Eduardo Rebollar, Guitarist/Instructor, Part 1

Today I have the pleasure of introducing the great maestro Eduardo Rebollar of Artes Escénicas Rebollar. Eduardo is a singular figure in the world of flamenco instruction who specializes in the accompaniment of cante (flamenco singing). He has an encyclopedic knowledge of cante and has accompanied many of flamenco’s most important singers. He is beloved by his students and his academy is known for its family-like atmosphere and sense of camaraderie.   

After spending nearly twenty years teaching at the Fundación Cristina Heeren, he now dedicates himself fully to running his own flamenco academy. I had the opportunity to study for a year at Eduardo’s school and it was an experience I’ll hold close forever. In addition to the instruction I received and the wisdom I acquired, I was also struck by how Eduardo is as a person. He is as authentic as they come. He is a dedicated, generous, and genuinely good human being. He cares deeply about his students, treats them with respect, and has mentored many top artists as they’ve progressed throughout their careers. He is also funny as hell. 

Interview conducted on May 11, 2018, at  Artes Escénicas Rebollar in Sevilla, Spain. 

My name is Eduardo Rebollar. I’m from Sevilla and I’m a flamenco guitarist. 

What was your first experience with music?

My first experience was when I was very little. I liked music in general, the Bee Gees and those types of people. One day I received a guitar as a gift. I was fifteen then and I’ve never let it go since then, and I’m 52 years old now. I fell in love with flamenco and it’s become my way of life, my way of being, everything.

Did you have aficionados or artists in your family?

No, we’re not a family with artistic descendants at all, but we did like music, any type of music. My parents didn’t work as artists or anything like that. I was the first to stand out in that regard.

How did you start learning flamenco?

I knew a young woman named  María José Domínguez, who is now a professor here at the conservatory in Sevilla in the dance department. She was the first one to put a guitar in my hands. I always like to mention that because of the whole topic of women in flamenco. I like to defend the idea of women in flamenco. She was the one who got me started and who saw potential in me. I learned at her place first. She told me that I was doing well and that I should go learn to play for dancing. I asked her where I should go and she said I should go to Matilde Coral’s studio. I remember I was just 15 and so my parents didn’t want me to go. They weren’t excited about me being around artists. [María José] went to talk to them so they’d let me go and I’ll always be grateful to her for that. That was my first real experience with music and with the world of flamenco.

What was your flamenco community like in that moment?

I was just a kid who was starting out, like anyone else. We were a middle class family, not upper class, but from a humble class. I remember I was working in a bar at that time. I worked ten hours a day and, if I had four hours left, I’d go play for the dancers at Matilde Coral’s studio. I didn’t have proper teachers, no one else besides that one lady. I was with her for one year. After that, I continued teaching myself a little bit and also learned from other young guitarists. I had to do all that while working though. I had to work because I had to help out at home. I didn’t have all day to play the guitar and my work didn’t lend itself well to the guitar. I spent all day scrubbing dishes and it busted up my nails. It was a little bit like the American dream though. I was all dressed up like Clark Kent and then suddenly I’d be Superman, that sort of thing. Truthfully, when I think about it now it seems hard, but at that age I had so many dreams and was so eager. I didn’t care what time it was and I didn’t care about how much work there was to do. If I had to do it today, I probably wouldn’t want to, but when you’re 15 or 16 years old you’re so excited. I never set out to become a professional guitarist, never. I played only because I liked it. After spending some time in Matilde Coral’s dance classes, dancers were starting to call me: “Hey I’m going to be dancing at such and such a place, why don’t you come play for me.” More dancers started calling and I was starting to work and was now inside the art world because of my guitar. I met more people and they called more. Eventually, I was able to leave the bar and dedicate myself exclusively to the guitar.

It was an organic, natural thing. 

Natural. Also, I think there’s a problem today with the young guitarists that are just starting to play. They start with the idea that they’re going to be famous stars. I think that’s a problem because art can’t be measured. You’re either a guitarist or you aren’t. You can play really well and not be an artist. You can be a great instrumentalist and still not be an artist. It scares me a lot when they say “I want to be a guitarist because I want to do this thing or the other.” This makes me panic because I remember that when I began I didn’t set down these targets or objectives. I did it because I enjoyed it. I did it to have fun. I did it because of the pleasure it gave me. If I had to work 10 hours in the bar, it didn’t drag me down because I knew I could always play guitar afterwards. It was a natural thing, like if you have a seed in the ground and four months later a tree pops up and you say to yourself “how could this be!” I wasn’t expecting that a tree would sprout, but it did. Something like that happened to me.

What types of doubts have you had in your professional career?

Types of doubts… I’ve had a lot. One thing that I’ve cared about and still care about is flamenco pedagogy. Flamenco lacks a lot of things still. There are many things that can be perfectly explained and explained simply. Flamenco suffers from a lack of pedagogy.  

And why is that?

It’s simple. The person who does flamenco professionally never thinks that they’re eventually going to have to dedicate themselves to teaching. They always think that they’re going to sing or dance or play on stage their whole lives. They never think about giving classes and so when the moment arrives to teach, they’re not prepared. When I started, because of the family that I came from I had to start chipping in early and help out. One year after playing the guitar, I was already giving classes. It was a necessity and through that I found a vocation that I didn’t know I had, which is to teach and create a pedagogy for flamenco. As an artist many doubts arose because I realized that hardly anyone [around me] knew how to explain anything. People know how to do it, but not how to explain it and those are two very different things. When foreign students come here to Sevilla, or anywhere else in Andalucía that does flamenco, they often ask questions that their teachers simply can’t ask. The student often thinks that the teacher doesn’t want to answer them, but I can assure you that’s not the response. They don’t tell you because they just don’t know how! I tell the students not to believe this because it is false. They don’t answer because they can’t. They can demonstrate something by playing it and they can play it a million times if necessary, but they don’t know what they’re doing. They do it as a result of an inertia created throughout their entire lives.     

In a perfect world, let’s say 10 or 20 years from now, how would flamenco education look?

It might be wrong for me to say it, but I think I’ve contributed a lot to the world of flamenco education. You have to either evolve with the time or die, right? One has to evolve with the changing times and with the changing technologies. In flamenco you usually don’t get sheet music, for example. I’ve been giving my students sheet music for 25 years. I’ve always had sheet music for the students. With the passage of time, the sheet music for flamenco in general has become much more professional. In the past there wasn’t any rhythmic solfege and now there is. I’ve always felt this is important because the students, and above all the foreign students, can read music perfectly well! It’s really useful for them. You can record something a hundred times and say “no, it goes right here!” But, if you just write it down you will see how quickly they get it. I’ve contributed a lot to this type of progress. It’s most noticeable in the accompaniment of singing. I’ve developed a lot of teaching material over the years, but I’ve also helped show students that the secret to flamenco generally lies in the singing. Flamenco will never cease to be the sung history of Andalucía. If you know the sung history of Andalucía, this will help you express why you like a Malagueña or why you like a Soleá. They are distinct feelings [with a distinct origin]. I try to instill all this in my students. I don’t just tell them where C major is or where D is. There’s much more to this! [I use sheet music], but I also aim to teach that which cannot be written down. I think that’s the special thing I have to offer. I try to teach the soul of flamenco and flamenco’s soul cannot be written down. I help the students appreciate the singing and literature as much as an arpeggio or a tremolo because that’s everything. You can do an impressive arpeggio, tremolo, or picado, and not say a damn thing. I prefer that you tell me something [with your playing]. I try to instill the truth about all this to my students.         

About two weeks ago I watched an interview with Manolo Sanlúcar and it seems he has a similar attitude regarding flamenco education. He uses written music and has obviously had a lot of success with his students. It seems flamenco shouldn’t be so afraid of written music and of incorporating new ideas.

Man! That makes me feel good because if you compare me with Manolo that way… that’s a great privilege because Manolo is one of history’s great masters of the flamenco guitar. That makes me proud because it makes me believe even more in the work I’m doing. I know Manolo is a studious person. This also makes me a little scared because I know Manolo is going crazy with all of this and I’m walking down the same path! We’re both going to go mad! Our love for this doesn’t come from the fact that we get paid to do it. No one gets paid enough, and especially those who teach it, for the love and sacrifices that flamenco requires. If you teach simply because you’re getting paid, that’s noticeable. However, if you teach because you like it, the difference is tremendous. We’re both slaves to our love of flamenco and to our profession. We’re always researching the “why” of things. In this sense we’re quite similar. I’m always inventing things. People often say that you have to get out there and search for work. I say that you must invent work. I think this is wiser. If you don’t have work, invent the work yourself. Do it in a way that no one else can. Dig deep with these sorts of things. And like I said before, I utilize new technologies to support a flamenco pedagogy. There are many ways of doing this, I gave you the example of the sheet music earlier. The guitar teachers here who work to give sheet music to the students, they split their heads open doing this work. We want to give our students the best methods possible from which to learn, and the students are thankful for it. They really appreciate it.  

Eduardo + Gustavo 2 - Cropped
Eduardo Rebollar and the author after performing in Sevilla. May 16, 2019

As I’ve worked on this project, I’ve spoken to young people, people in the middle of their careers, and also older artists. Many older artists tell me that young people do flamenco well, that they have lots of technique and knowledge, but that there’s a real lack of personality. Do you agree with this and what’s going on with the younger generation?

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.

There have been many stereotypes surrounding flamenco for a long time. What do you think is the most destructive stereotype about flamenco and the people associated with it?

In the past, people who did flamenco were degraded and referred to as a maricón (gay) if they were male, or a tortillera (whore) if they were female. I don’t even know where to start with all that. Those were some of the worst things about that time period. Thank God that has changed and is still changing. Today, we have aeronautical engineers in the world of flamenco. We have people with careers in philosophy. There are architects and people with a deep cultural capacity reaching the world of flamenco. In the past, this wasn’t possible. This country was run by a dictatorship. We can never forget that. Nobody had the opportunity to leave and study. Not at all, give me a break! People just did what they could. That is changing and evolving now. Today, flamenco is full of sophisticated people with strong cultural backgrounds and incredible academic educations.

This post is Part 1 of Eduardo’s interview. For additional excerpts of this interview and others, click Follow at bottom left to follow the blog and receive email updates.

Click here to read Part 2

If you would like to support Palabras Flamencas, please click the Donate button below or click here to purchase the author’s album, Punto Lejano. Thank you. 

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