Two artists at the peak of
bound in a powerful symbiotic lock.
To see Diego del Gastor accompany Fernanda de Utrera all night long
– hours and hours spent almost entirely within just one form, the soleá,
and during which Diego kept returning to just a few of his hundreds of
falsetas – was to witness two artists at the peak of their form, bound
in a powerful symbiotic lock that drove both peak expression.
The same phenomenon was in play when I saw Diego accompany Juan Talega;
but the feel was different, because Talega was quite old and Diego didn't
ever push hard. Instead, he established a conversational link with Talega.
He was never self-effacing, as a younger player should have been; but
he was never overpowering, and he managed to draw out the best of Talegas's
Joselero, Diego displayed yet another approach. These two men were dear
friends, contemporaries and brothers-in-law, and here the equation was
singular. Joselero was highly respected but was hardly a candidate for
immortality, and he knew that in Diego, he had more than met his match.
Here Diego would often take center stage, knowing that this particular
singer was delighted to work in the presence of this astounding guitarist.
The result was unorthodox, but again, it consistently drew the best from
this particular situation.
Certainly there are some flamenco artists
had serious reservations about Diego del Gastor.
Photo by Don Pohren
Certainly there are some flamenco artists who had serious reservations
about Diego del Gastor. At times, this fact has been extended into an
assertion that the negative view is essentially unanimous. I tend to discount
this, not only because I find unanimity to be quite rare among flamenco
artists, but also because I have heard Juan Talega and Manolito de Maria
and Juan el Lebrijano and Ansonini speak highly of Diego del Gastor's
artistry as an accompanist. I have also heard Fernanda de Utrera speak
very highly of Diego as a person, a guitarist and an accompanist.
I believe there may have been some ambivalence on this last appraisal
at certain times in Fernanda's life, in part because she sometimes seemed
to feel that the countless hours she had spent singing in situations like
those with Diego ultimately cost her her voice; (you can hear that fabulous
flamenco voice beginning to give out at the last moments of her performance
in Saura's film “Flamenco”).
I believe that Fernanda's sister Bernarda harbors some negative feelings
about Diego, which is regrettable. But for me, the essence of the relationship
between Fernanda and Diego could be seen best in their eyes when they
worked together – the adoration seemed palpable – and also in a muttered
comment she made while he played: “Ni Beethoven, ni sus muertos”,
an untranslatable appraisal that sort of says “You can take that
Beethoven guy and his whole family…”
I was also interested to hear from one respected American player that
Camarón was apparently fascinated by a recording he heard of Diego,
and spoke highly of it.
And I was delighted to see that El Chocolate, in his reminiscences about
his 70 years as a great flamenco singer, singled out a night he spent
with Diego del Gastor and Nino Ricardo – also a documented admirer of
Diego's art – as one of the highlights of his life.
Speaking of guitarists, I'd add that Sabicas was always very interested
in the playing of Diego del Gastor, and seemed to enjoy it immensely.
On many occasions in New York, he and his brother would hand me a guitar
and ask me to play it. While I never came close to doing it justice, they
evidently made due allowances and were always fascinated by the way it
worked. I even believe the story that Sabicas once approached Diego about
doing a recording together, although I can't imagine what the result would
have been considering the disparate nature of their styles.
However, it is the opinion of Paco de Lucia that may have the greatest
influence on the evaluation of Diego del Gastor in the future. And Paco,
who has already secured his place in history as the greatest guitarist
flamenco has ever seen, does not seem very impressed by Diego del Gastor.
In an appraisal contributed to a recent book on flamenco guitar in Morón,
he said in essence that while the man had a notable way of playing uncomplicated
material in a moving way, he considered the whole Diego phenomenon vastly
overblown. He made it clear that he thought it was a combination of marketing
hype by Don Pohren and the hippy era of the '60s that somehow combined
to make a mountain out of a molehill.
However, it is the opinion of Paco de
Lucia that may have
the greatest influence on the evaluation of Diego del Gastor
Photo by Ira Gavrin
There are many ways to look at this view, which is hardly unique to Paco
de Lucia. First, it seems to fundamentally mistrust foreigners, assuming
that what we like isn't necessarily very good. (In fact, I can understand
this — I myself tend to be suspicious of any traditional musician who
is appreciated more by outsiders than by insiders.) Also, I suspect that
Paco may have resented hearing many Americans enthusiastically tell him
about Diego, all tacitly assuming that they had recognized a great artist
who had been grossly neglected and underappreciated by Spain's flamenco
community. Finally, assuming that Paco has heard at least some of the
recordings where Diego is playing at or near his best, I suspect that
Paco just doesn't relate to this particular kind of retro-sounding flamenco
guitar. Diego's style would seem to represent everything that Paco's particular
genius has all but eradicated – a narrow pallet of chords and narrow melodic
range, a reliance on straight-ahead rhythm instead of complex counter-time,
an avoidance of outside influences from other musical genres. Paco de
Lucia has made the most of flamenco's essentially western aspect, basing
his music on underlying harmonies to create lavish, rich and memorable
music with a distinctly flamenco feel. Diego sought his power from the
flamenco guitar's non-western aspect, focusing on strong melodic descending
lines. I found this fascinating, since I view the flamenco scale as primarily
falling toward the tonic. I would sometimes ask him to show me material
that sounded essentially Moorish or Arabic to me; he would play it, but
note that as far as he was concerned, it sounded not Moorish but gitano
or Gypsy. Either way, I was thrilled to learn it.
It's unjust to dismiss Diego del Gastor
as the product
of moonstruck or drug-addled hippy trend-seekers.
Regardless of the specifics, I think it's unjust to dismiss Diego del
Gastor as the product of moonstruck or drug-addled hippy trend-seekers.
(For whatever it's worth, I was cold sober throughout the years I spent
in Morón and vicinity, even during the year or two when a few actual
hippies blew in and out of town and hung around a while before getting
bored. I think Paco denigrates the man and his memory by appraising Diego
entirely in the context of one particular moment in his lifetime, and
by the fact that he attracted the attention of some foreigners.)
There is a further implication that Diego was really nothing special,
and that many towns throughout Andalusia had artists of similar aptitude
who just didn't happen to fall into the spotlight.
(I wish it were so. I spent many months in many towns, looking for such
extraordinary guitarists. I even found a few very interesting players
in the process. But none of them were remotely in the league of Diego
del Gastor, with his seemingly inexhaustible wealth of music and depth
A final observation about Paco de Lucia's appraisal: It seems that he
does not voice the allegedly common complain that Diego is too assertive
in his accompaniment. This is hardly surprising, since the other guitarist
who was a palpable presence in his most notable accompaniment was Paco
de Lucia himself – not with older singers, but with his contemporary genius,
Camarón. Here Paco's role was so intensively notable – even intrusive,
in a positive sense of the word – that he was listed on album covers not
as guitarist or accompanist, but as “special collaborator”.
Precisely. Paco and Camarón collaborated to make their crucial
statement about the future of flamenco. Their mutual contributions as
virtual equals defined the resulting art. They drove one another to astonishing
heights. Clearly, the flamenco world would have lost something marvelous
if Paco de Lucia had settled for meeting the traditional demand – that
he be an all-but-invisible accompanist of Camarón's singing, never
shining and never playing any of his brilliant extended falsetas that
were theoretically too long for proper accompaniment.
Paco knew better. He knew when to break the rules. And he was certainly
good enough to justify such a radical step.
Well, I believe that Diego del Gastor did essentially the same thing
when he worked with great singers, years before Paco de Lucia. The context
was different, of course – there was no intention to create a revolution,
but simply to attain maximum effect and artistry; but the result strikes
me as equally impressive.
Photo by Sody de Rivas
There are extensive live recordings of Diego at his best, both accompanying
excellent singers and playing solos. Virtually all, however, are private
recordings that for one reason or another have never been properly published.
I'm convinced that someday, they will see the light of day, and it will
be possible for the world to make a definitive judgment of the man's music.
Until then, we'll have to settle for the few random recordings that
have been issued, and also the films of Diego accompanying La Fernanda
and La Bernarda de Utrera, Perrate and Joselero as well as playing some
solos – but only occasionally displaying his real powers – that were issued
as part of the “Rito y Geografía del Flamenco” series,
and partially reprised in “Rito y Geografía de la Guitarra”.
(Both of these video collections available through sources including flamencoconnection.com
in the U.S. and elflamencovive.com in Spain.)
Some artists who have grave reservations
Diego, have no such qualms about Paco del Gastor
Another way to obtain a taste of Diego's style is to listen to his nephews,
though none sound just like him. Paco del Gastor in particular has earned
a considerable reputation in Spain, and his powerful guitar shows one
aspect of Diego's style; in fact, some artists who have grave reservations
about Diego have no such qualms about Paco.
Other aspects of Diego's art are evident in the playing of nephews Juan
del Gastor and Diego de Morón, as well as Agustin Rios (who lives
in California). David Serva's remarkable music has evolved considerably
since he was simply Diego's outstanding foreign disciple, but it also
reveals much of the essence of the original inspiration. Several other
foreigners have managed to capture his elusive style, notably including
Steve Kahn and Ian Banks in New York. The California guitarist Evan Harrar
has compiled a great deal of Diego's material and offers it via his website,
There are even some young Spanish guitarists who play some of Diego del
Gastor's music, often to excellent effect. True, there may not be very
many – but considering the upheaval in guitar that has followed the de
Lucia revolution (which Paco himself sometimes refers to as a “virus”),
essentially eradicating the memory of so many outstanding players of the
past, it seems that Diego's singular art has fared relatively well.
His life was a lesson in generosity of
As for me, I've never really wavered in my original conviction that
Diego del Gastor was a truly great and rare artist. He was also, in my
eyes, a great person. To me, his life was a lesson in generosity of spirit,
in retaining enormous dignity in the face of enormous difficulty, in achieving
personal independence at huge cost, and in gladly sharing all the wealth
of deep humanity, creativity and glorious artistry for which he paid so
I believe that the artistry of Diego del Gastor, neglected as it was
when he lived and questioned as it has been after his death, will ultimately
be recognized as enriching the world of flamenco, and the far broader
world of music.
In the meantime, there's one thing I know for sure: It has enormously
enriched my life.
Zern in 1968
Journalist Brook Zern who has written for Fortune magazine is
a guitar aficionado from New York City. His knowledge of flamenco
in general, and Morón de la Frontera in particular, has led him
give numerous conferences on this subject.