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The Michelangelo of Flamenco

by TAO RUSPOLI

“Paco is the greatest flamenco guitar player of all time, and he killed flamenco,” another great Paco said to me in 1998, when I was living in Seville studying the flamenco guitar. Paco Valdepeñas was a toothless 78 year-old-man, great flamenco dancer, and true Gypsy bohemian from another era—the era I was most attracted to—the era before Paco de Lucia. But more on this later.

Paco de Lucia was the reason I, and so many others around the world, got into flamenco in the first place: I was 13 years old and went to the house of a friend of my father’s, near Rome. I had just started to play the electric guitar, and this friend said, “Do you want to hear the most incredible guitar playing you will ever hear in your life?” and he put on a vinyl record of Paco De Lucia’s 1987 masterpiece, Siroco. This record contains none of the jazz fusion (the result of the inexplicable desire to fuse bad flamenco with even worse jazz) contained in so many of Paco’s other records, and nearly all of the “flamenco” recordings of those who followed in his footsteps. Siroco was astonishing, dazzling proof that Paco de Lucia had taken the flamenco guitar as far as it possibly could go—pure, authentic, moving, graceful unaccompanied playing that was paradoxically both totally faithful to the flamenco tradition and at the same completely original and contemporary.  It blew everyone before him out of the water.  When Paco was a small child, barely big enough to hold a guitar, his father decided that his son would one day be the greatest guitar player in the world. He made him play 10-12 hours a day.  Although he himself was not a Gypsy, Paco was steeped in the heart of Gypsy flamenco culture of Andalucia.  The blend of discipline and culture caused this perfect storm–this phenomenon of artistry and music.

I remember reading that Michelangelo had achieved all the goals of the High Renaissance.  The struggle to master technique, a struggle which is an essential ingredient of all great art, was won by the right artist appearing at the right time.  As a result, there was nowhere left to go but Mannerism—a movement in which style and technique were practiced for their own sake.  And I thought, “Aha! Like Paco de Lucia!” I understood how a culture can, with the help of one genius, reach its sublime apex, and by necessity, subsequently go into decline.

When I was 18, a freshman at UC Berkeley, Paco de Lucia came to town to play a concert. While I still played the electric guitar, I listened to Paco frequently and of course delighted in his virtuosity, even though I knew nothing of the flamenco culture. Watching Paco perform, I was reminded of Keith Richards’ advice to me when I met him with my father a few years earlier: “If you want to learn to play the guitar, Tao, learn flamenco! Then you will then be able to play anything you like.”  In the program for the show was an ad for a local flamenco guitar teacher. I left the show, called the number in the program and never looked back. I spent the next 20 years traveling to Spain, getting to know everything I could about this incredible music and culture, and slowly realizing that Paco De Lucia may have introduced flamenco to the world, but he was by no means the beginning of flamenco.  He was, rather, the culmination of 150 years of flamenco culture—a culture which much like the blues or jazz, stemmed from the need of a poor and oppressed people to find a way to channel a great deal of pain (maybe this is why flamencos are attracted to jazz—an unconscious realization that they have the same causes.)

Paco was last to drink from that authentic source.  But it’s easy to mistakenly think that Paco was himself the sole source of his music.  He was such a force of nature.  And, of course, the modernization of Spain has gradually eroded the tough rural life that gave birth to flamenco. Today’s virtuosos have learned all of Paco’s falsetas (melodic variations) and can mimic his style with fidelity and precision.  Many can play a run even faster than Paco could, and they can construct a chord sequence even more complex.  But of course it all feels empty and meaningless, because it’s lost its roots.

I couldn’t understand why, when I heard the news that Paco had died yesterday, I had to fight back tears.  But I understand now, as I write this and listen to Siroco for the thousandth time since first hearing it 25 years ago, that in more ways than one, the death of Paco de Lucia represents the death of flamenco; and I have reason to mourn.

Tao Ruspoli is a filmmaker, photographer and flamenco guitarist. His films include: Flamenco: a Personal Journey, Fix and Being in the World.  He can be reached through his blog

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