Saturday, 13 March 2010

Sabicas - still the greatest?

The finest technique around has got to be Sabicas.

I had the privilege of seeing Sabicas live in Los Angeles back in the 80's and I must say that he was the best example I know of an astounding dexterity at the service of highly creative artistry. Sabicas, his legal name was Agustín Castellón, was a child prodigy blessed with perfect pitch and a natural ability to play the guitar which made him the rightful heir of Ramón Montoya the master who elevated Flamenco guitar to the concert instrument level from its humble beginnings as mere accompaniment for dancers and singers. Montoya had incorporated the Classical guitar techniques he learned in Paris and all the sudden the instrument reached new heights.

In a way, Sabicas took off from Montoya's legacy, but also added new dimensions by pioneering the first Flamenco fusions with other genres. It is somewhat regrettable that Paco de Lucía is the one credited as the fusion innovator. Though he contributed immensely in that direction, it was Sabicas who broke that ground decades before.

Sabicas never got the super star status De Lucía attained, mostly because of the monster media development that came after his time, but he was working with saxophonist Aquilino de la Rosa as early as the 40's, and in the 60's he recorded Rock Encounters with electric guitarist Joe Beck - yes, Joe and not Jeff, unfortunately.

He had illustrious company in his time: Guitarists Juan Serrano and Mario Escudero, with whom he recorded memorable duets, were practically on his level, but Sabicas is the one who most Flamenco masters of today, such as Paco and Tomatito, agree to be their most important influence.

It is ironic that other guitarists have received more recognition. Maybe the reason is the fact that Sabicas was an exile from the Spanish Civil War who landed in Mexico in the late 30's and had to face precarious situations for a long time. That was not the case for Carlos Montoya, Ramón's nephew, who arrived in the USA at a time when the Flamenco guitar was an unknown art in the country. A very good musician, but without Sabicas' dexterity and compositional ability, Carlos benefited from the circumstances making a very profitable career and being hailed by an ignorant media as "the best in the world". Needless to say, the reaction against Montoya from Flamenco and guitar connoisseurs did not take long: "Boycott Montoya" was a phrase I got to hear firsthand back in the 70's.

As most greats, Sabicas, who got his name from his habit of eating habicas, small lima beans, was a very generous and humble spirit. Those who knew him tell about his willingness to share his knowledge with other artists and his efforts to put his virtuosity at the service of musical expression. He has an extensive discography which I encourage my readers to check out.

The Maestro died in New York in 1990. Two years later, Paco de Lucía published the CD Zyryab, which included Tío Sabas, a tribute to Sabicas,

He said that to become a complete Flamenco guitarist you have to spend 20 years accompanying dancers, another 20 with singers and 20 more playing solo concerts! Anybody up to the challenge?

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