Paco de Lucia

Soul of flamenco

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Paco de Lucia. Photo: DANI CARDONA/REUTERS

People pay homage to Paco de Lucia in Algeciras on February 27. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

Paco de Lucia (1947-2014) was one of the greatest players of the flamenco guitar, and was instrumental in establishing it as a primary instrument for artistic expression.

THE name Paco de Lucia is practically synonymous with the flamenco guitar. Not only was he one of the greatest exponents of the art, he was also instrumental in popularising the genre on the international stage and breaking down the barriers that restricted the scope and reach of this Andalusian musical tradition. In fact, the flamenco guitar as it stands today, and as it is practised by thousands of aspiring guitarists all over the world, is largely due to the influence of Paco de Lucia. His sudden death on February 26 at the age of 66 has left a vacuum in the world of music.

Paco’s genius as a musician transcended the constraints of the flamenco genre, and he was recognised not just as one of the greatest flamenco guitarists but as one of the greatest guitarists ever. He constantly pushed the boundaries of his art form and experimented with other genres like jazz, rhumba and rock. Though he collaborated with various artistes, including Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Chick Corea and Bryan Adams, he never deviated from the essence of the flamenco style of playing. “I’ll always be a flamenco player,” he said, “but I’m also interested in other styles.” His biggest hit in the 1970s, incidentally, was not a flamenco piece, but a rhumba tune, “Entre dos Aguas”.

It was essentially the contributions of four great guitarists—Ramon Montoya (1880-1949); Manuel Serrapi Sanchez, better known as Nino Ricardo (1904-1972); Augustin Castellon Campos, better known as Sabicas (1912-1990); and Paco de Lucia—that established the flamenco guitar as a primary instrument for artistic expression rather than just an accompanying instrument for song and dance. It was Paco who took the instrument to its next stage of development.

According to Alfredo Grimaldos, author of Historia Social del Flamenco, it was Paco’s intelligent approach to music coupled with his virtuoso playing that set him apart from other guitarists. “He knew how to intensify what is interesting and leave out what is not,” he said.

Though his early training under his father was in the tradition of Nino Ricardo, it was Sabicas who showed him the path to greatness. At the age of 12, when Paco was accompanying his elder brother Pepe on a tour in the United States, Sabicas came to their hotel room. After hearing him play, Sabicas advised Paco not to adopt another guitarist’s style. Paco later admitted that this was the turning point in his life and that he began to compose his own music and develop his own style thereafter. “I found a new way of playing flamenco,” he said.

Born on December 21, 1947, in the port city of Algeciras in the south of Spain, the youngest child of a flamenco guitar player, Francisco Sanchez Gomez, or Paco as he was nicknamed, saw poverty in his early days. The name Paco de Lucia stuck from his childhood. His mother’s name was Lucia; and in a place that abounded with little boys with the same names, children were generally called by their first name and their mother’s name—hence, Paco de Lucia.

Paco had to quit school at the age of nine as his father could not afford to pay for his education. Under his father’s tutelage, he took up playing the guitar seriously.

From that early age, he would be practising 10-12 hours a day, a discipline and grounding that stood him in good stead later, though as a child he would rather have been playing with his friends in the street.

During Paco’s childhood, the flamenco guitarist hardly had any scope to perform except in private parties. In those days, it was the general practice that after a gig, the musicians would shift venue, usually to one of the musicians’ houses, where they would keep playing until the next morning. As Paco was growing up, his house was often frequented by great flamenco musicians, and it was not unusual for him to wake up in the mornings to the sound of music that had been playing since the previous night. “I was familiar with the very complex language of the flamenco and its intricate rhythms before I even picked up the guitar,” Paco once said.

Paco’s prodigious talent was evident right from an early age. Once, at a music competition, 12-year-old Paco was on stage with his elder brother Pepe. Paco, being too young to participate in the competition, was accompanying his brother’s performance on the guitar. Pepe won the first prize, but the audience insisted Paco should be rewarded as well. Finally, to satisfy the audience, the organisers awarded Paco a sum of money as a “special prize”. The prize money that the two brothers received went into cutting their first album, “Los Chiquitos de Algeciras”.

In 1964, Paco recorded his first solo album “Guitarra de Paco de Lucia”, but it was his collaborations with the singer Camaron de la Isla from 1969 to 1977 that brought him to the fore of flamenco music. The enormous impact the duo had with their music and the kind of unprecedented popularity that they enjoyed changed the course of flamenco music.

A measure of Paco’s greatness may be gauged when, in 1980, he was pitted against two eminent jazz guitarists, John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, live on stage. In traditional flamenco, the concept of improvisation, which is the essence of jazz, does not exist, and was thus alien to Paco, who had to compete with two musicians who had been improvising all their lives. It was something he had to learn while playing with them on stage. Yet, not only did he hold his own against them, but many felt he outshone them. He admitted it was a huge strain. “I don’t know how I did it.... Now I just cannot do without improvisation,” he later said. The three of them made a seminal live recording called “Friday Night in San Francisco” (1981). Paco became a star in the jazz world as well.

One of the key factors to Paco’s greatness was his constant exploration of new frontiers of music. In 1991, he decided to record the “Concierto de Aranjuez”, Joaquin Rodrigo’s famous composition for the classical guitar. He felt that the hundreds of renditions of the composition by classical guitarists did not explore the full rhythmic potential of Rodrigo’s masterpiece, something which he, as a flamenco guitarist, would be able to address. “I wanted to play it just as it had been written,” he said. To prove a point, he recorded it in front of a live audience with a full orchestra behind him. It stunned the world of classical music. A delighted Rodrigo, then 90 years old, was present in the audience.

Paco de Lucia lived for music. He cut over 20 studio albums, several live albums, toured all over the world, gained enormous fame and fortune, and yet, always seemed at unease in public. Even on stage he hardly ever said a word. But it was while on stage and playing his guitar that he felt the most relaxed. He admitted to being painfully shy. “The guitar is my protagonist,” he once said, “I hide behind it.”

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