Why flamenco?

I think this is a good question, but not very easy to answer. I’ve said before – I like playing the guitar, like playing with rhythm, like playing on my own on occasion. What else would I play? And I also really respect the people who can do it properly. 
I did have a flamenco guitar lesson many years ago, when I worked at a local arts centre in my home town. But I didn’t know anything about it, and it looked like really hard work. Maybe it planted a seed. 

But I played mainly electric guitar, and occasionally acoustic guitar, both of which relied to some extent on me singing. I like singing, but I don’t love doing it. Again, it seemed like hard work. 

Later, when I moved to Kendal, and was asked to work with an artist on a community project about the Mexican Day of the Dead, I was lent some video tutorials of Juan Martin, a flamenco guitarist. I remember watching and thinking ‘if only I could do that’. I’d also given up on the electric guitar at that point.

Next stop was University. I bought Juan Martin’s instruction book El Arte Flamenco De La Guitarra, and sat trying to learn it. It helped me to survive my first year of university anyway. I’d taught myself a year of classical guitar when I was a disturbed 13 year old, and I just love the calmness this learning process gives. 

So I think the why question can be answered primarily in my liking/needing this kind of immersion in learning. And flamenco suited me. And still does. And it’s really hard work.

This week’s video is mainly something from those early days, and from Juan’s books and videos. It’s a Granaina. There are a few forms in flamenco that have no rigid rhythm, except on occasions. This one is apparently something to do with Granada. I played this, and variations, including Romance, at my dad’s funeral. Enough said.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grana%C3%ADna

(Apologies for not researching the internet better, and only providing Wikipedia links. I think they serve a purpose.)

I’ve added a tremolo section from Vicente Amigo at the beginning. There is something about Vicente Amigo’s playing that I’m obsessed with. My most recent, and seemingly never ending ‘If only I could do that’. Also, I’m trying to get the tremolo plate spinning, and this has helped a little. One day. Close your ears flamenco guitarist giants.

This thing called flamenco…

Over 10 years ago, when we were leaving our idyll in the South of France, and wondering where to live, we thought about moving further north in France, to the Loire valley. We lived there for a month or so, and there were some interesting experiences. One of these was meeting a flamenco singer. 

I was warned about him before we met. He was famously rude. In fact I found him to be a really nice guy. He was strongly opinionated, but he kind of had a point. He was of a certain age, from a certain part of Spain, from a certain heritage. To him, people coming from outside of this world, and professing to be flamenco guitarists, or dancers, or singers, was just too much. He seemed to think that flamenco belonged to him, and people like him.

But he didn’t seem too rude to me. He invited me to his house, where I met his son, who played really good flamenco guitar, but actually wanted to play football! And if we’d have decided to live there, I’m sure I could of learned a lot from him.

We seemed to get on ok, I think, because my starting point was that I just wanted to immerse myself in flamenco, in his world. But I didn’t really want to be him, or pretend to be him. My take on it all would, by necessity, come from my experiences, culture, etc. Would that still be flamenco? Probably not, but maybe a topic for another time.

He was, of course, a traditionalist, and I don’t think he really liked modern flamenco music very much. At one point, when I asked about Paco de Lucia, he said something along the lines of – well of course Paco could do it, but he was unique. There is something about Paco de Lucia that bridged the traditional and modern flamenco world, but in a way that no one else was allowed to do, at least for some.

Of course I’m in awe of the man, and if you are at all interested in flamenco, you should get to know him.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paco_de_Luc%C3%ADa

This week’s video is a quickly recorded edit of a PDL piece, Aires Choqueros, concentrating on picado. This is the technique where you play very fast single notes by alternating the index and middle fingers. It’s tough. And I’ve never really concentrated on it before. I just tend to dive in and hope for the best. But I’m fascinated, even more so when I listen to those in the know talk about the mechanics of it. Ok, that’s just me then.

Anyway, my video is a hopefully ‘before and after’ recording, as I’m going to spend some time, and try to get the speed, tone and precision sorted. Of course, this could take some time. Wish me luck.

Plate-spinning…

Flamenco guitar is very technical. Technique serves the music, but the music needs the correct technique I believe, otherwise it’s different, not flamenco. I don’t think that’s a massive problem. The world is full of different music, and flamenco will survive my, and other people’s, stumbling attempts. I tend to say I play flamenco inspired music, because the real flamenco is somewhere else. The giants play that. And I would have to, at the very least, be closer to them than I am.

In any given piece of flamenco guitar music there are a number of techniques. To play a piece very well, you need to play each technique very well. I often think of this as plate-spinning. That circus act is all about setting various plates spinning, and then as you add more you need to keep the others spinning too. In flamenco guitar this is a big undertaking. Each technique could take a long time, and there are quite a few. Also, there are variations. Many flamenco guitarists have their own way. Of course the ideal would be to have your own technique, but that is beyond me. 

So I learn pieces, hoping to get close to the original as possible. I enjoy this process, and I also think it’s good for me.

Getting all the plates spinning is hard enough, but 4 years ago I let them all fall. Sounds dramatic, but I hadn’t managed to get them spinning that well anyway. So, after that, I just played occasionally, wrote some music, and did other things. I actually feel that I got better as a musician, but not, of course, in flamenco guitar. Those plates were smashed and all over the floor.

I wasn’t too sure if I would get back to that study, but last year I did. With renewed vigour. I’m curious to see what could happen with effort. Who knows. And therefore, this blog.

I’m playing pieces that I haven’t played for quite a while and concentrating on techniques that I haven’t done for a while, if ever. Picado, for example, which is the really fast notes that seem so effortless in the right hands, has always eluded me. But now I’m giving it a go. Brave? Or stupid?

So what I’m doing this week, in my not quite sure what is the best use of my practice time, is to take out a section of a piece, concentrate on it, slow it down, use a metronome etc, then put it back. And the video is the record. Of course the giants would shake their heads in despair. So many badly spinning plates. But that’s ok, my desire is to improve. Plus, you’ve got to start somewhere.

This video is a Farruca that I’ve been playing, on rare occasions, for many years. I never practice it, just pull it out sometimes as a piece that I’m fairly certain I can get to the end of. It’s also got lots of techniques.

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

I’m a big fan of learning new pieces of music. There seems a comfort in opening the fresh pages, listening closely to the music for every nuance, disappearing into a new world. I’m such a big fan that once I’ve got the piece, I move on. I thought this was a focus, unfocus, refocus technique, and to some extent it is. But I think I’m also not big on repetition. I’m ok if it’s new, but something I know quite well, less so. If I have to perform something I do practice, but I’m just as likely to practice another 5 or more pieces that are in some way related at the same time. I also like the feeling of being on the edge, of maybe it will all fall apart any minute. It’s a thrill, but not great when you want some consistency.
And so, I rarely play something I know well. If I get close to knowing something I move on. If someone asks me to play something I tend to randomly pick something I haven’t played for a while. I may play a Farruca that I feel I can’t fail with, only to find my fingers don’t go where I think they will. That might be something to do with not have played it for 6 months!

But I’d like to get better, and be consistent so I thought I’d try repetition. This week I’ve picked a piece that has many techniques in it. And I’m trying to play it often. That can be really hard. To play the same thing again and again! But today I actually felt really good about it. I felt like I started to know the piece in a different way. Much more closely, almost note by note. There was also an (occasional, and brief) sense of calm. Zen?

I do have a Pena coming up with a local dance class and thought some traditional flamenco pieces, with maybe palmas might be good, and I think this one is a fairly traditional Alegria by El Serranito (with palmas to follow). And I feel I’ve got so far, and maybe if I do the same with a couple of others, not too many of course …

We shall see. Update to follow.

Focus on sound

Ok, I’m a bit late on doing this. As a musician, you would think this would be a priority, however…

My actual focus so far was not to put myself off doing these videos, especially by making the process so time consuming. However…

Listening back at the various videos/posts so far, I felt that I really needed to do something.

A few months back I was fortunate to meet an amazing Spanish guitarist called Eduardo Niebla.

http://www.eduardoniebla.com/

I took part in a guitar retreat at the house of Eduardo Niebla, and found the whole experience incredibly rewarding. I was really beginning to concentrate on improving my playing at this time, and this retreat happenened at a perfect time. Not only is Eduardo an incredible musician, but he is also very warm, friendly and generous. The retreat itself, taking place inside their Yorkshire house, was very valuable in many ways, not the least of which was seeing inside the studio. 

On listening to Eduardo’s music I was struck by many things. I am particularly impressed by his understanding of rhythm, and how he manages to create beautiful music that seems closely linked to the rhythms he plays with, whether they are flamenco inspired, or Indian, or some other style. But I am also struck by the attention to detail inside the music. This is true of the music played, as well as the sonic qualities of the recordings.

The visit to the studio confirmed this attention to detail. If anyone has seen Eduardo’s guitar recording rig, it is a thing of beauty. I’m not sure of how much it would cost to create something like this, both in money and time to get all the elements working in just that way – the whole scale is beyond me. I love studios anyway, and am in awe of the magic done by engineers and producers when it comes to shaping sound, but to be inside the studio, and to be aware of how much work has gone into it’s creation felt very fortunate.

So, the point of this – to focus on sound. Most fingerstyle guitarists are obsessed by nails. Strings are also such an important factor. But now microphones … and placement … and preparing the recording space …

Hopefully this video’s experiment in sound will be worth the extra effort. It’s not great – I have a lot to learn, but as long as it’s getting better. I’ve decided that instead of making quick videos, I would make many of them until the process becomes quicker, while still getting the sound right. And then maybe the video quality … and then … Don’t worry I won’t post them all!

This week’s piece is another catch up. It’s a piece from Paco Pena’s student book Toques, and I think it’s a good place to learn some ‘pieces’, however contentious that idea may be for some flamenco enthusiasts. But more on that another time.

Rhythm is king

As promised from the last post, here’s a go at Moraito’s Feria Del Caballo. 

When I first started messing around with (studying) flamenco I was teaching percussion and hand drums in Cumbria, UK. I’ve always thought of myself as a guitarist, but I was fortunate to be taught hand drums be a master drummer from Jamaica. So my 2 musical passions, guitar and rhythm! 

For a project I was handed a Juan Martin instruction video and after watching it for only a short time, I had one of those ‘if only I could do that I would be happy’ moments that happen often and that keep me playing.

There are a series of books (and more) published by Affedis, and one of the first I bought, and I have bought many, was a Moraito tab book. Yes, plenty of ‘if on I could do that I would be happy ‘ moments there. But I connected with Moraito in an immediate way. To this day I still think he’s one of the most sensitive guitarists I’ve ever heard.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mora%C3%ADto_Chico_II

I learned (most of) the book. Some pieces were very hard (and still are), but I’m always happy when I connect, in my modest way, to the Moraito world.

Sevillanas are very popular in Spain. It’s a couples dance, and everyone in Spain seems to know about them. I believe they’re mainly danced with singers and a band, but they’ve been interpreted for solo guitar by many Flamencos. I like these by Moraito especially.

They seem to be in groups of 4 sevillanas, are quite short and have a very strict pattern.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sevillanas

I’m accompanied by my ‘metronome’. It is very unfair to call the iPad app DrumPerfect a metronome, because it is so much more. But I’ve added some cajon and clapping samples I’ve found and bought, and programmed the rhythms to the best of my knowledge, given I’ve had no training in flamenco cajon or palmas. 

http://www.drumperfect.nl/

I’ve put a little demo on the screen. I did this using LumaFusion, another iPad app. Eventually I’ll even learn how to use it.

I’ve also tried recording with a microphone. It’s a Rode NT5, and I think it adds to the sound, although it does make the whole process more intricate and time consuming. I’d be interested in opinions.

I’m also trying new strings – Luthier L40’s that were recommended to me. I like them so far, although I miss the Savarez Alliance ‘fizz’. I just wish I could tone that ‘fizz’ down sometimes. Anyway, I’ll spend a little bit of time with the Luthier string family.

Catching up 2: the Magpie collection: Samba Farruca

Apologies to all magpies for adding to the (apparently unjustified) bad press.
Another catch up of something I created quite a while ago. 

I play, and have played, quite a few restaurants and situations where I am basically background. I quite like this: the occasional audience awareness, the contributing to a moment, the helping to create an environment…

A few years ago, while developing material for this I needed something to warm up, and a first piece to start playing. Something relatively easy. A groove. Besides the guitar, I’m also very interested in rhythm. And have taught percussion and hand drum skills for many years, however unfair that might seem to all drummers out there! Samba is on the very edge of flamenco (in my understanding), so I created a 2 chord groove to basically mess about with.

Then there is Farruca. When I first started studying flamenco I was obsessed by the Farruca. At one time I calculated that I could play Farruca for over 30 minutes without repeating myself.

Samba Farruca is a combination of the 2 forms, as it’s name subtly implies… Ok, I’m not great at naming. 

Also, I wanted to explore composition. So I took small pieces from various places – sometimes a straight Farruca, sometimes from other forms, sometimes changing major sections into minor sections etc. For example, the last section, from around 3:53, is an almost straight take of a Moraito Sevillana, with the rhythm changed. I’ll try and video those Sevillanas next, as a comparison.

My exploration for this post is therefore – 

Is this a valid way of composing? I’ve heard similarities between sections in ‘real’ flamenco pieces. Someone changed a Buleria falseta into a Tangos, etc, so it must be ok, no? Would this only work in flamenco?

I’ve also added my pickup to the audio mix. The first post was just an iPhone, uploaded as recorded. I don’t know if anyone notices the difference. Also I used a video editor on the iPad to mix the audio, and add a fade in and out. In this case I used LumaFusion, a fairly new app which I’m going to explore over the coming months.

Still the Savarez strings, although they’re perhaps on the edge of dying. And naked nails, as I still wonder about this allergy thing.

Catching up.

The first minute, or so, of a Sabicas Alegria – Ole Mi Cadiz. Then rumba variations of the same music that I ‘created’ quite a while ago. Therefore – Catching up.

It surprises me how much of a performance making a video is. It’s not perfectly played, but I’ve spent quite a while on the making a video side, so… And anyway – you’ve got to start somewhere.

So the experimentation is mainly in video making using an iPhone. Also, ‘performing’ for video: getting it right.

I’m still not really happy with my strings – Savarez Alliance. They seem to change everyday, so no consistency. And by the time I feel comfortable with a set, they seem to be about to die. If I changed them more often I think it would help, but they’re not cheap. I did try D’Addario Flamenco strings which I felt comfortable playing, except they sounded terrible (to me).

I’ve also tried Nail Envy, but I’m suspecting an allergic reaction to, which is a shame, as I’m quite impressed. I’m not giving up though (yet).