Diego Villegas, Instrumentalist, Part 2

This post is Part 2 of Diego Villegas’s interview, a young flamenco instrumentalist from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain. Click here for Part 1.

As the conversation continues, it touches on the topics of early inspiration, education, and innovation.  

The interview was conducted on April 18, 2018, at a small café near the Alameda de Hércules in Sevilla. It is being presented over the course of several posts.  


Talk to me a little more about your style. You just mentioned Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. Who else do you listen to and where do you get inspiration?  

At home we listened to a lot of classical music, symphonic music, a lot of zarzuela, opera, and that opens your ear to good music, music that’s rather well organized. That helps you develop a general concept of music. At first though, I listened to my friends, really. When I played, I listened to the flamenco singers and said to myself, “This singer always sings this same melody (sings a short melody). It’s familiar now because I’ve heard it so many times. I’m going to really listen close now. I’m going to learn it and then I’ll be able to play it too.” My guide was’t Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, or Camarón, instead it was my own friends. Later on, when I was 17 years old, I discovered Jorge Pardo, because before that I didn’t know who he was. He fascinated me, I loved his music, it drove me crazy. However, in that moment, I decided I didn’t want to play like him. I thought that if I loved his playing, I shouldn’t learn directly from him. I should learn, rather, from where he learned. If he studied Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Camarón, Paco De Lucía, I have to study that. Then I’ll be able to play that, or not, because ultimately, he’s 30 years older than me, has lived a different life and has a different heart. We’re different. That was another challenge, perhaps.

To learn how he learned.

Exactly, to have the same teachers, but I consume all types of music, honestly. I love quality Pop. I love Alejandro Sanz, Juan Luis Guerra, Celia Cruz. At home we listen to all kinds of things. My girlfriend is a flamenco dancer, but she loves Salsa too and we put on a lot of Salsa music at home. I like music, but I dedicate myself to flamenco because I’m passionate about it. I think it’s one of the styles with the most feeling. A lot of music has strong feeling, of course, but it also is because of where I was born, my lifestyle. I identify most with flamenco.

I read another interview or two of yours and you said once that you don’t consider yourself to be an innovator. Do you still think this way?

I don’t know. This much is clear, life can’t just be a copy-and-paste, each person does what he/she wants. I think everyone does, and so if everyone is doing this then everyone would be an innovator. Everyone has their own personality and their own way of doing things. It’s true that there are many musicians that sound like a cut-and-paste, that play well, but that sound the same or think the same. There are actually very few innovators. I don’t think I’m one of them. Ultimately, I’m not the one who should say so or not.

Who are the most important innovators for you?

I don’t think Jorge Pardo was an innovator either, actually. Paco and Camarón were the ones who decided to use the flute and the electric bass guitar. Pardo didn’t say he wanted to play flamenco with his flute, no. They called him to work and went to work. He wasn’t responsible for creating a concept for the flamenco flute, his responsibility was to Paco De Lucía. [Pardo] had a role and as the years have gone by his role has become the standard for the instrument. I think people just live their lives and the passage of time tells you if what exists is great or not. In fact, Jorge told me that when Camarón recorded La Leyenda Del Tiempo, he thought they were just doing a normal record, nobody thought it would become [what it has become].

You said you were studying cante (flamenco singing) in a traditional way, but just interpreting it with other instruments. You have a rather normal background in the flamenco context because, if someone wants to understand flamenco, he/she has to study cante like that. Have you played with other instrumentalists that don’t have that background that have wanted to play flamenco?   

Many times, yes. The problem in flamenco is that it’s a very free music. People say that jazz is free, but jazz isn’t free. That’s a lie, because in jazz you normally play with set patterns and phrases. You improvise on top of something, but in flamenco you improvise over nothing else but a rhythm. The harmonic movement is not preestablished like in jazz, C, F, D, G, no no no. The chords may be B flat and then A, but the guitarist will play that B flat whenever he wants. He might hold B flat for two full measures or maybe just for a half measure. He also might play A or pass through C and then go to D and so you’re over there chasing flies. Sure, there are certain codes that can be easily learned, and [as an instrumentalist] you can ornament the music, of course. I always say that in flamenco you can do two things, be an arranger or be a flamenco. An arranger is, for example, in Sara Baras’s company, where the music is already constructed and the same music is always used. You can know nothing about flamenco and learn that specific music you need and then just play it. You will be playing flamenco, because that’s what the music is, but without knowing flamenco at all. The nice thing about my training is that I have both types of knowledge. I can be an arranger for flamenco just as well as I can be an arranger for Jazz, Soul, Funk, or Pop. I’ve worked many times with people that don’t know flamenco, but there’s a shared language, which is the standard musical language. Many problems can be solved with sheet music.

Talk to me about your rehearsals, the problems you have there, and what you do to be productive while rehearsing.

Truthfully, it’s not often that two melodic instruments are used together in the same show. An instrumentalist today is basically an extra. The base is singing, guitar, palmas (hand clappers), percussion, and then a melodic instrument. When someone is putting together a show, normally the musicians are chosen thoughtfully. There are other times when someone wants to include a musician just because it’s a buddy or whatever, and that’s looked down upon. I remember a time when I was playing with a classical violinist who played classical music really well. In the style of music he was used to playing, the director would lower his hand, but when he lowered his hand the notes didn’t sound. They sounded slightly later. The problem I had is that he never entered in time. He tried telling me that it was supposed to come in slightly late. He was a bit hard-headed and insisted it was correct. I said to him, “Man, listen, can’t you tell it just doesn’t sound good? Where’s the problem, with the seven musicians here who’ve played flamenco they’re entire lives, or with you who just showed up?” In the end it was all good though, because we were all teammates and we helped each other out.

When you talk to other instrumentalists who want to learn flamenco, what advice do you have for them?

If you want to learn fast, it’s impossible. There are two huge departments, that of rhythm and that of harmony. There are rhythmic variants and there are many harmonic variants. It’s easy to play por Tangos, but playing flamenco and all that that implies is quite complicated. I have quite a few students and I have organized a teaching method to help guide the learning process, but this can’t be learned in one month nor in two. The rhythms alone are extremely difficult.

What do you think is your greatest achievement until now?

My achievement is continuing to make my living by doing music (laughing).

But, you’ve been a part of the Festival De Jerez and the Teatro De La Maestranza and in other big theaters.

Yes, honestly, flamenco has been rewarding. I don’t know, it’s that every time I climb a grand staircase, the next achievement is to get to the top of the next staircase. The first time I played in Casa Patas in Madrid, that was the greatest achievement in the world for me. It all depends. Next week I’m going to Casa Patas again and I don’t really care that much because I’ve played there a million times. Each achievement corresponds with a particular moment in life, and so the goal now is to keep the calling and the desire to play music alive. There is a lot to do, but also the society we live in today is pretty apathetic. I dream of just being happy, truthfully, I don’t have ambitious desires to play at Benaroya Hall or [other big auditoriums] and have my name up on a poster there. I really don’t. Of course, I do dream about certain things. I’d love to play with Chick Corea or with many other people. If those things want to happen, they will happen, but I’m not going to focus my energy on that. I’ve worked with many people now, and I’ve had some great times. I love to learn from others and to share, but the best times I’ve had are when I was playing my own music. I choose the musicians, I choose what they play and how they play, they feel the music my way. Perhaps the ultimate achievement, my dream, would be to live solely from my own music and to work with others because I want to, but not because I must. It’s not that way right now. I do things with my album, with my project, but I have to work with many people to make my living.

You’re teaching a lot too, right? Can you talk a little about that? Do you like to teach?

Yes, I like to teach when the student wants to learn.

Do you teach children as well, or just adults?

No, just adults. Learning flamenco is like getting a Master’s degree. First, you need a broad education, and then you specialize later. Flamenco is a specialty. Starting right away by learning the flamenco flute wouldn’t be coherent. Luckily, I have quite a lot of work, and my classes aren’t cheap either. I am not going to give a daily class for 20 or 30 Euros to a small child who’s just beginning. That doesn’t make sense. It’s better that the child goes to someone who’s dedicated solely to teaching, and that has oriented his/her entire life around that. When the child knows how to play the instrument and plays well and wants to learn flamenco, that’s when they come to me. People rarely want to pay for the specialties at the beginning. They come to one class and that’s it, or maybe two. At that point they think they know it all and so they don’t return.

It’s hard, there are no shortcuts.

Exactly.           

When you’re on stage, do you play for yourself, your fellow musicians, the public, or something else entirely?    

Music is played for one’s self. Although, I do feel the necessity to share, not just play. That’s my way of performing. I don’t ever play the same phrase twice because I try to feel what’s being transmitted to me by the audience and allow them to influence what I play. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing, because ultimately, we’re all just energy and there are times when you’re on stage and you don’t feel any personal connection with the audience. That’s not normal, that’s strange, but it can happen. Those are the two faces [of the coin]. If I don’t feel a good energy, I don’t play well because I’m not strict about what I play. I never learn an exact melody and perform it as such. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written out and learned the exact melody to a verse in my entire life. Nobody has ever asked that I play like that. If I play with a guitarist and I have to perform set music, I’ll learn it. If what I’m playing is for me, I do it my way. Therefore, no, one never plays for the public. Of course, when you’re in front of an audience there’s another thing, which is the necessity to transmit something. That can’t be provoked, however, either you connect or you don’t. I’m concerned with playing for myself and for my band mates. If there’s luck, that will connect with the public. When I do my concerts, I do like to help with that connection though. I talk quite a bit with the people, explain the pieces, etc. It’s a way of removing that wall, that fourth wall.


Click Here for Diego’s Album, Bajo de Guía

This post is Part 2 of Diego Villegas’s interview. Click here for Part 1.

For future excerpts of this interview and others, enter your email and click Follow at bottom left to follow the blog and receive updates.  

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