Paco Peña

 
Mr. Peña is a genuine virtuoso, capable of dazzling an audience with technical abilities beyond the frets of mortal man.
New York Times
It has been 40 years since Paco Peña gave his Wigmore Hall debut as a soloist, so this performance was a little more special than usual. Of course, the Hall was filled to the brim and the concert was being recorded for Wigmore Hall’s recently-established record label. The quiet attentiveness of the audience was impressive, despite it being the season of coughs and colds; Paco Peña creates such an appealing atmosphere as he plays that one can understand the hush perfectly.
Classical Guitar Magazine

PACO PEÑA: ESENCIAS

In 1966, Paco Peña moved to London and with his virtuosity and artistry soon made a name for himself as a solo guitarist in a city that was gripped by Jimi Hendrix mania. Despite his rapid success as a soloist, he did not wait long to found a flamenco company, and that first show in 1970, with just a handful of performers, struck the path that has led to Patrias (2014), his last and most ambitious one to date.

Following the inspirational complexity explored in the preparation of Patrias, Peña has decided for his next project to return to the fascinating times, all those years ago, when the urgent challenge was to search for the potential of the guitar alone transmitting the best qualities of the art of flamenco.

Esencias is about the music of flamenco.

50 years of broadening the horizons of flamenco

In 1966, Paco Peña, a guitarist from the Andalusian city of Córdoba, moved to London. He started off by playing in a Spanish restaurant in Covent Garden and, with his virtuosity and artistry, soon made a name for himself as a solo guitarist in a city that was gripped by Jimi Hendrix mania and, as he says he discovered, “full of guitar”. Soon he was touring the country and overseas. 

Just four years later, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, Peña presented his first show with his own flamenco company. Since then he has taken flamenco around the world, giving solo concerts as a guitarist, conceiving and presenting a series of artistically ambitious shows, composing a flamenco mass and a requiem, and founding a centre for flamenco in Córdoba, where he still spends part of each year.  

While always remaining true to the tradition and essence of flamenco – after all, it is in his blood – he has expanded its horizons and frame of reference. As a guitarist, composer, dramatist, producer and artistic mentor, never distorting flamenco with flamboyance, he has preserved its authenticity, yet also renewed it through innovation. In so doing, he has been part of a phenomenon that has transformed perceptions of this archetypal Spanish art form, around the world and even in Spain itself. 

In his latest work, Patrias, first seen at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014, he again takes a new step with flamenco. Patrias is a multi-layered piece of theatre, integrating spoken word and filmic elements with the music and dance of flamenco. It reflects on the Spanish Civil War, which began 80 years ago, in July 1936.  

Peña speaks of the war as “that awful ideological confrontation of 1936 to 1939, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths, that brought about the fragile and tortured society I was born into a few years after the conflict ended”. At the heart of Patrias is the genius of an Andalusian man who, aged just 38, was arbitrarily executed by General Franco’s Nationalist troops in August 1936. As Paco Peña recounts: “The radical opposing convictions in Spain had produced, among the huge number of people slaughtered, and forever to my country’s shame, one notorious, devastating casualty at the very beginning of the conflict: Federico García Lorca, fundamental Spanish poet, artist, playwright, musician and a uniquely inspiring human being.” 

Paco Peña was born just three years after the end of the Civil War. “Life, as I grew up, was very much affected by its consequences and the reality it had brought about in Spain; the many lives lost and many more destroyed were ominous reminders of the extreme polarity of ideas that had prevailed and remained ever present.”  When General Franco died in 1975, 36 years of repression came to an end. King Juan Carlos, Franco’s chosen successor, assumed the throne and Spain transformed itself into the country it is today. 

“When I first came to London in the 1960s I discovered democracy and open debate in a society where women and young people could play an active role,” explains Peña. “That was not the case in Spain. There, as a result of the dictatorship and the essential conservatism of the culture, you needed to accept limitations, to stay within the parameters of what was safe. The new freedom I found in London had a decisive influence on my approach to my work.” Peña also found himself in the midst of a vibrant environment for art. “How could I not have found 1960s London stimulating? It changed the way I thought about things. You had to be prepared to work at a high level, to grab audiences with what you did, and that is still very much the case. You can make an impact by doing the things you love – and you discover a great deal along the way ... The end result is not necessarily what you expected when you started off.” 

Before coming to live in the UK, Peña had visited as a member of a flamenco company, and in London he had played solo guitar in a theatre for the first time – in Spain, there was no tradition of concerts given by flamenco guitarists. At the time he was working on the Costa Brava in a flamenco group that played for tourists. “Life was enjoyable and easy, but it was not satisfying,” he recalls. Peña left Spain with the intention of launching a solo career in London: “It was a tremendous break with my philosophy – what I had always wanted to do was accompany singers and dancers. Solo flamenco guitar was something of a ‘prophet without honour in its own country’ at the time … Influential players such as Sabicas were living and working abroad as soloists. These days, attitudes to flamenco are different in Spain. What guitarists have achieved outside the country, culminating in the revolution created by Paco de Lucia, changed the dynamic. It was not until 1972 that I first gave a recital at the Conservatory in my home city of Córdoba, the first time ever that such classical institution presented a programme of flamenco guitar. ” 

Peña did not attempt to emulate de Lucia, whom he describes as “a genius who blew everyone else away”, but he did learn from classical guitarists and their beauty of tone and also observed what was going on in the world of theatre. Despite his rapid success as a soloist, he did not wait long to found a flamenco company, and that first show in 1970, with just a handful of performers, struck the path that has led to Patrias, his last one to date. Though its scale is more intimate than epic, and its scenography is sober, Patrias is probably Paco Peña’s most ambitious show yet: without driving any political agendas, it looks at a momentous historical event through the genius of probably the greatest Spanish writer of the 20th century. The spoken word is part of the show, just as it was in his first, 46 years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, when the British actor Jon Rollason was on the stage with Peña and his Spanish colleagues. Over the intervening period, however, the expression in Peña’s shows has been achieved exclusively through instruments, song and dance.  

Following the inspirational complexity explored in the preparation of ‘Patrias”, Peña has decided for his next project to go in a different direction; to return to the fascinating times, all those years ago, when the urgent challenge was to search for the potential of the guitar alone transmitting the best qualities of the art of flamenco. So only the music will be present in the next shows.  

Over the centuries, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Moors, Jews and Gypsies made their home in southern Spain, and flamenco evolved from that melting pot. Córdoba, where Peña grew up, is the archetypal Andalusian city, but for many years it was the multicultural capital of Al-Andalus, Islamic Iberia. Now, Peña has lived for 50 years in a city, London, that has become perhaps the most cosmopolitan metropolis in the world. Flamenco continues to evolve, thanks to artists like Peña, who preserved its essence when he left Franco’s Spain in 1966. As an expatriate, he has both nurtured the artform and re-examined it. He has also continued to draw on its elemental energy over the months that he spends each year in his native territory, Andalusia. “You might be dazzled and invigorated by what you see elsewhere in the world,” he says, “but when you return to your homeland, your patria, you also realise what is really good about it, even if at first the streets seem narrower than you remember.”
Yehuda Shapiro

 

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