Catholic institution where her parents have sequestered her. The other is a teenage boy named Juanjo who’s left home to avoid getting a haircut. He likes his hair long; his father, a cop, doesn’t.

This unlikely trio get to know one another on the road. When Antonio learns that Juanjo prefers the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, he slams on the brakes—they’re out in the middle of nowhere—and demands that Juanjo get out and walk. “Let Mick Jagger drive you,” he shouts.

He’s only joking, as it turns out. Antonio is actually a soft-hearted man who adores kids and quotes Antonio Machado freely:
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only waves in the sea.
 I say “soft-hearted” although Antonio stands up defiantly for his young passengers at several places in the film. “You cannot live in fear,” is his mantra, though in Franco’s Spain it’s difficult, and dangerous, to do otherwise.

 Almeria province at the time (1966) was a poverty-stricken place, and the unlikely trio soon hole up in a desolate bar-hotel frequented by agricultural workers and urchin-like children. The dialect is so obscure that Antonio can barely make out what the night-shift inn keeper is saying.

The good thing is, the film set is only a few miles away across the desert wastes.

I’m not going to tell you how that particular escapade turns out, nor describe in detail various other encounters Antonio, Belen, and Juanjo have with the locals and with one another. Living is Easy with Eyes Closed is a film about growing up, Fascist Spain, teaching, the importance of youth and idealism, and several other things. It’s a film where Antonio Machado meets John Lennon, in a manner of speaking. And it’s one of the most humorous and touching films I’ve seen in a long time.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Moliere on a Bicycle

If Shakespeare exposes the cosmic truths, Moliere does a better job at exposing the social truths of our time. He gets not only at the dissimulation and hypocrisy that sometimes seem endemic to social interactions, but at the delusion of imagining we can rise above such things and remain "social" ourselves. Yet there’s a humanity at the root of Moliere's vision, and he shows us that, too.

 In Moliere on a Bicycle, we focus on a few days in the life of a suave (and very popular) TV actor named Gauthier Valence who journeys to the Ile de Re, off the Breton coast, in hopes of entreating his colleague Serge to return from self-imposed exile and appear with him in a production of The Misanthrope.

The play itself, as most readers know, is about a man who divorces himself from society in much the same way that Serge has. “Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race,” Alceste remarks early on in the play, and Serge might well be following the same agenda.

Serge is played by Fabrice Luchini, who often seems out of place when he appears as a leading man in French films. He's perfectly cast here as a talented but perhaps slightly vain actor who feels he’s been wronged by his colleagues in the industry and wants nothing more to do with the theater. Serge now lives in a large but dilapidated home by the sea that he inherited from a rich uncle. “Of his ten nephews and nieces, I was the only one who sent him a Christmas card,” he explains dismissively.

Gautier is dismayed by the clutter he finds in Serge's house but eager to recruit his former acting colleague, whose talent he respects highly. It’s not so clear what Serge thinks of Gautier’s acting ability, though he does agree to rehearse the play for a few days before deciding whether to reject the proposal outright. But Serge is shocked when Gautier suggests that he play Philinte, while Gautier himself takes the central role of Alceste.

“I’ve been rehearsing Alceste for thirty years,” he explodes. The two overcome this obstacle by agreeing that they’ll switch roles daily based on the flip of a coin.  

Another element is added to the plot when Gautier, who doesn’t want Serge to think he’s desperate to recruit him, claims that he was just passing by, having come out to the island primarily to look for vacation property. Segre calls a realtor immediately, to Gautier's chagrin, and the two go on several agonized house-hunting trips in the course of the film.

One of the homes they visit is owned by a snappish Italian woman who’s in the midst of a divorce. She fails to recognize the famous TV actor, and Serge introduces Gautier to her. “I don’t know French TV,” she replies matter-of-factly, “and I don’t like actors. They’re too narcissistic.”

Yet after giving Serge a ride to the hospital (amusing in itself, though I won’t tell you why) she begins to hang around with Serge and Gautier in the evenings, which adds some additional spice to the pot.

 When  Moliere on a Bicycle was released in 2013, the Hollywood Insider predicted that it would find success in France, “with strong overseas possibilities if marketed to older art house audiences.”

I guess that’s me. I find it interesting to watch middle-aged men argue passionately over whether all twelve syllables in an Alexandrian line really need to be pronounced. “Are you calling me a TV actor?” Gautier shouts at one point. 

As Serge and Gautier run through their speeches again and again, subtle currents of tension and hostility blend with a shared professionalism and love of the theater. The lines they rehearse might just as well be lifted from the play and applied to them. The film raises the same questions that the play does--when does honor become mere vanity, when does tactful, courteous dissimulation become deceit? How can a balance between admiration and competition be maintained between friends? And how is one to judge when honest criticism begins to cut too deep?

Yet there’s nothing “stuffy” about Moliere on a Bicycle. The Breton countryside is nice and moments of slapstick abound. A few of the bicycling scenes will remind film-goers of Jules and Jim--and that's a pleasant association. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mpls/St Paul Film Fest: Three Films

You will seldom hear me complain about how busy I am, maybe because I’m seldom that busy. But I have been busy this spring season. How am I going to explain, then, that I’ve seen eleven films in the past fortnight? Can it be the arrival of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film fest, which gives us the opportunity to see two or three films in a row on a Saturday afternoon?


Well, let me describe a few:

The Forgotten Kingdom

This beautiful film follows the path of an young man named Atang—angry, unemployed and adrift in Johannesburg—who’s forced to return to his home village in Lesotho when his father dies leaving a request to be buried there. Aside from the majestic mountain scenery, two things make the film work. First of all, it’s well-paced. Atang enters the village suspicious and rude, and it takes a long, long time for him to loosen up to the village environment.

The film also has a strong cast, which consists, aside from Atang,  of a young woman named Dineo whom he knew as a child (she’s now a teacher in the village); her arrogant and unpleasant father, who wants to marry her off to a wealthy suitor; and a boy, friendly and impish by turns, who appears out of nowhere on a mule to badger Atang.

“Who are you?” Atang asks.

“I’m the eyes of the black cloud that follows you around,” the boy replies tauntingly.

One additional character needs to be mentioned, though we rarely see her—Dineo’s sister, who’s suffering from AIDs. Her father is ashamed of her condition, and insists on keeping her shut away in her room. Dineo returned to the village from Johannesburg to care for her, but that dependent relationship has made it difficult for Dineo’s father to marry her off and collect the dowry he feels he’s entitled to.

The film has a pastoral quality, the villagers’ colorful robes are a sight to behold, and in time a vaguely supernatural atmosphere develops, mostly due to the boy’s gnomic utterances,  without stretching our credulity overmuch. The romantic element is similarly understated, and in the end, what might have been just another Utopian fantasy becomes a lovely examination of fathers and children, independence and the weight of tradition, and the power of place.     

Out of the Fire

This documentary examines a few months in the life of a potter in rural Virginia named Kevin Crowe, as seen by a young wonk from nearby Washington DC who decides to drop her fast-paced career to become his apprentice. It doesn’t entirely escape the tone of sanctimonious guru-awe that can easily doom such a subject. “He knows so much about the clay, the glazes, the kilns, the woods….” Yet both potter and apprentice are likeable, and brief interviews with the potter’s wife and kids add variety.

The film picks up when a host of artist-friends descend on the studio for the semi-annual firing, which takes four days. At this point the kiln itself takes center stage. Will the proper temperature be established and maintained? Will the pots turn out OK, or will they sag and crack? Will the ash glazes be cool? A round-the-clock work schedule is set up, people play the guitar as others shove wood into the mouth of the blazing oven.

It’s difficult to capture a spirit of genuine camaraderie on film, and Out of the Fire succeeds only intermittently, but it’s well worth watching nonetheless. For whatever else it may be, the potter’s life is full of wood chopping, messy clay, mysterious natural processes, relative poverty, and the sense of doing something earthy and rewarding and right. What’s more, many of Crowe’s pots are quite good.

Needless to say, the film will appeal more strongly to viewers who are actually interested in hand-thrown pottery. Like me.  

The Amazing Catfish

A perfect film-fest film --  too inconsequential to receive widespread distribution, in all likelihood, yet perfectly nuanced within its own sphere of reference.

Claudia lives alone in an industrial warehouse and works in a supermarket offering free samples to passing shoppers. One night she develops appendicitis, out of the blue (well, that’s how it happens) and in the hospital she finds herself separated by a thin sheet from a woman named Martha and her four odd-ball children, who happen to be visiting. When Martha spots Claudia later at the bus-stop, she offers to give her a ride. Claudia ends up going home with Martha and her kids, and before long she’s sharing meals with them, taking the kids to school, watching TV with them. 

It’s an odd situation which is never really examined or discussed. At first no one knows who Claudia is, but they do need a babysitter. The kids are all wayward to begin with, though in different directions. They’re used to taking care of themselves, because Martha visits the hospital regularly: she has AIDs. In time Claudia learns a bit about the various men Martha has been with, which helps to explain how Martha’s kids can be so different. And Martha learns that Claudia lost her parents at the age of two, and has been living a sort of shadow life since then that we can hardly imagine.

All the kids in the film are good at being kids, though their mother remains a cipher. The film’s success is largely due, I think, to the aplomb with which Ximena Ayala holds to the character of Claudia. She might easily have been bitter, resentful, depressed, or antisocial in some other way, given her history and circumstances, but Claudia, though slow to react, shy, and often puzzled by the things going on around her, is also attracted to the vibrancy, and even the chaos, of "normal" life as she has never known it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Death of Paco de Lucia

I’d been listening to some CDs with my friend Tim, who plays six or seven instruments and is conversant with musical styles from Serbia to Santa Fe. “In the end, you have to ask yourself,” he mused, as we were finishing off the Rioja, pecking at the last crumbs of oily Manchego cheese, and otherwise bringing the session to an end, “Is flamenco really my music?’”

I suspect he was referring to the fact that flamenco singing is harsh to the point of absurdity, and its rhythmic onslaught is relentless. Flamenco’s low profile on the world-music scene, in comparison with Latino genres, for example, suggests that even among those who take an interest in exotic styles, many would answer the question, “Is flamenco really my music?” in the negative. Outside Spain, and inside Spain as well, flamenco remains a world apart.

Paco de Lucia was unique in that he established a large following for himself in the wider world of music without losing his stature as the most extraordinary flamenco guitarist of his time. His death, at the age of 66, shocked many, not only because he was still relatively young and healthy, but also because, well, Paco was a god. And gods aren’t supposed to die.

Any attempt to explain or describe the appeal of Paco’s music must begin with the assertion that it’s firmly rooted in flamenco. This is important to note because relatively few people know what flamenco is.

What, then, is flamenco? The answer is almost an exercise in set theory. Flamenco music is gypsy music, though very little gypsy music is flamenco--certainly not the music of the Romanian gypsies of the Taraf de Haidouks or the Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reihardt.

Flamenco music is Spanish music...yet very little Spanish music is flamenco; not the music of the folk-singer Equidad Bares, the spirited sound of the pipe-and-drum band La Muscaña,  the ballads of the torch rumba singer Aurora, the moody atmospheric airs of the Galician Celtic band Milladoiro, or the scorching and acerbic sounds of the Spanish-Arabic band Radio Tarifa.

Shall we narrow the field by saying that flamenco is Spanish gypsy music? If so, then we’re going to have to explain why several of its greatest practitioners, including Chano Lobato, the dancer Christina Hoyos, Miguel Poveda, and Paco himself, aren’t gypsies.

Reflections on this order will lead us, in the end, to a consideration of a largely gypsy culture that for generations has sustained itself in scattered barrios in a small triangle of Andalusia defined by the cities of Cádiz, Seville, and Jerez de la Frontera. 

It isn’t necessary to say that all flamenco comes from here—in fact there have been famous and talented performers from Granada, Córdoba, Extremadura, Málaga, and even Barcelona. Sabicas was from Burgos, for heaven’s sake! But ethnomusicologists have traced nearly all of the traditional flamenco forms to this tiny triangle, and even today, when the center of the flamenco world has long-since moved north to Madrid, the purest and deepest sources of traditional flamenco are still, perhaps, to be found in the delta of the Guadalquivir.

We return to the question, slightly re-phrased: What, then, is the deepest essence of flamenco? Sephardic and Andalusian echoes are often distinguishable within its kit of expressive tools. This fact, noteworthy in itself, also serves to highlight the single quality that sets flamenco most distinctively apart from these and other worlds of expression. Unlike Sephardic music, Arabic music, or Andalusian folk music generally speaking, flamenco is animated by relentless and agitated intensity.

Cutting to the chase, let me assert that this is the single quality that gives flamenco its enormous appeal, and also its marginal popularity. Although Flamenco forms are divided into a more serious and plangent cante jondo type and a lighter tone traditionally refer to as flamenco chico, a genuinely restful or gaily sing-song flamenco doesn’t exist, as far as I know.  

Two terms that are almost invariably associated with this locus of pain by journalists and aficionados duende and jondura.

My  Spanish dictionary defines duende as a goblin, elf, or malign spirit. In the world of flamenco it refers to a quality of darkness that’s faced, accepted, and even celebrated, in so far as it’s inseparable from the act of living itself. To say, of a flamenco performance, that it has duende, is to say that the performer (animated by a dark or evil spirit, perhaps) has made contact with some part of his or her soul, on a level of unusual depth and unpleasantness—and nobly embraced it. Horror, terror, or shock  may startle and repel us momentarily, but the effect isn’t aesthetic. These things will never move us deeply. Duende offers a us a kind of grueling pleasure.

Flamenco vocals often begin with an extended cry of “ayee, ayee,” which may last for half a minute or more. This phrase means nothing, and it allows the singer to prepare his or her vocal chords for the strenuous work ahead, but it also seems to say “I’ll tell you about my pain, but first let me acquaint you with the level of pain we’re dealing with.” It introduces us to a God-forsaken world where any litany of specific misfortunes is largely beside the point.

Jondura is nothing more or less than depth itself. In the world of flamenco, this term is associated with that form of almost arrhythmic lamentation known as canto jondo, or deep song. The canto jondo isn’t the most popular flamenco style today, and perhaps it never was, but the friskier or more rhythmically complex forms—the bulerias, the tangos, the alegrias—which appeal to younger audiences, invariably carry echoes of that more primitive and emotional realm.

Yet listeners soon pick up another stand of the idiom, which sounds for all the world like an ongoing party.
In a typical flamenco performance, several levels of expression typically alternate like the andantes and allegros of a classical sonata. Spontaneous  shouts and whistles interjected by performers and bystanders alike add to the festive mood and the communal feel, as does the clapping, which often serves as the only form of percussion.

Many flamenco recordings also have a chorus of voices that interject an informal response or counterpoint to the cantaor’s “melody.” At their best, these voices sound bratty and “immature.” They conjure visions of a spontaneous songfest at the riverside or the town square while clothes are being washed, with one woman bragging or lamenting and her companions challenging her egotistical vision or echoing her plight. At other times, like a Greek chorus, they seem to re-iterate and confirm the fatalistic truths contained in the lament.

I say “seem” because I don’t speak Spanish.

One aspect of flamenco singing lies beyond the grasp of those of us who don’t speak Spanish: the words. The emotional tenor of a piece may be obvious, but we don’t know what’s really being said. A glance at the song-titles of a recording by the rough-and-ready Gypsy singer El Agujetas, to take an example at random, offers us a clue regarding some common themes. 1. I Killed her with a Dagger 2). I don’t Like Blonds 3) The Moorish Girl has Gone Out Walking 4) Let No-one be Sorry for Me 5). And I watched Her Leave 6). You Can Buy Me if You want to 7). You Have to Bear a Cross 8). Because You Saw Me Cry 9) It’s What You Want 10). A Holy Christ.

And this simple lyric, from a late-night performance recorded “live” in the village of Moron de la Frontera, is also suggestive:

Why do you mistreat me so?
Come to my side
And live your life with me,

You scoundrel.
We’ll live like the Moors
In the Moorish Quarter.

In this new world
There is a clock:
A clock with no hands.

Why not take a hammer and chisel
So you can carve my body
Then say it isn’t real?

Here’s a favor I’m going to ask:
When you see me coming
Don’t move away from the door.

Don’t look at me that way:
You’re going to stay with me
All night long.

When I sleep I dream of you,
I am lost and cannot see you,
And cry out for death to come.

Paco’s father was a middling amateur performer who was determined that his children would do better. He drove them relentlessly, so that as an adult Paco, Like Michael Jackson, somewhat ruefully remarked, “I never had a childhood.” At the age of fourteen he was working as a guitarist in the dance company of Jose Greco, who appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show. “I never wished to be a concert guitarist,” he later revealed in an interview, “because what I had liked from my childhood was to sing. But I was very shy, very fat; I felt very ridiculous and I hid behind the guitar. I am a frustrated singer.”

Yet Paco’s talent was as an a guitarist was extraordinary, and it was soon recognized as such. One critic describes the scene as follows:

[Paco] was recognized in the streets; hounded for his autograph, lionized by society, played standing-room only concerts in Madrid’s Royal Theater, was news throughout the media. Against his wishes he became too big for an accompanying role. In the last festival in which I saw Paco accompany he was attempting to hold back and accompany like the Paco of old, but the public would not hear of it, drowning out the singer with demands for Paco to do something sensational. Finally, to shut them up, Paco was forced to open up with an extraordinary chord progression followed by an incredible picado run, all in countertime. The crowd screamed its approval, the singer was forgotten, Paco was helplessly embarrassed.

By the turn of the 1970s Paco’s guitar-work was widely known. In fact, he was the first flamenco guitarist in history to become a national hero in Spain. A tireless innovator, he explored the worlds of rock and jazz, made a popular Bossa Nova record with his brother, collaborated with pianist Chick Corea, and appeared on a number of albums with John McLaughlin and Al de Meola. Yet performing with “western” guitarists was a challenge. Paco once remarked, "Some people assume that they were learning from me, but I can tell you it was me learning from them. I have never studied music, I am incapable of studying harmony—I don't have the discipline, playing with McLaughlin and Di Meola was about learning these things.”

Paco met Camarón de La Isla when the latter was a little-known performer, and, as Paco later described it, “fell in love with him forever.” They played together incessantly, recorded frequently, and in so doing, dramatically revitalized an art form that was perhaps on the brink of succumbing to its own stereotypes and clichés.

It’s sometimes observed that all flamenco singers sound alike. So, too, do all swing bands and reggae groups—at least to those unfamiliar with these idioms. But whatever else may be said about the form, flamenco singing is never pretty, tender, or nice. The classic flamenco voice is raw, open-throated, and cracked, as if the performer were reaching beyond his or her natural ability and strength. Cantaors and cantaoras seem always to be on the verge of destroying their voices, and some of them do.

It’s almost universally agreed that among cantaors of his generation Camarón was in a class by himself. Paco was his accompanist. Paco’s dad insisted that Paco’s name also appear on Camarón's album covers.  They recorded nine albums together before Camarón dumped Paco for Tomatito, a talented but much younger guitarist. Paco was busy with other things, and had developed the idea the  human voice was “too limited.”   

For the beginner Paco’s career presents a challenge: How are we to best approach his massive oeuvre? It seems to me that one could do worse than to pick up his  widely available disc Luzia (1998), a deeply felt and truly “flamenco” group of mostly solo compositions written on the death of his mother, who was Portuguese. Paco also sings for the first time on this recording, on an elegy-track to his old friend Camarón, who died young. (After Cameron's death in 1992, Paco cancelled all his performances for almost a year, and even considered retirement.)

Luzia is deeply flamenco…yet it was the first album Paco had recorded in nine years. It took him that long to feel he had come up with something genuinely new. Deeply flamenco--yet new.

Alongside this rich and complex work I might set one of the early recordings of traditional cante he made with Camarón. I’m listening right now to Camarón's album Canestera (1972). It's great. Here is Paco the tasteful accompanist, somehow sounding fresh and new without straying from tradition.

What we note, comparing early Paco to late Paco, is that as he aged, he developed a lighter and more intricate touch with more plucking and less hammering. (Paco’s father, ever mindful of his son’s career, had, at a certain point, urged him to stop accompanying singers entirely, reasoning that too much hand strain is involved in playing vigorously enough to be heard above the singing, clapping, and jaleo.)

In any case, the complex layering, tonal nuances, and varied moods that characterize Luzia give it a depth of expression that might almost be described as symphonic, or at least Chopin-esque. But with a rougher, deeper, more fatalistic edge. 

With the death of Paco, we lost not only a great musician, but a great soul.