Flamenco Guitarist Cañizares Has Maximum Mojo

May 1, 2009

“TIENE DUENDE” IS THE ULTIMATE accolade in the flamenco universe. Literal English translations of this Andalusian expression range from “he has magic” to “he has elves,” but in the vernacular of our southernmost musical tradition—the blues—duende translates as maximum mojo.

The celebrated flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía spotted this special magic in a young Juan Manual Cañizares and invited him to participate in his Solo, Duo, Trio shows, and to become a member of the Paco de Lucía Septet. Ten years of touring with the maestro further honed Cañizares’ (as he is now known) artistry, and led him to greater challenges. During one of the tours, Cañizares transcribed three pieces from fellow Catalonian Isaac Albéniz’s signature piano masterpiece, “Suite Iberia,” arranging them for two guitars, and de Lucía included the pieces on his Concierto de Aranjuez. The album’s success inspired Cañizares to embark on a solo career, recording three albums, composing music for the Spanish National Ballet and various films, teaching master classes, recording a fiery solo for “Shadow” on Peter Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball, and transcribing the remaining nine pieces of “Suite Iberia.” One hundred years after he composed it, Albéniz’s grand opus comes to life—not on piano, but on two guitars, both played by Cañizares on his Suite Iberia [Sony Classical].

On Suite Iberia, you play two different guitars, a Paco de Lucía and a Conde Hermanos 2001. Why two guitars?

The Paco de Lucía guitar has more bass tone and the Conde Hermanos guitar has more treble. I use them on the lower and higher keys, respectively.

Are you using the Conde Hermanos to play the solos?


What are the differences between a flamenco guitar and a classical guitar?

There are structural differences, such as the types of wood used, body depth, and the position of the bridge. One of the most important differences is that the strings on a flamenco guitar are closer to the frets to create the typical flamenco sound.

What characterizes the typical flamenco sound?

It is more of a “broken” sound, especially with the fourth, fifth, and sixth bass strings. It is a “nastier” sound, like when a singer’s voice cracks. Flamenco guitar is more aggressive, has more attack, and sometimes sounds less clear.

What strings do you use?

I use both Conde Hermanos 735 Hard Tension and Luthier Concert Silver sets.

Suite Iberia is the result of four years of work transcribing and arranging this suite for flamenco guitar. What was your biggest challenge in this process?

The most difficult challenge was to make the effort each day to finish. I had to analyze the harmony and the counterpoint to be certain that I only cut notes that are not essential, so that the music did not lose its original character.

Do you ever improvise?

We flamenco players usually improvise with the interpretation and the expression of the music from within, as it is composed, unlike with jazz improvisation, which typically involves scales and patterns.

In 2005, you did the “Mano a Mano” tour, a show combining the Spanish classical guitar of Jose Maria Gallardo with your flamenco guitar. What are the differences in technique between flamenco and classical?

Classical guitar is sweeter. The articulation and the phrasing are softer, more elastic. Flamenco is much more rhythmic and percussive.

Are there differences in right hand technique between the two styles?

Although we use the same fingering, how we play is analogous to, say, how the English language is used. Americans and the British may use the same words, but in America they may take one form, and in England they may take another.

When you pluck the notes with the fingers of your right hand, do you use mostly nail or flesh?

I use both. And my style of playing is to attack the string directly from above the face of the guitar, rather than the side of the string, a little bit like a pianist. I believe the sound comes out brighter because it is more staccato.

How did you learn the guitar?

I learned with my brother Rafael. I began to play when I was six years old, and when I was ten I entered the Music Academy for more advanced study. It was then that I began to create my own style.

You studied at the Sabadell Conservatory in your hometown. Do they teach classical guitar, flamenco, or both?

When I began at the conservatory, I already knew how to play. I went to the conservatory to study counterpoint, harmony, fugue, and other aspects of composition.

What did you learn from Paco de Lucía?

From the maestro I gained much experience and above everything else I learned the importance of small details.

Give an example?

I learned to subdivide well in terms of rhythm—triplets, sixteenth notes, etc.—and that music must have order within its space.

How often do you practice?

I try to practice daily, but sometimes life gets in the way. Now, my way of practicing is not like years ago when I practiced technique. When I pick up the guitar, I am dedicated to composing. I have spent many years working with technique, and I don’t especially need to work with it so much anymore.

A wise guitarist once said we learn technique so that we can forget it.

Yes. Technique is very important, but once you have it, you go to a second level. Technique has to serve the music. For this reason, it is very important to work very hard with technique when you are young, so that you will have it later when you wish to compose.

What advice do you have for those who want to play flamenco?

My principal advice is to know where you want to go, because if you do not have a direction, you are wasting your time. Also, I tell my students that until you achieve mastery of the instrument, it is very important to think that your first, middle, and last names are Technique, Technique, and Technique—because if you don’t have technique on your instrument, how are you going to express your ideas?

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