Paco de Lucia, who died in February, was the greatest flamenco guitarist of his era, a man who had an impact on life in Spain at least as great as that of the Beatles in Britain.
Hailed by The New York Times as “the world’s most advanced guitarist in any idiom”, de Lucia revitalised the near moribund, kitsch-laden world of flamenco, fusing its cadences with jazz and Latin American rhythms to create the soundtrack to Spain’s post-Franco cultural revitalisation. His influence is still everywhere in Spanish music 40 years on.
I first got into Paco de Lucia’s music driving around Andalusia in the early Nineties, picking it up on cheap cassettes in petrol stations and truck-stop cafés. The sultry, languid twanging alternating with passages of blistering visceral fire went perfectly with the smells of baked earth and olive oil heating in big, black frying pans.
And as intriguing as the music was the contradictory personality of the man himself.
Born Francisco Sanchez Gomez in 1947, de Lucia maintained a near-pathological allegiance to the “cante”, the time-honoured forms of gipsy song, which he maintained were “already perfect” and incapable of improvement. He walked out of a major concert on discovering Julio Iglesias was on the bill – an insult, he maintained, to Spain’s greatest art form. He refused to learn to read music for fear of diluting his music’s intuitive fire. Yet he was at heart a fusionist, who toured the United States to massive acclaim, and there’s a breezy pop immediacy to classic de Lucia instrumentals such as Entre dos Aguas and Rio Ancho, heard blaring from every beachside cerveza stand from Benidorm to Torremolinos.
On stage he projected a quivering hypersensitivity; he had the looks of an aristocratic intellectual but his only interest beyond the guitar was trout fishing.
But de Lucia’s greatest phobia was the interview. When I was asked to write the programme notes for his 50th birthday concert at London’s Barbican Centre in 1997, I was attracted less by the far-from-princely fee than the prospect of shaking hands with one of the few genuinely world-changing innovators in contemporary music.
I was briefed carefully before the concert: if I simply wanted to say hello after the show that would be acceptable, but I must not attempt to interview de Lucia or spring any last-minute questions; a request that was repeated several times in the days before the performance.
The Barbican tends to be heaving backstage after a concert, thronged with managers, well-wishers and hangers on. That night it was deserted and deathly quiet. Then I spotted a nondescript figure with thinning hair, rather shorter than I expected, emerging from one of the dressing rooms.
He turned, his eyes fastening on me with an expression of abject horror. I turned away for a second as the press officer reminded me yet again not to ask any questions, and when I looked back the figure was running, literally sprinting, full-tilt away down the long, curving Barbican corridor.
That was my last sighting of the creator of modern flamenco.