The importance of technique and knowledge
All that I have set out so far indicates very clearly that a genuine flamenco guitar player must have a profound knowledge of the essential elements and principles of flamenco—which includes a solid foundation in the harmony and theory of the music as well as a strong technique.
There are several misconceptions to which many flamenco guitar players fall prey nowadays and which tend to fall in the following three categories:
- one will lose the “aire” if he/she studies music theory, harmony and technique too closely;
- flamenco is a cryptic art that can only be fully deciphered if one is a member of or if one belongs to the gypsy community, to the flamenco community or, at a minimum, to the Spanish community; and, finally, (and what is likely the most critical one);
- one can play flamenco music like Paco de Lucia without bothering to engage in any formal study of theory, harmony and technique.
The first two misconceptions likely derive from several sources, some of which might be as follows:
- The gypsy community was a marginal population and, as such, they considered the flamenco an essential part of their culture and identity—as “sacred” and “exclusive” to their people. In that sense, flamenco became a means of protecting gypsy identity and culture. However, flamenco was also one of the most important elements of broader Andalusian culture. Furthermore, there was an undeniable interaction between gypsy artists and non-gypsy flamenco artists (payo). In any event, it is safe to make the following generalization: Flamenco artists were typically members of a marginal and poor sector in Andalusian society and were typically at the service of the rich community as entertainers.
- When the flamenco became more widely known in the world in the first half of the last century and became, in effect, a good business (especially in the USA), it was seen to be vital to keep a close secrecy regarding the essential principles of flamenco and to (in an sense) to disguise it as being founded on “the mystery of the duende”. Although there is undeniably a spiritual side to flamenco—perhaps even a mysticism—associated with the spontaneous manner of improvising, singing, dancing and guitar performance, formal studies of in harmony and technique would never, in any way, negatively impact on the “aire” or “feeling” of an accomplished flamenco artist. To the contrary, such studies can only enhance, enrich and bring the performer to a much higher level—one in which flamenco ceases to be strictly a Spanish folkloric idiom and can emerge as one of the highest and most beautiful artistic expressions known to man.
The third misconception is perhaps understandable insofar as, amazingly enough, Paco de Lucía carried out his many innovations without having ever pursued formal studies. Indeed, he has declared many times that he is really a self-taught guitar player. However, it is evident that only genius could have enabled him to achieve what he has done and, given that, the exception of Paco de Lucia cannot be translated into the rule. Furthermore, Paco de Lucia himself has never supported the notion that a flamenco guitar player should not engage in formal studies in order to acquire a solid theoretical and technical foundation. Again, to the contrary, and there are many points in support of this, some of which are as follows:
- The fact that the University of Cadiz has granted him a Doctorate Honoris Causa and that he would willingly accept the honour is supportive of this view for two reasons: (A) a formal academic Spanish institution recognized that Paco de Lucia’s work was worthy of serious academic interest as well as study and looked to Paco de Lucia as a enormously influential and knowledgeable personage in the field; (B) contemporary flamenco music is not a folkloric manifestation but rather a vast field of knowledge. In his speech where he accepted the Doctorate Honoris Causa, Paco de Lucia disclosed that it was not his choice to be a self-taught musician but rather that was the case because of the unfortunate economic circumstances of his family which could never provide for formal studies (as was very common amongst flamenco artists including his own father). On accepting his doctorate, Paco himself said, “…Sometimes I have felt the need to learn how to learn…”
- It is a fact that knowledgeable musicians from other idioms—and all of them with a vast foundation of technique and knowledge—have composed music especially for Paco de Lucia (such as Touchstone Suite by Chick Corea in 1983)—and many of them have played with him and included his own compositions and/or compositions dedicated to him (such as John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Al di Meola). Indeed, in all of these collaborations, Paco de Lucia has come into broad contact with the world of contemporary music—and this alone has been an important element in his innovations.
- Paco de Lucia’s own efforts with classic works (such as Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla’s repertoire), giving them a “flamenco” interpretation, has involved an enormous amount of research and effort on his part and which he himself acknowledges.
In conclusion, contemporary flamenco music is now—and very much thanks to the work of Paco de Lucia—such an extended field of musical creativity and endeavour that it can no longer be said to belong to a single nation or culture. Paco de Lucia has veritably brought the art of flamenco to audiences throughout the world and made it a music of all humanity.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to those who helped me immensely with this endeavour; namely, Bhadra Dasi, Greg Gebert, Prof. Robert Carrol, Prof. Stephen Green, Dean of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto and, finally, to my friend, Maestro Bill McBirnie. I would also like to offer my homage to my preceptor, Paco de Lucia, as well as to preceptors by example, Miles Davis and John Coltrane—all of whom are shining examples of true innovation and creativity. I would also like to acknowledge fully—and to thank as well—both Maestro Armando Chick Corea and John McLaughlin for their musical generosity as well as their inspiration in the pursuit of new directions in flamenco music.