As our discussion continues, Eduardo talks about the meaning of the word flamenco, its use as an expression of identity, and the changes he’s seeing within its community. These are topics that Eduardo feels strongly about, and his energy comes through in the interview.
Interview conducted on May 11, 2018, at Artes Escénicas Rebollar in Sevilla, Spain.
How do you find the balance between playing/performing and teaching? (At this point Eduardo misunderstood the question. He thought I asked about the equilibrium between playing and singing. It’s an interesting answer nonetheless.)
It’s one thing to be a guitarist and it’s another thing to be a flamenco guitarist. There’s the instrumentalist who has all the technique. Then there’s the flamenco guitarist. The flamenco guitarist has to know each style (or structural form) of flamenco and each style depends on the state of mind and the emotional state of a person. There is a feeling there. If you are playing a Soleá, what emerges is love. You have to be thinking about love. Apart from the technical, if you’re accompanying singing, the singing and the guitar have to become one single entity. This is where things often fall apart today. Everyone is going off in their own direction. That [critical] union is not there. I don’t understand flamenco if it doesn’t have this. I don’t like it. For example, if you say Malagueña, it’s the weight of the entire world we’re talking about. It’s about the person who’s given up, who’s defeated because they just can’t handle it anymore. The person has arrived to the point where he/she just doesn’t care anymore. The world of tragedy exists also, of pain, of when a person simply can’t overcome the challenges of life. This is the world of the Siguiriya, which is the world of death. It’s about the helplessness one feels when confronted with death.
The other day I was talking to Brazilian kid. Brazilian music has amazing harmony because it’s based on an entire culture. He told me that Brazilian music is great, but that it doesn’t have the tension of a flamenco guitarist playing a Siguiriya or of someone singing a Siguiriya. He said that this was why he was here. When a great musician says something like this, it’s because it’s true! Therefore, I think a flamenco guitarist has to have this knowledge. If someone is going to work as a flamenco guitarist, they have to dedicate themselves to accompanying dance and singing just as much as to being a soloist. You can’t remain stuck in the sheet music either. There is a soul behind this music. If that soul doesn’t appear, I don’t give a damn about anything else. Nothing will surprise me. I’ll be surprised by how the music breathes. Each style has a particular aroma. If you play Soleá, it has to have the aroma of Soleá. If you play Siguiriya, it has to have the aroma of Siguiriya. The same goes for Bulería. If you play Soleá and it has the aroma of the Blues, well that’s not what I’m looking for. This all seems quite important to me.
What does the word flamenco mean and how has it been misused or misunderstood? I’m not referring to the word’s origins, but of its significance today.
I think the word flamenco has been misused. I often use the word cante grande (grand song) instead of saying flamenco. Actually, it’s even better to call it cante jondo (deep song) and then flamenco. They are two distinct things. Flamenco is all the bulerías that are out there that sound like flamenquito (little flamenco), that have drum sets and all that stuff. Cante jondo is something else. It is profound. It has deep roots and it has a history. It’s as if we take an onion, the center of the onion is cante jondo. Once you’ve peeled it for a while from the outside, that’s flamenco. The worthless outer layer, that’s the flamenquito (laughing).
There are also many people that use the word to define their identity, to be flamenco. “He is really flamenco, or I am flamenco.” What is it to be flamenco?
Okay, let’s see. There are various ways of understanding this. I’m going to give you a straightforward example. “Eso viste mucho (you’ve seen a lot of that).” That’s the same as saying, “soy Gitano (I am Gitano (Roma or Gypsy). There are many people out there that aren’t Gitanos that go around saying they’re Gitanos. I think that’s the dumbest thing in the world. It is true that being flamenco has a certain history to it. To be flamenco is to be in love with your art, with your work, with the hours you spend studying. To be flamenco isn’t just being some dude who gets up out of bed saying he’s flamenco! To be a guitarist, you have to work a lot. To be a dancer, you have to work a lot. To be a singer, you have to work a lot. You have to study this. Being flamenco is a title that one earns with the passage of time. It’s also a way of seeing life. It’s a lifestyle that flamencos have, like when six or seven or twelve flamencos get together at the festivals. There’s a certain way we talk to each other, a certain grace. But, being flamenco is nothing more than being someone who works hard, that likes one’s art, and then gets up on stage to demonstrate it. Flamenco isn’t just, “ah ya, let’s go!” No. That stuff is all good, but being flamenco comes with responsibility, with many hours of study, with knowledge, with love of one’s work, and with a particular way of seeing life. We see many things in a way that’s not natural for most people. That doesn’t just happen with flamenco though, that’s the world of art in general. Artists have a sensibility that others don’t have. This can be in flamenco, it can be in painting, in whatever. Because of this, certain people can be artists and others can’t. That’s what people are talking about when they say to be flamenco. It’s someone that dedicates his or her self, with body and soul, to their profession. This is a profession, after all.
What’s the image you have now of the flamenco community? And, what are the most important changes you’ve seen in this community throughout your life?
There is a transition going on right now. Everything going on has to do with what’s happening economically at the global level. For example, earnings for artistic work are practically the same as they were 15 years ago. The status [of the artist] has risen a lot, but the salaries are the same. Therefore, I think there’s a problem. It’s the worst time period ever to be an artist. The worst time! It’s the worst because whenever there are economic problems, they always pull [resources] from culture.
Today, the flamenco artist also doesn’t think the same as before either. When I started playing on stage, I wanted a singer to come. I wanted a dancer to come. I wanted everyone to come because there was work to do. Today, that has changed. The flamenco being created now isn’t the flamenco I used to know. People have the opportunity to study flamenco in the conservatories now, so they have the chance to earn a [degree and] a title. With this title they can be considered a professional and work for the State, which is to be a millionaire! You’ll never be without work for your whole life! That’s what this country and the whole world is suffering from, the sickness of titulitis! Here, having a title is everything; it’s practically the only thing that matters. If you develop a flamenco musician in the conservatory, it’s completely different than raising one in the streets. The difference is tremendous. They will know how to analyze a written score and all that, but they seem to always lack that sensibility I was telling you about before. Everything is very controlled and measured. But that’s just the way it is. They have a title.
Does it seem to you that the flamenco artists from the conservatories sing or play without taking as many risks?
Of course, because their lives are more comfortable. It’s that simple. There are many artists working in the conservatories now and they’re more comfortable. They live a much more relaxed life. They have a monthly salary and so they’re much more relaxed. I’ve never relaxed in my whole life and I’ve been teaching for 25 years now. I’m always wanting to do new things. The artist that already has a salary and has that economic stability doesn’t have the same sort of life. It wasn’t always like that. Things were different in the past. We’ve been going through this transition for about the last five or six years here.
It seems to me that today flamenco inside and outside of Spain is gaining more respect. Flamenco artists are performing in the best theaters in the world. But, it also seems to me like it lacks the respect it deserves when compared to other forms of music. How do you see all of this?
Flamenco has always been in the world’s best theaters. This isn’t just now, I’m talking about way back in the 1920s, way before Paco [De Lucía]. We often forget this. In my school, Artes Escénicas Rebollar, I also do exactly what you’re doing now. I interview people with a certain experience that have lived a life full of flamenco. Recently, I did an interesting interview, which is now up on our YouTube channel, of a lady who was a dancer. She lived her life between Europe and the United States. Her name was Luisa de Triana and she showed me a concert poster from the 30s or 40s at the Hollywood Bowl [in Los Angeles] where she shared the bill with Carmen Amaya and Frank Sinatra! This was many decades ago! We often think this is a new thing, but no! We’re wrong. This started way back. This woman worked for years in Las Vegas, Nevada, where 5000 people would show up to see a flamenco show. What I want to say is that things are actually worse for us now. In the past, artists would earn much more money. Impressive people like [Luis García] Berlanga, [Pablo] Picasso, and a whole slew of others were interested in flamenco. We can’t forget about these times. We often think flamenco started in the 60s or 70s, but it was much earlier [that it started gaining prestige].
Today there is more media. There is more publicity. We have the internet now and before it didn’t exist. It reaches many more people now because all the publicity it gets. Even here in Andalucía it’s not valued the way it should be. It continues to be appreciated more and more, but we’re moving too slow. But, at least it is gaining more respect. I remember that I gave a workshop in Los Angeles about ten years ago. I had Andy Summers of the Police as a student. I had Sting as a student. It was an incredible experience with really important people in the music world. Amazing.
What is the approach and attitude that you have in terms of your technique?
Technique is the vehicle that gives an artist the power to say something. If the vehicle is top-of-the-line, a Ferrari, it can do more than a lesser car. Technique is at the service of the music, not the other way around. Some people think that the music should serve the technique. That is a huge mistake. Great technique is not needed to accompany, although you do need to be able to do certain things, but a guitarist that dedicates himself to accompaniment needs to understand what that means. He needs to know the cante (singing) and needs to know about the singer and what he/she needs. After that, if you have more technique you can still put it to use there, but without overstepping yourself. When it comes to accompaniment, technical guitarists normally aren’t very good. What they want is technique, and because of that they often play solo, because that’s where their abilities lie. But to accompany well, you must be an aficionado of cante. I think students today come in search of this, they want to be able to accompany both cante and baile (dancing).
When you’re on stage, for whom do you really play? Is it yourself, your fellow musicians, or the audience, or something different?
Given that what I’ve done most is play for singing, I play for the singer. I play to please the singer and to help the singer get comfortable. If the singer is successful, the guitarist will be successful as well. If the singer isn’t successful and the guitarist is, then something’s wrong.
Have you always felt that way, or has that changed as you’ve become more experienced?
When guitarists are 20 or 22 years old, they accompany singing as if they’re just waiting for the singer to finish so they can play their falsetas (guitar solos). They want to play every falseta they know. That changes with time and age. You look for other things. Little by little, you learn how the guitar fits into the world of cante. People often think of the accompanist’s role as a secondary role, but I’m telling you many times it’s the primary role. I’d say that 80% of time it’s actually primary, but when the credits roll and they’re listing the actors, so to speak, we don’t show up first. We should show up first because oftentimes the work we’re doing is much more interesting. When you get involved with this professionally, you start realizing what your role is and who you are when you’re accompanying on stage. If I would have wanted to be a soloist, it would have been another story altogether. I would have been the protagonist, but I do feel like the protagonist when I’m playing for singing or dancing because I’m happy and I like it.
This post is Part 2 of Eduardo’s interview. Please click here to return to Part 1. For additional excerpts of this interview and others, click Follow at bottom left to follow the blog and receive email updates.
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