Perhaps it was the unusual 7 p.m. Sunday evening starting time, or even the general admission clamor for the best seats one can hunt down at Page Auditorium. These, of course, were factors, but the fact that local audiences were getting a chance to hear Paco de Lucía, the legendary flamenco guitarist, was reason enough to electrify the atmosphere on February 22 in the old gothic auditorium.
There was a palpable excitement in the air that felt similar to the energy surrounding places like the old Fillmore East, in New York City, as we anxiously awaited our favorite rock group to step out on the stage. The facts that this concert was close to 30 minutes late starting and that two side rows of chairs had been temporarily removed to make room for the sound control boards lent a superstar-like ambience to the occasion. Finally, the usual announcement to silence all pagers, etc., was made and the wait was over. But even after the lights dimmed there was another long pause as a packed auditorium stared at a stage filled with faux palm trees and ferns and nothing else. Finally, a lone figure appeared with a guitar, sat down in the center, close to the back of the stage, tuned a bit, and began. Paco de Lucía had arrived. He played his guitar into a microphone and the sound was perfect -- just the right volume and quality so every note could be heard without any electronic distortion.
Paco, as audiences endearingly shout his name, is now 56 years old and has been a dynamic force in flamenco music since his first performance at the age of 11. In addition to his mastery of this ancient form, he also has enjoyed numerous collaborations with high-profile jazz and crossover artists like pianist Chick Corea and guitarists John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola. Passion, Grace and Fire is the name of a recording of one of these collaborations, and that title aptly summarizes both Paco's playing and the effect that his playing has had on audiences for the past 40+ years. It is obvious to anyone hearing this master that he has an astounding command of the guitar and phenomenal technique. For guitarists like myself, watching and listening to Paco play is a humbling experience. His clean and articulate scales are played at speeds that make you swear he cannot be human. His right hand rasgueados (literally "to rake," a very fast strumming technique accomplished by using the back of the nails of the right hand) are powerful, precise and piston-like. This all takes place in the context of distinctive melodic beauty and unmistakable flamenco harmonies. Most pieces begin in a somewhat subdued manner and gradually build to frenetic and powerful climaxes.
Despite my admiration and awe of the technical abilities of flamenco guitarists, and especially a legend like Paco, after a while I tend to become impatient with the somewhat consistent harmonic language and modal sound of an unaccompanied guitar recital. The total flamenco experience was always meant to incorporate singers, hand-clappers, dancers and other instrumentalists, but it is rare, in this country, to experience the total package. We were indeed very fortunate to have access to one such presentation.
Accompanying Paco this evening was Israel Escobar, a wonderful percussionist playing several instruments that unfortunately were not described in the program. Also present were two female vocalists/hand-clappers, a bass player, and a flutist and a saxophonist. Enrique Carbonell had the unenviable position of being the second guitarist, but he was also the cantor, giving an expressive vocal performance balancing out the women's voices. The first half had several Paco solos along with a few of his amigos joining in.
The second half had the entire group on stage, and they all took part in each selection. The lack of program notes describing or even naming the selections was unfortunate since just a few words describing these pieces would have added much to the overall experience.
This part of the show sounded a bit more jazz-influenced, especially with the many woodwind solos, but the underlying flamenco foundation was always there. The unique vocalizations are something you would never mistake for anything else. Without knowing the text it is hard to describe what they were singing, but there always seemed to be an angry, almost scolding edge.
When the show was finished, the audience would not relent, and we clapped, cheered, and screamed for what was probably five minutes until they knew that no one was leaving before they came back for an encore. Finally they returned and we were treated to a very brief dance by one of the female singers prior to the last number.
Experiencing other cultures through their music is often the best way to learn about something that may seem "foreign" to you. This was such an evening as everyone present got that exposure along with the universal experience of hearing in person a musical legend.