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Interview with Jaco Abel. Electric guitar (flamenco), Ayaya

The flamenco electric guitarist Jaco Abel
April 3, 2012
Por Alejandro Escribano

The flamenco electric guitarist Jaco Abel (Barecelona, 1966) recently released “Anaya” (GCP Producciones, 2011), his third solo recording.  Guitarist, composer, music and record producer, teacher and lecturer at the E.S.E.M., Taller de Músics de Barcelona, this recording can be considered the first recording of electric flamenco guitar ever.  We chatted at length about this innovative work.


Jaco Abel

Jaco, it’s been five years since your previous work, “Flamenco Eléctrio” (GCP Producciones, 2006)…
Exactley, “Flamenco Eléctrico” was a record that looked towards to the future, seeking a greater balance between flamenco, improvisation and modern music.  This new record, “Ayala”, brings another turn of the screw for electric guitar, but looking towards the past in search of the origins of pure flamenco and my own as well, which is why I took my time to get it together.  It’s a recording of gypsy flamenco played on an electric guitar.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most has been choosing what goes on the record.  Traditional gypsy flamenco is abundant, and a lot of good stuff has been very well recorded, so I spent hours listening and following the music, the songs and their development with a variety of interpreters.  I wanted to present the most noteworthy material of an entire era, and I even focused on playing with a feeling that is reminiscent of how things used to sound.  So taking old things here and there, without realizing it, all of sudden five years have gone by.  I think I must have accumulated enough material for three more recordings…[laughter]

“The first time I saw an electric guitar I was 14, it was the rehearsal of a rock and roll group in my neighborhood.  Right then and there I said to myself that the most incredible thing in the world would be to play flamenco with a guitar that had those metal strings, and hooked up to an amplifier!  Later on I tried putting some metal strings on a flamenco guitar and the bridge broke from the tension. ”

And you finally achieved what you set out to accomplish, the first record of electric flamenco guitar.
An adolescent’s dreams…  The first time I saw an electric guitar I was 14, it was the rehearsal of a rock and roll group in my neighborhood.  Manel Marín let me play his guitar (I remember it as if it were yesterday), and right then and there I said to myself that the most incredible thing in the world would be to play flamenco with a guitar that had those metal strings, and hooked up to an amplifier!  Later on I tried putting some metal strings on a flamenco guitar and the bridge broke from the tension.  Between one thing and another, I don’t exactly know how things happen, life carries you along, experiences here and there and, above all, hard work, being focused, and not giving up.  The fact that there was no precedent for this, created the need to work out technique from scratch, all self-taught, and to design a new instrument that would suit the sound needs of flamenco.  And today, that thought, that adolescent wish or calling, has become a reality, and I feel fortunate, like having lucky star.

Anaya is a tribute to the great maestros of flamenco…
Without a doubt.  A tribute to the greats of each era, from the wax cylinders of Antonio Chacón at the end of the 19th century, following the school of traditional gypsy flamenco guitar right up to the present.  Some hundred and twenty years of musical evolution, with each kingdom having its king and its principles, genuine revolutionaries of music and guitar, each one contributing in his moment novel techniques, effects, tuning, concepts and a wide range of influences that have given flamenco the color, rhythm and form that today characterize it.

“I honestly believe that “Ayaya” is a tremendous step forward as far as flamenco interpretation on electric guitar, especially regarding the right hand”

Jaco, that title, “Ayaya”, there’s a story behind it, isn’t that right?
The radio announcer Teo Sánchez suggested it during an interview on his program Duendeando (Radio 3) in 2007.  While I was reading a quote from my mother that sais “one of the first words Jacobo said was “ayaya” for guitar”, Teo said “that would be a good title for a record”.  And now look what you’ve done Teo, you’ll go down in history…

If could be said this new work evolved from your previous recording, “Flamenco Eléctrico” (2006), where you were already doing flamenco on the electric guitar…
I honestly believe that “Ayaya” is a tremendous step forward as far as flamenco interpretation on electric guitar, especially regarding the right hand, the one that holds the pick and also the fingers to play arpeggio and to strum.  In “Ayaya”, where the repertoire and the traditional flamenco interpretation make it necessary to play as if it were a traditional flamenco guitar just as they are, I had no choice but to complete the methodology and mechanisms of the right hand that I’ve been developing since I was a child, but with one less finger (the index, which holds the pick against the thumb), compared to the right hand of a flamenco guitarist.  In other words, I actually use the pick and the fingers, middle finger and ring finger, in order to play all the variations, strums, arpeggios and other flamenco effects played by guitarists who use the whole hand to play.  Basically, I just do what I can with what I have.

“Ayaya pays tribute to the great flamenco maestros: Ramón Montoya, Sabicas, la Niña de Los Peines, Carmen Amaya, Camarón, …”

The record’s subtitle says “Jaco Abel, electric flamenco guitar. A tribute to the maestros of flamenco”.  Who are the maestros?
To name a few, Ramón Montoya, Sabicas, Parrilla de Jerez, Habichuela, Mandeli de Granada, Perico el del Lunar, Amador de Sevilla, Tomatito... There are also things of Niña de los Peines, Carmen Amaya, Camarón…  There are so many great flamenco interpreters, it’s impossible to deal with it all.  In fact, many things from the repertoire, I have no idea where they come from, I’ve known them since I was a child from records my mother used to play at home, the music they used to put for dance classes in the dance schools, from night at my grandmother’s tablao.  My mother danced pregnant with me up to the eighth month, and no sooner was I born, we went on tour with a circus doing a flamenco show two or three times a day, all over Europe for two years.  In Germany the show was presented as “Los Gitanos Españoles, music and dance from an exotic tribe from the south of Spain”…I think it sort of stuck with me.

And the pieces you’ve selected for this record follow that line…
I wanter to give the retro feeling of the era.  Just think, in the 1960’s Spanish roads were dirt according to my mother who would sit in the cabin of the van with no seatbelt or anything.  I would sit on her lap and we would head for Franca via la Junquera, which was a mountain gorge with a winding dirt road with falling rocks, and two cars couldn’t pass at the same time.  Like old Pepe Habichuela says, “it’s a miracle we’re even alive”.  We lived in a world that was very old and very free, in constant contact with nature and flamenco.  The flamenco repertoire then was very different from that of today, there were more references to life in the thirties, forties and fifties of the last century.

“Many people are surprised when they hear me play because they don’t expect one instrument and one guitarist to remind them both of George Benson and Sabicas, depending entirely on what’s played and how.”

What difficulties did you deal with to adapt the classic repertoire of the flamenco guitar to the electric guitar?
Aside from the technical work, it was arduous trying to find this new sound within flamenco.  Electric flamenco guitar is quite a different instrument from the flamenco guitar, although they have the same name.  At times, when you’re playing flamenco, both share the same elements, but due to the different characteristics of their respective sounds, you also fill in certain spaces that would normally be inhabited by a bass, in the deeper range, or that of a flautist or solo voice in the higher range, since the instrument has a greater tonal range.

There’s also a fundamental difference between the two instruments, which is the electric guitar uses metal strings.
Exactly, it’s very different from nylon strings, never mind gut strings.  If you play an arpeggio or strum an electric guitar, the nails on your right hand are subject to friction and are cut with the metal strings, which are like very fine hexagonal taut wires, rather like razor-blades, so the nails wear down and break after a very short time playing.  And since you can’t play flamenco without fingernails, it becomes impossible to apply the right touch, but I about three years ago, after much experimentation, I found a good solution for this problem: a type of protection for the nails that keeps them from wearing down, and allowing a persona to play as long as desired.

Although you used a mixed technique, with both pick and fingers.

Right…thanks to that I also reduce the wearing down of the nails, because the pick does a lot of the work.  The also serves many other purposes, and I use it for things like fast picado runs, short strums, alzapua or for sweeping effects, and this complements the fingers, as a sort of thumb for arpeggios, extended strums and mixtures.

Jaco Abel

What about that characteristic sound you have, and the technique you use?
Well, like I said, it was born out of the need for a sound and technique for electric guitar, adopted when I was an adolescent learning jazz and contemporary music, to approximate the music of my childhood that was pure flamenco.  The outcome is the peculiar sound which was years in the making, but now seems to have come full circle.  In fact, many people are surprised when they hear me play because they don’t expect one instrument and one guitarist to remind them both of George Benson and Sabicas, depending entirely on what’s played and how.

I don’t think there’s anything strange about it, I was raised in Barcelona and two hours from my house, beyond the Pyrenees mountains, in the south of France, most of the gypsies play jazz, but they never play flamenco.  Barcelona is right on dividing line between first-class flamenco, and first-class gypsy jazz.  Look at Taller de Músics, where you can learn jazz from Cera neighborhood, and where many gypsy flamenco musicians live.  You need only go in with your ears well open to everything and, most importantly, want to learn.  Even if you don’t have money, you also learn plenty in the hallways of bars, I’m talking out of experience.

How do you strum for example?
I group them according to their rhythmic structure, like 2 elements, 3, 4, 5, 6 …  I use combinations of pick and fingers most of the time, and sometimes only fingers.  With just the pick, since the strum lacks color, I make them short, but then there are combinations that create very interesting effects.  One thing I made sure of was that to reproduce a strum the way it sounds on the flamenco guitar, it’s not always the same combination of fingers for my rasgueado.  To duplicate the same effect with the electric guitar, you have to kind of vary the execution while listening to the sound and the effect created by the flamenco guitar, and which we’re recreating with this new instrument, so the flamenco attack guides me, but not all the time.

And the alzapúa technique?
Funny you should ask.  The famous flamenco alzapúa which is done with two down-strokes of the thumb, and one upstroke, as the name in Spanish suggests, comes from the use of the pick and lute techniques and other stringed instruments played with a pick in which you “alza la púa”, or upstroke with the pick to repeat the mechanism.  There’s also a reverse alzapúa, which is the same structure but beginning with the pick backwards.  This is almost never used in flamenco because of the uncomfortable lack of precision that comes from two upstrokes.

But then there are also techniques that can only be done with the pick and fingers, and not with only the hand.  For example, with the fork or clip technique, and in some arpeggios, I’m able to play with the pick going upwards on the treble strings under the fingers playing the arpeggio.

The tremolos we saw on the video of the farruca are done with the hands…
You noticed that!  If you look at the video on youtube and see the tremolo, at the end of the farruca there’s a kind of magic trick when the pick disappears and then reappears to finish the piece, it’s not due to video editing.

In order to play a 5-note flamenco tremolo, which, by the way, is very different from the 4-note one used in classic guitar, I had to put the pick aside, and once again necessity was the mother of invention…I slip it in the small finger which is not used for anything.  Many times I put the pick in different parts of my hand in order to play the string with the tips of my fingers and get more strength, color and expression.

“I was lucky enough to have the participation of people I admire and respect...Bernardo Parrilla, Moy Natenzon, Enrique “El Piculabe”, Jorge Pardo and two top-notch palmeros from Sevilla, Juaqui, the son of Bobote, and Fali Amador”

Jaco, are you aware you’re the first electric flamenco guitarist?
And Catalonian…yes, thank you for reminding me how difficult I have it [laughter].  Luis Amador of Pata Negra calls me a “tocarrista”, because he says I’m not just a “tocaor”, and not just a “guitarrista”.  In fact, in the United States I’ve heard the term “super-musician” to refer to combining two musical styles as different as flamenco and jazz or modern music, but with propriety, knowledge and a mark of identity.  This is obviously good for the ego, but I like what Luis says, “tocarrista”, it’s more appropriate to the genre.

I think we’ll have to get used to seeing this kind of musician, because of the communication that’s being created between contemporary music and gypsy flamenco music.  The future will hole some welcome surprises.

The recording also includes the collaboration of some great musicians…
I was lucky enough to have the participation of people I admire and respect, and to whom I am deeply greatful for their having contributed to the recording.  Luis Amador and Benji Habichuela were advising as co-producers and also musicians.  Then there’s Bernardo Parrilla, Moy Natenzon, Enrique “El Piculabe”, Jorge Pardo and two top-notch palmeros from Sevilla, Juaqui, the son of Bobote, and Fali Amador, they all put their worthy art into Ayaya.

Let’s talk about Luis Amador, who not only co-produced and played percussion, but also sings…
This kid is a miracle, he sang a verse of soleá in one of the rehearsals that was so incredible, I used it on the opening band of the record.  He also gave me things for the guitar, old variations from his family, really priceless.  Between him, Benji Habichuela, who another miracle, they helped me a lot.


I’d also like to hear about another musician on the record, Jorge Pardo.
There’s always a lot to say about Jorge, he’s one of the greatest musicians in the history of music on a global scale (I’m not the only one who says it), and one of my best friends today, although we see each other less frequently than I would like.  We played at the Teatro Lara in Madrid and he asked me if I wasn’t thinking of calling him to record something on my record.  It was a dream come true for Jorge to say that, because he really meant it, straight from the heart!  And so it was.  He came to the studio, brought a 6-pack of beer and when he heard the siguiriya he told me a cante of Tío Borrico’s would fit in well, so he recorded it with the flute.  Then, he improvised a variation to finish of his part, and left.  Simply incredible!

A real genius on flamenco wind instruments, and a musician in the broadest sense of the word.
Jorge has been, and continues to be, a source of inspiration and an example for coming generations of musicians.  It’s possible people still don’t understand his capacity to adapt and create within music.  He’s probably, if not the first then certainly one of the super-musicians with a basis and a stamp of originality I mentioned earlier.  I mustn’t fail to mention that he’s also a super-person for his friends, and you love him like a brother.

What you’ve done with electric guitar, he’s done for the sax and flute.
Jorge is a pioneer in his instrument, mostly with the traditional flute, and although there was some saxophone on Montoya and Sabicas records, you could say Jorge got the most out of the instrument, creating a unique space in the world of modern music and flamenco, where he is the king.  I’m from a generation that followed his by ten years.  Time will tell, I’m happy to admire him.

You baptized the siguiriya “De Túnez a Egipto”.
I called it that because of the whole thing of independence in North Africa, the dictatorships and all that.  I’m not into politics, but I thought it was necessary to devote some thought to all those people dying in the streets because of some guys who claim to be in power and who don’t want to step down.  In nature, that power doesn’t exist, it only exists in the minds of a few opportunists whom we see “as if they were in power”, but they’re nothing more than administrators in a country where they have no claim whatsoever to any sort of title.  They’re still following the political models of the Romans.  If it didn’t work for Julius Caesar 3000 years ago, why do we follow that model?  These things, aside from deeply affecting my own logic, occasionally come out as emotions in my music.

And the tangos “Perro Canelo”…
Some flamenco tangos for Señor Chucho, the doggie who would accompany his master to dialysis sessions at Seville Hospital.  Of course the master would tie him up in the street, and pick him up on the way out, so with time, people got to know him well.  One day the master didn’t return, and the dog was left waiting.  Now he lives there, and people in the neighborhood have built him a little house and regularly give him food.  What art!  Bernardo Parrilla recorded a cante with the violin which ended up as a kind of chorus, and after you hear it, it sticks in your head for some time.  Pure magic!

Going over some titles of the compositions, there were a few I really like, for example the farruz “Dos Reyes y Tercio”…
This title is a tribute to Ramón Montoya and Sabicas, who for me are the kings of gypsy flamenco guitar.

And the “tercio” (one-third)?
You can imagine…[laughter]


And the bambera por fandango, “Peínate Pastora”…
Pastora is my mother’s artistic name, Pastora Martos, given her by the maestro José de la Vega, one of the greats in the history of flamenco dance, when they were partners in 1958.  The word “peínate” is from the first recording of bambera por fandango made by la Niña de los Peines, a sort of audio tribute I offered.

And also the cante “Columpio de los Cagacerros”…
These “columpio” songs are the predecessor of the bambera, and Niña de los Peines made the first version to fandangos.  This cante, which has a modulation not common in flamenco, and which was omitted in the flamenco version, I’ve recorded in the original way, including the modulation, and accompanying it based on the cante of granaína.  The verse is sung magnificently by Enrique el Piculabe, and the modulation is so subtle, you don’t even realize there’s been any change of tone.

By the way Jaco, originally the record was only going to come out digitally, but in the end you’ve also published it in a physical format.
It seems flamenco fans, including myself, still want something solid to carry home.  In fact, I always recommend buying the CD of any music, because the sound is much better than that of an .mp3 file.  Explained simply, sound has 12 natural harmonics which the analogical register reproduces completely.  The digital register 16Bit, which is colder, reproduces only 8, and when it’s converted to .mp3, don’t even mention it.  I changed my mind and released the physical record because I was asked to do it several times, and as a performing artist I want as many people as possible to hear my music, and of course hear it with CD quality, which is an added value to the music itself, as well as a plus for the professional listener provided by the record company GCProducciones.

The design of the record looks very good, with some wonderful autobiographical photos.
Yes, I’m lucky enough to have two godchildren who are, respectively, a programmer and a graphic designer.  I was looking for someone who knew me well to illustrate this intimate work, and one day, talking to them, the idea came up.  They did the design of the CD and the webpage.  Irma made the cover and said, “man, this picture really shows who you are on the inside”, and now that I look at it with hindsight, I love it, it was a really good choice.  The photos on the inside in black and white are from my family’s collection, from the years of touring with the circus we did with my parents.

In one of the promotional photos, you’re sitting on a bridge like a Mississippi bluesman.
It’s a bridge near my house where I was living in Madrid.  I was raised in Sant Cugat, in a little town next to the Collserola mountain range, not far from Barcelona.  Back then, everything was more or less as in the pictures, wide-open fields, the riverbed with the cane growing and the train-tracks that passed right behind my house.  We had a great time, free and easy, with no ties or schedules to keep, nearly no obligations, everything was natural, friends, music and honor.  We would go to the orchards nearby and jump over the fence to get melons, plums, almonds…and we got around by bicycle and even a donkey we had…what times those were!

Jaco Abel

Who are the photographers for the record?
The photos were made by Antonio Alba, recommended by Ana Martínez, a good friend and well-known producer for Spanish television who presented me to her life-long friend who is now a reputable photographer and visual artist.  With Antonio and the team, Lilia, Jordi, Castaña… we all got together alongside the house of journalist Mercedes Goitz who told me that near her house there was an incredible bridge and a river that reminded her of the Floresta of Sant Cugat, and where the sunsets were perfect for taking photographs.  We did two sessions on two separate days in 6 different locations in the area, and we got a lot of photos and videos which I’m soon going to put on-line along with the music from the record, a sort of “making of…”.

You also include photos from the private collection of your mother, Pastora Martos.
From my mother we inherited the family and artistic collection which is so vast that even today I still come across pictures I’d never seen before.  I continue to be surprised, finding data about people close to me, my parents or my infancy.  Not long ago the dancer José de la Vega gave me a wonderful gift.  He gave me some pictures of when my parents got married, I was overwhelmed to see individuals from the world of culture, flamenco, literature, fine art, music and such who appeared in the photos as witnesses, best man, friends, well-wishers and artistic collaborators from before and during my infancy and, over the years, these images have been incorporated into photo books and registers of the cultural history of Catalonia and also Spain itself.  I was lucky enough to have had an excellent cultural education.

Your mother was a great artist.
I can hardly find words to describe the achievements and advances my mother contributed to the world of dance and culture in Spain.  She was a very well-prepared woman, culturally and artistically.  She studied classic ballet at the Royal Academy of London, two university degrees in Spain, an impressive artistic curriculum that goes from the Ballet of Marienma, where Enrique Morente started out singing, right up to dancing at the best theaters in the world, with the great Antonio among others.  Speaker and teacher of flamenco and classic Spanish dance, with three schools open for 40 years, and she spoke four languages.  In addition she was a historian, member of the UNESCO, collector of one of the biggest archives of data on twentieth century dance, a member of the international dance jury, scholar of English at the University of Barcelona, journalist with several books published, mother of three children and I’ve seen her in several photos with Queen Sofia of Spain.  Why do I say I almost have no words…[laughter]

By the way, getting back to the record, the sound is spectacular, thanks to the mixing of Erik Zobler, among other things.
Erik is an angel from heaven, and down here on Earth he’s one of the greatest sound technicians on the planet, according to people who know about these things.  He’s been George Duke’s technician for 20 years, he’s mixed for Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Donna Summer, Al Jarreau, Marcus Miller, Dianne Reeves with whom he won a Grammy, Quincy Jones…  He’s mixed many of the most important recordings of American music of the last 40 years.  

Changing the subject, you just moved to Barcelona after a time living in Madrid.  What changes have you noticed in the musical scene of these two cities?
I’ve noticed a lot of changes in both cities.  In Madrid, with the fall of the recording industry, things are a little lop-sided.  The over-production there is today fills festivals controlled by empresarios, and it’s more politics than art.  In fact, yesterday I saw a collection of posters from the years 2000 and 2001 in Madrid, and look at the names of artists who were participating: Potito, Ramón el Portugués, Guadiana, El Viejín, Montse Cortes, los Salazar, Reyes…now that’s a flamenco roster.  Regarding Barcelona, it’s also changed a lot in the last 15 years.  Much to my surprise many small places regularly program flamenco.  So there are jam sessions, because jazz seems to draw fewer people than it used to, the younger generation has other ideas.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see Barcelona has recuperated the flamenco ambience it used to have.  Carmen Amaya was, and still is the greatest dancer in the world, and she was Catalonian, we have a very important flamenco history.

By the way, Jaco, we’re anxious to see you play live.  When and where are going to present the record?
I was just at the Tarantos tablao, precisely where Carmen Amaya once danced, with the Amador family of Seville.  Then, we have some things with Antonio Agujeta which will be promoted on-line.  I also hope to present “Ayaya” in Barcelona and Madrid.


In addition to Ayaya, what other projects have you got in mind?
I’m already thinking about the fourth work where I want to record all my textures, sounds and musical knowledge, without thinking of any specific project, and without limiting myself to one style or musical system in particular.  In a certain sense, I want to be free again, which is what I really need.  For sure there will be gypsy flamenco, if not, it wouldn’t be any record of mine, but made for today, combining modern music and harmony.  This was also advice from Tomatito, one of my favorite guitarists and with whom I’ve shared many key experiences over the last ten years.  There are still a lot of dreams to carry out.

Thank you maestro, and congratulations.

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