Paco Cortés is a master guitarist from Granada. Over the course of his long career, he’s worked with major artists such as Enrique Morente, Carmen Linares, and Camarón. His younger brother, Miguel Ángel, is also one of the top flamenco guitarists working today. In addition to being active on the performance circuits, Paco works as a professor of guitar at the Fundación Cristina Heeren.
The interview was conducted on March 12, 2018, at the Fundación Cristina Heeren de Arte Flamenco in Sevilla, Spain. It will be published over the course of several posts.
My name is Francisco Cortés Urbano. I’m from Granada, I grew up in the caves of the Sacromonte. I have a brother who also plays the guitar, Miguel Ángel Cortés. My father danced, but he’s no longer with us. My mother sings and yes, she is still with us. We’re from a family of artists. I got up on stage first, because I was the oldest child. My parents got me into one of the tourist places in the Sacromonte as a dancer. An uncle of mine there put a guitar in my hand and my father said, “let’s see if the kid likes the guitar, show him some things.” He bought me a guitar and here we are today.
When you think about the flamenco community in general, what is the image you have?
I think I was one of the lucky guitarists. Some have more name recognition than others, and some play more than others. But, the truth is that I was lucky because I was born at a time when there were some really big maestros still alive from the previous period. Some are still around, but most are not. I caught all that at a time when I was playing well, the time of Enrique Morente, Lebrijano, Pansequito, many flamenco festivals, Mario Maya, El Güito, Manuela Carrasco. Those artists do a lot less now, but when they do things they still do them really well, those that are still around. It was the time of Camarón too, and of Paco [De Lucía], who was a friend of mine. Now I’m part of this new moment, that of the younger flamencos of today. You have Arcangel, Marina [Heredia], los Reyes.
To me it’s always felt like a chain, which I like, following the story from Ramón Montoya, Niño Ricardo, Sabícas, all of that. It’s like a chain, but it continues being the same thing and is linked together. You can’t just wake up one day and tell yourself you’re some phenomenon and that you’re going to come up with something. I don’t think that exists. That happens when you work, when you sit down in a chair at home or in a studio to investigate until things emerge little by little. You don’t just wake up being the creator of something that’s worthy of an album or a performance. Nobody does that. You always go little by little, picking up something here, picking up something else over there, your mind opens up and you continue gathering. But, you must sit down in your chair and work if you want to play flamenco.
Was there a clear moment when you realized you had the talent necessary to do this and then decided you wanted to pursue it as your career?
At the beginning, no. At the beginning, when I was in school, one of the Habichuelas who danced gave me a pair of boots and so I began as a dancer. In my town, it was normal for the kids to start with dance. Juan Habichuela, for example, was a dancer. I’m talking about our Juan, the guitarist. Pepe Habichuela as well, he used to be dancer and now is a guitarist. They all started out dancing, that’s the tradition in Granada. Later, you see if it sticks or not, but I basically followed two paths at the same time in the beginning. When they eventually put a guitar in my hand I started with my uncle, Pepe Amaya, who’s no longer here with us. This man, my uncle, read music during that time, which really helped. I could play Tangos and Bulerías because that’s what was played in my neighborhood. If you can’t play por Tangos or por Bulerías, it’s like you can’t even walk. So, my uncle started giving me studies by Tarrega and things like that, various studies for working the hands. That was really hard, I was having to put my hands in all these crazy positions and I said: “What is this guy giving me? I don’t like this; I don’t understand all this!” Now I’m glad he did that because my hands are strong, they’re well prepared. He did know what he was doing, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I just wanted to play the guitar, and his ideas didn’t sink in. Later, he saw me play as a grown man and it was nice. I played at the first Zambra of the Sacromonte, something that was created many generations back. Anyway, when I went to him in the beginning he gave me my first chords, my first scales and all that. But, for me all that was easy. When I went to play a normal scale, I could just do it, so I was confused. Here we get back to your question. I understood early that I had a natural facility to play the guitar. My uncle grabbed my father and said: “This kid is going to play the guitar. Keep him in this because he has the ability. I’m giving him classical material and he’s responding. He’s just a kid of course, but he’s responding.” That’s how it happened. If I hadn’t began with him, maybe I wouldn’t be playing today. Maybe I’d be in something else, God only knows what. Later, I left for Madrid to seek out a life and make a living. Then, several years later I returned to Granada.
What are the distinct characteristics of your style of playing?
My playing is defined by the style of playing in Granada. The Tangos there sound different. I’m part of the school of Granada and the school of Juan Habichuela [Viejo] and the Ovejilla form. The Ovejilla hand originated there, it’s a really old style that emerged from Juan Habichuela [Viejo] and the teachers of Juan and Pepe Habichuela of today.
What is different about the style of guitar playing in Granada, as compared with Jerez or here in Sevilla or Caño Roto, for example?
The accents and the rasgueados (strumming) change a lot. In Jerez it’s the same thing, the rasgueado from Jerez and the way they mark the accents are distinct, but anyone can choose to play that way if they want. You don’t have to stick with one way of doing it. And so in Granada, the accent, the rasgueado, and the general way of playing is distinct, but others can use our style too.
Are you still enthusiastic about performing?
Yes yes, from the first day. However, I don’t study as much as I used to, because I used to throw myself at it 12 and 13 hours a day, and that’s a lot. When I started, I had guitar fever. I don’t play that many hours now, but I’m always reminded of how much I like to play the guitar. I just feel the most comfortable when I have a guitar in my hands. The hours fly by and I couldn’t care less. When I started, I studied a lot because I wanted to do everything. Of course, I do still study now because I have to present albums, or present something on television, or a concert with singers that will fill the house.
With all the obligations you have, like being here at the Fundación, teaching every day, traveling, and performing, what do you do to find time to study and practice?
Well, there’s always time. I wake up early every morning. In the past I used to go out much more at night and hang out with friends, with Enrique [Morente] and others. Now, like I mentioned before, things are calmer. The time when I was in Madrid I used to go out with everyone, El Lebrijano, Enrique, Camarón. Now, those friends of mine have passed, but there are others now though. I’m different too. I still go out sometimes, but it’s not the same. I like to go the movies now, I really like cinema. My thing now is to get ready quickly and by seven thirty or eight in the morning I’m upstairs practicing until I come here [to the Fundación]. Then I do my classes and everything else. I like sports a lot too. I like to go for walks. I used to play tennis, it scared me a bit because of my hands though. – You know what? Serranito played tennis really well! – Soccer and all that, not as much, but I also like cycling. I like to get out there and ride all morning on days when I’m free. I do that a lot.
Have you felt pain in your hands, back, arms, etc.? How do you deal with it?
Yes, they’ve hurt. When you study a lot, it happens. It happens to almost all of us guitarists, nearly everyone. If you ask around here at the Fundación, you’ll see. For me it’s been this shoulder. Niño De Pura has had pain too, the others as well. It’s a lot of time in a chair and so it comes your way sooner or later. Also, the posture, when I went to the doctor they told me that I was hunched over and that I was all messed up. It’s the only the way to play though. It exists, yeah, so you must do your exercises and stretch, because if not your tendons get tight and pinched.
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