Diego Villegas is a young flamenco instrumentalist. He’s presented his debut album, Bajo de Guía, throughout Spain and abroad, including at the Teatro De La Maestranza in Sevilla and the Festival Flamenco de Jerez.
The interview was conducted on April 18, 2018, at a small café near the Alameda de Hércules in Sevilla. It will be presented over the course of several posts.
My name is Diego Villegas, I’m from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and I’m a flamenco multi-instrumentalist. I play the tranverse flute, saxophone, clarinet, and harmonica.
What was your first experience with music?
I began studying clarinet. Actually, at eight years old I studied guitar in the conservatory and at ten began to study clarinet in Sanlúcar’s music academy. The academy was part of a band, in which I started playing at about eleven. It played during the Holy Week [processions] and it did mostly classical music.
When and why did you start learning flamenco?
When I was fifteen my sister opened a flamenco tablao in Sanlúcar. I didn’t know anything about flamenco. She danced and I had seen it a little bit, but I didn’t know anything. When she opened it she wanted me to play. I went there and started with the clarinet. We started doing shows every weekend and I got up on stage and explored.
What has helped you most in your development?
It was that, to have been in the tablaos. In flamenco, just like many other art forms, you can learn it in a school, you can study it in books, but there’s a large percentage that needs to be learned in practice if you want to understand the codes well. Knowing what an escobilla is by name isn’t worth anything. You need to know when the dancer is going to do the escobilla and what harmonic movement is going on with the guitar during your part so you know what to play or what not to play. All that learning is done in practice. And, in flamenco there aren’t groups or combos like there are in jazz, so you learn that in the tablao. The privilege I had that few [instrumentalists] have had, is that I began playing there and grew up there. And, perhaps the most important thing was that when I started, I had little musical knowledge. My entire approach towards my musical growth was focused around that. So, I know flamenco’s language just as much as any guitarist that’s played flamenco his whole life, because I have the same background. I was in a music academy. I learned the instrument a little and they put me directly into the tablao. I learned the palmas (rhythmic clapping) and all the codes of the dance just as any guitarist would.
What was the audience like in that tablao? Many tablaos are principally for foreigners, right?
Yes. In Sanlúcar, they are mainly for foreigners too, simply because the people don’t understand the need to pay for a ticket. I’ve done many shows in Sanlúcar, but not many people have come.
In tablaos there’s normally just traditional flamenco. How were the reactions to your different instruments?
The public loved it. Traditional flamenco is for flamencos, but not for the public. The public often thinks that El Barrio is flamenco. El Barrio includes a certain percentage of flamenco, but it’s not flamenco. We can call it whatever we want. Same thing with the Gypsy Kings, the public thinks that the Gypsy Kings’ music is flamenco, even here in Spain. In Spain, people think that Niña Pastori’s music is flamenco too, but it’s not. Flamenco is when there’s a flamenco cuadro (group) that does Siguiriyas, Soleá, Bulerías, Tientos; that is flamenco. So, when people came to my shows they didn’t really know what was going on. They didn’t have a complete understanding. And, the ones who did know flamenco were surprised and thought it was beautiful. They liked it a lot. Because of that I still play there. Whenever I have free time I still perform in my sister’s tablao and have become sort of an attraction there. Many people show up beforehand and ask if I’m there because it’s become something special and different.
Was there a clear moment when you really realized you wanted to do this as your professional career?
That was when I was nineteen years old and I was studying bachillerato and I was at the conservatory. That year I was having some family problems; we all have our things in life. My cables got crossed and I decided to leave everything. I left the conservatory and I left the bachillerato, everything. There were problems, so I just decided to dedicate myself exclusively to music. That summer I put a group together. I was playing in other groups at the time too, with friends and such. We played some jazz pieces and played a lot in the area around Sanlúcar. By that summer, I had already been playing in groups for four or five years and had played with quite a few people. A friend of mine told me I should consider moving to Madrid and try my luck there. That was the moment when I decided to go for it. I had been performing since I started playing music, but I was studying at the time and had never thought this could be my actual work. I considered it a hobby, but a hobby that could make me some money too. When I saw that there were real possibilities for me, I decided to go to Madrid and try. Maybe I could make my living by doing this. I went and stayed there for six years.
What types of doubts have you had regarding your ability to be successful as a musician, both artistically and economically?
The truth is that I’ve been privileged in many ways. Eleven years ago, when I went to Madrid, there really weren’t many people there playing other instruments in flamenco. We were the favored children, because there was a lot of competition in the guitar and dance worlds. The influence of others can be somewhat important for the self-esteem. If you’re really negative and someone tells you you’re good-looking, you’re still going to think you’re ugly. But if you have doubts and everyone is telling you you’re good looking, the balance tips in favor of being good looking. I compare it to that because I did have self-doubts when I arrived in Madrid. I didn’t think anyone would want me. In those days I was listening to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Camarón, and Herbie Hancock, and when I listened to those types of people I said: “I play really badly” (laughing). No, I knew I didn’t actually play poorly, but I knew I wasn’t anyone special at all. There was just so much to learn and do. But, the people there saw me, and I stood out. Also, because of what I said earlier, that the tablao experience was good because people saw that I could do the palmas (rhythmic clapping) and that I learned things quickly. Normally, when an instrumentalist comes along you need to explain things a lot. You need to explain the rhythm of the Siguiriyas, for example, and the accents it has. You need to explain that when the guitar does a particular thing that more remates are coming. But, the guitarist I was playing with would rematar por Bulerías and I would just do it with him. That surprised people because it wasn’t normal. So, I had all the doubts that any twenty-year-old would have that had left home. As a musician I had good luck though, it wasn’t bad professionally. Now, personally, yes it was bad (laughing).
What have been some the most difficult challenges in your career so far?
Well, the most difficult challenge is the day-to-day, really. But, releasing my album and starting my own project was difficult. Nobody just gives you anything. I’m the kind of person that doesn’t care too much what others think, but I do care a little bit because it can affect you directly. There are a lot of… I don’t know if they’re preconceptions, envies, or insecurities. When I decided to make my album, I wanted to have the support of my friends to help me feel better about it. Some of them said to go ahead and do it. Others said not to because I was still too young or whatever. I don’t regret it, because there weren’t any pretensions there. It was not part of a plan to become Jorge Pardo or something. I’m not Jorge Pardo, I’m just a young guy who made an album and that’s it. And, today it’s much easier to make albums anyway. In the past it was a big event to publish an album, but now anyone can do it. But, for me that was still a rather large challenge.
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