fri 19/04/2024

First Person: Ten Years On - Flamenco guitarist Paco Peña pays tribute to his friend, the late, great Paco de Lucía | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Ten Years On - Flamenco guitarist Paco Peña pays tribute to his friend, the late, great Paco de Lucía

First Person: Ten Years On - Flamenco guitarist Paco Peña pays tribute to his friend, the late, great Paco de Lucía

On the 10th anniversary of his death, memories of the prodigious musician who broadened the reach of flamenco into jazz and beyond

Paco de Lucía at the Flamenco Festival in Malaga in 2007photo: Montuno

There are moments that forever remain imprinted in our consciousness, engraved on the general map of our lives. I cannot forget the excitement of seeing snow for the first time in Córdoba, aged three or four, rushing to walk on it only to slip straight away and fall on my behind! Or when I discovered the sea, in Cádiz.

Nor do I forget the tense moments, such as when my mother left the house every day before dawn to go to the wholesale market with empty pockets, to start the daily adventure of acquiring vegetables, on credit, which she would then sell on her stall in order to settle with the provider, always making sure there was something left at the end of the day to feed all 11 of us.

Paco Peña, in his show Solera, at Sadler's WellsSpecial, magical dates like Christmas day, with the expectation of delicious perrunas, biscuits my mother made only once a year; or Easter with its extraordinary rites and the excitement of us kids staying up very late, way past our usual bedtime; All Saints Day looking forward to the typical gachas, a sugar and cinnamon gruel (yum!). Or the verbenas, open night-time fiestas in the nearest square… So many memorable days, expected every year with avid anticipation. 

And then of course, there were the unexpected occasions, like that night around 1970 when I felt a massive surge of emotion and nerves, meeting for the first time the young artist everybody was talking about. This was a kid from Algeciras who was upending all the patterns we were following at that time – not only flamenco guitarists but all other aficionados, whether professionals or casual lovers of this art. It is impossible to forget the day I met Paco de Lucía. Who could forget such a moment? (Pictured above: Paco Peña in a recent performance with his company at Sadler's Wells)

I was visiting some colleagues in the tablao [flamenco club] where they worked, in Madrid, and Paco – who must only have been about 23 at the time – showed up accompanied by his father to hang out and have a drink with the artists. The whirlwind his presence caused that night was a clear sign of how deeply his influence was being felt – or rather, how fundamental the influence of that young genius already was. Later I met him in London, and I want to tell you about that encounter.Paco Peña Company, in the show SoleraAfter playing solo for a few years and getting some recognition, I decided to start a small company, as flamenco in its complete form – with guitar, voice and dance – was my first love and I just had to go back to it (pictured above: the Paco Peña Company today). Well, pretty soon I was invited by BBC Television to present a whole show. When I arrived with my few fellow artists, ready for the filming, we discovered that a big wonderful studio had been prepared, with a huge stage, an area for an audience, with tables, drinks, tapas and plenty of room for cameras to move around to capture the performance. I thought it a bit strange to have such a large space for a small company like mine, but in truth I felt rather chuffed. I then found out that the BBC were going to have another flamenco show the next day, to which we were invited as audience.

So the following day I went to the studio and it turned out to be a very big show called Festival Flamenco Gitano, with an ample cast. I hardly need say that I then understood why the prepared stage was so big! The line-up was headed by the great dancer La Singla, and included La Tati, El Guito, and Diego Pantoja – a singer, dancer and the funniest presence on stage who lifted everybody's spirits; there were the guitarists Paco Cepero and Pepín Salazar; and the singers (I seem to remember) El Perrate and Orillo; and among this group there was Paco de Lucía. And to my enormous delight, singing for the dancers in the group, a young voice of rare depth and pathos: one Camarón de la Isla…[who was later to form a world-famous partnership with Paco de Lucía]. I tell you I'm glad my small group was scheduled to play the day before; the embarrassment would have been profound if this illustrious group had been the ones coming to my programme.

It was of course a great performance and I remember instances when Paco, playing with the group of dancers, produced the most incredible runs and phrases. One stuck in my mind when, right in the middle of a Soleá, a serious, majestic flamenco style, he played an interminable, fiendishly difficult run that, miraculously, made absolute sense, even though nobody before Paco had attempted such a thing, especially in a piece such as Soleá. I remember him looking at me (we were already quite good friends) with a cheeky, knowing smile, as though he was enjoying my discovery and my astonishment. Throughout his life Paco continued to astonish not only lovers of flamenco but musicians of other disciplines all over the world.Paco de Lucía with Paco Peña and his family, in Cordoba in the early 1980sAmong all these uplifting memories, there are, inevitably, some of a different kind whose dates are just as impossible to forget. February 25 2014 is one such, when we lost the person and the musical genius that we most loved. The appalling news of the sudden death of Paco de Lucía came to me as I was boarding a plane in London, on my way to the Conservatory of Rotterdam. I was meant to be spending the day teaching young people who had been following every nuance of this incredible artist’s life throughout their own musical lives. Instead the day became a surreal vacuum in which everyone did things without any real connexion to normality or reality. Practically everyone in the class was in deep shock, but somehow we survived a visit from a TV crew who wanted to interview me and some of the students about Paco’s life, about his artistry and the significance of his contribution to flamenco. That day I was also asked to comment on my friendship with him, and I answered as best I could. (Pictured above: the two friends with Paco Peña's wife and daughter in 1984, when Paco Lucía performed at the guitar festival founded by Peña in Cordoba)

Paco left us 10 years ago today, suddenly, without warning, while on a beach holiday with his family, and it is a date of terrible sadness for me. But at the same time I am reminded of how his art has enriched us all. That same mix of emotions comes upon me every time I listen to his final recording Canción Andaluza, and I must confess I always well up. It's not sadness I feel but happiness and proximity, and enormous satisfaction, even rapture, at being able to enjoy a recording so well produced. It's a project of exquisite sensitivity, particularly stirring for those like me who grew up listening to those songs.

For me, the musical treatment Paco applies to his Canción Andaluza is proof of his deep love of the genre – the depth of meaning contined in the lyrics and the music that gives it form. Yet I still find it astonishing that Paco, yet again, let loose his extraordinary genius on material of this kind. In a form of Spanish song seen as popular, and which some would call lightweight, he finds avenues to add full content and give the form its expressive due – the expressive level, that is to say, that Paco reached in all his work.

Paco recorded and was finalising the project at his home in Palma de Mallorca just before his untimely death. It was released two months later. The result is not only an impeccable feat of production, but a deeply heartfelt homage to Andalusian song. 

Throughout his life Paco astonished not only lovers of flamenco but musicians of other disciplines all over the world

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