Reflexiones Sobre… The Flamenco Community

This post marks a continuation in the series entitled “Reflexiones Sobre…” (“Reflections On…”). These are published occasionally to explore a single theme. Rather than move through an individual interview sequentially, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the breadth of opinions and perspectives on a specific topic. 

This post reflects on many facets of today’s flamenco community, which is constantly evolving and growing internationally. It also touches on the recent passing of several flamenco greats, the impact of their absences, and includes some thoughts on the younger generation of artists.  

When you think about the flamenco community, what is the image you have in your head? What exactly is it to you? 


There is a transition going on right now. Everything going on has to do with what’s happening economically at the global level. For example, earnings for artistic work are practically the same as they were 15 years ago. The status [of the artist] has risen a lot, but the salaries are the same. Therefore, I think there’s a problem. It’s the worst time period ever to be an artist. The worst time! It’s the worst because whenever there are economic problems, they always pull [resources] from culture. 

Today, the flamenco artist also doesn’t think the same as before either. When I started playing on stage, I wanted a singer to come. I wanted a dancer to come. I wanted everyone to come because there was work to do. Today, that has changed. The flamenco being created now isn’t the flamenco I used to know. People have the opportunity to study flamenco in the conservatories now, so they have the chance to earn a [degree and] a title. With this title they can be considered a professional and work for the State, which is to be a millionaire! You’ll never be without work for the rest of your life! That’s what this country and the whole world is suffering from, the sickness of titulitis! Here, having a title is everything; it’s practically the only thing that matters. If you develop a flamenco musician in the conservatory, it’s completely different than raising one in the streets. The difference is tremendous. They will know how to analyze a written score and all that, but they seem to always lack that sensibility I was telling you about before. Everything is very controlled and measured. But that’s just the way it is. They have a title.     


It’s vast, very broad. I can’t provide a concrete image. There’s a little of everything. One thing that’s always caught my attention is that it’s a music with roots in folklore. — Some people still think it is folklore. — However, due to its evolution it’s become a complete art form just like any other great tradition like jazz or classical music. It’s not that big yet, but it’s equally as complex and developed. It’s always interested me that the music has perhaps evolved more quickly than the folk mentality of the people. That seems like an insult, but it’s not at all. That contradiction might be the beauty of flamenco. It’s interesting and peculiar.

I remember a phrase from a book. It’s not mine, it’s by Ramón de Algeciras speaking about Camarón. [Ramón] said that he met some of the best musicians in the world while on tour with his brother Paco [de Lucía], people such as Chick Corea and many others. He was struck by the fact that all these musicians were well-developed in all aspects, and that Camarón wasn’t. How could Camarón, a genius, reach that level without having a strong cultural education like all the other geniuses he had known? Perhaps that was Camarón’s strength; he didn’t mean that Camarón wasn’t intelligent. It’s always struck me how a culture could grow so much with so little education and proper training, born totally of the street. Of course, that’s changing. Today, especially with the dancing and guitar, I’m seeing more and more intellectualism, more high-level training, and more of a general interest in things. This can be seen a lot in the shows on offer now. They’re constantly getting better, but you must have more and more education to understand and follow these types of shows. I don’t know if these changes are for the better or not, but things are definitely changing.


I have various images. There are many prisms, many distinct ways of looking at flamenco. To begin with, there’s the image of flamenco as a lifestyle or way of being. There’s also a mystical image, but I think the most important one is that which exists now. It’s that of the professional. I have seen changes. There’s also a distorted image, that of the flamenco as someone who is always out late, someone really informal. That is a distortion.


There are a lot of flamenco communities. Here [in Spain] there are tons of flamenco communities, whether that’s based on a work environment or a social environment, which then has its sub-layers. There’s a community of artists on a really high level that work together that I would consider a fairly tight-knit community. There’re probably 20 people that, between them, do half the shows in the Bienal [de Sevilla]. It’s a community just because they work together, and they probably see each other outside of that too. The artists that work together in the tablaos, that’s a whole different community. There are communities that are based more around aficionados. The most evident is the peñas. That was a huge community. Unfortunately, it’s not as much anymore. I didn’t see it in its hey-day. If you talked to them it’s probably been shrinking since it started. It’s gone downhill since its hey-day when they first opened their peña!

Then there are communities that definitely use flamenco in more of a… how should I put it? It’s not necessarily for commercial purposes. There’s [also] a sector of flamenco that has artistic intentions and commercial intentions, not necessarily in the negative sense. I’m not talking about Gypsy Kings. I’m talking about Arcángel. He’s an artist who lives off this and wants to be at the forefront of this and is consciously creating something to be performed on a stage. Other communities that play flamenco, I wouldn’t say that it’s not artistic what they do, but it might not have a commercial intention. It won’t be on stage beyond performing for friends and family or in your local peña, at most. It might not go far beyond that. In a social sense, it’s actually just as important as far as social capital or symbolic capital goes, but it’s non-lucrative. That’s where a lot of this gets touchy, because it’s a bit harder to define.

Do you know who Cristina Cruces is, Cristina Cruces Roldán? She’s a local anthropologist. She talks about “flamenco de uso” (flamenco to be used) and “flamenco de cambio” (flamenco for cash). I don’t necessarily agree with the distinction she made, but she was trying to define this separation between what’s being performed on stage and what’s being performed off the stage. From an anthropological sense, what’s off the stage is more interesting, the flamenco that’s used more for socialization. [This is] what she would call the “flamenco de uso,” whether it’s parties or weddings or romerías, where there’s not an obvious economic gain.

Here [in Sevilla] there’s definitely a big community of foreigners that functions in its own way. There is a worldwide community of flamenco people, artists and aficionados and professionals in other countries. There’s definitely a relationship between people here and people in the [United] States. [Sevilla] is the center of it and so people come here. There are people that I see that come through here every six months or once a year they’ll pop in. “Oh, you’re around again.” Maybe they live New Mexico or New York or wherever. I would actually say that in the States there’s probably more of a united community, in the sense that there are a so few people. It’s like when we met. You live in Seattle and well, you know the people I know in Seattle. There are a few people along the West Coast. There are a few people in the Southwest. There are a few people on the East Coast and that’s kind of it. There are probably 100 people that do it professionally and do it well. Maybe there are more, but there are very few people. I always have the sense in the States that there is a more [unified] community despite its geographic distance.

The biggest difference [between the flamenco and jazz communities] is the people, the type of people it attracts. They are two communities that definitely don’t intermingle much. There are jazz musicians that are attracted to flamenco, but there aren’t many considering how strong jazz actually is here in Spain. There are some amazing jazz musicians in Spain, and some great players here in Sevilla! There aren’t that many that have been really interested in flamenco, so the few that have been really stand out. I see a lot of flamencos that are interested in jazz. I don’t see many flamencos that learn jazz. I think it’s in fashion right now to want to learn it, not to actually learn it, because that takes time and energy. You’ve already been studying for 20 years or you’re already working. You’re not going to sit down and start with the basics of jazz and actually think about what a dominant 7th chord is. [As a flamenco guitarist,] you play a lot of this stuff already. I think that’s the big hurdle for a lot of flamenco musicians getting into [jazz]. This is the new problem [in flamenco] or the new goal, harmonic expansion and improvisation. That started with Paco [de Lucia]; he was the head of that. “Hey, yeah we can improvise. We can do this. We can include other instruments, or we can play jazz progressions in a flamenco way or play jazz chords.” But as far as the people, as far as the relationships, the jazz scene here is much smaller. I think there’s maybe a closer connection between the people in the [jazz] community. There are only about 20 working jazz musicians here in Sevilla and maybe 50-100 in Andalucía in the professional scene. In flamenco it’s much more competitive. That competition makes people act in certain ways. There’s a bit of sink-or-swim. Either you play, or you don’t play. That makes people more competitive, but at the same time there are long-term relationships with people that will carry over into the professional world. “Hey, we’re from the same pueblo (town), and we started working together. I did my first gigs with you when we were 15.” That also creates certain bonds.


The flamenco community is really big and it’s always growing. The number of people interested in learning to play the guitar, sing, and dance just keeps growing. Flamenco is starting to occupy a lot of space at a global level. I think that I see this as a good thing, this path that it’s on. It’s something that will never cease to exist, it will keep spreading throughout the world.


I believe there is a noticeable change at an international level, social level, political level, and economic level. There’s a change, we’re not going to say if it’s better or worse, but my generation is really privileged. We had the great artists of the past with us and they were relatively young and in good form. We also had a bright economic period in which one could travel. There were lots of tours and companies and lots of options for working and studying. Everything was bright because it was emerging from prior times, the Franco years and all that, which were more closed. I didn’t live through that because I was born afterwards, but something had to explode and come out of all that. This began to happen when I was around sixteen or seventeen years old. So I think we were really privileged as a generation. Right now I think many people are the same as we were, with lots of talent as in every time period, but I get the sense that the personalities of artists of the past were more prominent because there wasn’t so much technique used to execute the ideas. People had to search for creativity in a different way. It’s not that they don’t use creativity today, of course they do, but it seems it used to be done in a more organic way. And so if you had me choose, as they say in the Chinguitos song, something really good from before or something really good now, I’ll stick with something really good from the past. But this isn’t just in flamenco, it’s in all musical forms, in the movies, in everything. What I see now is too much noise, too much stress, and too much information in everything. At times, when you see artist, after artist, after artist, you can’t take anything concrete home with you because things are pretty much the same. Everything is done really well, but pretty much the same. That’s what I think.    


Yes, it is big, but in reality, if you compare it to other musician communities like those of jazz, rock, and classical musicians, it’s actually really small. When you’re inside of it, it does seem large. I think the flamenco community might be a bit too self-conscious about being big and important somehow. I’m understanding this reality about flamenco’s smallness and its importance because just the word flamenco signifies something different to those on the outside. It encapsulates musical works that for flamenco musicians are not flamenco. There is a type of divorce between flamenco and society. This is something I’ve been reflecting on lately and I think it comes from flamenco’s own self-consciousness.


If you go to an official presentation of a flamenco event, you’ll see three singers there, twenty critics, and two hundred people that make a living off flamenco. I believe this is the response to the question. People have realized that there’s an important musical world within flamenco, but flamenco is not intellectual. A flamenco is a rough, rural person. He doesn’t speak the same way and his words aren’t supported. People live well when they’re able to make others believe something is flamenco. This is the only pain I have inside my soul, that these men are protected economically. They live wonderfully, but there are singers out there with real needs. I don’t know if that answers the question, but if not it’s a marvelous answer anyway!


There were few means of communication [in the past], the distances were enormous. You simply got together with the people who were closest. Naturally, the townspeople didn’t have the same [artistic] level as those at the higher levels in other towns, so the connections between us were more difficult. But, there was a passion for flamenco in Sanlúcar and some aficionados used to get together a lot. We did some things and I started with this group of aficionados. I won a prize here when I was eight and at thirteen I left with one of the biggest flamenco stars of the day, which was Pepe Marchena.

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In recent years the flamenco community has lost some of it’s most iconic artists, figures such as Paco de Lucía, El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente, and others. How has their absence changed flamenco and who gives you hope for the future? 


There are some interesting people emerging now because, thank God, the people you’ve just named (Paco de Lucía, El Lebrijano, Enrique Morente) have left us a strong legacy. Thanks to this legacy, the new artists of today have the chance to listen and learn as I did. In the distant past, they didn’t have the same types of media we have now. For example, during my grandfather’s time or that of Antiono Mairena, there were no recorders around. People had to travel to some small town and ask around for the one singer that knew what they were trying to learn. They sometimes had to stay there three days drinking wine just to learn one melody. The truth is that the legacies left by the masters give us a great opportunity to learn, but it’s also true that we have to be smart because there’s only one of each! I learned from them too because nobody is born with that knowledge. I had to learn and had to imitate to create my own personality later, and that’s the advice I give to the new generation.


You know, what’s happened is that some very cutting-edge people have passed on, people with a lot of personality, like Agujetas. We feel a bit like orphans today because those who are still around lack personality. There’s a real lack of personality. It’s just not there.


I think I was one of the lucky guitarists 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, 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 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.

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