Interview: Pablo San Nicasio
Interview photo: Rafa Manjavacas
Promotional photo: Olga Holguin
“The best guitarist is the one who doesn't compete, the one who's different”
The latest stop on the “tomato” odyssey is a search for the origins of an artist who never stopped being one of our own. “Soy Flamenco” is the sixth solo recording of this guitarist from the La Chanca neighborhood of Almería. Drunk on rhythm, with memories of Camarón and choice collaborations. José Fernández Torres received us at the Corral de la Morería all dressed up and with plenty of time. The general media finished recording their slots. They recorded his face, a little music and some generic statements. Now it was time to talk about guitar.
Were your people telling you a record of this nature was what they were waiting for?
Yes, it came from “Spain Again”, “Sonanta Suite”, playing with Omar Faruk…I had to make a recording of flamenco. And I didn’t take any time to choose a title. Nothing literary or philosophical…”soy flamenco”, I’m flamenco, period. Flamenco guitar and cante fans said so, and it’s true.
Is it good to stray from flamenco occasionally to refresh your outlook?
That’s how it is for me at least. But not to refresh or to get away from flamenco. I mostly do it to learn new things. It’s something Paco de Lucía taught us, so we must follow that path. You learn from someone from Brazil, from a jazz musician….
What’s the line that mustn’t be crossed in order to continue being flamenco? If indeed a person can stop being flamenco…
Changing your perspective and communicating things that are not true. You have to know where you come from, how to touch the guitar and how to create. And not say you’re a jazz-man just because you know one famous piece. It’s not something you learn overnight, it takes a lifetime. Just like flamenco. It’s not the same thing playing bulerías from childhood as dabbling in it from time to time.
Did you spend a lot of time mulling over this record?
Not really. I sit down to play for example, maybe some bulerías, and I keep pulling the yarn relentlessly. I hole up alone and things come out.
Pulling on that yarn, to give guitarists an idea, how long does it take Tomatito to create for example the soleá on this record?
I had the beginning based on a piece of music I’ll tell you about later. And then I looked for an old variation…it was in the basement at my house. Always working. And if I’m not mistaken, it took about three days.
This is the recording that has more bulerías than any other, four in total. A lot of people think you could have divided up the pie into more portions, but it’s only four. Is this an apt description, or does each piece have its own story?
They’re four different pieces…different concepts.
“You have to know where you come from, how to touch the guitar and how to create. And not say you’re a jazz-man just because you know one famous piece. ”
In my opinion, the best piece is the one sung by Guadiana, called “Despacito”, with tremolo. In another you’re with Paco de Lucía and Camarón…I’d like you to elaborate on this if possible.
The piece that begins directly with the tremolo is to come on something delicate. I can’t explode aggressively from the start. With Guadiana, even more so, because I wanted it to be like a challenge for me. At the same time, a tribute to that slow feeling…that’s why it’s called “Despacito”, slowly. It’s the slowest bulería I’ve ever recorded in my life.
What number on the metronome?
A hundred and ten. I usually go at a hundred and thirty. It’s slower than the tremolo piece. Quite a challenge. People say I have a rhythmic command of bulerías…perhaps. That I can reach the finish line without running out of breath. I’ve come to the conclusion that the hardest thing is to play with the mechanical rhythm set slow. It’s another kind of phrasing. Everything takes longer…I consider it the most difficult thing.
The one of Morao you call “bulería desdoblá”…what’s the concept behind that?
It’s in two musical voices without the second guitar being accompaniment, there’s no underlying melody, it’s another voice with the same importance.
It’s been two years already since we lost the maestro Morao. What characteristics of his playing do you consider the most important?
The feeling, the weight, the grace. He had a way of measuring bulerías, I try to play it like that because I think it’s the best way, the most academic. His son Diego also plays it that way…it’s more entertaining.
And then for the fourth bulerías you brought in Paco de Lucía.
I caught him when he was very busy finishing up his record of lyrical song. He played some things for me, very nice. That kind of music goes well with him. I wouldn’t do a record of lyrical song, I’d do jazz. Hey, maybe my next record I’ll do something based on ten or twelve standards, but Paco doesn’t like that. He said so. He likes lyrical song. He doesn’t like the tension of jazz chords. He’s always listened to lyrical song. And the old variations, with Camarón and many others, are based on that. Lyrical song, Falla, traditional Spanish music…that’s what Paco is about.
So I called him and said I was going to put some Camarón tangos to bulerías compás. And he sent me this amazing material.
What’s that about changing Camarón’s compás from tangos to bulerías?
Wow, how can I explain that to people…the machine did it, it’s very complex.
What year are the siguiriya and the bulerías from?
I’d say from the mid-nineteen-eighties…these are takes that were recorded in analog, and the change to digital may have affected them, I don’t know. But they had to be used.
How much Camarón material do you still have?
Not that much. But it’s not a big thing to do it. The most important thing is that it has to sound good. Everything in tune, the accompaniment just so…
The soleá seems very up-tempo to me…it’s like a soleá por bulería, isn’t it? It reminds me of your record “Guitarra Gitana” where Diego el Cigala sang.
It’s the same concept, that’s right. It’s fast, yes…all the speed I took away from the bulería went to the soleá.
“When I started out I listened to Paco all the time. But I didn’t want to imitate him or compete with him, I played his material but sounded like myself. I had my technique, my sound.”
The flamenco song that closes out the record, “Our Spain”…does it have a particular meaning?
No, it’s the title of the original piece by bass-player Charlie Haden, and so it remained. This composition is on the record Missouri of Pat Metheny, who’s the person that made it famous. I didn’t look for any other meaning in the title, and it’s not my place to change it.
Is the current Tomatito very self-critical? In the sense of not wanting to listen to the record, or needing to constantly retouch pieces…
I’ve convinced myself that it can’t be like that. I used to be that way, but it doesn’t make sense. You are what you are at each moment. When it’s done, it’s done, it’s what there is.
Do you necessarily play better over the years?
I try to make it happen that way….learn new things, surprise people and not be run-of-the-mill.
What does Tomatito think of “Rosas del Amor” or “Barrio Negro”?
That it was a fantastic time. Now I wouldn’t do it the same because it can’t be, but it was fine for the era.
What do you think guitarists will think of this record?
Well, there’ll be a little of everything. But mostly, they’ll know I like the guitar. I don’t listen much to what others say, as long as I like it myself…I can’t change.
Have you not felt the temptation to sing on the record?
Yes, but no. I like cante a lot, but there are others who keep a pitch better than me…it’s not my mission, I’d make a fool of myself.
One of the people who sings is your daughter Mari Ángeles…what’s she doing?
It makes me very happy that she sings on the record. She finishing a recording of her own, Josemi Carmona produced it, and we’ll be able to see it soon. I like her voice very much.
And your son…you say he plays better than you. Isn’t it a little soon to say that?
It’s that he plays better than me. My mother even says so…”at your age you weren’t playing that well”. I don’t know, it’s what she says.
“I always tell my son: you have to take the pressure. When you see a good guitarist, stay there watching him and take the pressure. Don’t get twisted up in a knot. Don’t hang out with people worse than you so you can be at the top of the heap. You have to hang out with good people and learn from them, because that gives you a perspective on reality.”
What kind of a world is it for him as far as guitar compared to what you came across?
It’s much more difficult now. There were far fewer people before. And anyone who was good was noticed early on. Professionally it was easier. Now it’s true there are many who play very well, but there’s hardly any personality. Lots of technique, picado runs, scales, each one’s better than the next…but they have to seek out their own path. They can’t waste time imitating. When I started out I listened to Paco all the time. But I didn’t want to imitate him or compete with him, I played his material but sounded like myself. I had my technique, my sound. People need to realize that over time they’re going to lose those faculties and they better have something to say. It’s the same with cante. You’re not going to be shouting at the top of your lungs forever. One day you’ll have a small voice and you’ll have to move people with it. Like some of these old-timers who make you cry, they break your soul. That’s what people need to try for. Save for tomorrow…[laughter].
Aside from that, what have you told your son?
That technique is important. You want to have a good picado, practice it for two hours. If you want arpeggios, another two hours. But when you’ve been at it for four hours, listen to music. Put on Morao, or this singer Pat Metheny, something romantic…being aggressive isn’t everything.
That aggressiveness is more noticeable with the scarcity of money and work these days…
Exactly, there are more guitarists and less work than ever. But someone who doesn’t want to compete and is just different, that person is really good. Not the best of the bad ones, but different. It’s much better to be different. Because you will be better. I always tell my son: you have to take the pressure. When you see a good guitarist, stay there watching him and take the pressure. Don’t get twisted up in a knot. Don’t hang out with people worse than you so you can be at the top of the heap. You have to hang out with good people and learn from them, because that gives you a perspective on reality. What’s that about leaving the room when someone plays better than you? Or paying attention to people who lay on the praise and tell you you’re the best when they don’t know anything about guitar. Since I was a child I hung out with people who were better than me, no matter what age they were. I mean look, if I’ve got Amós Lora in front of me…he often comes to Almería…I learn from him! He’s a very special kid, with antennae that capture everything musical. And I can see he’s got wonderful things. Well, I sit and learn from him. And people can say whatever they want. There’s all kinds of prejudice in flamenco, and in guitar plenty. There are people who know three or four things and think they’re something they’re not.
And guitar is what’s producing the most recordings.
Because the economic problems have always been with us, we’re used to this situation. Now just look, the singers are at the end of the line. It’s the guitarists who lead the singing and even the dancing…we mostly have Paco de Lucía to thank for that…now the guitar is out front.
Will this year be devoted exclusively to touring with this record?
I’m going to play this, people liked it and they ask from this piece and that…
You often sideline legendary pieces…we fans are disappointed when we don’t hear them again…
I get that a lot…it happens to us guitarists, we feel bad when we take something out of the repertoire.
Do you ever forget it?
No, it’s always there, but if we go back to something it has a completely different spin.
And when Tomatito is at home, does he only play what’s going to be played in public?
No, it’s a funny thing. What I play in concert I never play when I practice. The alegrías “La Ardila”, I never played that at home. The bulerías either. And within a very basic structure, the essence of each piece is always different, I put different musical variations. The musicians have a great time because they’re surprised and it’s not repetitious. That would be the easiest thing, to fall back on the same pieces all the time.
What about teaching?
Once in a while. In Turkey, and throughout Spain a few years ago…and I’m going to give classes at the Festival de Córdoba…but I don’t like it too much. I’m very bad…I don’t know what to say. There’s a good level, the people study the pieces and get them down pat, they ask about the feeling and how to get it…
Do you have to be born with it?
It’s inborn and it’s learned. Both things.