This post for music lovers in general, and guitar aficionados in particular–and to honor the memory of flamenco legend Paco de Lucía, who passed away in February 2014. Many hours, from my adolescence to this day, I’ve fought with the six strings, trying to emulate him… to no avail. But thanks to that effort I came to really appreciate the magic sound of his guitar.
Paco de Lucía is rightly considered the father of modern flamenco guitar. He started recording and touring the world in the sixties, on his teens. The release of his 1973 album Fuente y caudal was a revelation for many outside the flamenco world, and raised him to national music sensation status. It included Paco’s probably most famous piece, a rumba called “Entre dos aguas”. [See video below for a 1976 interpretation of the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o8vszqVL2U ]
It certainly was a revelation for me. I grew up in the seventies being exposed to many musical influences. In my household my father played jazz, bossa-nova and –especially—boleros. My older sister blasted any kind of Anglo-Saxon music that was in or cool (from James Taylor to The Beatles to David Bowie). My mother loved classical, Latino American music, and “universal” folk songwriters, from Dylan to Joan Manuel Serrat.
My mother. She decided to start playing classical guitar at age 40—a noble, but rather useless, endeavor, I would say, given the fact that she was raising four children, given the difficulty and the time-consuming task playing nylon-string guitar is. I hear Paco de Lucía himself saying that to be an accomplished flamenco guitar player one has to be exposed to intense training by age six—and this just because of “anatomical” reasons: at that age the bones in the child’s wrists “close” (his expression), making impossible for untrained hands to physically do certain movements required for flamenco playing. I love the image: flamenco guitar would be then close to language acquisition—it is said that by age seven the wonders of bilingualism “close” to the child’s brain.
Since that young age I kept listening intently to Paco de Lucía. I followed his career, I went to several of his concerts. I own fifteen, or so, of his records. Listening to Paco de Lucía’s guitar is like listening to an endless cascade of sound. A waterfall of beauty and emotion. The sensibility, the nuances, the multiple overtones, the exploration of harmonies and accords… his fingers’ speed! The speed—and the accuracy at that speed—is just astonishing. What that quickness reveals, in reality, is Paco’s lighting-speed thinking. He used to say: “In guitar, the right hand thinks; the left hand executes”. The difficulty is not just the execution at that speed, but the linking and flowing of the hands’ movements, as both hands never cease moving.
An interesting documentary by one of his sons, Francisco Sánchez, reveals De Lucía’s fascinating and complex personality. Soft spoken and kind, Paco was loved by fans and musicians alike. Shy and reserved, he never liked the spotlight. He loved soccer and fishing—other than flamenco and music in general. He was extremely critical and demanding with his music. A free spirit, he spent most of the last fifteen years of his life in semi-retirement at Yucatán, Mexico. There he moved with his second wife; there he lived a quiet life, away from the world’s noise, dedicating most of his time to fishing and composing.
His funeral at his hometown of Algeciras in the south of Spain attracted thousands. Images speak loud of Paco’s popularity and of the people’s affection for this genius. The streets of Algeciras collapsed, and people from all over Spain came to say their last good-bye to Paco de Lucía. It took several hours for his remains to complete the short road from the church to the cemetery.
The month before, flamenco world had lost an important figure, Félix Grande –an acclaimed poet, flamenco scholar, and very skill guitar player himself, who passed away January 30th, 2014. The previous year, flamenco had lost the other guitar player who, along with Paco de Lucía, transformed and renovated flamenco guitar in the 70s, setting the foundation for what it’s contemporary toque: iconoclast and ill-fated El Niño Miguel.
Miguel Vega de la Cruz, el Niño Miguel, recorded two revolutionary albums in the 70s, when he was just in his twenties. He then disappeared from the professional scene. A terrible addiction to heroin and mental health issues (he suffered from schizophrenia) destroyed what was at that point a promising creative and professional career. He also had a tormented personality, due probably to personal and family issues dating back to his early childhood. Poor and sick, Niño Miguel wandered the streets of his hometown, Huelva, for years, playing for charity in a rickety guitar with only three strings, amazing those who didn’t know who he really was.
Diagnosed with a blood cancer (Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia), el Niño Miguel spent the last years of his life in a mental institution. Paradoxically, this helped him recover somewhat his battered body and mental health—but limited much of his freedom, which hurt him immensely. But he was able to appear in a couple of public performances—a great opportunity for many fans who had not had the chance to listen to his music “live.” In particular, his performance at Teatro Central of Seville, six years after his earlier public appearance in 2005, is considered his musical testament. The YouTube video below is a beautiful soleá from that concert. Despite his physical and mental issues, Niño Miguel retained intact full control over his skill and creativity—a pure miracle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESSkVo-j0xw.
A 2009 interesting documentary, La sombra de las cuerdas (The Shadow of the Strings), portraits Niño Miguel’s full life and art. The following YouTube video shows the first two minutes of the documentary (in Spanish): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJZhh5sQGTE. In the documentary, Paco de Lucía appears saying: “We were listening to him in awe, not even realizing what he was doing with just three strings.” A Niño Miguel relative, also a professional guitar player, explains: “In the 70s, Niño Miguel was doing things in the guitar that, like Paco, no one dared to do.” “He saw accords where no one could see anything,” states another flamenco player.
With the passing of Niño Miguel first, and Paco de Lucía next, flamenco has lost the two geniuses who revolutionized modern flamenco guitar playing. From that historic generation, only Manolo Sanlucar and Paco Cepero are left. A new generation of exceptional guitarists, though, mostly now in their forties and fifties, has taken the stage. The leading names: Tomatito, Vicente Amigo, Gerardo Nuñez, José Manuel Cañizares, El Viejín, Niño Miguel’s nephew Rafael Riqueni… All of them have worked and collaborated with Paco de Lucía. They are today’s heirs to the throne of one of the summits of universal creative art: flamenco guitar.