Monday, March 3, 2014

RIP Francisco Sánchez

Francisco Sánchez, a/k/a Paco de Lucía (picture: ABC)
Francisco Sánchez's passing will leave us without any new adventures of Paco de Lucía, the shivers when he appeared on the stage, the ecstasy at the end of a concert. It will divide music lovers between those of us who saw him live and those who didn't. These will have to make do with a sizable amount of recordings and video footage he leaves behind, evidence of the several lives that Francisco Sánchez was able to fit in Paco's: Francisco Sánchez was just 66 when he died, but Paco had been a working musician for over fifty years. So much for Andalusians being lazy and all that.

For me, a child in the Seventies, my first impression of Paco, on TV, was that of a charismatic, handsome, and very serious-looking guy. He had long hair, parted on the side, and although he dressed in a contemporary way, he seemed to follow Seventies fashion from a prudent distance; still in his twenties, he was young too. And he played very fast.

Paco on TVE
Paco turned Flamenco from a black-and-white, gloomy, funny-smelling music, played and sung by old, stern people, into something more colourful and brighter. Musically, he was heavier than the rumba and Flamenco-lite bands of the time, but, interestingly, his big leap into the public arena did come with a little rumba. "Entre dos aguas" (a reference to De Lucía's hometown of Algeciras, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic), a tune that Paco had been working on for a while, was a last-minute filler in the LP Fuente y Caudal, with prominent electric bass and bongo — then a rarity in Flamenco —, and an opening phrase that seems to sing Las Grecas's “Te estoy amando locamente”, a popular hit at the time (which he quotes again in another tune from the same album). Interestingly, if another hit of that time, Los Marismeños's "Carambita", had some similarities with "Entre Dos Aguas" too, it's because Paco actually plays in it.

Carnegie Hall bill (1972)
While Franco's regime dragged to its pathetic end, Paco had already played Carnegie Hall in New York and had recorded about 12 albums under his name, besides countless sessions, many anonymously. He was only 25, and he had already spent half of his life as a working musician. The youngest of five kids in a very humble family — life was not easy in 1950s Andalusia — he, like his siblings, was taken out of school at age 9, having learned how to read, write, and do basic maths. His father, a so-so guitar player but an astute man who would take any odd job to make ends meet, including playing at rich people's private parties, not only applied a ruthless discipline on his offspring, but he also made them familiar with real, good Flamenco without them having to get acquainted with night life too early in their lives. After his night job was done, he invited his musical comperes back to his place early in the morning, where his sons could listen to and play with the older musicians.

Young Paco
In the sixties, Paco's cantaor brother, Pepe, joined José Greco's dance company for a tour in the States. Their father imposed himself on Greco, and got him to take Paco too. Still a minor, and without any command of English, he travelled on his own to Chicago via New York, with the help of a guitar fan in the flight transfer. Later, back in New York, Paco would meet Sabicas, his main reference on the guitar after Niño Ricardo. Perhaps unknowingly, Sabicas gave a piece of advice to Paco that would turn into his main focus as an artist: he heard the young Paco play and, possibly because he recognized Niño Ricardo's falsetas, he told him that a guitarist shouldn't play someone else's music, "a guitarist must play his own music". From then on, Paco would develop his own falsetas and turn into a composer; eventually, he would force himself to make something new every time he went into a recording studio. Before that, though, he had time to tour Brazil as a member, again with his brother Pepe, of Antonio Gades's dance company. Besides the nightly adventures of a bunch of youngsters on a warm, welcoming and distant part of the world, this trip made Paco familiar with Brazilian music and guitar styles.

Camarón looks in awe at
a falseta by Paco
After a few years of relentless work with fellow guitarist Ricardo Modrego on their own records together and as session men, Paco records, aged 19, La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucía (Spotify/MySpace), his first solo LP (he had already canned a 4-track EP three years earlier), as well as his first album with cantaor supremo Camarón de la Isla. The fact that such dominant forces in Flamenco singing and guitar-playing actually met and worked together so often is one of those events that are just impossible to assess in a proportionate way. For jazz fans, this is as if Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who only worked together for about a year and half, would have recorded nine (9) albums in eight years.

In 1970 Paco played solo at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona, as part of the celebrations for Beethoven's bi-centennial and the 25th anniversary of Bartok's passing; in the following year, he would play the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid. Still in his early twenties, he shed a few conventions which may seem trivial today, like growing his hair and performing with no jacket on, and some others that actually affect the music, such us playing with his right leg crossed over the left, or dropping the guitar neck to a horizontal position. It is also at this time that he changed his instrument, from the usual Flamenco-style guitar to a sort of hybrid of that (in size) and the classical (as regards wood types), always through the expert hands of guitar makers Hermanos Conde.

As Paco himself has told, things changed dramatically after "Entre dos aguas" was released. There were more gigs, more money, more public visibility, fame. In those circumstances, he was invited to play Teatro Real in Madrid, an event loaded with a symbolism as absurd as it was real. This was Spain in 1975, when a young Flamenco player entered a house of musical chastity and order, in a country whose ruling classes were certainly more about chastity and order than about music. That, besides the patronizing glare of the classical music world towards this peasants' music. Only two years later, he would get Al di Meola's invitation to play on his Elegant Gypsy followed by the collaborations with John McLaughlin and Chick Corea. This would turn him into an international star, the kind of musician that drags crowds into venues regardless of their preferred musical style, people like Piazzolla or Keith Jarrett, whose audiences have wanted to hear them, almost regardless of what they do.

Paco gets some help from his older brother, Ricardo, at Teatro Real, Madrid, on February 18th, 1975.
The theatre was so overcrowded that the audience flooded the stage.
Going back to the now distant Teatro Real, despite what might seem natural, given the recognition he would probably get by playing there, Paco wasn't too happy for the invitation. Having already premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York, he didn't think he or Flamenco needed whatever seal of approval a comparatively minor venue could give him; it was hard enough that it took later in his own country for his music and Flamenco in general to be appreciated.

Yepes's harsh words for Paco's
take on Concierto de Aranjuez
El Cultural-ABC, 20/12/91
(Click to expand)
If any artist must live with a bottomless search of a message and a language to express it, what to say and how to say it, Paco, unwittingly pushed by Sabicas, decided not to ever repeat himself. On top of that, he had to stand his ground before all those who didn't agree with his way of playing Flamenco, as well as those who disagreed with his way of playing "classical" music (like Narciso Yepes, who was a harsh and not entirely reasonable critic of Paco's work on the field, see left). Despite having audiences on his side, with such pressure in his own country, the growing international attention must have been a blessing; Paco began playing more abroad, where he could actually relax about all those issues. The apex of this home-grown aversion to Paco's success took place at Camarón de la Isla's funeral, when some hidden in the mob decided it was a good moment to accuse Paco of swindling his friend on copyright dues. There are images of the funeral where the shock is visible on Paco's face.

Even so, Paco got over all this, and also managed to leave an important legacy behind, giving worldwide relevance to Flamenco, creating a demand for this kind of Flamenco guitar virtuoso, and establishing a type of band, with electric bass, Peruvian cajón — which he actually introduced in Flamenco — and wind instruments, which, as conventional as it may look now, it didn't exist before him. With no formal music education at all, only with his very capable hands and ears, an staggering amount of work, and clear and fast intelligence, he blazed his own trail. His luck, and ours, is that there are so many of us ready to follow him and enjoy those musical worlds. Or, like his colleague Manolo Sanlúcar said, "listening to Paco, the novice listener will be enchanted, and the expert will go crazy".

As a musician, there are three aspects of Paco's art that cannot be ignored. First, his obsessive and almost sickening perfectionism (he tells the story of how once he stopped praising a guitar player he heard on the radio when he realized it was himself playing). This is a demon with whom he had to live all his life and bothered not only him, but his friends and even his record company, where, in recent times, they would have preferred a more lively rate of recording and touring. Interestingly, this perfectionism has propagated to the following generations.

The second aspect would be his intelligence. As much as he insisted that everything that happened to him was due to sheer chance, there are things, from the careful staging of his concerts, to the realization, early in his career, and perhaps because he was a keen fisherman, that to hook an audience you need to give them some bait. His remarks about the shows with McLaughlin and Di Meola, "sometimes it felt like a circus, and that was very appealing to people", are significant in that respect, and he can be seen laughing at the end of "show-off" fast passages. Comments about his shyness are many too, but there are quite a few interviews where Paco doesn't bite his tongue, and speaks frankly about delicate issues (even if he doesn't go as far as the 1976 interview with Jesús Quintero, after which a bunch of fascist extremists tried to break his hands in a busy street in Madrid).

Finally, there's his amazing virtuosity as a guitar player. On the one hand, he is an extremely expressive player who almost sings on the instrument, probably due to his frustrated childhood dream of becoming a cantaor (listen to what he does on "Río Ancho" from 1:06 onwards). His innovations harmony-wise are also talked about, but they seem to be only in the context of Flamenco, like in these sevillanas. Personally, where I think Paco is really astounding, is in the rhythmic side of his music. This is especially evident when he plays accompanied only by palmeros (hand-clappers) or percussionists. Just they way he moves on the chair makes it clear that the beat was his first priority. Attached to this, there's the almost super-natural facet of his playing: his hand coordination. At whatever speed he played, even though his right hand was usually close to the bridge, where strings are harder to play, and regardless of whatever he did with his left hand, he always sounded impossibly clean.

This is a cliché, and possibly one to avoid at all costs, but it is true that Francisco Sánchez is gone and Paco de Lucía is still here. In a few months, there will be a new, posthumous CD, devoted to copla, an old genre of Spanish song. If Paco could remove Flamenco from its touristy, stale odour, he could well do the same with copla, and give the final push to what Carlos Cano started before him, and wash off the presumed, and sometimes real, cosiness of this genre and some of its artists with Franco's regime. In any case, it will be almost impossible to judge this record with any sort of fairness.


After that, all his disciples and his fans will have to get used to a new landscape, to a new kind of light, to the absence of an absolute, almost infallible reference in a musical genre that is the result of centuries of slow simmering among different peoples, in southern Spain, between the last bit of the Mediterranean and the beginning of the Atlantic, and which Paco de Lucía took, in such a masterful way, to the world.

Rest in peace, Francisco Sánchez. Eternal thanks, Paco de Lucía.

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Alternative compilation of Paco's music on YouTube

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There's a new documentary on Paco by his own son, Curro Sánchez, coming later in the year. In the mean time, there are three titles worth seeking on line:
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Note: the chronology in the article is based on the book included in the boxed set Integral de Paco de Lucía (Universal 0602498653914, 2003), by José Manuel Gamboa and Faustino Núñez.

3 comments:

douglascuba said...

Fernando,
A wonderful piece on a wonderful man. Many, many thanks.
Douglas (in Madrid)

Anonymous said...

Narciso Yepes is a very critically viewed guitarist. Yepes is criticized for his very literal strict unyielding interpretations of some works. He's very modernist in those tendencies, and has received numerous critical reviews!

Here's a selection:

"Yepes, for all his wonderful technique, seems quite removed from the music." (The Music journal, 1969)

"the stilted, drab, and often utterly stillborn interpretations of Narciso Yepes" (American record guide; 1984)

"Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes (1927–97) was one of the oddest high-profile players active in the second half of the century. He adhered to no school and seems to have had few followers. His playing on his numerous Deutsche Grammophon recordings is almost always inexplicably quirky, with crisp, staccato articulation, square phrasing, metronomic rhythms, and interpretations that can be eerily devoid of expression." (American Record Guide; Steven Rings; 1 September 2001)

"Yepes sometimes conveys the impression more of a scientist than a musician. His renditions may at times seem rather cold and mechanical, and while his playing is usually remarkably precise, his tone is often harsh and flat." (Steven Seidenman)

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina said...

Regarding Yepes, I've seen him actually improvise. Back in 1990, I think, in San Sebastián, there was an open rehearsal of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi (the symphonic orchestra of the Basque Country). He was featured on Concierto de Aranjuez, and on one of his solos, instead of stopping so the orchestra could enter, he kept on going. At some point he got back to the score and let the conductor call the orchestra back. It was quite funny seeing the conductor looking at Yepes in disbelief and shrugging to the orchestra.

The rehearsal was open to the public by Yepes's request, if I recall correctly.

F