He couldn’t have a more flamenco name, although he may not sound Spanish. In actual fact, Juan Carmona Contrera (Lyon, 1963) is more of a self-made guitarist than he seems. A fighter since the very beginning, nothing was handed on a silver platter to this Frenchman with Andalusian roots who is now presenting (hold onto your hats) his ninth solo recording, “El Sentido del Aire”. There are some other works of his floating around as well, in which he accompanies or does the sound-track for films. All that, and numerous awards under his belt prove it’s not a good idea to look at a person’s I.D. before forming an opinion.
At your age, and nine recordings…
As soloist, yes. The fact is, I started recording early on and it’s been a long road. To those nine records you have to add music for films, and a lot of accompaniment. During the time I was in Jerez there was a lot of that, and with great singers.
“El Sentido del Aire” comes gift-wrapped.
It was a very fun recording to make and yes, there are a lot of special collaborations. It’s also true that I already knew many of them, and they’d participated on earlier recordings of mine. But having “Paquete” as producer is a big help. Because between what I wanted and knew, and then his ideas, it came out well.
Why exactly did you choose him?
Because I knew who he was. A fantastic guitarist who in addition to knowing and respecting traditional flamenco guitar and the roots of pure flamenco, he moves like a fish in the water of the so-called new flamenco. He knows the right people and he’s not a person who is biased towards what’s done in the south of Spain. He’s more in the center, like Madrid, and I’d never recorded with people from outside Andalusia. Now I needed to do this. Here there’s a broader perspective, not as localist as in other places.
I was with him and he’d say “this is what would go well here”, and it was something I didn’t know, but he’s got the golden touch, really. It’s true I had my own ideas about who should do each piece, but if anything needed to be modified, he always had the right alternative.
Is there any part of the record you’re especially fond of?
It’s a flamenco record no matter how you slice it, even the jaleo is inserted with care, from a perspective of tradition and love for this art. I love the tangos that open, the siguiriya and the two bulerías, the second of them with a Jerez sound.
You were there ten years.
It was a glorious time. I got there by accident. I’d never been outside of France, but I knew flamenco well, and I knew my playing was missing something. Yes, I’d recorded, I’d won prizes, played for a lot of people…but something was missing. That flavor, that feeling you get from Andalusia. That was lacking, and if you really want to learn a language you have to go where it’s spoken all the time. And that was Andalusia. So I went down to Seville. The thing is, it’s a very big city, overwhelming for me, so I checked the map and ended up in Jerez, a more intimate place that might work out. All this with more intuition than anything else. I had no idea about what the Santiago neighborhood was, or the Plazuela, imagine!
Then I was lucky enough to meet Isidro Sanlúcar who offered me work with him. Isidro helped me a lot, and besides being with him, I would see his brother Manolo…seeing him was….the rehearsals of Tauromagia, meeting people like Vicente Amigo, Juan Carlos Romero…what a blast!!!
Jerez changed me, and over the years I never really tended to one style or another. In fact I made a record during that time called “Entre dos Barrios” (“between two neighborhoods”), because I was incapable of choosing one or the other.
”The localism among Spanish flamencos. So-and-so is from Triana, or Madrid, or Valladolid…. If they knew how popular flamenco was outside Spain, and how people are playing, they wouldn’t be concerned with those things”.
Why did you leave?
Well, life circumstances. I returned to Marseilles occasionally, more than you’d think, I’d get there and do an about-face to return to the south. I go to Jerez about every two years, when I write new compositions and need some new flamenco oxygen.
You returned to France and it was like starting all over again.
Perhaps in the professional sense, but the flamenco ambience in France is fabulous, make no mistake. And in Spanish, I speak in Calé with my people as the most natural thing in the world. The southwest of France is full of gypsies, and flamenco peñas, festivals…I organize one of them myself. You’re among family and it’s easy to find anyone you want…Montse, Guadiana, anyone…these are people who come up regularly.
A gypsy, and a teacher at the conservatory.
For 15 years. That was also by chance. I played one of my first concerts in France, at a cloister in Marseilles, all material of Paco de Lucía. It came out so well, I had the offer to work at the Marseilles guitar academy. And that’s where I began, at 16. I left school and went to work. Now I’m a professor at the university of Toulon, a nearby city.
But with a last name like Carmona, wasn’t playing guitar practically a birth right?
Well, my parents are Andalusian, and that’s already half the game. And I would see my uncle playing bulerías at the flamenco parties, and there was cante…it was clear. I asked for a guitar for Christmas and started taking classes with my uncle and listening to Paco’s records, the tapes my father would buy for me and I’d rewind back and forth a million times…that’s how I got the technique. But there was not a clear professional background for flamenco. My beginnings are not much different from anyone else’s.
What about the contests in Spain…how did they react to your being French?
Their reaction was strange to say the least. Within the flamenco world it’s different. On the one hand, while the gypsies of Jerez or Madrid see me as one of their own because I’m from a gypsy family, it was different at the contests. There were people who’d ask about my “cousin” thinking I was from the Carmona dynasty of the Habichuelas…but then when they realized I was French and not who they thought…I don’t know…it’s not a question of going into detail, but sometimes it was hard for them to give the prize to a foreigner. Sometimes you could even read between the lines when they’d leave the prize unawarded, but then give it to me afterwards…
It must be a great consolation that Paco de Lucía gave you a plaque with your name.
Is it ever!!! And furthermore, he had a lot to do with that prize not being linked to any prejudices. He was very kind to me, and although I was with him for a few days, I was also very frightened and shy…imagine…it was the only contest that was held under his name, here in Maderid…I still see him sometimes and we say hello, but I have so much respect for him…
What did you play?
The contest rules stipulated a piece of Paco de Lucía’s. So I played a taranta with some of his falsetas, a kind of remix. I played his “Canción de Amor”, and, well, it came out well.
“The communication media have a power we don’t even realize, and when someone records something, anything, maybe a short falseta with the cell phone…you don’t even know what can happen to it from that moment on. Because in the blink of an eye it’s travelling half-way round the globe”
Flamenco people have their own “ideas”, you know?
Yes, but now I laugh about that. In fact, it all seems very distant, those extreme prejudices against anything a little different that doesn’t exist among foreign flamenco artists. It’s something you see as well in all the localism among Spanish flamencos. So-and-so is from Triana, or Madrid, or Valladolid…. If they knew how popular flamenco was outside Spain, and how people are playing, they wouldn’t be concerned with those things.
Tell me about the popularity of flamenco in France…
You wouldn’t believe it! In the first place, it’s what I already said. That I’ve been teaching flamenco for several decades in a French conservatory, a local effort, somewhat limited. But the thing is, it’s another mentality. In conservatories in France they do Indian music, Argentine tango, capoeira, genres that are mostly geared to opening horizons…in addition to classical of course. And it’s not only in France. You go to Hawaii, fifteen hours on the airplane, and they ask you how to play a certain falseta from a certain record. And you’re just dumbfounded. The communication media have a power we don’t even realize, and when someone records something, anything, maybe a short falseta with the cell phone…you don’t even know what can happen to it from that moment on. Because in the blink of an eye it’s travelling half-way round the globe.
Flamenco in Spain is a sure thing, it’s yours, and that’s why you value it so much. And yet, flamenco guitar is a world fever.
“Sentido del Aire”…is it what you call a “creative catharsis”?
Well, considering that I never stop doing new things, it’s a record that does justice to my current state or moment in time, although I’ve practically finished preparing another record. What happens? It’s novel and a tremendous breakthrough, but maybe I’ll keep it under wraps for a while yet. I prefer to ananlyze it “the morning after”, and not just release it to get it over and done with. But I never stop wondering if maybe this record will sell, and the other one won’t. Needless to say it’s better if it sells, but the thing is, I’m going to go on composing all the same. I can’t stop being a musician because of numbers. But one thing is clear…if I don’t like something, that’s the end of it.