Thursday, February 27, 2014

Paco de Lucía: Death of an innovator

A month ago, Pete Seeger died. Seeger was considered to have been a folk music purist, and the story goes that he was so offended by Bob Dylan's use of electric instrumentation at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that he threatened to cut the cables. In fact, he did say that he would cut the cables, but that was because he thought the sound was distorted. Nevertheless, the story took hold that Seeger, the purist, objected to Dylan's going electric and so sided with many in the audience who took exception to the non-traditional use of the electric guitar in folk music and booed Dylan's performance.

Apocryphal the story may have been, but it is often cited as one of the more obvious examples of how musical genres, in being developed and taken away from their traditional roots, can cause not only a musical revolution but also disrupt the status quo and order of things within these genres. Dylan's poetry had already been enormously important in shaping the direction of 1960s music, but when he plugged in the amp that music took a giant leap forward. The folk music old school was horrified, but a whole new school emerged. The order of things was disrupted for good.

Miles Davis did something similar in the jazz world. In fact, Davis kept doing some things differently. He pretty much invented electric jazz and the whole idea of fusion, be it with rock or other styles. The purists were offended, but thanks to Davis, jazz was to come out of an elite closet in the 1970s and to create a whole new audience who listened to Davis and the often rock-influenced albums of his numerous collaborators and protégés, and one of the musicians who was involved with this new electric-jazz genre with Davis was the British guitarist John McLaughlin.

In 1979, McLaughlin, who was alternating between playing acoustic and electric guitar, teamed up with first Larry Coryell and then Al Di Meola, both American jazz-fusion guitarists. Di Meola replaced the drug-addicted Coryell and brought an additional touch of Latin influence to a trio whose third member was Paco de Lucía. Together they recorded an album called "Friday Night In San Francisco". It comprised five tracks, and it was essentially a jazz album, except of course there was a difference, and that difference was the playing of de Lucía, the maestro of the flamenco guitar.

There were to be two further albums by this trio, one released in 1983 and the third in 1996, but it was the original collaboration which unleashed the opprobrium of the flamenco traditionalist. The status quo and the order of things in flamenco music were disrupted and, as had been the consequence of Dylan with his electric guitar, they were disrupted for good; de Lucía had created the fusion of flamenco with jazz.

It is no exaggeration to place de Lucía on a similar pedestal as Dylan and Davis. By following the fusion route, de Lucía took flamenco to a wider international audience while he also spawned a whole separate genre of flamenco jazz which itself crossed over and became a key ingredient in the distinctively Spanish flamenco chill music. In so doing, he offended purists, but what the purists failed to appreciate was that de Lucía, by finding international popularity because of fusion, was also able to popularise more traditional flamenco music. Indeed, he became the great ambassador for flamenco: what he described as one of the five or six "essential genres" of world music.

But de Lucía had, before he became part of the guitar trio, shown an inclination to innovate. He came to prominence at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s through his work with the flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla, with whom he had started to push the barriers by introducing elements of pop and rock. Through all this creativity and innovation though, de Lucía retained the credibility of having been born into the flamenco style of his native Andalusia.

His international popularity and recognition was such that he found himself adopted as a "face" of tourism promotion, that of Mallorca's. A resident of Palma for some years, he was brought on board by the Balearic Government under Francesc Antich, though in truth, he was one of a succession of celebrities that the tourism ministry attached itself to and whose role was unclear and whose involvement, for promotional purposes, produced very little. That wasn't his fault, though.

He died suddenly of a heart attack in Cancún, where he had a home. It is said that he had become less keen on playing the guitar and that he preferred to spend his time out of the limelight and with his two young children. At the age of 66, his loss is great, but his legacy is greater still. A master and an innovator; one of Spain's greatest ever musicians.

Photo: Wikipedia.

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