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Flamenco percussionists: musicians in their own right

Today's percussionists give a special polish to flamenco: they draw on other genres, and aren't content with just keeping the rhythm
April 27, 2016
Silvia Cruz Lapeña

Modesty and a good ear are two characteristics shared by all the subjects interviewed for this article.  Perhaps because they're accustomed to being in the background, or because they know that there are still people who think what they do is secondary, they prefer to do their job without noise, but without hesitation.  This isn't all of them, we wish it were, but it was already hard to speak to those who are included.  Because these percussionists have plenty of work, and no one complains about the money, although they do grumble about the cultural tax, and an economic situation that has brought many outsiders to the field.

It's been forty years since Rubem Dantas brought the Peruvian cajón to the flamenco stage via Paco de Lucía, and the percussionist's role has changed a great deal since then.  Fewer people than ever believe the cajón is unneccessary.  "If it's absurd to deny that the pillars of flamenco are voice, guitar and dance, it's also absurd to deny that percussion is at a peak moment", says one of the most solicited specialists, Agustín Diassera.  For this man from Huelva, the rhythmic portion is one of the most differentiating musical elements of flamenco compared to other world music.  "So it's only natural to add percussion, it's the logical inertia"

Not only flamenco

Diassera is in a moment of growth.  The strenuous virtuoso work he carried out in Rubén Olmo's "La Tentación de Poe", is still remembered in Jerez, where it was presented in 2015.  An hour and a half of straight percussion, following the intricacies and creativity of Spain's national dance prize winner.  Almost non-stop he debuted the opera "El Público" at Madrid's Teatro Real, and shortly thereafter he presented his collaboration on Juan Carlos Romero's most recent record.  "Flamenco isn't enough for me.  When you get into other music, you lose the hang-ups, you become more honest about music in general, and about flamenco in particular".  Which is why he dares to play jazz, pop, rock and the work of singer-composers.

That same inquisitiveness is also to be found in his colleagues.  Paquito González for example.  The man from Sanlúcar assures us that although his career is very flamenco, he loves to delve into Argentine and Brazilian folklore, classical and Persian music.  As well as jazz, a genre he explores with the group Ultra High Flamenco "I like to mix with other musicians and taste what they cook up, I like to share and learn", explains this man in demand from greats like Miguel Poveda and Vicente Amigo.



Paquito González

More than a cajón

That Peruvian cajón that caught Paco de Lucía's interest, became a good instrument since it was smaller than drums, easier to transport, and because it imitated, nearly perfectly, the dancer's footwork. Those virtues have been multiplied many times over, because percussionists no longer use only their hands and a cajón, and because using a cajón to substitute for footwork has been relegated to those with few aspirations.

"I'm more interested in subtlety, and I only use force when the moment requires it", explains Chico Fargas, Mayte Martín's regular accompanist who, in the debut of "Al Flamenco por Testigo", again demonstrated the delicacy that is his trademark.  Nevertheless, for him, "we've still got a long ways to go in flamenco percussion".

Many colleagues are in agreement with that opinion of the man from Estepona.  "In rock music they say a group is only as good as the drummer. In flamenco they haven't been able to overcome that barrier.  I believe an instrument isn't more flamenco or less flamenco than another, but before flamencos accept that, there's still a long way to go". That's Javi Ruibal, the percussionist who accompanies Dorantes.  He began by chance at the age of 13, and in addition to dipping into flamenco, he also has a group of progressive rock, Glazz.   Ruibal's percussion is not the standard, he plays sitting on a cajón, with drums and the rest, but also with a darbouka and Brazilian drums.



Javi Ruibal

Intruders

What qualities does a good percussionist need to have?  "Subtlety, elegance, dynamics", says Diassera"The main thing is the concept, and understanding the role you play", answers Paquito González, adding "versatility, technique, sound and shading!".  For Fargas, "a sense of rhythm, creativity and personality".  For Ruibal, the musicality, a sense of pulse and rhythm.  For him, "percussion is the backup drone on which the other musicians depend".

Good times for percussion are also mentioned by José Manuel "Bandolero", who has worked with Antonio Canales, Enrique Morente, Chano Domínguez and Carles Benavent among many others. He doesn't like labels either.  "I'm mostly involved in jazz now, because I work a lot with Jorge Pardo, but I don't intend to specialize".



Bandolero

As far as work conditions for percussionists, Bandolero has no complaints, although he puts up with a lot of ribbing: "here are the musicians, and there are the percussionists", he explains laughing, and he assures us this happens less all the time, although he is also of the opinion that percussionists must never forget the singer is the star, and a role must be assumed.  The rest have similar comments.  "I have no complaints about the pay, just about the taxation" says Paquito.

Women who play the cajón

But it's not all fun and games in the world of cajóns and bongos.  The economic problems of recent years haven't reduced the interest in this discipline, but they have caused the market to become saturated with people who lack the necessary qualifications.  "There are fabulous musicians who are out of work, and others who come out of the woodwork with little experience, and climb the ladder three steps at a time without stopping", complains Paquito González for whom this reality causes a certain lack of focus in his art.  "There are people who don't even know how to sit on the instrument, but give classes and command salaries not available to others with 20 years of experience", says the man from Sanlúcar.

Another gripe comes from the women.  If they aren't the minority, it certainly looks that way, you see very few in major shows.  Some, such as Eli Maya, who plays for dancer Iván Vargas, or Noelia "La Negri" are the exceptions.  But even so, they don't have the recognition their male counterparts receive, and those on the rise confirm that finding a niche isn't easy.

"At one peña I was told to take my cajón and get out".  That's Marta Orive speaking, a percussionist from Córdoba, 24 years old, who started out in the musical genre "house".  She herself explains how a dancer took her as accompanist to a television program, but never called her again.  "It's that for TV, a woman looks more elegant", was the explanation given.  Paquito González is her reference, although Marta believes women have a different approach.  "We don't have the same strength, that's already a difference, but we make up for it with our touch".

Marta, who's now seven-and-a-half months pregnant, has had to put the cajón aside because of the obvious physical impediment.  But she has no intention of giving up the cajón.  "Despite the difficulties, I plan to continue, because this has been my calling since I was a little girl, I can't help it!"

More than compás

That early vocation Orive mentions, is common to all the interviewees.  "It wasn't a decision, I only know that at the age of 5, I was attracted by everything related to music, and I noticed my body and hands were always accompanying with rhythm to the various musical styles of the era", explains Fargas.  Diassera also felt it like that, although he says the desire alone isn't enough.  "Half of it depends on someone giving you the opportunity to play".  Ruibal began somewhat later, at the age of 13, but purely by chance.  Now, at 31, he confirms it's a difficult career, but he doesn't like doing anything else.

Percussion is no longer frowned upon.  People like Antonio Carmona, who has more than a hundred recordings as percussionist, or Rubem Dantas himself, have put it in the forefront.  Today, a generation of young musicians give it prestige.  Thanks to their work, few people would dare to say what Farruco said: "I'm mine own cajón", words that meant he didn't need anyone to mark the rhythm.  Because today's percussionists aren't limited to marking the compás: they're musicians.  And they make music.

Agustín Diassera