Intimate Music: Dos guitarras flamencas en stereo

A Beloved Rustic Guitar

Flamenco is a form of folk music and dance. Far more than just rapid-fire guitar playing with handclaps, Flamenco has influences from Hindu and Arabic music. Flamenco singing tends to stretch out the vowels. The rhythms are extremely complex. All of this can seem chaotic and grating to the untrained ear. But the small amount of Flamenco that I’ve heard I’ve found to be quite beautiful. Repeated exposure has allowed me to find patterns in the music, and I’ve discovered that I wanted to know more.

One of the first albums of Flamenco music I’ve listened to is Dos guitarras flamencas en stereo: “Two flamenco guitars in stereo”. My previous attempt at listening to Flamenco–the groundbreaking and genre-changing La Leyenda Del Tiempo–had been somewhat successful, but my opinions were mixed. Flamenco singing, with its tendency to stretch out vowels at seemingly random times, is somewhat challenging for an American raised on classic rock to appreciate. As a guitarist, I was attracted to the simplicity of Dos guitarras: I would hear two guitar players and nothing else. Surely this would show me Flamenco music at its simplest, and most accessible. I was right and wrong about that.

I was right about one thing: It’s easier to hear the melodies, the rhythms, when they are presented by two instruments. It’s harder to hear the differences between the songs at first, but different they are. The elements of fast, melodic Picado runs played against descending Phrygian chords are common throughout the album. The melodies are complex, skillfully played, but never sensationalistic.

An album with the same instrumentation on every song is always a challenge to appreciate. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much space in between the songs! But repeated listening is only now bringing out the differences between the various songs on Dos guitarras. The halting, stuttering Tientos Del Amanecer; the happy, bright Taconeo Gitano; the tension-filled yet hopeful finale, La Caleta. All are distinct and bring a different flavor to the album.

I had a vision in my head of two men in a dimly-lit, smoke-filled studio facing each other. They each had a single microphone, and a wooden stool. They held their guitars with tap plates on their laps and played each song, perhaps getting it in one or two takes. I wondered if this guess was correct, so I did some reading. I quickly found that the album came to be because Modrego and de Lucía found themselves with time on their hands while on tour with José Greco, a famous flamenco dancer. Jumping forward a bit will help put this in context:

In December of 2000, José Greco was traveling by train, and he was feeling unwell. He was lying across two seats, which caught the attention of a conductor. When the dancer was asked to move, he refused. There was a scuffle that ended with Greco being hospitalized for a dislocated toe and subsequent infection. He died at home on New Year’s Eve. Amtrak later refused to comment on the matter, citing possible pending litigation. Greco’s death raised many questions, probably because he had been such a well-known figure. He was born in Italy and grew up in Spain. He toured the world with his own dance company.

In the early sixties, the company employed two flamenco guitarists named Paco de Lucía and Ricardo Modrego. De Lucía in particular would later become well known as a crossover musician, working with Camarón de la Isla and Chick Corea. He and his fellow musician wrote the majority of the ten songs of Dos guitarras flamencas while on tour with Paco de Lucía, and recorded a demo in Ricardo Modrego’s home.

They were unable to interest any Madrid record companies in the music, but Modrego’s father had a contact that led them to get a two-year recording contract near the end of 1964. The studio recording was rushed, and the final product contained no editing; a mistake required a complete re-take. This was fairly common for the time. It was released as the simply titled Dos guitarras flamencas en stereo.

Recording in true stereo, and not an electronically processed pseudo-stereo, was not common at the time. The first stereo record had been released in 1957, and stereo was still making the jump from the cinema to the home. The musicians themselves had to borrow a stereo to hear their own record properly. Perhaps Philips Records saw an opportunity to capitalize on the growing number of hi-fi systems that had stereo turntable cartridges installed. Perhaps there was simply a stereo studio available on those two hectic days.

I picked up this album because I was looking for more by Paco de Lucía. I had listened to Camarón de la Isla’s breakthrough La Leyenda Del Tiempo after it was given to me by a friend and colleague. I still know very little about the genre of Flamenco music; Dos guitarras, along with La Leyenda Del Tiempo, are my introductions to the genre. On Dos guitarras flamencas, I’m struck by the dynamic relationship between the guitars. Modrego and de Lucía seem to swap back and forth between fast harmonies and rhythm arpeggio/ lead lines with amazing, smooth virtuosity. The constant tempo shifts are normal for Flamenco playing–I know that much about the genre, or at least I think I do. Perhaps as I explore the genre, I will find this album to be utterly typical, or perhaps a true classic. Or perhaps there is even better music to come on this journey.

To this day, Flamenco recordings of two guitarists and nothing else in stereo are not as common as fans of the genre would like. Dos guitarras flamencas en stereo is a fine example of two musicians playing live, with constant energy and interplay between them. I have a good ear for audio problems, and this recording has some distortion on it–I’m not sure if that’s on the original or on this master–but the performances are so wonderful that I find it difficult to care.

The very best guitar players tend to inspire me, driving me to improve myself as a guitarist and a musician. Flamenco music employs techniques that I don’t fully understand, but I hope to change that. Modrego and de Lucía made two more albums together, and I plan to get them.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band, as well as a folk band, currently on tour in Connecticut.

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