Fire and Heart: Remembering Paco de Lucia

An encounter with the wide-ranging flamenco guitar great



A single spotlight marked the strings of his guitar. The only person onstage, head bowed in concentration, he curled the melody through his fingers and strummed the rhythm within him. One by one, the others walked on and joined him: Two guitars, percussion, palmas (hand-clapping) and voice. Bass guitar and mandolin, flute and saxophone. And the dancer, who slowly uncoiled himself through feet and fingertips, then stamped and spun furiously, sweat spiraling off his face.

An hour before this April 4, 2001, concert of Paco de Lucia’s, at the du Maurier International Jazz Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, I met him for the first time, on assignment for Down Beat magazine. For two months before that night, I immersed myself in Paco’s music and life. I listened to his CDs over and over. I read his biography (Paco de Lucia: A New Tradition for the Flamenco Guitar, by Paco Sevilla) and every article on him I could find. I gazed at photographs of him and, for the second time, saw the movie, Carmen (directed by Carlos Saura), and kept repeating the part where he played (before there was ever YouTube). I confess. I was in love.

Paco, who died this week at age 66, had slammed through the boundaries of flamenco—beyond its folk roots and into fusion—from his first jazz performance with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1967 to his world-renowned septet. Along the way, he never strayed from flamenco’s basic tradition and sense of spirit. “If the soul of flamenco is there, you can change some of the musical forms by incorporating syncopation or more harmony, and still say the same thing,” he said, sitting there with me in his small, plain dressing room at the Orpheum Theatre, wearing a black t-shirt with “Los Bestiales” on it like The Beatles logo. As he talked, he softly fingered the strings of his guitar. “Many people say that I play jazz or fusion, but I don’t claim to be anything other than a flamenco guitarist.”

No one would deny that Paco was one of the world’s greatest. Talk flamenco and there’s Before Paco and After. With his guitar, he invented new tunings, introduced new chords and chord inversions, and played melodies normally sung. He collaborated with jazz musicians John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Chick Corea and Al Di Meola. Purists blasted Paco for jumping into jazz and allegedly destroying flamenco. But the rapid-fire scale passages he volleyed with McLaughlin and Di Meola only pumped up the applause of a much wider, international audience.

“Paco was the first flamenco guitarist with the vision and courage to step beyond the parameters of the music’s roots and expand into harmonies and scales not known or familiar to the older traditionalists,” Al Di Meola told me in an email back then. The oud, sitar and electric bass, bongos, saxophone and flute all made their flamenco debut with Paco.

And why not? Flamenco originated from diverse cultures. In southern Spain, in the early 1500s, the music of Andalucia, with its Roma, Moorish and Spanish roots, gave birth to what in the 1800s became known as flamenco. A century later, the ever-evolving musical form would find its way into the eager hands of a seven-year-old born Francisco Sánchez Gómez (on December 21, 1947 in Algeciras, Spain). Paco’s father, a journeyman and guitarist, and older brother Ramón gave him his first formal lessons, in the style of Niño Ricardo, then Spain’s most influential guitarist.

At age 11, Paco quit school to practice for eight hours a day, determined to put an end to the family’s poverty. Also in 1958, he made his first public appearance, with his brother Pepe, a singer, and the following year won his first award, in the Festival Concurso Internacional Flamenco de Jerez de la Frontera. In the mid-’60s, Paco de Lucia (his stage name, after his mother Lucia Gómez) toured with dancer Jóse Greco’s company, and made his first solo recording, La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucia.

Around this time, he met Camarón de la Isla, the legendary flamenco singer, and the two made more than ten records together over the years, until Camarón’s death in 1992. Influencing and inspiring each other, they revolutionized flamenco, and a new tributary of the art form surged on the scene.

“Paco’s music turned my musical mind around,” said Chick Corea, also in an email to me. He had met Paco in the early ’70s and toured and recorded with him in the early ’80s. “I had never heard anything of such beauty and depth before. My familiarity with flamenco music, in general, then began to grow, but he has remained a favorite of mine, no matter what style.”

Admitting to me how little he understood jazz harmonies then, Paco said, “I spent many concerts, at first, completely lost without knowing where I was, listening to the chords and trying to follow them like crazy.”

When he improvised, it was mainly within a given compas (rhythm), such as the 12-beat cycle of the bulerías. While adhering to its strict structure, he syncopated the rhythm in anticipation of the down beat. “Even now, only about three times a year with jazz can I go with my intuition, without thinking. That makes me very happy. When I feel that I’m floating inside the improvisation, without having to think and everything’s easy, that’s duende, inspiration.”

Paco was also inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane—“all the jazz masters. I listen to everybody. But Camarón is the most important, and now, of course, I miss him, and the two or three months we’d spend together every year making a recording,” their last one being Un Potro de Rabia y Miel (1991). “We opened up many doors for flamenco.”

“How is flamenco continuing to evolve?” I asked him, as he lit his second cigarette. He said, “When I was a kid, flamenco was immobile. Now there are a lot of people making their own flamenco music, not the music of their grandfathers like when I was young. Some of the music is good, some less good. But it’s moving, and that’s the most important thing. And yet, the tradition is safe because many people don’t want it to move. But the people doing crazy things with the music cannot change that.”

Corea’s email went on to say, “Paco’s guitar playing, composing and improvising have certainly set a very high standard for all other flamenco musicians to follow. The brilliant, young flamenco guitarist, Vicente Amigo is a prime example of Paco’s influence amongst the flamenco musicians of Spain.” So is Tomatito, considered to be Paco’s first “heir,” and one of Camarón’s accompanists.

“I was always looking to surprise my colleagues with something they don’t expect,” Paco told me. “I play only for them—and myself. If you try to play what audiences want, you’ll get lost. I know how to make a show, playing like a machine gun, but that doesn’t make me happy. I want to express more what I feel.”

Towards the end of our interview, he said something that I still think about today, and not just when it comes to music: “I don’t play one note more than necessary. If you understand this, you understand the core of flamenco. With any music, sometimes three notes can say much more than three thousand.”

Claire Sykes with Paco de Lucia. Photo: Bob Priest.

Claire Sykes with Paco de Lucia, post-concert, 2001. Photo: Bob Priest

©2014 Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

Claire Sykes is a Portland freelance writer,

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3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Que bueno, what a wonderful tribute to one of the world’s greatest musicians of all-time, brava!

    Paco has been a vital part of my life ever since I first saw him “en vivo” back in 1973 while I was studying with Pepe Romero in L.A. His art, incendiary playing & laser focus has been an inspiration to millions of people. Pacito is a supreme genius with a heart, mind & soul branded by the fires of eternity.

    March Music Moderne IV is dedicated to Paco’s living & breathing memory in the very here of the now – and forever.

    Gracias a la Vida!

  2. Tricia Snell says:

    What a fine tribute–thank you Claire Sykes! He is an inspiration to all of us to not only strive for excellence but to cross boundaries….

  3. craig says:

    Nicely written and very informative Claire. I like the way you put his economy of notes into practice–not one more word than is needed– and those that remain are full of feeling.

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