It was one of the few formats he hadn’t tried yet. Symphonic flamenco had tempted him ever since the days with Camarón, but José Fernández Torres, “Tomatito”, hadn’t until now had the chance to record his own music with orchestra. The boy from La Chanca, with “Sonanta Suite”, says he has now fulfilled a wish. When you speak to him you can sense the sweet aftertaste of the experience of a whole orchestra playing his variations.
Some people say you’ve been working up to this for more than six years.
No, this project specifically began two years ago, the thing is I had previously played with several orchestras and toured with them all over the world. This comes from the seed of an idea from the festival of Barcelona in 2004. Also with Camarón, as everyone knows, with the Royal Philharmonic we recorded “Soy Gitano” in the late nineteen-eighties. But this present work was more in deference to the record company. They asked me if I had material for a record of flamenco guitar, and solo I had nothing. But there were some arrangements of Joan Albert Amargós, really great stuff, of some pieces of mine. They had contact with the “ONE” and with Josep Pons….so it was perfectly clear. We were not about to waste all that material.
It all worked out so that in September of 2008 we recorded at the Matadero live, and in fact we made a DVD, but with the wind it was no good.
Was the sound really all that bad?
We were about to quit. But we didn’t because so many people were there, a huge effort, the television people, everyone, you know? But is was clear it wasn’t the best sound to make a recording. Then, José Pons went on tour and we didn’t get together again until several months later when we picked up the thread at the Auditorio Nacional. There everything came out perfect.
Jorge Pardo says that all guitarists, without exception, are dying to play with an orchestra.
It’s true. And I’m sure he told you that like a tweak of the ears for us. Like it’s too obvious. But it could be true, really. I’ve always had a complex about not knowing how to read music and seeing guitarists play with orchestras was fantastic, I used to think, “I wonder when my turn will come”. If classic musicians are dying to play with an orchestra, I think the flamencos even more so, because of that frustration we all feel about not knowing music.
In the history of my work, when I’m no longer around, it’s good for my resume…there’ll always be that thing that I did this bit of orchestral work with flamenco…it’s a great satisfaction and joy.
And how is this different from other experiences flamencos have had with orchestra?
I think that here the orchestra is more flamenco. I mean it’s hardly classical when they play my falsetas. We’re not talking about simple backup to play along with. Here they actually play together with me, in compás, my music, the closings, the actual falsetas…I think it’s something new. I really like the experiences other guitarists have had with orchestra, look at how great Vicente Amigo was with “Poeta” for example, but this is different, we’re all playing the same thing. I wanted it to be different, that’s the interest it has.
“If classic musicians are dying to play with an orchestra, I think the flamencos even more so, because of that frustration we all feel about not knowing music.”
Who was the boss?
Josep Pons. I was able to say things to him that he communicated to the orchestra, but even though they were playing my music, I wasn’t the boss really. I was just another musician.
Was there a big change in your way of playing?
Yes, although that comes from the days with Michel Camilo. Here I had to modify the touch a lot, the sound, searching and playing down by the bridge, the sound-hole, with less fingernail…but this isn’t anything new, I really learned to play that way with Michel and I had to adapt myself to what each moment required, those intimate things. It’s basic…not to look at those things that cost us points. You can’t spend your whole life playing with fingernails non-stop by the bridge. That’s just plain ugly.
With Michel I went so far as to cut my nails for some of the pieces.
That’s one thing flamenco guitarists have to take a lot of care of.
It’s basic. I like it…for example the sound of Vicente Amigo. With two notes he says more than someone with the same fingers playing eighty who has no personality. The music sounds much better. In any case I love to learn from the classics, a ‘seventh’ here, a note there…..
The classics could also learn a thing or two…
Well, in the case of orchestras in compas, the rhythm. They need to get more into the flamenco skin, clean up the closings, never loosen the pace or accelerate…everything has to sound good, but that’s not flamenco. On the record I was firm. I know how they play, but tangos are tangos after all!
What Paco de Lucía said about rhythm, no?
Exactly. He was talking about classical guitarists, when he played Aranjuez. I’m saying it about orchestras. We have to learn from them to take care of the sound and that kind of details…it’s complementary really. In any case, you can tell things are going well, in fact the musicians had a good time playing this material. We even had some offers from German orchestras….in the end they really liked it.
Were you left with a good impression of your adventure with the classics?
Yes, with Carles Trepat. What a fantastic guitarist. What sound…I wouldn’t even mind playing things of Albéniz if I could play like him. Albéniz was a great composer. He’s one of these ones that makes you feel like playing all day, just diving head-first into his notes and enjoying them without complexes. Cañizares and Paco already did it…
By the way, I heard you sent your son to study with El Entri.
It’s that if I get him playing my falsetas he gets bored. He’s got me, and also El Entri, who isn’t worried about his students copying his faletas and he’s happy if the student turns out better than the teacher, the sooner the better. I’m terribly busy and El Entri is great for this. The kids have to get in gear and turn out better than the teacher, they have to feel they are doing something useful on the guitar in order to be motivated. It has nothing to do with being a child prodigy. I’m not, and neither is he, but he is motivated and is qualified. And El Entri is perfect, that love he has for the guitar.
Would you send him to a conservatory?
Of course, that’s also necessary. And in Almería there’s one that’s very good, I have to check it out…
What things are happening in your area?
There are some young people who are playing very well. They have good taste, and interest, and they devote long hours…we’ll see if they make it…
“They make a record with things from here and there, they put this together with that, and all with fabulous technique, yes, but no music. They’re playing nonsense. Then you hear them warming up or studying and it turns out they’re playing my falsetas or Paco’s things, or Vicente’s…that’s because they don’t like what they do…not because our falsetas are better, but because they’re not happy with their own music.”
And what is “making it” for a guitarist? Making a living with your music? Recording? The big time?
Making a living. That you play all day and can make a living like that, that you enjoy it and it’s the center of your life and of the people you’re surrounded by, that people take you seriously…it’s also a question of luck. If I hadn’t met Camarón in Málaga…well, I don’t know what would have happened.
Recently I read about one of the new guitarists, a person born in the eighties, who said that at the rate we’re going, playing modern is going to be playing old style…that it’s going to be revolutionary.
Yeah, but that’s not true. He says that because now there’s no clear direction, everyone’s lost. The playing of the great maestros of the past is lost, and now it seems like something rare, because almost no one knows it. But what does it mean to play old style?…hitting the guitar, with no delicacy or technique. No, the problem is they’re a little lost. For example, they make a record with things from here and there, they put this together with that, and all with fabulous technique, yes, but no music. They’re playing nonsense. Then you hear them warming up or studying and it turns out they’re playing my falsetas or Paco’s things, or Vicente’s…that’s because they don’t like what they do…not because our falsetas are better, but because they’re not happy with their own music. It’s a question of prioritizing music as opposed to devouring the guitar. Lots of times what they do makes no sense, even though they really play well, but they don’t make music. But how are they going to be happy when some of them are embarrassed to play flamenco, or to play a natural chord, as beautiful as that is? They think they have to be playing weird stuff all the time. They want to play thirty notes where there is room for ten, and that’s ugly, the audience doesn’t even like it…jeesh…
So what’s the real deal?
It’s all about the music, originality, taking care of the music and not the technique.
Antonio Luis López, a guitarist from your hometown, says you’ve got all kinds of stuff waiting in the wings…
He’s too much. Well, maybe, in a sense, I never stop doing new things, but I discard a lot of stuff or never bring it out. And the truth is, I could make seven records with what I’ve got stashed away or what I throw out. Maybe I ought to be less touchy in that respect.
What does a guitarist need in order to be happy?
Patience. The guitar is a helluva thing…but with patience, playing every day, studying…you’ll always get there. We get obsessed, we think we aren’t going to make it, we get all worked up. You can’t be blind to everyone else, and not worry about the music. If you can get over that…that’s when you’re happy.