Beyond the Frets of Mortal Man
Andrián Pertout speaks with guitar maestro Paco Peña from the UK about his flamenco passion, and his collaborations with Chilean folk band Inti-Illimani and classical guitarist John Williams.
“Paco Peña is a genuine virtuoso with technical abilities beyond the frets of mortal man,” remarks the New York Times about the great talent of Paco Peña. At first glance, this glossy statement may seem but a hollow and senseless reaction of the pen, but after a close encounter with this man’s incredible musicality it becomes clear that this no exaggeration of the truth, because the real life experience is simply awesome. Paco Peña was born in Cordoba, Spain, and is today regarded as one the greatest flamenco guitarists of this century. He holds an honorary title of ‘Professor of flamenco guitar’ at the Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands, and has been previously voted ‘Best Flamenco Guitarist of the Year’ for five consecutive years by readers of American Guitar Magazine. He has performed at some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including the famed Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London’s Royal Albert Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and has collaborated with music greats such as Joe Pass, Leo Kottke, Eduardo Falú, Elliot Fisk and Pepe Romero. His association with John Williams and world renowned Chilean folk group ‘Inti-Illimani’ has also been a great highlight of his career.
I recently discovered that your London debut performance in 1969 was with Jimi Hendrix. Do you have any special memories of that very significant day?
PP: ”Very much, in fact I was quite unprepared for the experience of that event. It was very dramatic, because I was quite young, and in a way quite innocent about showbiz and all that. So I was offered to play in the Royal Festival Hall, which was really the best hall in London, at an event called ‘Guitar Ring’, and this meant that they wanted to show off the popularity of the guitar, so they included classical, flamenco and blues guitar, with Jimi Hendrix at the top of the bill. And anyway, I got to listen to all the others, and played my bit, which was nerve wrecking of course (chuckles), it was a big responsibility. But then I listened to Jimi Hendrix, and I met him of course back stage, and as I said before, it was something I wasn’t prepared for. He was a very strong personality, and obviously a very special guy and made a strong impression, but I wasn’t very well into that type of music and was very concerned with my own music making, and so on. So I wasn’t very prepared for it, but it was very dramatic at the time.”
Last year I had the great pleasure of experiencing the Flamenco Dance Company phenomenon and was totally blown out. The level of artistry was really overwhelming. What is the company up to these days?
PP: ”Well, we’ve been doing a completely new show, and we had the debut here in London, in February of this year. And we remained in London’s Sadlers Well Theatre for seven weeks, which I suppose is the longest time a flamenco company has been in the West End. And it was a completely new show in style as well. It was a kind of dance drama, and it was based on the work and personally of a painter that I grew up with, somebody who is dead, but who is still very popular in my hometown of Cordoba. And there was some trauma in his art, and I thought that he had a very interesting life and paintings, so I decided to do a drama based on his work and his life. I also introduced a little bit of music outside of flamenco, from the folk traditions of Cordoba. It was very demanding, but in the end it was also quite rewarding to do, and with that we performed in Spain, England, Scotland, Germany, and will be going to Holland at the beginning of the year. We also have prospects to go to Turkey and Greece at the end of this year. So we’re building on it, and it’s going very well.“
Tell me about the guitar/s that you use.
PP: ”The extraordinary thing is that I have many guitars, because through the years I have gone buying guitars, hoping to find something really good. And so I have many brilliant guitars, but I still play one that is almost twenty years old, which is battered but really solid, and it has such a sweet beautiful sound that it still is the one I love most. And it’s from southern Spain, from Alberia, and the maker is called Gerundino. I know him well, he’s my friend, and he treats me very well in the sense that if he has something special, he will pass it on to me, and he knows what I like. But I play this guitar, even though I have about twenty guitars. And I play this guitar endlessly, and still enjoy it the most. But I usually have guitars custom made, because I have my particular taste, or particular requirements. You see, flamenco is one kind of music, and classical is another, but I like a sort of combination of the two for my guitars. And that’s what I used to tell Gerundino, but nowadays I don’t need to tell him because he knows what I like.”
What kinds of things do you look for in an instrument as a flamenco player?
PP: ”Well, a flamenco guitar is a rather percussive sounding instrument, kind of sharp, and cutting, but the sound sort of dies fairly quickly, because of the nature of the music, sort of fast and percussive. So you don’t want it to resound as a classical guitar does, because with the classical guitar, you’re supposed to kill the tone, the length of the note, when you chose to kill the tone, but with flamenco you can’t afford that because it would sound for too long, there are too many notes happening. And that is something that’s desirable from both angles, from both points of view, but for me, both are desirable. In other words, I like both things for what I play, so a combination of the two for me is ideal. And I also like the guitar a little higher in action that what a flamenco guitar would usually have. A flamenco guitar is definitely closer to the frets than a classical guitar, and I like it a little higher, but not quite as high as a classical guitar. And also, the thuddy sound of the flamenco guitar, which is produced by the kind of wood that you use, which is Cyprus wood, as opposed to Rose wood; Well, that is particular in flamenco, and I like that, but nevertheless I like some of the resonance that exists in the classical guitar, and therefore I look for an instrument that has some of those qualities. It’s sort of intimate and difficult to explain, but fundamentally what is important is the sound, some guitars sing to you, and some may sound very loud but don’t have the sweet quality that you want to express.”
Chilean band Inti-Illimani has been a part of your musical expression for some time now. How would you describe that relationship?
PP: ”The relationship is very solid because they are lovely people, and I like them and their music very much. But the collaboration and the meeting is very sporadic, because they follow their career and I follow mine. I’ve known them now for quite a number of years, and every time we have the opportunity we do something together, but of course it’s very seldom nowadays. But I feel very warm when I’m in that environment, I feel very able to play, very much at home, even though it isn’t my music. It’s music which is quite related to my own, obviously for historical reasons, South America and southern Spain is very connected. And so that music is not a million miles from me, and I can fit in quite easily. I have my own time during the concert as well to play my own music, but only brief, and then when I play together with the group it’s quite easy and very relaxing. When I say easy, it means that there are nine people producing a musical occasion, rather than being myself with the full responsibility. And it’s lovely to work together, because at the end of the day I tour with people that I like, and we can share a glass of wine and a meal, and so on.“
What are your recollections of your performances in London last year with Inti-Illimani, together with John Williams and Peter Gabriel for the Victor Jara Foundation?
PP: ”Ooh, that was very moving, wow, that was really moving. John and I participated in the second half of the concert, not the first, and we hadn’t played together with Inti-Illimani for quite some time. But at the end, it was really quite a moving atmosphere because many serious, important and sad moments of Victor Jara’s death were remembered, and also the time that the Inti’s where exiled, and so on. And some of the songs went right through you, so it was very difficult to keep control, and the audience was absolutely riotous, very, very exited and moved. And so I really enjoyed that, it was a very special occasion. And the Inti’s have been connected with Peter Gabriel for some years now, they’ve done some things together, related to a festival that he created, but also in terms of being sympathetic to one another, because they respect each other’s music and personality. And that is how they are connected, being friends and being sympathetic to the same causes, so that’s why they went there.”
How do you actually collaborate with John Williams? Do you employ a certain method for blending the two very distinct styles?
PP: ”When we play with Inti-Illimani, really the big responsibility to link the styles is Horacio Salinas’, the director and composer from Inti-Illimani. He really has the responsibility to dream up ways of showing off the classical and flamenco guitar within his ensemble. And then of course we have our own approach to this music and contribute what we can in that kind of landscape. But it’s basically discussing ideas, and then he has to put them together, particularly for John, because John is a classical musician and wants to have the music there for him to read. And what I mean by reading is that his music would fit as planned by the composer or arranger, he will respect that. With me there is a little more freedom, because I don’t work that way, and if I think of something to do, I do it on the spur of the moment, because that’s the nature if my music. But that’s taken into account as well when we plan for the concerts. And actually it’s nice, it’s a very angular kind of definition of both guitars, you hear both guitars very distinctly within the whole atmosphere of the music.”
What else are you doing at the moment? Are there any plans for some more Paco Peña studio recordings?
PP: ”Good point actually, in fact on a very rushed sort of way I’m preparing a record with a friend of mine, a classical guitarist. In fact we are thinking in a jolly kind of way of preparing a record that will combine our two distinct styles. We’ve done some concerts, and it’s really quite a nice combination, very exciting. And that’s with Elliot Fisk, who is a classical guitarist from America, a good friend of mine, and a great guitarist. And it’s a bit premature to talk about it, but we are planning to do something in the foreseeable future.”
Paco Peña will be touring Australia with Inti-Illimani in October and November of 1999. “Flamenco Passion” distributed by the Decca Record Company Limited, London. For further information take a cyber tour on the Andalucia Home Page or the Inti-Illimani Home Page.
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #66, October 6, 1999
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Paco Peña: The Art of Flamenco