Reflexiones Sobre… Artistic Personality and Style

This post continues the series entitled “Reflexiones Sobre…” (“Reflections On…”), which are published to explore a single theme or idea important in the world of flamenco.

The following reflections address the subjects of artistic personality and style. This topic often gives rise to strong emotions among flamenco artists. Many people, especially older, more experienced artists, see a serious lack of personality in today’s artistic landscape. While acknowledging that technique is currently at the highest level flamenco’s ever seen, they are critical of the fact that so many artists look and sound the same. 

The excerpts below consider this issue. They also ask the interviewees to discuss their own personal styles and how they were developed. This is a critical issue because, at it’s most basic level, art is about expression. It’s about having something to say. It’s about sharing one’s own subjective interpretation of the world we inhabit. Having personality, therefore, is essential. A young artist needs the courage to be different if they expect to find an artistic voice of their own. 

I hope you enjoy the reading.


What advice would you give to a young artist today about how to create and develop their own artistic personality? 

MANOLO SANLÚCAR, GUITARIST/COMPOSER

That’s the question — I think, because I also have some doubts, eh — that only God can answer. That belongs to a world we don’t control. What is it that one person does that gives them abilities and that doesn’t work for others? Nevertheless, the advice I give is to get involved. Get involved in life. Implicate yourself in life as a human being, because an artist is a human being. A truly authentic human being must first be formed. If one is not an authentic human, how is [he/she] going to be an authentic guitarist? That person won’t be an authentic anything and won’t practice anything sincerely! 

How is a genuine human being constructed? The will each person has is their own, the will of how they want to be. That’s the result of a process [consisting of] convergent and divergent ideas. They cross. You choose which ones to use, which ones to weave together into your own nature and condition. Later, you have to give form to the ideas that want to be part of what you’re doing and that respond to a true concept. You have to find those ideas that are worth fighting for. After that, the level of what can be achieved is something entirely different. If something is good, it doesn’t matter if it weighs half a kilo or a thousand kilos. One thousand kilos of something good is good, but 50 grams of something good is still 50 grams of something good! The important issue here is that whatever you do, have it correspond to the good and to the noble. What you do should also have some sort of explanation. It shouldn’t just be the result of some attack! It should result from some sort of reflection. Of course, one can make a mistake in life too, that’s fine. But a mistake that lasts sixty years is not acceptable, it should only go on for some time. To achieve something doesn’t mean you’re going to arrive perfectly. You’re simply going to do the best you can. You’re going to do the best you can do, whether that be as a human being, a guitarist, a dancer, a philosopher, or a politician.         


Many people in flamenco are critical of the younger generation of artists because they lack artistic personality. Why is this and what can artists do to develop it?       

EDUARDO REBOLLAR, GUITARIST

Today, guitarists are playing better than ever. Why? Because of [digital] media. If you go online and get on YouTube, let’s say you want to learn Entre Dos Aguas by Paco De Lucía, you have a hundred million options for how to play it. I think pretty soon the dude on the screen is going to just jump out at you and position the guitar in your hands and start moving your fingers too! There are lots of ways to learn now. On the technical level, the guitar has evolved tremendously. We owe that to maestro Sabicas and Paco [De Lucía], etc. However, much of this stuff doesn’t really sound like flamenco, it’s true. Flamenco is a way of living, a complete lifestyle. The young people are always on the computer learning fancy falsetas and attractive little things that are easy on the ear. We’re in a rhythmic time period also. Everything with rhythm sells. If it doesn’t have rhythm, it doesn’t sell. But these young people haven’t lived flamenco much. If you haven’t lived it enough, when you play the guitar you’re not going to have much to say with flamenco. Sounding flamenco and all that is a question of having lived it, of experience, of years, of knowledge. Once you have that, you start sounding much more flamenco. With all that you’ve learned, you end up changing on your own. The young players are always out to have a good time. They rush to play really complicated stuff, but their lack of maturity as a person comes out as a lack of maturity as a musician. You can be a great virtuoso of the guitar and not have a thing to say with [the instrument]! However, I have to recognize that thanks to all this [digital media], that there are many young people getting involved with flamenco, and I think that’s fantastic.      


How did you find and develop your style?          

MIGUEL ÁNGEL CORTÉS, GUITARIST/COMPOSER

Good question and a difficult one that I can’t answer well. No one has really asked me that before. I’m engaged and committed, both as a human being and as an artist. I’m committed to my career and my art and am a hard worker. You have to nourish yourself with a little bit of everything and I don’t know if I have a little bit of my own personality in there too. That’s the most difficult thing to find, to find one’s own form. Apart from the constant work, I also think that there has to be something inside. I never made a conscious decision to take a certain path. In the best sense of maestro Paco De Lucía’s word, we all have to steal from each other too. I was brought up in the Granada school, and not to praise my city too much or anything, but it’s true that it has a certain personal style, the rasgueado (strumming), everything. There were certain families back then, the Cortés’, the Habichuelas, the Marote, each one with their own personality inside a larger form. It’s like Jerez [De La Frontera]. There’s a certain sound, but if you listen to the Parrilla’s, [their sound] has nothing to do with the Moraos. It’s something like that. It’s interesting. I don’t really know how to give you a methodical answer. I think I took a bit from all the big maestros too. Apart from the signature of Granada, I also learned from my brother and obviously from maestros Paco de Lucía and [Manolo] Sanlúcar.

In order to develop a personality, even if you listen to a certain artist a lot, eventually you have to move on. I can answer this question a little better now because you’re making me think! If you listen a lot to someone or to a certain style or form, it influences you whether you want it to or not. Of course it influences you! I made an album that I really like, my second album Bordón de Trapo, with Gerardo Nuñez. His wife is part of my dad’s side of the family, Carmen Cortés. I remember that I was coming and going from their place for a year. I was like family, I slept in the room downstairs, ate with them. I studied there, he didn’t teach me, but I did study. He helped me arrange things, they were my themes but he did give me advice. Without even wanting it, things started to sound like him. I’d play his scales and other little things.

I’ve had students that have followed me. It makes me proud, but I’ve had to tell some of them to forget me, in the best sense. The one that Manolo was able to save is Vicente [Amigo]. We’ve been friends since we were kids. Vicente also spent a lot of time with Isidro Muñoz, [the brother of Manolo Sanlúcar]. People don’t know this. Vicente was a like a monk, with the mentality to rise everyday to live only for the guitar, away from the mobile phone, to not think about anything else out there in the world, only the guitar. Discipline comes from that. He tells his [musical] story well, phrases well, and that sound he draws out! It’s not that it’s clean, it’s that it’s so personal. It’s the way he tells of his interior world that’s so personal. Any fan of the guitar, if they put on a disc of Vicente’s, without even looking at the disc they know it’s him.


Something that many people are telling me is that with such a high level of technique, many young artists do difficult things really well, but that there is a lack of personality, overall. What’s going on here? 

PASTORA GALVÁN, DANCER

I believe it’s important in flamenco, as in everything in life in general, to have personality. Personality is important, and also to be a reflection of past generations, like Trini de España. She was a dancer I liked a lot when I saw her dance as a child. I saw her at Los Gallos. Isabel Romero, another great dancer, Carmen Amaya, Angelita Vargas. You can’t improve on that! I never saw my mom dance, but her friends told me she was incredible. At home there was my father, who really liked Farruco. My father always liked him and that’s clear in his dancing. I also have the more modern thread of Israel, although he used to do more flamenco, so to speak. He still dances flamenco, but his dance absorbs all styles. He never studied contemporary dance, he’s classically trained, rather. He’s someone who’s style reflects his own way of seeing flamenco, he’s like a futurist, or a Picasso.

It depends a lot on the teacher each student has and what’s been taught. Many just teach technique and fancy steps, but they don’t ever tell the student what the public wants to see. When I go to a theater, I want the show to make me feel something. This is something I say often when I teach. In dance, “if you have to cry, you cry; if you have to laugh, you laugh; if you have to throw yourself on the floor, you throw yourself on the floor.” It’s like a movie! It’s as if we are actors. Technique is good, but within that technique, one should relax, because dancing isn’t about being rigid, or just doing footwork, or just arm work, no. With dance, we have to give the audience a language, a dialogue they can understand. I’ve gone to shows many times where I’ve left saying, “madre mía, look at all the steps they know! What value does all that have?” In many of the courses I’ve taught, I’ve told the students that they know more steps than me, that I don’t know that many steps! But, it’s preferable to know fewer steps and have the identity of the person be present and be able to transmit [the message] to our audience. That’s what needs to be worked on.


Can you talk a little bit about your style?

ALEJANDRO GRANADOS, DANCER

I’ll tell you based on what people say in the reviews and such. They say I’m very flamenco, masculine, with a lot of punch, that I dance well to the singing, and that my dance is well grounded, heavy. My most important reference was always Farruco. His personality and persona were a good fit for me. Mario [Maya] used to watch him, and Mario and I were good friends. Güito was an [important reference] too, but Farruco’s style was a better fit. I really focused on him in the early days.

ESPERANZA FERNÁNDEZ, SINGER

When I started singing, I began by listening to a singer named Lole because her voice fascinated me. I sang all her songs, those by the duo Lole y Manuel, because I fell in love with her voice and her form of expression. Later, I realized I really couldn’t imitate her, because each person is unique. After I said I was going to dedicate myself to flamenco professionally, I realized I needed to listen to others. I had to park all those discs of Lole and store them away in a box, and had to say, “now I need to establish my own identity.” At that point I started listening to many more people. My family was full of Mairenistas, so everyone was always listening to [Antonio] Mairena. They listened to people like [Manolo] Caracol and [Pepe] Marchena too, but they were specialists in Mairena. Naturally, I listened to a lot of Mairena as well. I also listened to Fernanda y Bernarda [De Utrera], to La Paquera [De Jerez], and to Camarón and Enrique Morente, who were the two most important people of the day. I worked to learn all those cantes and tried to do it with my own personality. Nobody is born knowing that material, and we all have that mirror in which we look at ourselves. It’s logical for anybody. I had to work hard to do that, of course. Flamenco encourages freedom, but you still must have respect for it and study it. In my case, I had to at least treat the cantes in a way that was true to their roots. From there, I could then start interpreting them my own way.

JOSÉ MANUEL MARTOS, GUITARIST

Having a defined style requires a ton of study and preparation. You learn from so many different guitarists and maestros that to say you have a defined style is complicated. Usually people like a particular guitarist. In my case, I follow either a guitarist or a style. For example, I follow Pedro Sierra a lot. I like his compositions and his way of playing the guitar. I think I identify more with him than with other guitarists.

The Jerez style isn’t a general style for all the palos (formal structures) within flamenco. Jerez is characterized by certain palos. In Jerez you have the bulería, soleá, and the siguiriya. Those are the three palos they play the most, but, for example, to play taranto, malagueña, granaína and all that, the Jerez style isn’t used much. It’s a distinct style for specific things. Sevilla is more open; therefore, I think Sevilla’s guitar is more complete.

The Caño Roto style [of Madrid] is violent and really strong. In contrast, the guitar here in Andalucía is more melodic, sweeter, calmer, and more paused. To start, the Caño Roto style requires that you study a lot because it’s very technical. It’s a difficult style, for me it’s the most difficult style in flamenco. The school of Jerez, Sevilla, or of Andalucía in general is much easier and more accessible to any guitarist and, personally, I like it more. It lets you listen more than Caño Roto. That’s why I say it’s a such a violent and strong way of playing.

BELÉN MAYA, DANCER

My influences are from modern, contemporary, jazz, etc. I have a lot of influences. My mother didn’t want me to dance, but she took me to ballet. So, I did ballet when I was five, six, seven, and then [again at] ten, eleven, because we moved a lot. I’ve seen a lot of dance because we lived in the [United] States for some time too and my mother would take me to the theater, to dance, not to flamenco. She would take me to the museum when I was small too. When I look at flamenco I see more things than someone, for example, that is from Jerez. Of course, I don’t have the rhythmic versatility and wisdom of the tradition, of the singing tradition, for example. I don’t know as much as people from Jerez or Sevilla know. But I see different things, so my style is made of these influences and also I like to describe it as free, as a style that is basically creating itself and transforming itself all the time. Right now I’m so far away from the Saura movie. I can’t recognize myself, but I’m also far away from what I did last year. So I’m always changing, it’s a style in transition. It’s always changing and it’s always trying to go beyond. As I told you before, to always go beyond what is here, beyond what is obvious right now, even beyond myself

JOSÉ DE LA TOMASA, SINGER

The cante that I do is intuitive and comes from inspiration. I don’t ever sing the same way twice. You can hear me sing today and tomorrow I’ll sing the same lyric differently because flamenco and cante and music are alive. I’m one of the few singers left that sings from this type of inspiration. I don’t ever sing the same way because life is never the same. The mornings are never the same and neither are the nights, so I like to improvise on stage. I’m also lucky because I write my own lyrics. I’m my own author, and that allows me to do more with the cante.

ARMANDO MATEOS FERNÁNDEZ, SINGER

I think I’ve had my own style practically since I began. Since I was learning Camarón’s cantes and since my vocal range was similar to his, I could reach those really high notes and adjust to his voice. I’ve never considered myself a Camarón and I’ve never tried to be the same as him, but he was the one who got me into this. If I wouldn’t have known of him, I don’t think I’d be here doing flamenco. Of course, after some time I’ve had to focus on other singers in order to learn. I’ve learned that following Camaron isn’t the ideal path, but to start out with it was good. I do have my own style in that regard, at least I think so.

PEDRO BARRAGÁN, GUITARIST

When one thinks about his or herself, it’s hard to [see clearly]. These are the types of things that others help you see. When someone is listening to you and they say, “hey, that thing you’re doing there is really personal,” that’s when you know. If I closed myself off in a room by myself, I would never realize I had a personal style. It’s the contact with others that shows you this. I think I do have my own personal style and it’s also something I search for. I search continually. My internal sensations tell me I haven’t found it yet, but according to my friends and those who’ve heard me, I’ve had it for a while.

In addition to music, all paths are personal. Right away, in the moment you listen to a certain style of music instead of another and within that style you listen to a certain artist instead of another, you’re being influenced. There’s a unique way these influences communicate and that makes an exclusive combination. You become the only person that likes a specific artist and then another specific artist and all in a specific order, so all these influences are determining your personality from the beginning. It’s true that when you’re in the middle of a period of training, you have to play or sing or dance what the school dictates. But, when you move into the professional world and you’re able to do more of what you want, then the personality you’ve always had comes out.


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