For the U.K-born guitar player, raised on electric bands and US-influenced acoustic music, there is no challenge more daunting than the rarified air of Flamenco. The story of playing Flamenco guitar and me is short and to the point. I have tried and failed to make a significant dent in acquiring any meaningful knowledge playing-wise. I can watch the online lessons, see the chord structures and even replicate them, but the playing techniques would consume my every waking hour for years, if I really dived in head-first. I just can’t make the enormous changes to my own rather hybrid approach and devoting enough time would be in the “not enough hours in the day” category. Perhaps a better way of describing it would be to admit that the real passionate heart of Flamenco, the Duende, is painfully elusive for a born and bred north Londoner. So I don’t really try, although I do listen and take cues from the harmonic progressions and ‘feel’ in trying to amalgamate them to open a different direction or two. Years ago, in (yet) another moment of guitar shop weakness I invested in a decent Flamenco/ Classical nylon-strung guitar made by Ramirez. After an unseemly flurry of noise through new exuberance, it sat rather sadly in its case at the top of the stairs for far too long where it became a symbol of frustration and failure every time I walked past it.
When played with sensitivity and enormous skill the Flamenco guitar still produces some of the sweetest and most heart-rending tones and note shapes I have heard from any stringed instrument. A true great can paint a World in just a few notes and the phrasing he expresses them with can move you across countries toward an entirely new musical sensibility, burning with life and where passion is placed before technical exactitude. It is after all, closely related to dance with all its fantastic, syncopated handclaps and stamping feet. Flamenco gives you the full package.
Robert Wyatt famously described Flamenco as the Blues of Europe. I can see his point. I love it when something musical just hits me smack on the jaw and I am drawn to it with very little sense of understanding. It’s like that with Flamenco guitar. It’s that branch of music and especially guitar playing that I know very little about despite, as I mentioned, watching the chord shapes and feeling the moods these magicians conjure up. But it’s the right hand technique that really shocks me every time I watch a master. The way these players address the strings with their articulated wrists, impossibly long fingers, mighty chord spans and it must be said, immaculate nail care is a wonderful thing indeed. True Flamenco guitars are not instruments with inherently high string tension on the strings to bounce off and yet their superb sense of control and that frightening staccato attack coupled with a supreme ability to stop a note is just a micro of the technique that surely must be taught from the time when they can actually hold a guitar. It is both frighteningly elusive and yet emotionally destructive when employed by a master.
In fact Flamenco guitarists have some of the most devastating dynamic impact I have ever seen or heard. Jaw dropping attack and long convoluted phrases vie with killer machine-gun bursts. But, it’s those long physical spans again coupled with elusive semi-tone contrasts that get inside you. Flamenco is much more than a branch of guitar, it’s an entire culture. It runs deep, core-deep I feel. If you studied it for hours a day and practiced relentlessly, its mysteries and mythologies might still elude you. Perhaps it is after all about where you come from and when those particular seeds were planted.
Several years ago I went to the Barbican to watch a concert by Vicente Amigo and friends. I had deliberately set out to get front row seat which would give me a real insight into the physicality of what proved to be a highly charged evening that really wrung me out, leaving me emotionally and physically drained. But, listening to it can be a challenge, especially the more hardcore, full-fat frantic stuff with all its percussion and rather unusual singing. But, the deeper you delve and the more exponents of this great art you listen to, you will soon understand that some of the most beautiful melodies and themes you have ever heard also lie within Flamenco’s more contemplative moments. But there’s no hiding behind a flashing right hand. You simply have to have the chops and certainly the intensity to string it all together into a piece. There has to be an integrity and authenticity and that has to come from somewhere. Knowing the notes is never going to be enough. The rhythms and the tempos, often accentuated with handicaps, vocals and extraordinary percussion are way beyond analysis. You close your eyes and feel it simply because there’s no other way. Trying to count it just won’t do. Well, not for me anyway. Once you fall into the trap of trying to work it out then you’re probably missing the point.
Just in case you are interested, there is a whole universe of music out there so gentle shallow-end experimentation is probably best if it’s all new to you but you still feel a certain pull toward it. There has been a real expansion over recent years pioneered by the late and very great Paco de Lucia. A kind of flamenco fusion where the artist brings in different musicians, instruments and even orchestras. Influences spread from across Spain to North Africa and there are often familiar themes that will spark within you. I wouldn’t want to get too caught up in the authenticity and / or the purity of the very definitions of Flamenco. I’ll leave that to the more scholarly who have dug way, way deeper into the origins of this amazing music form. I have read a lot of opinions and respect them all but I am a Flamenco Philistine who goes head-bowed to its altar who tends to follow his heart where music is concerned.
It’s not all flared nostrils, syncopated hand-claps, stamped feet and rather frantic flourishes by any means though it certainly can be that way, especially if you’ve seen the flamenco shows in Las Ramblas in Barcelona or way down in Andalusia, the birth-place of flamenco. It’s much more about contrasts of the contemplative that occasionally burst forth into exuberance and emotion-based movement. There’s a story within every piece and you don’t need to understand it, just to feel it.
These are short-sustain, highly percussive, dry-sounding guitars. They are lightly-built instruments constructed from especially selected woods and braced internally in a unique way. Not the sort of timbers or constructions you would find in a conventional steel-strung American flat-top acoustic at all. The complete right-hand technique and subtlety they respond to demands a depth of technique and familiarity that is virtually unique in the guitar world. It is precisely because the notes don’t hang around for long and they don’t have endless halos of reverberant harmonics dancing around that the great players can squeeze more focus out of a note than seems to make sense. They can take you somewhere else emotionally in an instant as they switch from the brutally harsh and transient impact of fingernail on nylon to the softness of the flesh on the finger to energise the string. Then the instrument becomes a different communicator altogether. Now it is capable of the most astonishing sweetness and warm lyricism.
Lightweight and built for speed, they are the Formula 1 car of the acoustic guitar world. To start and stop in a true instant, no guitar music shares quite the same inherent sense of dynamics or rhythm as Flamenco and the great players toy with you as they explain, through their fingers, where it is all coming from. A luthier friend of mine describes achieving their lightness of being as like building a musical bomb delicately constructed yet permanently just this side of going off and flying apart.
Flamenco is a very broad term that incorporates so many sub-headings and opinions as to the ‘true’ form. Its history goes way back and is intermingled with dance which is actually one of its prime motivations. But I am primarily concerned with perhaps introducing Flamenco into your life through an audio system. This means you might, if so moved, have to perform the dance moves yourself in the privacy of your listening room of course. I read that its earliest references date from 1774 and can’t think of another style of music that has so many facets that one could spent a considerable amount of time researching its roots and development. Each piece lies within a descriptive category like Bulerias, Tango, Rumba etc and these are descriptions of the general mood and dance pace etc of each piece. Personally, I like the contemporary players and have become a big fan of its amalgamation into the orchestral arena. If I were a Spanish traditionalist I would perhaps feel another way.
It’s true to suggest that Paco de Lucia really fronted Flamenco’s breakout into new markets and though I am not a fan of the album, the original and rather frantic Friday Night In San Francisco album with John McLaughlin and Al Dimeola made a huge splash and Paco became an International star through it. He was a truly astonishing player and is highly revered by just about every Flamenco artist but there are far better examples of his guitar mastery and art within his catalogue starting with Entre Dos Aguas and beyond. Within the world of Flamenco, he deservedly remains a giant.
I would love it if you dipped a toe into the wild waters of Flamenco guitar. You might tumble into something that moves you. If you do, then here are a couple of recommendations you might try.
Paco de Lucia – possibly the greatest and certainly the one that opened the genre. Just listen to anything he recorded.
Tomatito – Basicos,
Sonanta Suite (Version Internacional). Something different here as he plays with the luxuriant International Orchestra Of Spain.
Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez. Fascinating to hear this seminal work, so often interpreted by great classical guitar players, come under the spell of one of Spain’s greatest contemporary Flamenco artists. It must have been quite a challenge to focus the discipline it takes to interpret this beautiful piece. Intriguing and a very different view.
Vicente Amigo: One of my particular favourites, Vicente is a smouldering volcano of a player revered for his sensational right-hand technique. I have heard few musicians from any time or genre so capable technically and yet so able to wring pure beauty from their instrument in such a few notes. His touch is insane, his timing is from another world and his phrasing leaves me speechless. From blistering and breathless rhythms to the gentlest of melodies that will bring a tear to the eye. He is, for me, the supreme artist of Flamenco today and let me say that that bar has been set very high and there are many players who arrive on the scene with such an impact that I am left wondering where they came from.
Again, I won’t recommend any album in particular. Just get that streamer up and running, type his name in and work through it yourself.
So, Flamenco eh? It is as deep and elusive as any musical genre. It often seems to me as if each of us can only catch a glimpse of our own concept of what it is, what it means and if we want to indulge ourselves in its wonders.
Have lots of fun with your listening!