Interview and photos: Rafael Manjavacas
The Huelva guitarist presents his fourth recording, «Paseo de los Cipreses».
«Paco was our voice, he managed to say what we were all longing to say»
In «Paseo de los Cipreses», he pays tribute to flamenco greats such as Enrique Morente, Paco de Lucía, Félix Grande and Niño Miguel, all of whom have recently died. But to other people as well, individuals who have been very important in his life, such as his father or his friend Antonio Moreno.
«Se canta lo que se pierde» ('you sing what you have lost'), with this sentence from poet Antonio Machado, Juan Carlos Romero tells us in the accompanying text of his record, how he went about putting together eight compositions that recall and pay tribute to the numerous and illustrious string of people who have left us, almost without our realizing it, with the natural and impassive plan of the Grim Reaper. Tangos, taranta, bulería, granaína, rumba, vals flamenco, bulería and a free-form composition make up this record of Juan Carlos Romero.
– How should we remember someone who has left, be it an artist or a loved one?
Nostalgia is inevitable, but I want there to be joy above all else, to remember the good things those people left us while they were here.
– Talking about «Paseo de los Cipreses» gives the feeling of a kind of mourning or pain.
In a certain sense, yes that's how it should be, it makes us digest the past of flamenco, the mourning helps us assimilate it all. If you're lucky enough to be able to make music from all that, it basically frees you. Like Félix Grande told me, flamenco never seemed sad to me, I know for some people it's sad, but for me it has never been so. Félix gave me the answer, «Flamenco is a wound that comes to us already healed, it does not induce sadness but solace». That's what I hope this recording does.
– How do you approach composing the pieces?…with your mind focused on each one of them?
Not exactly, it's a general feeling of loss. It accumulates in a short space of time, your mind doesn't abandon any of them at various moments throughout the day, and when you sit down with the guitar all that appears, it's inevitable, at least for musicians like myself who are used to working with their own feelings, with their sensations, their inner life. Although you don't try for that, it's what happens.
– Did you first record the pieces and then decide who they were aimed at, or when you record did you already know who each one was for?
Well, a little of everything, for this record, I planned on doing a granaína, and when I was deeply into working the granaína, Enrique passed, so obviously the granaína had to be for him, it's a different composition than would have come out had it not been for Enrique.
In the case of Félix Grande, I assigned the music afterwards, when I was thinking of him, the verses I wrote materialized, interpreted by Pedro el Granaíno, the only singer on the record.
– When you're thinking of someone in particular, is the motivation greater, and does the creativity flow more readily?
That unsettled state of mind, the sadness, melancholy, is an artistically propitious condition, which is why it's dangerous, you run the risk of inhabiting that mental state, waiting for it to bear fruit. We all like creativity, but if we get into that psychological rut, you may sacrifice naturalness, you have to do things according to what life brings at each step, and since life is unpredictable, you have to face things as they come.
– When it comes to creating each of the pieces, do they change a great deal from the moment you first think of them, the search for the music, melodies and the final result? Do you quickly find what you're looking for in each piece, or does a lot get tossed aside?
A lot is unused, it's a feeling of shedding light on things that were there all along, veiled in darkness, then you remove the veil and they appear, but there are various layers, they peel away one by one until you reach the last one, that's the process of selection and of discarding things you realize aren't enriching. It starts out as a sketch, and the end result resembles the beginning, but like a cousin.
– The first piece, the one that gives the record its title, is a rumba, «Paseo de los Cipreses», dedicated to Antonio Moreno who was your sound technician for many years. Why was the rumba for Antonio?
People might think I wanted to pay tribute to flamenco stars who have passed away, but that wasn't the idea, I wanted to honor friends of mine who are gone, it's a very personal question, which is why I included people who are unknown in the world of flamenco, but who were relevant for me. This rumba is dedicated to Antonio because I think it's what he would most have liked to hear.
– And for Paco de Lucía, it had to be «Gracias Innumerables», without any question, on the flamenco level, on the guitar level, and in your case, on the personal one as well.
For guitarists, Paco feels so close, we were listening to him such a long time, he's one of the family. The first time I heard Paco, it was a record my father brought home, «La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucía», and ever since that day, Paco has been a part of my life, aside from eventually knowing him personally, and that he was always close, especially among guitarists. His way of being and the music he played are part of my memories, my infancy, my coming of age, Paco has always been with me, I am very grateful to him as a guitarist, and on the personal level, he helped me grow and understand flamenco better. Paco was the voice for all of us, he managed to say what we were all longing to say. There is no guitarist of any line who did not eventually come to the figure of Paco de Lucía, it's the first time one person achieved a consensus in the world of flamenco in which disagreement among followers is part and parcel of the nature of the art-form.
– Now, there's a new generation of guitarists coming on strong, Dani de Morón, Diego del Morao…but you've been playing guitar many years, what is your generation?
My generation is Rafael Riqueni, Gerardo Núñez, Vicente Amigo, Tomatito, we're all separated by about 4 or 5 years difference, then, as you say, there are the guitarists you mentioned who play very well. Our generation has the advantage of having lived through the last vestiges of how traditional flamenco was lived, they have a more difficult time, it hardly exists any more, this is a generation learning with other tools…internet, recordings, there's lots of information, but life experience is very limited. True knowledge is linked to experience, information is a good thing, but it's not knowledge.
– You started out very young playing flamenco guitar thanks to your father.
Thanks to my father, and to Niño Miguel's father who really introduced me to the world of guitar. It's not that I had a direct relationship with Niño Miguel, I never took classes with him directly, but when his father brought Niño Miguel to my house and I heard him play, it made a big impression on me, I was about 9 years old, and he was 20 or 21 and playing incredibly, I admired him greatly, and felt great affection for him. Then as I matured, the age difference was not so noticeable, we became friends, aside from the admiration I always felt for him. I played his Vals Flamenco, in the nineteen-seventies he was very popular considering he was a guitarist, that was the era of his greatest splendor, and I wanted to remember him like that.
– And what was your relationship with Félix Grande?, you were very close to him. What did you get from him, and why does «Encogiéndome de Hombros» seem like resignation?
With a situation such as the death of a friend or loved one, nothing is left but resignation. Félix was a great follower of guitar, I love literature and Félix gave me a great deal, I sent him my recordings, and he sent me his books, a maestro in life and in literature, an intelligent and sensitive man, it was a pleasure to have been his friend.
– The record closes out with a bulería, «La Vida al Encuentro».
I don't like to wallow in negative things, I don't want that, I want to assimilate the past as soon as possible, but with my baggage fully packed to keep moving forward, in the present, building the future day by day. In the video clip that accompanies the record, there are many children, I think it's important to check the rear-view mirror once in a while, but with a joyful vision towards the future.
– The video clip shows some children in a music class. What do you think about how flamenco is taught in Spain?
In actual fact, politicians never quite understand that flamenco is important, they treat it as an element of regional identity, but deep down inside they don't really believe it, they say it, but it's a lie. They feel they are obliged to defend it, but they don't see it as important music, people have to come from outside to remind them how important it is.
– Flamenco guitar concerts are a complicated issue, or so it seems. How can it be that in all the festivals, big and small, the guitar is always sidelined?
Spain is the country of the guitar. If cultural managers, and the political direction of culture could understand the importance of this art-form, they would understand that people would be drawn to it if they had musical preparation. No importance is given to musical formation here, which makes it hard to stage guitar concerts, or of other instruments, it's a result of the deficient education and the little attention paid to music, now everything depends on economic questions, whether or not something is going to generate income. Music should be considered an important element in a person's education, as in the rest of developed countries. In Europe, no one needs to know you personally, what sells is that you're a flamenco musician, even though you may not have a name. I understand that a private enterprise risking its own money wants to see income, and depends on big names that offer a guarantee, but when it's public money, that excuse rings hollow.