Americans have never really understood the guitar. For most of my country(wo)men, their conception begins and ends with the electric guitar (invented by an American, of course), whether or not they realize it. This perhaps explains the almost total ignorance of flamenco in the USA, despite geniuses like Paco de Lucia and his fusion accomplices (Al di Meola, John Mclaughlin, Larry Coryell) elevating it to a thoroughly modern artform over the past 30 years.
Some Americans have a passing familiarity with classical guitar, which has the following attributes in common with flamenco: both use acoustic guitars with nylon strings (though of different builds, woods, and characteristics), both have many of their chief exponents and composers originating from Spain or Spanish speaking countries, both are played without a pick or plectrum. Beyond those similarities, many differences exist.
When I told one acquaintance, who goes to many concerts, that I was going to see Vicente Amigo, one of the greatest flamenco (or in any paradigm) guitarists alive, he asked, good naturedly, “Oh, like Segovia?” (Leading exponent of the classical guitar, dead for almost 30 years, who as far as I understand, had nothing but scorn for flamenco).
Flamenco is a true Spanish-fusion art form, realized only in the context of Spanish history (waves of fluid integration of multiple groups followed by periods of heightened fascism and insularity, not dissimilar from Japan), and one which scarcely exists outside of it, to this day. As with jazz, which is now more popular in Europe than in the USA despite being one of the truly genuine American cultural products, there is somewhat of an awareness of flamenco in European countries outside of Spain, but which then drops to trickling droplets when one crosses to this side of the Atlantic. What people think is representative of a good guitarist in the USA would more often than not be a) at best, a mediocre player by Spanish-flamenco standards, trashed by any number of excellent guitarists one can find playing in metro stations and alleys in Madrid, or b) if actually skilled, most likely playing jazz or their own unclassifiable genre they developed largely in a vacuum over many years (Leo Kottke), and subsequently, ignored by the vast majority of Americans. Such musicians (including both Al di Meola and John Mclaughlin, who have publicly voiced such sentiments) probably prefer to tour in Europe, where one can actually find a happily paying audience for technical music that is not a recycled best-of composers from centuries long past, which is about the only thing (old) Americans shill out for in any number, (provided its been highly canonized, of course, and doesn’t include any surprises, innovation, or improvisation).
It is with this scathing critique of my society’s lack of genuine interest and support of the arts that I can at least thank SFJazz for being one of Vicente Amigo’s stops on a rare American tour (despite poor publicity and the same regurgitated quote by Pat Metheny about Vicente Amigo used and re-used lazily in every English publication), and that plenty of people showed up to listen and cheer him up (median age: roughly 20 years above mine). Vicente Amigo is almost 50 years old now! (But still looks fairly young, though that 1/2 wide goatee is a bit weird). For the longest time he was one of Paco de Lucia’s young prodigies, and early videos of him (already displaying total command of the guitar in his first album made in his early 20s) make him appear more like a dashing young Danish prince rather than the grizzled gypsies we are led to believe incubate with flamenco in the womb, or maybe the holes in the hillside of Granada.
Having listened to Vicente’s recordings and videos for a number of years, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. His virtuosity is pretty much unparalleled, and he has always tended towards lovely melodies and sonorous harmonies, if anything, veering slightly towards being too poppy or even sappy on a few recordings. But, whereas Paco’s discovery and way of opening flamenco into the rest of the world, reinventing the artform, was largely through jazz and various related fusion idioms, Vicente is a bit closer to my generation, and subsequently is informed by a less heavy technique, a different diversity of sources (and musicians) to draw from, as well as a general sensibility that just feels a bit more “modern,” right down to his choices for song length (a bit shorter) to the shimmering reverb that I could hear last night as well as in many of his recordings (far “wetter” than anything one can hear on any Paco, Camaron, or most of Tomatito’s recordings). And that’s a net positive, because we all need to find our own paths.
Relistening to several of his albums this weekend, as the rain falls, I was reliving my memories of the intense focus and tightness that artists of his caliber (and their expert accompaniment) bring, but also trying to see if I could better distill the qualities that I have come to value in music more generally, particularly as I have been more focused on creating my own over the past year. As with last night, some points stuck out immediately: a constant dynamic presence, a careful shifting and modulation of volume, pitch, ever shifting chords and melodies which always follows a structure but weaves a pattern of continual tension, sometimes giving the listener a perception that the car will go off the tracks–but it never does. (In this respect, especially on his more recent work, there is a noticeable lessened use of diminished and minor chords and structures, particularly compared to early and middle Paco, and diametrically composed to old, pre-Paco flamenco, e.g. Sabicas, which sounds positively linear to me due to its constant insistence on transmitting despair and tension without respite). It goes without saying that rhythm was always, always there, both within polyrhythms as well as the catch-and-release of aforementioned melodic and harmonic passages all lining up neatly–if seemingly out of sync for a moment, only to resolve later.
After I finished listening to Tierra and Ciudad de las Ideas, I put on some Aphex Twin, just for comparison. A strange playlist, some might think (if a devotee of one was even aware of the other–a low probability), but why not? Both masters of their domain, who have carved out unique paths out of years of dedication, both in fact, virtually the same age, but from very different cultural environments, although separated by only a short flight away from each other. Although created in a totally different manner, across multiple songs by Mr. Richard D. James I found many of the very same qualities of a shifting-but always in control presence, *usually* opposed to cliche (I think AFX is better in his more recent work in this regard), dissonance and sonority opposed and then resolved, rhythm, melody, harmony, all working together but not always in immediately perceptible ways. Both incite great joy and creativity within me, inspire me, and have directly informed my guitar technique as well as my musical perception and, more recently, compositional method and use of electronic tools.
While Paco looked south and east to the blending Arab-roots of flamenco in albums like Almoraima and Siroco from his position on the edge of Andalucia, and Tomatito has made some Afro-cuban explorations combined with a pure Gitano sound, Vicente has taken a different tactic with his most recent album, Tierra, and instead looked north, to the shared Celtic ancestry of both Spain and the British Isles. The music video for Roma shows him making his own kind of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where I too have walked the streets in the rain, and gaped at moss-eaten statues and imposing gothic stone, while shopkeepers enthusiastically pawned strange breads and bland, Portuguese-style foods.
For the encore, he closed with it, each band member slowly muting their parts, the lights dimming until he was the last one playing into darkness, and only the flickers of the solitary chord progression remained. They all stood, took modest bows to rupturing applause, and Vicente touched his hand over the hearts of each of his band mates.