Paco deLucía

First published in Flamenco International Magazine, Winter 1999 and translated into English by Therese Wassily Saba.

In the years that passed between being a teenager with a penetrating stare, to becoming the revered master of today, Paco de Lucía has simply reinvented the Flamenco guitar. During three decisive decades, he has achieved the transition from a traditional form of expression to a contemporary art: that is what we owe him.
For sure, one may say that this art existed a long time before him and was already beaming with a brilliant and rich history, counting among its unforgettable geniuses Montoya, Niño Ricardo, Manolo de Huelva, and Sabicas. But their legacy was both immense and at the same time meagre, because despite their impressive contribution including a full collection of masterpieces, the strict observance of the harmonic rules, as well as the mechanical approach to compás were leading Flamenco to a dead end. Sooner or later the Flamenco guitar would have become a fossilised art form, which would only have been of interest to ethnomusicologists.

One could argue that without Paco de Lucía there would have been an evolution anyway. This is likely, but without wanting to put forward the theory of the Providential Man, we must admit that Paco de Lucía carried out this change in a striking and a radical manner. All the conditions of his life combined to make him play the historical part we know.

Born in Algeciras from a family of artists, he was steeped in Flamenco from his earliest years, working on the guitar four hours each day, under the magisterial guidance of his father Antonio Sánchez. He was gifted with extraordinary technical abilities, but Paco de Lucía also turned out to be a fabulous composer. Add to all of this the fact that he arrived at the right moment, that is, when the Flamenco guitar was searching for a new emblematic figure to take over from the ageing patriarchs, and modernity was dawning into Spain after a long night lasting for 40 years.

Paco de Lucía’s legendary status has built up over the years in a dazzling and linear course, where each stage seems to have led on naturally and irresistibly to the next. The first period –the time of apprenticeship- ended when he joined José Gréco’s company at about 15 or 16 years of age. He learned the tradition and the craft of the masters and met those who he will always recognise as his spiritual fathers: Niño Ricardo in Spain, and Sabicas in New York.

Interested in learning everything, he absorbed at each opportunity all that he could of falsetas and various patterns, so that long before the age of 20 he had acquired the knowledge of an established professional. He didn’t ignore the cante or dance accompaniment, while focusing on the solo guitar.

His encounter with Camarón, which coincided with the release of his first solo album, began an era of creativity which has never stopped. Each year since 1967, he cut a new record; each time it has been an event because of the striking technical virtuosity as much as for the renewal of the musical language. To list only his solo discs, he released La Fabulosa guitarra, Fantasía flamenca, Recital de guitarra and Duende flamenco one after the other, which in the space of five years, upset Flamenco toque. The devastating hurricane foretold a turn of epoch: now the Flamenco guitar will no longer rest.

This new movement of invention and of permanent change and development took the cante along with it, thanks to the genius of Camarón. It aroused passion and inspired vocations, as well as forcing the dropping back of the unfortunates who could not follow; they took refuge in purism, denying any ideas of innovation.

Then another new stage could be approached: the expansion and opening to the outside world. It came with the sudden international notoriety brought by the rumba Entre dos aguas. Paco now reached a second maturity and established his definitive stature. Entre dos aguas was key, a significant work for several reasons. In its conception, as a chord pattern over which the theme is played by a first guitar, giving an important place to improvisation, this piece prepared Flamenco for its linking up with jazz. The introduction of percussion and bass opened the door to new instrumentation, group working and arrangement, and to new concepts in Flamenco. Fusion with other musical styles therefore became possible. After a while, as a consequence of its success, it was to a great extent the origin of world tours in which Paco was more and more involved. The encounter with John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell and Al di Meola allowed Paco the opportunity to perfect his art of improvisation and expand his creative scope.

The recordings produced in this period from Fuente y Caudal to Zyryab, with some guide marks such as Almoraima and Siroco -these two albums will certainly remain as peaks or as symbols of his work. It is unthinkable to try to draw up in a few lines the complete inventory of what the flamenco guitar is indebted to Paco de Lucía for. Evoking some essential aspects of his contribution will however help a good understanding of today’s style.

By its very nature, the toque flamenco is based on compás. Without ever eluding this relentless imperative, Paco freed the rhythm by a playing with syncopation, and a renewed sense of phrasing and accent. Previously rigidly bound, the compás in Paco’s hands became living and intelligent. He made it into an instrument, and used it as a mean of expression. His falsetas as much as his rhythmical strummings were built for this purpose, playing against the beat, manipulating durations, and even including long silences.

More especially in bulerías, this last idea could have appeared to be extravagant: imagine that one can be made to feel the pulse by means of silence, even more so in such a fast palo ! Yet what efficiency, as here in Plazuela:



This revolution in playing the rhythm didn’t stop here. The work of emancipation continues along its path, without ever contesting the dogma. This is a central point in Paco de Lucía’s contribution: the compás, although it has remained the ultimate master, its relentless mechanics were less oppressive.

The bulerías that gives its title to the record Almoraima, released in 1975, caused a memorable sensation for its magnificence and creative strength. After a soon to become famous introduction, the first variation in the trebles, made of short figures separated by silent bars, introduced the dissociation of the melodic structure from the immutable structure of the compás. The time has passed when variations were built on it like copies traced from the original. Their length and articulation were now laid down by the music’s logic alone.



The toque breathed and was definitely free from gravity. This new mastery in rhythm attained a perfect expression in La Tumbona, another bulerías recorded a few years later.

No aspect of Flamenco has escaped the creative genius of Paco de Lucía. He has completely rewritten the repertoire and has provided posterity with a countless series of pieces which are as beautiful as they are learned. His compositions are marked with a strong sense of melody and art in the development of themes and motifs. Add to this is a sort of romantic inspiration which suits flamenco dramatics very well. This is particularly evident in free styles such as the taranta, granaína and minera. Between intimacy and a cry, works like Fuente y caudal, Reflejo de Luna and Callejón del muro reach a climax in expressiveness. Is it duende or something even more indefinable? It doesn’t matter, but what a superb melody Paco murmurs to us in a tone of intimate confidence in Callejón del muro:



When Paco de Lucía plays, he really tells us a story. Another barrier which he had to break was the Andalusian minor cadence with its four cyclic degrees locking the composition into strict limits where his creativity was cramped. To his visionary mind, these walls had to fall down in order to get the guitar out of its stereotypes. He reveals to Flamenco the secrets of modulation with Percusión flamenca, then got us used to daring incursions into other modes and enriches the harmony with a multitude of new chords which chafe the chaste ears of the tradition’s guardians, but without moving from authenticity. Thus a considerable amplification of the register was made available to the guitar, while the cante found its aggiornamento through Camarón’s voice, the other giant. A real change of epoch was performed in a fistful of years by this magical duo.

Paco de Lucía’s music is elaborate, but not intricate; it does not confuse. Only the greatest musicians can resolve this contradiction. More often intricacy is nothing more than a smoke screen for emptiness. A phrase can be simple: when it rests on a learned harmonisation and a judicious use of counterpoint, the result is a pure jewel, like these two bars of soleá from Gloria al Niño Ricardo:



Simplicity and transparency, but what splendour, and what richness! An ascending broken melody line, with a responding symmetrical descending bass line, all of which is built upon a chord progression. Here we reach a formal perfection that J.S. Bach wouldn’t have disowned. This incidentally leads us to believe that it is not always necessary to play as fast as the master himself, to evoke the full beauty of many pieces. To be convinced, one only needs to look at the score of Monasterio de sal: such a monument that its subtleties can still be captured and appreciated even in a slower interpretation.

We should also remember the rough and flamenco light his playing shed on Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Rodrigo, giving back real soul to their music, which was absent from the stuffy rooms where it had retired.

Ever since his debut Paco de Lucía imposed a new image of the tocaor by abandoning the traditional way of holding the instrument. The guitar now rests horizontally on the right thigh, with the right leg crossed. This position frees the left arm from supporting the fingerboard and allows it better mobility. His incredible sureness makes Paco de Lucía able to play with his eyes closed for a long time. He has an image of strength and domination as he plays but also depth in interpretation. The revolution is visual as well. With time his playing has become more elliptic and at some moments more introspective. Life has passed and left its print on his most recent recording Luzía.

Beyond his true genius and his music, the most important legacy Paco de Lucía will leave is to have installed the Flamenco guitar in a spring of perpetual surpassing, and to have contributed to making evolution an internal dimension of the flamenco culture. Henceforth modernity brings forth tradition. Thanks to Paco de Lucía Flamenco has emerged from its isolation and entered into the contemporary world; it has been accepted as a universal language for the same reason as Jazz. Bringing it back to the street he reminds us of how much Flamenco is a popular art. We owe Paco de Lucía everything.