I was very saddened this morning to learn of the untimely death of Paco de Lucía, the great Spanish flamenco guitarist.
Born in the port city of Algeciras in Andalucía, on the far southern tip of Spain, Paco de Lucía came from a long line of flamenco guitarists and singers, and grew up performing in the streets of his home town along with his family. Because of his extraordinary talent as a musician, he was able to study and work with all of the great flamenco musicians of Spain beginning at an early age, and even began touring in America in his teens. He is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with singer Camarón de la Isla, with whom he had a tremendous influence on the history and development of the flamenco genre through their many albums together in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Paco de Lucía helped shift flamenco into a world music influence and phenomenon, in ways that did not exist previously. Prior to him, flamenco music was essentially split between popular and traditional. The former was cleaned up and made palatable for tourists and Spanish radio under General Franco; the traditional could best be heard at local celebrations, or in private performances. To make an American analogy, even if not an entirely accurate one, we might describe it as the difference between the rhinestone-bedecked country music of the Grand Old Opry, and a jam at the back-country whiskey joint.
One of my favorite albums of de Lucía’s is an example of the type of innovative way he had of looking at music. In his 1967 release “Dos guitarras flamencas en América Latina”, with his older brother and fellow guitarist Ramón de Algeciras, with whom he collaborated many times over the years until the latter’s death, de Lucía took a number of popular, traditional songs from places like Mexico and Peru, and composed adaptations of them in a flamenco style. These source material songs themselves were, to some degree, the descendants of earlier Spanish musical influences, that had mixed with local traditions in the various regions of Latin America.
The result was that de Lucía began to build a musical bridge between Spain and its former colonies. As time went on and he began experimenting more, both as a composer and as a performer, he was able to change flamenco from being purely a traditional musical style to something that could be mixed with and appreciated in many musical genres. He would collaborate not only with Latin musicians, but also jazz, rock, soul, funk, and even other ethnic influences, particularly from the Middle East, Africa, and India. The birth of what is now called “nuevo flamenco” in the 1970’s, which continues to evolve both on a popular and specialist level today, must be credited in large part to the work and influence of de Lucía over many decades.
Arguably de Lucía’s most famous original composition “Entre dos aguas”, from the eponymous 1976 album, is something which the reader has probably heard, perhaps in a restaurant or bar, without even realizing who wrote it. One can hear how it mixes traditional flamenco with elements from rock, jazz, and soul in an engaging way. While today it would not find strange to hear this in a shop, hotel lobby, or dinner party, at the time this was truly revolutionary music, taking flamenco out of the bullring or the gypsy cave, and blending it with other sounds.
However I must confess, as much as I love the somewhat highbrow music which he could compose and perform, my favorite work by de Lucía just happens to be his collaboration on a movie theme song. “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” from the soundtrack of the film “Don Juan de Marco” starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando, was written by Canadian pop-rock star Bryan Adams, but features de Lucía playing in his fluid, expressive, and innovative way along with Adams’ straight-ahead rock-and-roll chords. I love the song not only because the music itself is beautiful, and the idealistic lyrics can make me choke up just thinking about them, but because it speaks to me as someone from two different cultures, both American and Iberian.
Deep down, I love both the jangle of something like honky-tonk AND the passionate staccato and drama of flamenco. They speak to me in different ways, but when they can come together, in a strange way I actually recognize myself in them. For I myself am a result of a collaboration between two people from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and in this particular song, the marriage between the two creates something good, a balance between the Old World and the New, and by aspiring to tell men what it means to be a good man, when in a relationship with a good woman. Naturally, that is something which I hope to achieve, as do all men and women of good will.
Unfortunately I never got to see Paco de Lucía perform live, even though thanks to his prodigious output we all have decades of recordings and films featuring him to enjoy. Yet in a way, he will be there if and when the right woman comes along. I’m saving up that song for when she does, you see.