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,
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.