In any great player you’ll find musical acknowledgment of the music that came before, whether it’s in the form of an homage or as an influence that might go unheard. The various flamenco guitar styles can certainly coexist. I believe that whichever style you prefer, traditional flamenco or modern flamenco, there’s an awful lot to be learned by studying the ‘traditional’ masters. Knowing where it all came from can only make you a better player, whatever style you choose to play.
When I moved to Granada in 1992 –
When I moved to Granada in 1992 my first order of business was finding a teacher. My friend Andi was studying with Juan Fernandez, an amazing local guitarist who happened to be a Gypsy, so I called him and set up a lesson. When I got there he asked me to play for him and after a little while he said “what you’re playing isn’t really flamenco any more”. He said if I wanted to learn from him we’d have to start from scratch. I was there to learn, so I just said “Ok”, but I wasn’t quite sure yet what he meant.
At this point I had spent four years studying in New York with Dennis Koster and done the Paco Peña festival in Cordoba. I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was doing. In retrospect, though, it occurs to me that I was listening to Paco de Lucia and Tomatito and a lot of the new young players. I must have realized that there was a huge difference between what they were playing and what Sabicas was playing (and I was trying to play).
With Dennis all of the material I had learned was from a few sources – Sabicas, Ramon Montoya, Niño Ricardo, Mario Escudero or Dennis himself (who had been a student of Escudero and Sabicas). These were the guitarists who established the flamenco guitar as a concert instrument in the first place. Montoya was the first to play solo flamenco guitar on stage, and Sabicas and Ricardo were the modern giants of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.
Paco de Lucia came up playing the same stuff –
Paco de Lucia came up playing the same stuff – mostly Ricardo and Sabicas from what I’ve heard – but of course he’s the guy who took it all in the new direction. And that new direction is basically what separates what we usually call traditional flamenco from the more modern stuff.
The irony is that there was nothing traditional about what Montoya did when he started playing solo flamenco guitar. Montoya started his career as an accompanist, since the role of the guitar in flamenco at the turn of the century was to accompany the cante and the baile. Montoya happened to work with Antonio Chacón, the most important singer of the time, so they were like the Paco and Camarón of that era. Playing solo flamenco guitar was one of the least traditional things one could have done at the time.
At any rate, by the time I arrived in Granada in 1992, the modern players from the middle of the 20th century were considered old-fashioned by most players in Spain.
What Juan meant when he told me my playing wasn’t really flamenco any more was mainly that it didn’t swing. I don’t mean swing in the jazz sense. What I really mean is that Paco had changed the way flamenco grooves, and there wasn’t really any going back.
The change had been coming for almost Paco’s entire career, but for me (and this is purely subjective) the defining moment was the 1987 album Siroco. If you listen to Paco’s earliest recording he sounds like an even more virtuosic version of the players he had come up with – Sabicas and Niño Ricardo. As he got into the 70’s everything got way more modern in terms of the harmonies he used and the groove. I can’t think of a better word for it than swing. I’ve always felt that Siroco was a turning point, though maybe that was just for me.
If you listen to the record you’ll get a sense of what I mean:
Now listen to Sabicas at the top of his game. It’s amazing and virtuosic, but it definitely feels different. I adore Sabicas and have no interest in getting into whether one is better than the other, but I think the difference between the two is pretty clear in terms of style. You could absolutely argue that Sabicas swings, but the two styles just feel different.
This isn’t to say that every contemporary guitarist has to sound like Paco. Jerez has arguably been the home to a more traditional style even throughout the modern period, and if you listen to Moraito you can hear a bit of both the older styles and the more modern swing.
And even more interesting to me, some of the newer generation, who grew up on the music of Paco’s generation, are playing a style that takes some traditional-sounding material but swings even harder than Paco ever did. Dani de Morón and Diego del Morao (Moraito’s son) are great examples of this:
People like to argue over which style is ‘better’, but I don’t see much profit in that.
Personally, I believe that whichever style you prefer there’s an awful lot to be learned by studying the ‘traditional’ masters. After all, they inspired Paco and his generation, who in turn inspired the current crop of players. Knowing where it all came from can only make you a better player, whatever style you choose to play.
The various styles can certainly coexist. I would argue, however, that there’s a lot to be said for knowing your history. For some, the newer style ruined flamenco. For others, it’s been a natural evolution of an ever-adapting art form.