Pedro Sierra is one of Spain’s top flamenco guitarists. He’s worked with a myriad of singers, dancers, and musicians, including artists such as Farruco, Mario Maya, Manuela Carrasco, Israel Galván, and Remedios Amaya. He performs in many of the world’s great auditoriums and participates in flamenco’s biggest festivals. Pedro also stays busy working as a producer and professor of guitar at the Fundación Cristina Heeren.
Interview conducted on March 09, 2018, at the Fundación Cristina Heeren de Arte Flamenco in Sevilla, Spain.
My name is Pedro Sierra. I’m a flamenco guitarist and professional musician, among other things.
What was your first experience with music?
I started playing guitar really young. I was eight years old and my first [performance] experience was in a flamenco peña in Barcelona when I was ten. [I started] directly with flamenco because my father was a big aficionado and he gave me a guitar as a gift when I was eight. At the time it was a toy, but it’s since become my profession.
When did you realize you had the talent to become a professional musician?
I never realized anything. I guess I just realized that I was advancing and learning more. My father took me to perform in competitions. Some of them I won and others I didn’t. It all happened pretty naturally. I wasn’t prepared for anything really. I just kept rising and rising until I found myself within the flamenco environment.
What have been the most difficult challenges in your career?
When I’ve had to make certain big decisions, an important one being when I first changed cities. I lived in Barcelona and left for Madrid when I was 18. [Madrid] had a high level of flamenco. There was a lot of work and many flamenco companies. After that, another important decision was to move again from Madrid to Sevilla, where I live now.
When was all that?
To Madrid in 1984 and to Sevilla in 1990.
Have you ever reached the point of wanting to quit music?
Many times. I often think my music is worthless. I demand a lot from myself. I can’t listen to [recordings of] myself either; I just can’t. Although, when I listen to my really old stuff, there are things that I sometimes like, but I’m demanding. I like whatever any other guitarist does more.
What do you do to confront those types of inner doubts?
In order to conquer those fears, I just play. I play the guitar and that’s it. If someone I work with likes what I do, then I’m okay with that too. If it was up to me, I’d trash everything, but that can’t happen.
What has helped you most in your development?
When I was young, it was my father’s consistency. This helped a lot. Rather than play in the streets, I studied. He taught me how to study. Most importantly, he created a productive study program that took advantage of those hours. He didn’t want me to just study tons of hours without control. A well-prepared technical routine and thoughtful, ordered practice are much better than lots of hours.
When should a young musician start performing on stage? How does one know if they’re ready to start performing?
My case was different because I was up on stage before I knew if I was prepared or not. However, I don’t think this is something that can be calculated. Artists, and especially flamenco artists, need to face the stage when they’re still learning. This helps them get control of their nerves and build experience. Perhaps other disciplines wait more for big debuts, but in flamenco experience is based on many debuts, many different stages.
Can you describe your playing style?
I consider myself a flamenco, very flamenco. Although I do like other musical movements, I’m always thinking about guarding [flamenco’s] roots. Although I have borrowed from other musical styles, it’s fundamental that flamenco stays true to its roots. The moment that’s lost, it becomes a vulgar music. I consider my style to be classic, but at the same time innovative. I try to combine these two facets in ways that preserve flamenco’s essence.
When you’re not listening to flamenco, what types of music do you listen to?
All of us [flamenco] guitarists have Paco De Lucía as a reference, obviously. I also like Sabícas, Mario Escudero, Serranito, and Tomatito. I do listen to everything that’s being done, to draw conclusions about what’s currently going on and what was done in the past. However, those are my classics.
Now, outside of flamenco, I listened to a lot of jazz in its day and a lot of classical music. I like the composers from the end of the 19th century, like Debussy, Manuel De Falla, Albéniz. Ravel is another composer I like a lot. In jazz, there are guitarists like Pat Metheny and Oscar Henderson. I like a lot of other music as well.
What would you recommend to someone who’s trying to start a career as a professional musician today?
It’s interesting because the work of a flamenco guitarist encompasses many things, not just technique, for example. It demands a profound knowledge of the singing and dance as well. It’s a lifestyle and you have to dedicate yourself to it heart-and-soul. It’s difficult to do this as a hobby, or to expect that as a hobby it will suddenly become your profession. It’s impossible. To have what it takes to be a professional requires full dedication of your heart and soul and you need a lot of life experience. You need to play in tablaos and in peñas. You need to play for different forms of dance with different aesthetics. You need to play for singers with different aesthetics. This is the only way anyone ever becomes a professional.
What are the different forms of teaching you have seen? Obviously, an official school like this, [the Fundación Cristina Heeren], is a rather new concept in flamenco.
I’ve seen some methods, for example, that have tried to communicate everything through written sheet music. This is a little complex… it’s really complex actually because with the guitar, for example, there are many silences and ghost notes that can’t be written down. This art has always used an oral transmission. Within that oral transmission, certain codes are employed on top of a shared base of knowledge. This is fundamental and is the best way to pass flamenco on to other people, whether a person is Spanish or not. It has to be taught through an oral transmission. Written music is used a medium to document and store knowledge, but not for teaching, because real experience is important for one’s learning.
Have you also taught children, or just adults?
Only adults, never kids.
You have your own children, right?
Yes, and not a single one plays the guitar. They’ve studied other things. I don’t recommend my world to them.
Working in a tablao is often one of the first steps in the professional career of a young flamenco artist. Can you talk to me about the world of the tablaos? What purpose do they serve and what are its advantages and disadvantages?
The tablaos arose during the 1960’s and 1970’s and were preceded by the old cafés cantantes. The tablao is like a miniature theater. The thing is, the tablaos have two currents. The first is professional and the other is touristic, which is dangerous. When artists work in a field that tends to focus on tourism, they become like common laborers. They are not artists anymore. If they want to work in a tablao, they need to make sure to follow the right current. They need to approach it as a small theater where things are taken seriously. A tablao is also a place without microphones and where you have to improvise at times. You learn a lot about how to play for dancing, how to play for singing, and even how to play solo. Serranito, for example, worked many years in a tablao for solo guitarists. The tablao can either be a spear in your side or it can toughen you up.
Is there a tablao for solo guitarists here in Sevilla now?
No, at Los Gallos the guitarists sometimes will play a guitar solo, but there normally aren’t soloists in the tablaos here.
Flamenco guitar has an incredibly high level of technique today. The point of art, at least from my point of view, is to have something to say and to communicate that. Can you talk to me a bit about the approach and attitude you have with respect to your own technique?
Technique is fundamental, having a refined, clean technique, but you have to be careful. If everything is based in technique one can get lost. The problem with technique is that most people who want more technique really just want more speed. Once that speed is achieved, the notes are shorter, and so melody is sacrificed. One has to be balanced and find an equilibrium. You should work to get fast, but there need to be moments with long notes and understandable melodies. It’s difficult to find this balance, but we must. I try to search for this. When a guitarist’s hands are strong, and they have a lot of technique, there’s a tendency to rush everything. That often comes by sacrificing melodies that need to be slow and relaxed.
When you’re on stage and you’re trying to bring out your best, who do you really play for? Do you play for yourself, your fellow musicians, the audience, or something else completely different?
I play for the public. When you play, you must understand that you’re there to please people. They need to have fun and enjoy the music. Your responsibility is to give the best you have. When people use the expression you just mentioned, that, “I just play for myself,” that’s a bit egotistical. If you’re just going to play for yourself, you should stay put and just play at home. When you face the public, you have to show up with your best. You have to be prepared, the guitar has to have a good, clean sound. I’ve always felt this way. The public pays for the tickets, flamenco exists because of them. You have to put in the effort and please the people you play for.
What qualities do you look for in your collaborators?
When you put a group together, you always want to surround yourself with the best musicians possible. But, above all else, you want to surround yourself with people who are eager, excited, and who want to work. You don’t want people who are just going through the motions. You want to like the people and enjoy being on stage with them. It’s also important to be with people that want to contribute ideas to the group.
Can you talk a little about the world of touring and that part of a professional’s life?
This is the most difficult thing for an artist or a guitarist. It’s hard because you’re away from your home and your natural environment. You usually don’t sleep well in hotels, so you need to be philosophical about it. You need to be calm and patient. You have to be strict with the scheduling of rehearsals, sound checks, and hotel check-ins. If not, then the whole thing is a disaster. If the check-in is at five, you have to be there at five to five, all of the musicians. This all helps the performance become successful later. Of course, it’s possible that the performance could come out well anyway, but that’s not the norm. I’m really methodical with this.
What have you seen regarding the support and appreciation for flamenco outside of Spain?
I see much more respect and appreciation in foreign audiences than those in Spain. I think this happens in many cultures. When you have something you often take it for granted. You don’t value it. Normally, when one plays [flamenco] outside of Spain, it’s valued more. I love to play in other countries, places like the United States, Germany, etc. The public is more grateful.
When was the last time you played in the United States?
It’s been a while now. I was recently in Canada, but it’s been about seven years since I played in the US.
When you think about the flamenco community in general, what is the image you have in your head? What exactly is it to you?
I have various images and have seen changes. 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, that of the professional. There’s also a distorted image, that of the flamenco as someone who is always out late, someone really informal. That is a distortion.
What about the word flamenco? What does it mean to you and how has it been abused or misunderstood?
The word flamenco defines an art, a discipline. That much is clear, although there are various theories about the word’s origins. But more concretely, flamenco identifies a musical tradition of a country and of a specific part of a country, of Andalucía, along with parts of Extremadura and the Levante. The incorrect use is that which I mentioned earlier, that flamenco is often associated with informal people, people who aren’t serious about anything, but I think little-by-little that is disappearing. We need to arrive at a point where flamenco is respected on the level of jazz or classical music. We have a lot of work to do to get there.
People often use the word flamenco to help define their identity, so for you what does it mean to be flamenco?
To be flamenco is to understand the pillars of the art between all the various threads it has, because there is a difference between being and enjoying. There are people who like flamenco, but they often don’t understand it. You don’t have to understand it all or know everything by memory either. Being flamenco is also about being an artist, which is something else that it’s losing. Traditionally, you could tell whether or not someone was an artist by their way of dressing, their way of being, of walking. That was closely connected to being flamenco. It’s like playing the guitar or being a guitarist. There is a difference. There are people who play the guitar and others who are guitarists. There are people who like flamenco and people who are flamencos. Ultimately, it’s a lifestyle. Although, you don’t have to get out of bed doing palmas (rhythmic clapping) or go to bed doing palmas. But, when you choose this life you learn how to think like a flamenco. You know how to distinguish between what is flamenco and what is not. It’s a complicated definition.
Pedro Sierra’s newest album, Llanto De La Guitarra, was released in late 2018. Click here to listen.
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