Paco Peña ( Paco Pena) Flamenco Guitarist

For some time now I have wanted to write an essay about the Flamenco guitarist Paco Peña but I refrained from doing so because I have always been very sure that it could become a very long essay; in fact perhaps the longest text on flamenco that I have ever written. The whole idea was and indeed still is somewhat daunting.

Gerundino Flamenco Guitar: Sound hole


I have decided that my best approach is going to be to create this piece of writing gradually, adding sections of text as I feel able to express my ideas.

The first question that some readers may ask is: ” Yes , but why? “Why is it so important to you to write an essay about Paco Peña, after all Paco is another flamenco guitarist and producing what amounts to publicity (perhaps rather good publicity at that) for another guitarist is hardly likely to assist one’s own publicity”.

My response is really quite simple. More than any other flamenco guitarist at any time in history Paco Peña has had by far the greatest influence on my own flamenco guitar playing and indeed his philosophy, so to speak, continues to be an absolutely fundamental influence on how I approach and understand flamenco.

The extent to which an extended expression of respect and admiration for another flamenco guitarist might be helpful or detrimental to my own professional aspirations is neither here nor there. If I have to tread on egg shells and think twice about the usefullness of my contributions I fear that I shall never get around to trying to contribute very much at all.

Paco Peña’s ( Pena’s) Flamenco Guitar on loan to me!


Gerundino Face

Yes, indeed an extraordinary title and here is exactly how it happened.

Paco was well established but in the first decade of his career and I was at the end of my teens. He gave one of his superlative solo flamenco guitar concerts at the Wigmore Hall in London and I went to see him; I never missed any of his work whether solo or with his flamenco company then called simply: Flamenco Puro.

After this particular concert I went back stage to congratulate him. We had already spoken several times over the years. Those who have got to know Paco Peña off stage will know that he is quite down to earth and absolutely unpretentious and modest about his work.

We were chatting for a while in Spanish which meant that we were not likely to be understood by most of the people present. Quite casually he asked me if I had any plans for the following Monday and on receiving my reply that I was totally without plans and available for whatever he may require he said in Spanish something like:

“I have a guitar, you know my Gerundino, well the face got cracked from the cold weather when I was playing abroad so I have had the face changed. It sounds good but it will take some time and quite a lot of serious playing to get it to develop its full sound and I don’t have time for that with all the concerts I have to give. You could have a look at it and if you like it you can keep it for  a while; it needs some playing”.

I of course didn’t quite know what to say but eventually managed to provide a confirmation.

” Great” he said. ” You have my phone number?”

” Yes”

” Phone me Monday morning and I’ll give you my address and you can come round about midday”

Naturally the rest of the weekend I floated around the top of the clouds in something of a daze.

I was already a massive fan of Paco Peña’s style and had often wondered about the extent to which his choice of guitar played a part in the tone that he produced.

Monday came and I went to his home as arranged.

I played the guitar and of course played some of his pieces. If my memory serves me well I played his wonderful Alegrías de Córdoba which he first recorded with the title Plaza del Potro which as I think is generally now known because it was the square were he lived his childhood in Córdoba and later ran his Flamenco Summer School.



Gerundino Label

Paco was very encouraging and made several helpful suggestions.

Finally he said:

” So what do you think? Do you want to take the guitar for a bit?”

” Well, of course if you feel I can be of any help to you in playing the guitar to help to develop its sound then I would absolutely be most grateful to have the chance to do anything that I could do that might possibly be in any way a postive contribution”

Paco smiled and said:

” Tomás, you modest man, if I want to loan you a guitar for  a while you don’t have to justify that”

With Paco’s generous encouragement I returned to my flat in North London where for the next two weeks I immersed entirely in that wonderful Gerundino guitar and played exclusively works by Paco Peña.

It was as one might well imagine a very special experience; not simply because of the oportunity to play a concert flamenco guitar of such rare quality but more so because of the repeated awareness inside my brain that Paco Peña had entrusted me with one of his guitars.

I was aware that I could produce a tone that was closer to Paco’s tone but that I still sounded like myself. This seems to me quite natural and while one can attempt to emulate a flamenco guitar tone that one very greatly admires it is perhaps unlikely to be able to reproduce it exactly and that I have no doubt is a good thing.  We must all stand on our own two feet and try to make some kind contribution to flamenco, however modest that contribution may be in my own case.

After some weeks of joyous and endless playing I came to feel that it was no longer justified for me to hang on to Paco’s guitar any longer and took it back to him at his home where once again he was relaxed and encouraging in his simple down to earth manner.


Gerundino Flamenco Guitars

The very first time that I heard Paco Peña

The first time I heard Paco Peña was live at a solo concert in London.

Not wishing to confess to being very old at that time there was a dictatorship in Spain and any more Spanish families than is generally known desperately sought a way out of Spain to what they hoped would be a more secure and optimistic future.

My father had fought the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, was confirmed anti- Franco, anti- dictatorship and not at all popular in the then fascist Spain.

My parents took steps at very great sacrifice to ensure that together with my siblings I should be able to enjoy a much better childhood outside of Spain and in our case, that was London, Britain.

I was about 10 or 11 and one of our Spanish compatriots mentioned that there was a concert on in central London by the young Flamenco Guitarist Paco Peña. I was already listening to flamenco singing and solo guitar playing on a number of records which included Sabicas among others.

I don’t think that concert tickets were proportionally as expensive then as perhaps they have become and I was able to go.

The concert was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank which means that I had missed his earlier concert at the Wigmore Hall. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is no small venue and it was absolutely packed. There were a good few Spanish people there but mainly British. It was an eclectic audience and you wouldn’t have thought them especially bohemian or hippy as was the term frequently used then and associated with people who it was thought attended shall we say non- typical musical and artistic performances. If my memory serves me right, there was in that audience a young man with long hair and a flowery shirt who had rather a good reputation for playing classical guitar.

The lights went down, the excited people became very hushed, a spot light moved to the side entrance to the stage and Paco appeared. He was dressed in a very elegant alpaca suit in the Córdoba style with 5 buttons at an angle on the cuff, a frill front shirt with a diamond for the top button and flamenco boots. The applause that had greeted his entrance respectfully quietened. He was rather un- flamboyant, taking his seat and checking the tuning, eventually lifting the guitar to the traditional flamenco position with an air of someone with something important to say.

And then it started.

Of course, I cannot remember which piece Paco started with, whether Soleares or Alegrías, Tientos or Farruca etc. or indeed whether the first notes were arpeggio or picado, rajeo or tremolo.

What I do remember is that Paco’s playing was very different to a lot of flamenco guitarists at that time and even prior to him. Often flamenco guitarists seemed to want to make an impact and to come across as very present on stage, very forceful. Paco Peña was doing something quite different to that. It was as if his guitar was building a story without words of course but nonetheless expressing the essential message or emotions contained within that story.

To be more precise, let us say for example that he would play a Farruca. We know that Farruca originates in Galicia and seems in its original song to be  a melancholic tune expression emotions of sadness and loneliness and yet with elements of courage and strength. Farruca or Farruco ( feminine/masculine) can be used in the Spanish language to describe a person’s behaviour as forceful.

With other flamenco guitarists their interpretation was often just fast and powerful rhythmical playing but Paco developed waves of feelings with ideas that followed on from each other creating a musical narrative. Certainly, his Farruca could well contain moments of brave very present expression but then his interpretation might also come to a more under stated end.

From Flamenco Puro to the Large Stage Production

Here is an irony.

Very quickly after Paco was introduced onto the British stage as a solo flamenco guitarist he formed his own flamenco company.

He called the company Flamenco Puro meaning Pure Flamenco. It was what in Spanish is sometimes referred to as a “Cuadro Flamenco”. It consisted of four people: Paco Peña Flamenco Guitarist, Barrilito Flamenco Singer, Faiquillo de Córdoba Flamenco Dancer and Margarita de Castilla Flamenco Dancer.

He explained in his concert programmes and all his other publicity that he wanted to present pure authentic flamenco to British audiences performed just as it would be in Spain. That is to say that the performance would simply be a selection of flamenco styles chosen at random depending on the mood of the performers.

Paco explained that he wanted to get away from the big stage productions of flamenco with very large companies and often with flamenco fitted into a theme where flamenco was being used to illustrate that theme.

The stage was very bare with a very simple plastic office type chair for Paco. Microphones were on stands and that was it. Nothing else on stage.

Flamenco costumes were very traditional. Faiquillo in the high waisted trousers with waist jacket and frilly shirt, Margarita in a selection of colourful flamenco costumes and to be honest I do not really remember if she ever used a Bata de Cola. For the non initiated that is a flamenco dress with a long train that is used as an integral part of the dance. Both Paco and Barrilito wore traditional flamenco silk or alpaca suits with the frilly shirt and noticeable cuff links.

Although much was made of the spotaneity of the evening actually I thought it was rather well rehearsed. It would always follow the same basic sequence beginning with Cante Jondo and then moving throughout the evening to Cante Chico and finishing por fiesta. Thus it might begin with a song of Martinete moving into Seguiriya followed by a dance such as Soleares, a solo from Paco which would of course be similar to the pieces on his records (more on that later), perhaps a charming duet of Guitar and Castanets, more flamenco dances and solos and after an interval something very serious such as a Cante or perhaps a solo like Rondeña leading to dances such as Tangos, Alegrías and Sevillanas and then onto Bulerías and finally finishing Por Fiesta.

These performances were massively successful and very soon Paco increased the size of his company.

How brought in Guillermo Basilisco as a second guitarist and added Manuel Soto Sordera as a second singer and he gradually brought more flamenco dancers from Spain to join him. If I remember correctly there was the very young Adrián Galia and a fabulously powerful dancer from Córdoba I think called Juan Fernández.

He even brought the legendary Cristina Hoyos and I think the young Diego el Cigala.

Paco Peña was always on the lookout for high quality flamenco performers.

So, what has changed? Well in a way everything and in a way, nothing. At first glance everything has changed. Paco now has a very large flamenco company and he puts on very sophisticated productions with at times I believe the help of a producer.

He tends to fit flamenco into a theme or to tell a story. He sometimes has special effects on stage.

This all appears to be something of a departure from his early humble intentions of showing flamenco in its most simple form; as a music, song and dance of the people of Andalucía.

Yet, when we go to see one of these big productions in fact what we get on stage is the same flamenco puro as always.

Some years ago Paco Peña recorded as a solo composition  a wonderful Guajira in D Major which he called Mantilla y Peine. Now he has a new version with two other guitarists and palmas.

This is pretty much what is happening. The same flamenco puro but in new versions. Who knows perhaps this is to make flamenco attractive to a wider audience. That can be no bad thing and once people have seen one of the big productions they can still go and see Paco Peña play a solo concert at the Wigmore Hall for example.

More will follow shortly…