On the feast of the Three Kings, we went to see a prince of the guitar. A being who did not rule in his own land, because life has things like that, and in flamenco even more so. But Rafael Riqueni del Canto (Seville, August 16th, 1962) will, for guitarists, always be one of those names to be worshipped, especially with the current dearth of new ideas. At such moments he manages to strike gold.
We got to “Amor de Dios” just at the moment of rebirth for “Fali”. Had it not been for an unfortunate last-minute injury, this January would have been his most important reappearance. Something which is sure to come. A moment which will leave hard times behind and put the genius back where he belongs, on stage, and who knows if not the recording studio as well. We always receive with open arms this Wise Man from the east, of eastern Andalusia that is, born on Triana’s Fabié Street.
You’re on a roll, and the phone is ringing once again.
Yes…not long ago I played in Logroño and, well…flamenco is now going through a time that each recital can determine whether they’re going to call you again…that’s how it is with me too, so we must try to keep on our toes in the coming days. Now I have to wait out this hand injury, but I don’t expect it to last long. The other day my hands were shaking a lot at the beginning, but little by little I felt much better on stage. It’s also a question of breaking in, it was a long time since I’d played more or less regularly.
You were even going to give classes.
Yes, in Barcelona, the days I was playing at “El Molino”, that’s why I boned up on everything of Ricardo and Sabicas I could get my hands on, because after playing with the students, there was to be a question and answer period, and god know what they might say. You have to have you eyes wide open and be on top of how those giants composed…even how they sat to play guitar.
Then there’s Clamores.
Yes, afterwards. Another place where you feel the weight of responsibility. I hope to be up to the task, the sooner the better.
And on your own, with no group.
Yes, that’s my concept of guitar-playing and how I developed as a musician. I’ve travelled the world with my guitar and, okay, there were times when I had a group, with bass, percussion…but alone is how I feel best and how I believe the art of the guitar should be communicated and you can appreciate all the subtleties of the instrument. You also have to consider that playing alone is very risky because any little slip-up is noticeable, everything…obviously it’s not like being cushioned by a bunch of musicians. It’s more difficult to win over an audience like that, but then they’re grateful for it.
It’s not the norm any more.
I think people miss it because they remember times that in my opinion were glorious. And I don’t only mean Sabicas or Ricardo. Paco himself used to come out alone on stage, and he’d play seven or eight pieces and it blew everyone’s socks off…basically that’s been lost.
It’s a very classical philosophy of guitar.
Perhaps in flamenco we were a little off-base in that sense, and I include myself. We had certain prejudices about these guitar disciplines. But playing solo is something that really lets the instrument shine like I say. And then, well yes, going on alone now isn’t that easy, it’s like writing a siguiriya in sheet music or knowing how to read music. Some people think it detracts from flamenco, or that it might hurt you to play nationalistic music…things like that. Camarón himself used to say that what is well-learned is never forgotten, and a flamenco guitarist can never forget how to play soleá although he plays other things.
“…going on alone now isn’t that easy, it’s like writing a siguiriya in sheet music or knowing how to read music. Some people think it detracts from flamenco, or that it might hurt you to play nationalistic music…things like that”
Can you write music?
I went to the conservatory, up to the second level. Three years in all, including preparatory. It’s been very useful. Ever since then I know how to write music, and that helps me remember melodies, arrange them for other instruments and see what are the most coherent solutions. It’s something I enjoy, I really love it.
It’s also true that a lot of what I know I learned on my own. Over the years, after having gone to the conservatory, I needed to arrange things for other string instruments, and I learned little by little from that book over there, a friend of mine gave me…and, well, if I have to do a bulería, I don’t write it, but in the case of “Nana de Orihuela”, which is a fantasy I composed in honor of Miguel Hernández, then I turn to written music, it’s much more useful. I can’t compare myself to a studied musician, but, well, for my own needs I get by.
In those conservatory years was when you started winning contests, just barely an adolescent…
I’ve come to wonder whether I really deserved any of that. Winning the Córdoba contest at fourteen and in Jerez at fifteen. The latter of which I went on to win again years later…look, I think the judges saw me so timid and quiet, that’s how I was…in those contests there were some fabulous people. How could I have played better than Niño Miguel in his best years, or Enrique de Melchor…or Cepero?
Afterwards, I tried for the Giraldillo, and it was won by Manolo Franco in the Bienal and that was it…I didn’t go back to the contests, my time was over.
People talk about shady goings-on.
One panel might vote a certain way, maybe some guitarist gets ticked-off…I never went back to that scene. Then you’re left wondering if you really deserved it or not…contests are good for two things: to make you study and, if you win, to get a name so they hire you here and there and people get to hear you, but you can’t get obsessed about it.
I think the judges saw me so timid and quiet, that’s how I was…in those contests there were some fabulous people. How could I have played better than Niño Miguel in his best years, or Enrique de Melchor…or Cepero?”
Rafael Riqueni once had a folk-music side.
At seventeen they called me for Isabel Pantoja’s company to be her guitarist, and I debuted in Seville. She was also beginning then, she was about twenty or twenty-two…with her, and with Rocío Jurado, María Jiménez who is an aunt of mine…I went with them and toured the small towns of Spain. I learned a lot and learned well. I played a bit of fandangos for Pantoja…with María Jiménez a lot more things…I was completely saturated after so much work.
Lyrical Spanish song is once again fashionable.
It must never be lost. It’s part of our cultural heritage and is tremendously valuable. It cannot be a flash in the pan. That time of my life was very enriching, when I was also spending time with guitarists like Manuel, Niño Ricardo’s son. I met composers like Mudarra, León, Quiroga, Solano…that kind of music is something we have and which has not yet been given its rightful place. I remember Rocío Jurado, rest in peace…the adventures we shared…
And did you compose?
Well, yes. Badly at first, to tell the truth, it couldn’t have been any other way. You see, I began playing guitar mostly because of Paco. I would listen to that man play and I couldn’t believe one person could get those sounds out of a guitar. It was the time of “Entre dos Aguas” and I’d listen to all the pieces from that record and it made me cry. The taranta, the granaína…and okay, you might approach it more or less, but in a million years could you possibly sound like him, but whatever, I also thought I had to make my own music and I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just that, I had to evolve, flamenco is alive and must advance. Flamenco can’t just be Sabicas, Paco or Ricardo, even though they are maestros we must all bow down to.
When was the first time you made your own music?
From the very beginning, but like I say, it wasn’t that great. What I can tell you is that I played two of my own pieces for the Córdoba contest, a zapateado en E minor and a taranta. For Jerez, many more things. You have to compose or you’re just a cheap imitation. I have the records of Serranito, Paco, Manolo Sanlúcar…and, well, I could play that stuff, but so what? You have to do something original or you have no future.
Manolo Sanlúcar also had a hand in getting you started.
The maestro did a lot of nice things for me. From the beginning. I remember I’d told my father I wanted to be a guitarist. Well, one day he took me to the theater and in the dressing-room there was Manolo warming up. My father approached him and Manolo asked me to play something…good grief, I had no idea what to play, so I played a little falseta. In the end, he liked it and told my father he was going to try to help me one way or another. He wanted to spare me the trials and tribulations he’d gone through to learn how to play, so I could progress smoothly. When he saw I was ready, he would send me home.
You were one of the first to know what it was like to be his disciple and neighbor.
When I was a child I spent a week in his house in Santander. It was incredible. We would get up at nine, and play non-stop until midnight. One in one room, and the other in another, listening to each other but without talking. I didn’t dare to ask him anything until I was sure what I had to play for him and that I would be able to play it half well…and we didn’t let up, don’t think we stopped for a siesta, it was continuous.
What were you working on?
Mostly right-hand technique, which is the most difficult. Position, arpeggios, tremolo, picado, fingering, relaxing the thumb…not so much specific music. It was guitar technique and learning to get easy with it. I still do those exercises.
That was around the time of his record “Sentimiento”, beautiful, with those arrangements of Ricardo Miralles…
He would take me to his father’s bread shop, he was really fond of me. I also saw his brothers play, what artists…
Student, contestant, accompanist…but how did you get involved in recording?
It was through Ricardo Pachón. It was a time when I was hanging out in Sevilla with the Amador family, Rafael and Raimundo. I was about twenty-five or so…and right there in Umbrete, in Ricardo Pachón’s studio I just played whatever I felt like, because that’s what he told me to do…and later on here in Madrid, at Audiofilms, I did “Juego de Niños”. That’s when Ricardo helped me out, he put me in touch with a lot of good musicians…Ketama, the Amadors, Paquete, Carles Benavent…
Then your cables got crossed and you popped up on a recording made in Germany.
It’s that I went there to give concerts, and after a recital at the Frankfurt Opera a man proposed recording in Heidelberg. Again I had a studio all to myself, but the problem was he was dead set on my playing the same things he’d heard live, nothing else, only what he’d heard in the auditorium…he was asking for a lot, but anyhow, thanks to that arrangement I recorded “Flamenco”. I was feeling strong then, inspired, I always found a pretext to play guitar, fooling around or whatever… Then came the illness, and you know, there were times when I didn’t even go out…but back then I could handle everything.
Then you returned to Spain and flirted with the classics.
Yes, with Gallardo and María Esther Guzmán. Two great artists of the guitar from my area. I knew Gallardo from my conservatory days. “Suite Sevilla” has a philosophy inspired in Albéniz’ “Suite Iberia”. But shorter of course. They’re four notebooks with three works in each, but this record lasted less than the work of Albéniz. What a piece of work, a monument.
“You have to begin accompanying cante and dance. And live through a thousand fiestas. And one day you’ll play well, and another you’ll get lost in the compás, the next day a little better…and with a bottle of whisky and your buddies…that’s how you learn”
What have you been doing all this time?
I’ve been somewhat retired, but since two or three years ago I’ve begun composing again. I’m back. I did around twenty-some pieces grouped in two motifs. Two conceptual works. One dedicated to Nerja and its caves, with a children’s ambience, like a story, I think it’s very nice.
The other one is dedicated to the María Luisa park, more like mood music waiting to be staged. While I play, two dancers are on stage…it would be nice if it came together. They’re things that are already written in music, with arrangements for other instruments and such…
That’s big news.
You bet it is, and in fact, the way things are you have to be prudent. I’ll have to put it on the table and see what they say, I’m well aware of the difficulties. I know a lot of studios and record companies have closed, the way things have been going, but we’ll see….
How do you get that thing, the quality of flamenco?
From fiestas with other flamencos. Playing and playing…I can’t conceive of any other way. I’ve accompanied Mayio Maya, Manuela Carrasco…and I say to myself, “who do I still need to accompany? It’s absolutely necessary to play for dance and cante until it’s coming out of your ears.
It must be to be a soloist without having had experience accompanying.
If you don’t pass through that, you’re not flamenco, it’s impossible. Paco de Lucía says so too, and that man doesn’t waste any breath on nonsense. Look, you have to begin accompanying cante and dance. And live through a thousand fiestas. And one day you’ll play well, another, you’ll get lost in the compás, the next day a little better…and with a bottle of whisky and your buddies…that’s how you learn. Even if it costs you your health. If you don’t have those life experiences, you can go out on stage and play solo, but never ever will it sound flamenco, you can be sure of that. And like I say, I’m not the only one who says so.
“Younger artists just don’t study as much, not everything is bulerías, well, maybe it’s the most difficult form, but there are many others”.
With Morente you had some of those good times you’re talking about.
Don’t remind me… (Long silence). I still can’t believe it. He had one of the most beautiful voices of all time. So sweet and tender…I used to call him “cello voice” in messages I left on his answering machine. I remember he would call me up and say “How’s the best guitarist in Spain?”…you can imagine how much that motivated me, that he would take an interest. He had the cante of Matrona, Pastora, Mairena…he renovated it all. He had boundless love for this art-form, and a taste for guitar, because he also played, he read music for guitar. He sought to enrich himself with each guitarist that accompanied him…he left a vacuum that cannot be filled. And yes, we had a lot of good times…what can I say…
There aren’t many places any more in Madrid.
Yeah…well…truth is in flamenco it goes up and down. We’re going through bad times with the loss of singers…just look at Terremoto, Fernanda, Enrique…I’m not that well myself, the thing is flamenco seems to go hand in hand with sacrificing your health to a certain point…and in Madrid flamenco is having a hard time. Furthermore, and it pains me to say this, the younger artists just don’t study as much, not everything is bulerías, well, maybe it’s the most difficult form, but there are many others. The future of cante depends on them.
How do you see the future of guitar?
Terrific. Some impressive kids are over there in Amor de Dios. People who play guitar and don’t sound like anyone else. In Seville there’s “Canito” who doesn’t sound like anyone, and we’ve got “El Bola” who I really like…guitar-playing seems to be in a much better state.