Precision…

Almost 30 years ago I became a community musician. I hadn’t considered this as a possibility before, but a local arts officer convinced me that it was something people did and gave me many opportunities to give it a go. One of the opportunities was learning from a Jamaican master drummer called Karly. He was performing with Irie Dance Theatre, and was convinced to stay with me, and teach us a few authentic rhythms for a local carnival band. At one point he turned around to me and said that he had given me many years work. And it was true.

I remember driving somewhere with Karly and a friend. My friend was into electronic dance music, and shared something in the car journey. Together with my new ‘understanding’ of roots music I was convinced Karly would hate the music. I was wrong. I think he liked the accuracy of the rhythms.

He asked me and another friend to perform with him at a Womad festival. My friend, who could really play the drums, was late. Karly checked my rhythm out shortly before the performance and decided against it. I think I had the intention, energy etc, but something missing in the accuracy department.

Later I was asked to accompany an Irie dancer in several weeks of dance workshops. Prince wasn’t just a dancer – he could really drum as well. He told me the basic pattern, and asked me to stick to it. Anytime I tried to do any variations he would scowl at me, and shake his head. I’m not sure if he needed this for his teaching, or just thought I wasn’t ready. After several weeks of repeating the same pattern over and over again I was so much better at drumming. It was a hard, but important lesson.

When me and my family moved to Huelva for 6 months a few years ago I had flamenco guitar lessons from a few different people. They were all useful. In between 2 teachers I had a lesson with a woman who, after listening to me play, gave me a relatively easy exercise and told me to play it a lot. She also told me not to worry about the complex rhythms too much, I needed to learn to keep the basic beat first.

I have many things to be grateful for.

This week’s video is a Tangos, by Moraito. Tangos is (in theory) a straightforward palo*, as it’s in 4/4 time, and quite repetitive. In reality, of course, it is one of the hardest to get right. (This reminds me of the time that Karly tried to teach a few of us authentic reggae. Oh how he laughed.)

I’m also using Dr. Comp├ís, an iPhone/iPad app that plays good flamenco cajon and palmas to play over.

* https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palo_(flamenco)

The good teacher meets the bad student.

I’ve tended to think that if I have any skill at all it would be in teaching. It’s been the greater part of my work, so fingers crossed. I have taught, and continue to teach, many different people many different things. I think good teaching is mainly about being able to see what the next step for a person might be, if they were to improve in a certain way. And finding the right way to pass that information on. And not letting ego get in the way of that information sharing. And … well, probably quite a few other things too.

In relation to my guitar I think all of the good things that have come out of my study have come from that skill. I taught myself most of what I play, for good or bad. The problem comes with the fact that I think that I’m also a terrible student.
The dynamic of knowing what I should do while at the same time refusing to do exactly that is a funny one, and it’s something I’m only just becoming aware of. It means, among other things, that it’s all a bit of an experiment. I’ve confounded a few people, I think.

Some of the most obvious areas for practicing flamenco guitar, are accuracy, repetition and patience. Getting something right, over and over again, seems pretty obvious you might think. If only. 

Imagine the child beginning to learn how to walk, and who then suddenly makes a run for it. Of course they quickly fall over. And so they return to basics. You may then think that they have learned their lesson. Until after a few simple steps they suddenly try to make a dash for it again, and this pattern is repeated over and over again. You may despair at this point.

Of course becoming aware of something is the first step to change, so I fully intend to listen to people, and myself, and put many of the necessary basic steps in to practice. 

And so to this week’s video. The tremolo high melody (0.23 – 0.46 seconds) is all on the top string, which is easier. I’ve also tried to slow it down, and to keep to a straight beat. Sometimes I can play (and hear) all the notes in the picado (1.10 – 1.20), and if I can’t, I slow it down and build it up again. It comes and goes, but at least it’s there some times.

Here’s to learning how to walk before I run!

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.