NPR Story
3:37 pm
Wed February 26, 2014

Renowned Flamenco Guitarist Paco de Lucia Dies At Age 66

Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia died suddenly of a heart attack today in Cancun, Mexico, while on the beach with his children.

The 66-year-old guitarist vastly expanded the international audience for flamenco music and helped to legitimize flamenco in Spain itself, during a time when the music was largely being ignored by mainstream popularity.

In this encore report, NPR’s Felix Contreras discusses Paco de Lucia’s influential place at the forefront of modern flamenco. This piece originally aired July 16, 2004, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Reporter

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

World renown Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia died yesterday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 66. De Lucia transformed the sound of traditional flamenco music. He combined jazz, classical and Afro-Cuban rhythms with the folk sound of flamenco. In 2004 de Lucia released a new album that featured old tape of a previously unreleased song with his late musical partner, Camaron de la Isla. NPR's Felix Contreras reported on the album at that time and took a look back at de Lucia's career.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: When he was 12 years old, Paco de Lucia's family no longer could afford to pay for his schooling. His father told him he would have to find another way to make his way through life and pointed to the guitar in his son's hands. His father advised him, play the guitar and play it well. With the guitar, you can earn a living, go where you want to go and always be able to feed yourself. More than four decades later, it's safe to say that Paco de Lucia did much better than just feed himself.

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BROOK ZERN: There is simply no doubt that this is the greatest talent that flamenco guitar has ever seen.

CONTRERAS: Brook Zern is a guitarist and freelance journalist who has written about flamenco for The New York Times, the Village Voice and Guitar Review for over 30 years.

ZERN: The most far-reaching, transcendent talent that the art has ever produced on the guitar. So we may have a certain reservations about the direction that he has carried flamenco. At the same time, the respect for him is enormous.

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CONTRERAS: Reservations about mixing old and new would seem at odds with the music that is by its very nature a fusion. That mix is what sparked Paco de Lucia's interest as a boy in (foreign language spoken). Southern Spain is the birthplace of flamenco, and the region reflects the ambiente, the essence of the Roma people or gypsies who settled there. But de Lucia is payo, or non-Roma.

PACO DE LUCIA: (Through translator) I didn't have the consciousness about gypsy and non-gypsy, because my childhood life was very mixed. Later, when I was older, I understood the difference, but not as a child. Later, I knew I wasn't a gypsy, but I was living in that same culture and philosophy and way of life since the day I was born.

CONTRERAS: That way of life was shaped by the Roma's travels through India, the Middle East and eastern Europe, absorbing cultures along the way. They arrived in southern Spain just in time for the Inquisition in the 15th century. And though their experience was one of persecution and isolation, they survived to learn the Moorish culture of the south and traditional Spanish song forms.

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CONTRERAS: All of that went into the creation of flamenco.

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CONTRERAS: For centuries, the role of the guitarist to flamenco was to accompany singers and dancers. And while the center of attention was the dramatic and percussive dance steps, the true heart of flamenco was the voice.

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ZERN: Somebody might get up and dance, he needs a guitarist to back him up. But it's always the singer who is in command.

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CONTRERAS: Again, writer Brook Zern.

ZERN: Because it's the singer who's doing the most important aspect of the art, who's expressing that oral tradition that is centuries old and that has a certain depth and majesty that the human voice can produce that no other entity can give you.

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CONTRERAS: Flamenco remained a vehicle for singers and dancers until the 1950s, when guitarists Carlos Montoya and Sabicas gave the music its first worldwide exposure as instrumental soloists, not as accompanists. Paco de Lucia followed in their footsteps.

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CONTRERAS: Then in the late '60s, De Lucia met a young Roma vocalist named Jose Monje Cruz, also known as Camaron de la Isla. Their next 10 records together revolutionized flamenco by adding a distinctly contemporary approach.

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CONTRERAS: Camaron was six years younger than De Lucia, and he became a star. Think of the mass appeal of Frank Sinatra, the raw energy of Eddie Vedder and the explosive intensity of Jimi Hendrix all rolled into one voice.

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CONTRERAS: But the flamenco singer lived a rock and roll lifestyle and died at the age of 42 after years of heavy drug use. Paco de Lucia revisits his partnership with the singer on his new CD.

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CONTRERAS: The guitarist resurrected an old tape of the song that they never released.

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CONTRERAS: By creating a new music track, de Lucia gave life to a voice whose absence, he says, left a hole in his heart.

LUCIA: (Through translator) At one point the other guitarists and I felt like he was with us but stepped out for a coffee at the bar on the corner. It made me sad on the one hand. But on the other, it was gratifying because it was like we were reviving him. How he sang, incredible. Listen to this part.

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LUCIA: (Through translator) Camaron was incredible.

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CONTRERAS: That song called "Que Venga el Alba" is the emotional centerpiece of a record that features de Lucia accompanying seven different flamenco singers. He once again pushes the boundaries on the record by using jazz influence chords and world music rhythms. But by choosing to accompany singers, he says he's making a back-to-basics statement.

LUCIA: (Through translator) It is the purest expression of flamenco. Outside of Spain, few appreciate the singing because it's more complex, more difficult. I never wanted to try to sing. But instead I hid behind the guitar because the guitar was the star, not me. I have always been a frustrated singer.

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CONTRERAS: Still, it's as a guitar showman that De Lucia is best known in this country. He's collaborated with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell. While De Lucia says he absorbs everything he hears, he swears an allegiance to the Roma roots of flamenco.

LUCIA: (Through translator) My flamenco is not a fusion. I have always been careful that it doesn't lose the essence and the roots and the tradition of what is flamenco. I have incorporated other things, but things that have not altered the philosophy of the music. I have, as my only interest in all this, to grow as a musician who plays flamenco and not to bring things that some way or another changes the identity of this music.

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CHAKRABARTI: That story from NPR's Felix Contreras first aired on MORNING EDITION in 2004. Flamenco great Paco de Lucia died yesterday. He was 66. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.