Three Guitarists | Paco Peña
Paco Pena is not only the foremost traditional flamenco guitarist on the concert scene today, he is also the Andalusian music's leading ambassador. Concerts with his flamenco company of dancers, singers and guitarists present the music in its purest form. His main interest, solo guitar playing, displays taste and virtuosity.
Paco Pena was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1942 and started to play the guitar around the age of eight. He is now a major figure in flamenco music; during his formative years he enjoyed most of the music he heard.
'When I was small I was just as impressed by the popular music I heard as I was with Spanish and flamenco. Paul Anka and Elvis Presley impressed me, as did all forms of music. I also loved church music. I was simply a child impressed by the world of music. When I was born, my brother, who is 15 years older than me, was virtually a flamenco guitarist. Flamenco was in my family and all around the house. There was other music around which I soaked in but I simply made flamenco my choice when the time came.'
With no regular teacher, Paco developed his style through lessons in school groups as well as by listening to records, to the radio and by watching and listening to other guitarists. He came to London for the first time in 1963. By the early Seventies he was established as a concert guitarist building a strong reputation with his playing which respects the revered formats of flamenco, yet is fresh and interesting.
Solo guitar playing is undoubtedly the most popular form of flamenco today. The music is said to originate from the gipsy people of Andalusia, the region of Spain bordered by Cordoba in the north, Cadiz in the south, in the east by Almeria and Huelva in the west. Traditionally the music is performed as an entity incorporating song, dance and guitar. The history of the music goes back to the 18th century and credits Ramon Montoya (1880-1949) with the birth of solo flamenco guitar playing. Then came Paco Pena's main influence, Nino Ricardo (circa 1909-1972). Then we have perhaps the music's most legendary solo guitarist, Sabicas (born circa 1913) who revolutionised the accepted approach to the instrument with his album Flamenco Puro.
The rhythmic patterns in the music can be complex. The soleares is said to be the heart of flamenco. Its rhythm is based on a 12-bar form with accents on the third, sixth, eighth and tenth beats and is played in 3/4 time. From this example it is possible to see why problems arise between traditionalists and young lions. Paco de Lucia is a brilliant guitarist who falls into the latter category and has the respect of Pena. I asked Paco how it felt to now be almost without contemporaries at the top of the flamenco tree.
'There's only Paco de Lucia and Manolo Sanlucar that have made an impact; Manolo never as much as Paco de Lucia who has world recognition now. He's succeeded in some but not all respects, he is established. Perhaps in a different area than me. I am full of admiration for him but on the other hand I wouldn't attempt to take the path he has. Perhaps he's more courageous and he's certainly a genius. I am more established in classical flamenco circles, that's my line. I project a true manifestation of my culture. I am not against innovation because it enriches music. Diminished chords were hardly heard at all before Sabicas, yet now you hear them all the time in flamenco. New ideas, harmonically, rhythmically and in every sense, can remain in flamenco providing they touch the same fibres in human beings as traditional flamenco does.
'Therefore I am not against progress and indeed try to innovate in the way I have described. My idea right from the start has been to increase the appreciation of flamenco and everything the word encompasses. For a flamenco guitarist to be accepted as much as any other. Also I have worked to make the music more organised with more form. To make it worthwhile in terms of composition as opposed to a succession of bits and pieces, which was all there was before I started. I am happy in what I am doing and I hope I am making a contribution in a different way from Paco de Lucia or anyone else. If you are going to mention these names there must be a word of respect for Serranito who has never made a great name for himself, but I have a great deal of respect for him.'
When we spoke backstage at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, Paco was in the middle of approximately two months touring with his company of guitarists, singers and dancers. The rest of the time he tours worldwide giving solo concert performances.
'I like to keep in touch with the company because it's enjoyable for me and worthwhile. It brings me back to the roots, performing with the best artists, to be associated with the best quality flamenco which is the essence of playing solo or whatever. It helps me face the immense responsibility of playing solo, which is a far greater challenge;, having soaked in whatever I might with the company and then reproducing the same feeling alone.'
I put it to Paco that he has been under-recorded when it comes to documenting the developments in his playing.
'Absolutely true, I've been rather unlucky with record companies. I also haven't had it in me to want to impress the world with records.'
Is it, then, a valid medium for flamenco?
'Definitely, oh yes. It's just a shortcoming on my part that I haven't understood the medium well enough, but I'm learning the technique you have to acquire. You are absolutely right, I have gone through phases which have been lost by not being properly documented. It's not shyness or modesty, I just haven't been the type of person to get the recording side of things properly organised. I've been with Decca for my last five albums and will probably continue with them. Live recordings should have been made at different stages of my career because in concert you sometimes excel and experience new feelings and levels. That cannot happen with just a microphone in a studio without the response from people.'
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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