Saturday, March 1, 2014

Paco de Andalucía

On the first day of guitar class junior year of high school, Mr. Anastasio asked us all to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to learn to play the guitar. The class was full of eager boys with dreams of making girls fall in love with them by screaming onstage with electric blue guitars. The boy I had had a serious crush on in middle school was in this class and fell into this category. When it was my turn, I announced as I cradled my mother's beautiful inlaid Spanish guitar that I was learning guitar because I wanted to play flamenco. Mr. Anastasio raised his eyebrows and told me that flamenco was absolutely the hardest style I could learn to play.

That was the beginning of my education on flamenco. I had thought that flamenco was the soundtrack to the Zorro movies. From Mr. Anastasio I learned what real flamenco was: the sounds of Paco de Lucía, often considered the best flamenco guitarist.

Paco de Lucía’s death on Wednesday has significance for anyone who has been touched by flamenco and flamenco fusions. For me, it meant the death of the first and perhaps most important flamenco name I knew. The allure of flamenco tremolos and swirling red skirts is a large part of why I am currently living in Sevilla—and more specifically, Triana, the birthplace of many flamenco songs. Flamenco today is what it is largely because of Paco de Lucía’s revolutionary musical creativity that blended flamenco with other styles without leaving behind the flamenco essence. His death has brought into sharp focus the fact that the twenty-first century experience of flamenco, which to me often feels so electrically intimate, has been marked by the genius of an artist whose legacy overruns borders from Algeciras to New York.

Yesterday in Alcalá de Guadaira as I approached the city’s castle with its Islamic foundations that date from the twelfth century if not earlier, I heard the unmistakable sound of a cajón and palmas marking rhythms. It was the Day of Andalucía and the town, not far from Sevilla, was sparsely dotted with clusters of families enjoying meals in the sun and high school students getting up to no good on their day off from school. A group of adults, teenagers, and children were eating, drinking, and making music beside the castle. Paco de Lucía’s influence was present in this ancient space just above the uber-modern dragon-shaped bridge in the valley: his musical group introduced the cajón, a square Peruvian instrument, to the flamenco scene in the 1980s (NYT). Here, on this sunny day in Andalucía, it was being used to accompany the handclaps and folk singing. The music was perhaps not precisely flamenco in the purest sense, but the rhythms and minor sequences, sung in voices that always sounded a little bit pained, channeled the same deep Andalusian heritage. With the cajón and the dragon and the castle the scene was Andalucía globalized—but Andalucía nonetheless.

Music by the castle walls in Alcalá de Guadaira
Andalucía is not a land of purity. Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions and structures combine. Flamenco combines with rumbas and tangos, and flamenco itself combines many elements of the diverse gypsy-Moorish-Andalusian experience. One form of expression that typifies this tendency to combine cultures and art forms is the song and dance called Sevillanas. Although dancers wear flamenco outfits and shoes, and the dance itself is complete with flourishes of the arms that very closely resemble flamenco movements, it is not technically flamenco. It has four set parts that are always danced the same way, so that in parties and social gatherings people can dance it in partners. It is a folk tradition of Sevilla that has incorporated many flamenco elements, and it is largely the dance of choice at Sevilla’s annual Feria, a big to-do in a huge field with dancing and celebrations that falls in May this year.

I got to practice the sevillanas I have been learning at a bar with flamenco on Thursday night. So far I have only learned the first part; I look forward to dancing all four parts in full regalia for Feria. After the sevillanas and a few rumbas, the two guitarists in the bar played Entre dos aguas in homage to Paco de Lucía. 

Flamenco and fusion will go on. In the Plaza del Altozano and the Plaza de Santa Ana in Triana, women and men will keep singing and dancing and playing guitar and clapping their hands. But what will it take for someone to reach the level of technical mastery and inventiveness of Paco de Lucía? I trust the land of Andalucía and its capacity to meld art forms into something new and at the same time very, very old. It is a land of venerated old poets and energetic young ones. Perhaps today there is a little girl near the Guadalquivir somewhere, learning her very first guitar chords, who is as familiar with the wooden curves of the instrument as she is with the sleek silver silhouette of an iPhone—and perhaps she will revolutionize this world of globalized flamenco.