Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Flamenco Fluency: A Slow Work In Progress

     Since I saw CañizaresEl Cigala, and Tomatito last Fall, I have made a lot of progress in my self-education of flamenco music. For starters, I have read Don E. Pohren's trilogy of books on flamenco, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this art form. Originally, I wanted to read the first book, The Art of Flamenco, before I came to Spain, but since the cheapest copy on Amazon was over $100, I decided to wait. Then I found this amazing music library here, the Conde Duque library, that is a dream come true. Among everything else, it had all three of the flamencologist's books, in English, for my reading pleasure. This single event revived my pre-departure goal of learning flamenco guitar, which had faltered in the beginning months. The library also happens to have hundreds of flamenco CDs, which I continue to take advantage of, and dozens of flamenco guitar books, which are incredible. And if that weren't enough, the library has music practice rooms, for free, Monday-Friday from 9am to 9pm. All in all, it is a winning combination.
     Needless to say, since this wonderful discovery, I have immersed myself in flamenco music, starting with, and consisting largely of, what Pohren might call pure flamenco music. Pohren was extremely knowledgeable about flamenco music and also extremely traditional in what he considered to be real flamenco music. It is fun to read his rants on the bastardization of flamenco, something he compares with blues and its offspring, rock and roll. Flamenco is a somewhat natural progression for me, because it has many things in common with blues music, which I have loved and played for years. Both genres come from the gut, and deal with the accursed and eternal questions. Though both have a very serious side (in flamenco these songs comprise what is called cante jondo, or deep song, where the lyrics deal largely with death), they also take on lighter subjects. In other words, neither blues nor flamenco is just for listening to when one is depressed—there is much joy in both genres.
     Unlike my discovery of blues music, which worked backward from Zeppelin, I have begun my flamenco education largely from the beginning of its recorded history. Many of the CDs I have been digesting consist of recordings from the 20s and 30s, and are of both legendary singers (such as Manuel Torres and Manolo Caracol) and guitarists (like Ramon Montoya, Niño Ricardo, and Sabicas). My appreciation of flamenco singing has grown a lot, and I enjoy it now, except for early in the morning. Understanding the words they are singing is much more difficult for two reasons: 1) because the singers are almost all from Andalucía, and therefore cut off the ends of words that end in consonants and blend the beginnings and ends of words into each other, and 2) because they can draw out and distort one word over many musical bars. However, I am learning and improving, and when I saw José Mercé perform a couple of weeks ago I even had the success of identifying one song by its opening line.

(Manuel Torres singing "Siempre por los rincones")

     My appreciation for and awe of the flamenco guitar continues to grow. I now think that flamenco guitarists are arguably the most talented guitarists in the world. If you are reading this and have an opinion of who the most talented guitarist in the world is, take a second and listen to Paco de Lucía. He is the master of flamenco guitar and began his illustrious career in the 1960s. He was also the right hand man of the most famous modern flamenco singer, Camarón de la Isla.

[Paco de Lucía performing La Barrosa (Alegrías)]

     I thought Spanish language fluency was difficult and slow going. Then I started to try my hand at flamenco guitar. As incredibly difficult as this art form is to learn, it is not impossible, as I am slowly discovering. Keith Richards once commented that when he first listened to a 1930s recording of legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson, he thought there were two people playing guitar. It was actually just Johnson, doing everything at the same time. It is safe to say that if Richards heard any flamenco guitarist from the 30s, he would think there were four guitarists. Seriously, this music is ridiculous.
     There are specific techniques that flamenco guitarists use, and there are many flamenco song forms they must know as well, which have their own rhythms, meters, scales, chords, etc. Fortunately, the different song forms (such as Siguiriyas, Soleares, Bulerías, Tarantas) all sound distinct once you know what to listen for, and once you know how to play one Siguiriyas, you know the basic structure for all Siguiriyas. What I'm saying is, the form is very rigid, and thus learning flamenco guitar can be done systematically. I have started by learning the guitar techniques which are utilized specifically in flamenco music, which number less than ten, and which I am still either improving with or struggling to learn. This is sometimes frustrating, because I have been playing guitar for over a decade and I am used to picking things up rather quickly. Despite the frustration, I continue to make progress, and have not played so much guitar in several years.
     Originally I began to dabble with flamenco guitar to see how it would affect my songwriting. This reason is still foremost, although I now feel the urge to actually learn different flamenco forms and to be able to play them somewhat properly. It is a goal that will hopefully be realized next year, as I plan on tackling one song form every one to two months, keeping in mind that it will certainly become easier as I progress. For now, I am focusing on the essential techniques I must master to learn the various song forms. And so I continue my slow, slow acquisition of necessary skills to become competent in this highly skilled yet (and these don't often go together) visceral art form. And maybe one day, I will be able to do something like this:

(Sabicas performing a Bulerías)

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