Interview: Paco Peña Q&A

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Paco Peña 'A Compás! To the Rhythm' * Paco Peña was born in the Andalucian city of Córdoba. He started playing the
guitar aged six and made his first professional appearance at 12. London has
been his base since the 1960’s and in recent years he has presented a series of
shows with some of the best flamenco musicians and dancers performing today.*

*_A Compa?! To the Rhythm_ received rave reviews last year at the Peacock Theatre and there’s another chance
to catch it at Sadler’s Wells next month (7 – 12 August). He tells us about the
roots of flamenco, the meaning of ‘a compas’ and what’s kept him in London all
these years…*

How do you define ‘flamenco’?

A good question – the thing is it’s a musical culture, it’s a folk tradition
& it appears first in history as a form of singing. And this singing is really
what gives flamenco its name ‘cante jonde’ – ‘cante flamenco’. It’s like the expression
in music of a particular culture, the tradition in a particular place. The point
is you can’t ignore the fact that the guitar has been the instrument of Spain
par excellence for centuries, so that the guitar is very much part of the song – but also one cannot ignore the history of the Andalusian people that theirs
is the land where music & dance has always been part of life. From the year
1AD there are records that artists from Andalusia were taken to Rome to entertain
the elite. One cannot forget that Andalucia is a land disposed for music and

*How does the dance fit in to the mix – does it respond to the music, or does
it sometimes take the lead?*

Well, in a musical sense, or in choreographic terms, what happens is that the
guitar and the song inspire the dancer – but really dance takes the lead all the
time. When the dancer is there, the guitarist is playing and even the singer is
singing so that the dancer can shine.

How does your company of dancers and musicians work – is it a collaborative process?

I use my people to get through ideas that I design. Basically I have a pool of
people I use. The way it happens is I have an idea for a show and then we get
together. If I have the musical ideas already cooked up in my head that’s fine – but if not, at that point we start creating and developing ideas into something
more concrete. I have to use the talents of everyone – musicians, singers &
dancers and what they can contribute to the idea, even though it is with my direction.

Paco Peña 'A Compás! To the Rhythm' Can you tell us about your show ‘A Compás! To the Rhythm’?

It’s a show which dwells, concentrates on and is enamoured with the complexity
and beauty of flamenco rhythms. So the rhythm is really the star of the show.
All the rhythmic aspects of flamenco are highlighted and also each artist at different
times is left to do what he or she can do with flamenco, in a very rhythmical
way. So ‘a Compás’ means structure – the rhythmic & harmonic structure which makes each particular
form. So each form has a particular compás – but also ‘compás’ means when you
are really into the swing of the music, where you are expressing the rhythm, so
in fact each artist at different times is free to improvise and express with the
rhythm…that s the emphasis of the show.

*Is the show the same every night? Flamenco always looks so spontaneous – you
imagine it may be a very different show on another night…*

It certainly can be and I like to have the freedom that it can be – and to give
the freedom to everybody. On the other hand it must have some direction, so the
numbers are all decided, but with the solo parts, even the other moments where
people can contribute other ideas, this is free and in fact sometimes it works
better than others – but when it works, it is inspiring for those who haven’t
had it before, so it creates a new atmosphere every time.

*You’ve spent a lot of your life in London which seems surprising for a flamenco
artist. What’s kept you here?*

Well I love it – the thing is when I first came to London, with a view to being
a professional, it was an accident really, because I was doing flamenco with companies,
accompanying dancers and singers, and one day I decided I was going to be a soloist.
I wanted a more challenging life and so on. So I had been to London and played
solo and discovered that the solo part was tremendously successful – a great
surprise to me, because in Spain that wasn’t done, there weren’t flamenco concerts
as such. So having experienced that, I decided London was a good place to be a
soloist. I did a debut at the Wigmore Hall, then I played at the Festival Hall and so on. So that is why – London was very receptive and it was also from
here I started going all over the world. It’s the kind of base I’ve never abandoned.
But apart from that I just think that London has so much to offer, in the arts
in particular – it’s a wonderful place!

*Are you happy that flamenco, traditionally performed in small groups and venues
has made the transition to the large scale stage? Is it the same art form?*

Its not a different form – it’s the same thing, but one takes the challenge in
a different way. Its like you have to adapt in a way – but it is the same. If
I’m in the Royal Festival Hall, or Sadler’s Wells it doesn’t really matter – what I want to do is inspire myself, with what I’m
doing & its an intimate thing. I’m not really concerned with the audience,
I don’t want to see the audience – it doesn’t matter If there are many or few,
to me it’s about inspiring myself and I hope that if I’m inspired then perhaps
that projects to the people who are there. I consider that is essential really.
That is the way all artists approach it – certainly it’s the way I approach it.
In that sense it doesn’t matter how big the venue – but there are some places
where you feel more comfortable.

What would you say are the best London venues for flamenco?

Sadler’s Wells is a lovely place – certainly I’ve played there many times before, but funnily
enough the Peacock Theatre is a very intimate place – I’ve also played there many times, and somehow the
relationship between whoever is there, the audience and the design of the theatre – it’s like everyone is in the same room, not the artists and audience in a separate
area. It’s a very good place for flamenco.

Paco Peña 'A Compás! To the Rhythm' What are your earliest memories of flamenco music – and particularly of dance?

My brother played the guitar – and I just heard the guitar all the time. And
my brother and all my seven sisters sang as well – one of them did a bit of dancing.
We used to live is a house with many other different families living in different
rooms, with the same patio (we were very poor) and one of the neighbours in the
house – I remember one man particularly, was a great dancer. Whenever there was
a celebration in the house, a baptism or wedding, a party, he would dance and
from other places near the house other young people also came and joined in, so
it was part of my upbringing…

*Are there any dancers in particular you would single out as the greatest practitioners
of flamenco?*

I think flamenco has moved quite a lot in recent years – but it would be strange
to mention one dancer and not another. I think the ambitions of young people to
do new things is great, so I would praise and encourage a lot of them to just
go that way – but on the other hand I have a very strong commitment, personally,
to respect and follow the traditions I have learned. In other words to be close
to the roots of what I am trying to say in my music, in my dance, in whatever
it is that I present. I would like to feel that all young people also feel that
connection, because I feel that when artistic ambition sometimes goes in that
direction of being ‘new’, doing different things, sometimes it forgets tradition
and then the medium ceases to be what it is and loses strength. That integrity
of where the music comes from and the dance comes from, is essential for the continuation
of good flamenco.

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