Ian Scionti is a North American flamenco guitarist who’s lived and worked in Sevilla, Spain, for nearly 15 years. He was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and is now a flamenco guitar instructor at the Conservatorio Profesional de Música “Cristóbal de Morales,” in Sevilla, Spain.
Over the course of a conversation that lasted nearly three hours, many topics were discussed. Here in Part 1, Ian reflects on his discovery of flamenco, its artistic community, and his experience playing flamenco as a foreigner. His story echoes that of many foreigners who make the pilgrimage to Spain in search of flamenco. After several years of living in Sevilla, Ian entered the Universidad de Sevilla to obtain a Ph.D. Thus, having recently completed this work, his thoughts on social and cultural issues within flamenco are insightful and nuanced.
Interview conducted March 05, 2018, in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla.
My name is Ian Scionti. I’m from Ashland, Oregon. I’ve been a musician since I was about seven and got into flamenco around 2002. I moved out here to Sevilla in August of 2004. I’m primarily a jazz and flamenco guitarist, but I play a lot of other music. I play a couple other instruments. I can play some mandolin. I play some Portuguese guitar and I can make some noise on the keyboard. I recently got a Ph.D in social anthropology here at the University of Seville focusing on flamenco from a sociology perspective, talking about musical genres and changes in aesthetics over time. In addition to that, I’m a flamenco teacher at the conservatory here in Seville, Cristóbal de Morales. I started working there in September [of 2017].
What was your first experience with music?
That I clearly remember? I wouldn’t say my first experience, but my first contact was through my dad. I wouldn’t consider him a musician, but he was sort of a Renaissance man. He writes a bit of poetry and does a bit of photography and then always had instruments around the house. There was a piano around and a guitar and recorders and things like that. He plays and could read music, so I remember him always playing around with that. Then, around seven, I finally started taking piano lessons. Before that I just have vague memories of him playing and having musical instruments around. When we’d take car trips he’d always have his recorder with him to play a song on.
You started flamenco in 2002, a couple years before coming to Sevilla. Do you remember why you started?
Yeah, oh yeah, very clearly. I was studying jazz for a number of years. I started playing jazz at around 14 years old. In the States we have jazz band in high school and you can have some contact with that. I got really into it and after high school moved to Berkeley, California. I was there for a couple years and then around 2000 or 2001 I moved to New York City. I still hadn’t begun playing flamenco. I was still playing jazz and just found it frustrating. I wasn’t in any school and didn’t have the contacts other people had. I was going to jam sessions and waiting until three in the morning to play one tune. Everybody’s fighting to play the best and no one listens to each other. I kept having really frustrating experiences and needed something new. I needed to fall in love with music again. I had [casually] listened to a bit of flamenco. I met some people in the Bay Area that played and then in New York I met Steve Kahn, a flamenco guitarist and photographer. He just passed away, probably only about a month ago. I saw advertised what I thought was Steve Kuhn, who was a jazz musician, at some café on a Sunday, midday in Soho. I said, “oh, okay, well I’ll have a glass of wine and sit down and listen to this.” I was just blown away. He was playing old stuff from Morón [de la Frontera]. It wasn’t modern flamenco at all. He didn’t really play anything else besides that, like a lot of these guys that learn [the Morón style], a lot of the Americans. They have this romantic obsession with Diego [del Gastor] and his persona and they are faithful to that. I listened to Steve play and was blown away, so I approached him for lessons. I didn’t take that many lessons with him, maybe half a dozen, and then started going to dance studios and going to gigs.
When you started, you were with other people in the flamenco community fairly quickly then. You didn’t really start off by yourself.
In the beginning I definitely was [by myself] until I started getting into it. Shortly after that I bought a book that shows some basic rasgueado (strumming). I think I got some Paco Peña stuff too, some literature to try and learn some of the basics. I was taking a few lessons and it was probably six months until I started meeting people. I was still actively studying jazz, so this was on my own. This was to do something new. Flamenco was new and challenging and technical. It was intellectual; it was definitely a challenge intellectually. I think that’s what was attractive. I was trying to escape. Once I got into it more, I realized it was a great balance with jazz, which I was taking so seriously. It was difficult to enjoy jazz because there was so much pressure. I was in New York and all that. When I started getting into flamenco it sort of renewed my passion for music. I’ve found that I’ve had to do that later with flamenco as well, put that aside and learn something new. I went back to jazz and starting getting into choro and fado. I’ve had to do that every five or six years.
When you think of the flamenco community, what is the image that comes to mind? How do you see it?
I would say there are a lot of flamenco communities. Here 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 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]. This gets to the music that I like and big part of my Ph.D had to do this. Dani de Morón, Rycardo Moreno, Diego del Morao, these guys are the favorites of certain singers. Arcángel will pull these guys together and then there are Los Mellis that always accompany them and also the same percussionist. I forget his name. And then Miguel Ángel Cortés is sort of the traditional side of that. I would even include Esperánza Fernández through Miguel Ángel. I would say that’s one community at that [specific] level. It’s a community just because they work together, and they probably see each other outside of that. Then there are other levels professionally. It’s probably regional as well. The artists that work together in the tablaos, that’s a whole different community. Then 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.
Do you know when that began to shrink?
I don’t know. I didn’t see it in its heyday. If you talked to them it’s probably been shrinking since it started. It’s gone downhill since its heyday when they first opened their peña! Whatever it was, ya know (smiling). 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 a sector of flamenco that has artistic intentions and commercial intentions, not necessarily in the negative sense. I’m not talking about Gyspy 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 constantly creating.
You’re saying he’s consciously trying to create a music for a wider audience?
Exactly, and consciously creating something to be performed on a stage. His music is to perform 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, I think it’s actually just as important for these people, the music and artistic side of it, as far as social capital or symbolic capital goes. Let’s say it’s non-lucrative. That’s where a lot of this gets kind of touchy, because it’s a bit harder to define. Do you know who Cristina Cruces is, Cristina Cruces Roldán?
She’s a local anthropologist. I’ll recommend some stuff if you’re interested. She talks about “flamenco de uso” (flamenco for use) and “flamenco de cambio” (flamenco for change). 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 stage. From an anthropological sense, what’s off stage is more interesting. You are talking about communities that use flamenco more for socialization.
That’s the “flamenco de uso?”
Yeah, that’s what she would call the “flamenco de uso,” whether it’s parties or weddings or Romerías, where there’s not as obvious of an economic gain. That’s where I would debate this. That can be for another time. Here there’s definitely a big community of foreigners that functions in its own way. There is this sort of 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. This 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. Just like when we met. You lived 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’s probably 100 people that do it professionally and do it well. Maybe there are more, but there are few. I always have the sense that in the States there’s more community despite the geographic [separation of the people].
What have you noticed about the differences in how the flamenco community operates compared to the other community you know, which is jazz?
Hmm, what would I say is the biggest difference? The biggest difference is the people, the type of people it attracts. They are two communities that definitely don’t intermingle much.
That’s interesting because there is the whole sub-genre of flamenco-jazz. How do you see that work?
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. There are some great players here in Sevilla. There aren’t that many that have been interested in flamenco, so the few that have been stand out.
Have you seen the afición (interest/passion) go more in the opposite direction, flamencos that are interested in jazz?
Yes, 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 necessarily 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. 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 Lucía]; 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. There’s maybe a closer connection between the people in the 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. That’s anywhere, but when you’re in the heart of it it’s 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 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.
That is definitely an explicit goal of the Fundación [Cristina Heeren], to help the students start performing and create their own groups together.
Part of the problem with the Fundación, in that sense, is just that it’s so international. It’s hard for foreigners to get gigs here to begin with, but it does inspire international connections. There are flamenco families too, so name means a lot.
As far as I know, that’s not really a thing in jazz. You don’t have these dynasties and families where musical royalty is built into your name.
No. I guess jazz musicians may have thought, “well shit, my dad was a poor jazz musician. I’m going to go do something else.” You’ve got a bit, the Marsalis brothers and Joshua Redman and his dad Dewey Redman. You’ve got a few, but it’s definitely not like here where you’re the “Son of” or the “Daughter of” or even the “Cousin of.” In flamenco, the name and lineage can be at least half of what gets you in to begin with. Once you’re in a scene, accepted as a flamenco artist, and have enough skill to start working and start performing, having more and more opportunities will just make you better. That’s what I see from the outside at least, because, in that sense, I don’t have my foot in the door. It would be interesting to hear Tino [Van Der Sman’s] point of view, because Tino’s been here for 25 years or something. He’s been here forever. He’s been able to make a bigger dent, but it’s still difficult. As amazing as he plays, as wonderful as his music is, and as flamenco as his music is, a six-foot, blonde Dutch guys doesn’t “look flamenco,” just as I don’t “look flamenco” to a lot of people. Once you’re in that scene, once you can start working and get called for tablaos and other gigs, you grow exponentially. In jazz there are fewer people, which maybe makes it easier to work in the beginning. We’re not in the center of jazz here.
As an American who doesn’t look flamenco, have you seen or been subjected to either overt or indirect racism, or both?
Oh, of course. Yeah, both, little things and not-so-little things. In the beginning it was hard to even get a guitar in your hands. You go to peñas and do the tertulias. You sort of had to fight to be heard or have singers want to sing with you, even if you accompany better than the regular peña guitarist. “You’re American, so what do you know?” And then I’ve had plenty of nights of being out and I’d be getting jaleos (cheers/encouragement) the whole night from people, “olé, olé, que bien toca.” As soon as I open my mouth, “Oh, you’re not from here, where are you from? You don’t play bad.” A minute ago I was playing really well, now that you know I’m not from here I just play okay?
How well did you know Spanish when you got here?
I knew a bit. I could definitely communicate when I first got here. That’s helped, but I still get it today, people being a bit skeptical, until I play. [I was] recently in Rota actually, speaking of Americans, near the [American naval] base. I went down there for a party with some friends and they invited Diego Agujetas to come sing, of the Agujetas family. We showed up late and they were already having lunch and a friend introduced me. He was like, “oh, you’re not from here, you play?” He just gave me a skeptical look that basically said, “alright, I’ll see you play.” Thirty seconds into playing, I think it was a Soleá, and he was like, “ok, yeah you play, fine.” I’m having more of those experiences lately, where I don’t give much importance to the fact that I’m not from here. I’m not as sensitive to it. It’s taken me a long time to get there, but I definitely passed a point about five years ago where I stopped caring that much. People are going to make some stupid comments, people are going to think what they think, whatever. I know as soon as I sit down and have the instrument in my hands I’m going to prove them wrong.
It’s a tricky thing because if you’re not here [in Spain], you’re trying to learn from the few teachers and resources you have. Most people in the States are learning from everything they can. They’re learning from the teachers in town, from those who come to give workshops, from books, from YouTube, from everything. At some point you realize you’ve exhausted your resources and it’s time to go to Spain. Then you get here and quickly realize you’re actually not getting the opportunities you want here because people are excluding you for those types of reasons.
Exactly, it’s really hard. Once you get here, it’s much harder. Any guitarist in the States works much more than I do, any of them. Why? Because there are restaurant gigs there. There are tons of restaurants and maybe three guitarists. With all due respect to the guys that are there — because I know a few of them and they are phenomenal players — let’s be honest, the audience just isn’t the same. It’s not that everybody knows about flamenco here; they just think they know about it, so they’re going to be more critical. I’ve come to realize that 90 percent of the population here knows less about flamenco than I do. Part of the culture is thinking they know about it. They’ve been told they know about it. It’s as if we’re experts in country music because we’re American. I’ve listened to Hank Williams, but I’m no country expert!
Yeah, I’ve thought about this for years too. The average Spaniard understands flamenco just about as much as the average American understands jazz. Some of them do, but most of them don’t.
This is an intellectual music. We’re talking about something that people spend years and years studying. There’s nothing natural about this! People have been told that this is their heritage. Politically, they’ve been told it’s their heritage and so they start to believe it. This is part of something that’s just ingrained in flamenco, the sense that, “all of Andalucía is flamenco and Spain is Andalucía.” That’s what’s been sold since the 19th century. This is a romantic view of Spain and Andalucía. Some would argue [that] what we see as flamenco, flamenco on the stage, is a product of Romanticism. Today, it’s hard to disconnect any flamenco from the artistic side of it, even with what’s going on behind closed doors.
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