I saw nothing unusual about a Chinaman kid dabbling in flamenco guitar. I liked it. Then Jackson Burgess, a writer from the South, sat down next to me as I practiced one afternoon. Teacher to student, father to son, brother to brother, friend to friend, he said the reason I played flamenco guitar was that I was a Chinese-American who couldn't accept either my Chinese or my American identity and was attempting to manufacture a new one as a Spanish gypsy guitarist.
At first I went. Huh? Then, Ooooh! I was impressed.
"No matter how well you learn to play guitar, or how well you learn to speak Spanish, or how long you spend in Spain living with the gypsies, you will never be a Spanish gypsy,' my friend said, Was I that messed up? I was that messed up. I thought I was a poet when I first got to Berkeley and tried to get into Thom Gunn’s class. The motorcycle poet took my binder full of poetry and asked me to come back in a week. A week later he shook my hand, offered me a cigarette, opened my binder to a poem that began,
“San Francisco. Chinatown-North Beach. / Night. About half past dead. Nineteen nifty. / On a roof. / Listen. / A Chinaman is playing flamenco,” written all over the page.
“Mr. Chin,” the Yale Younger Poet asked me, “do you have trouble with the language?”
“Mr. Chin, how long have you been speaking English?”
Was flamenco that weird? There was no conflict of Chinese versus American in me. I was neither. I never had a problem knowing who I was. But what about the other Americans who used to play? What happened to them? Is anyone still playing? Has any American become a Spanish gypsy?
The most articulate American flamencos used to be in San Diego. Jaleo magazine had come out of San Diego. You didn’t know anything about flamenco in America if you didn’t know Jaleo magazine. And everyone in San Diego associated with the magazine seemed to have played at a place called the Tablao Flamenco.
THE TABLAO FLAMENCO
Every drive into San Diego, screaming south down I-5 past Pacific Beach, I’d seen it out of the right of my windshield. The strange Moorish building with the domed tower facing the freeway. Red letters outlined in dead neon tubing spells “Restaurante Tablao Flamenco” across a large windowless wall. Moorish arches outline panels with large bas reliefs of flamenco dancers and bullfighters.
It always made me wonder. But once my mind is back on the road,
I’d forget it. But finally I had to have a closer look, got off the road, stopped, and found the doors closed, and two red matchbooks. The back cover read, “Spain in San Diego, Restaurante, Cocktails, Flamenco Shows Daily.” Now, closed or not, it seemed a likely place to find out what happened to flamenco in San Diego. It was built in 1982 by Francisco Ballardo, the owner of the medical building next door, as a self-indulgence.
Francisco Ballardo, a.k.a. Frank Ballard, is the Citizen Kane, if not the Orson Welles, of San Diego flamenco, and the Tablao Flamenco his Xanadu. A few years ago, for $23, you could, if you wore a jacket and tie, enjoy a Spanish dinner with Spanish wine and a flamenco show with Juana de Alba and guitarists Paco Sevilla or Rodrigo or David de Alba, son of the dancer.
Then poof! The Tablao Flamenco was dead. Closed. It’s been closed for the last three years. People who worked for him say Ballardo wanted to be the dictator of flamenco in San Diego. They say he wanted them to call him “Don Francisco.” What is a flamenco dictator? Flow do you do it? What about flamenco could a dictator dictate?
The way the flamencos of San Diego talk about Ballardo, I expect the man to be in hiding, a man of mystery and rude eccentricity. But there he is in the phone book. If he’s been hard to find, it’s because he’s been on the grand jury for the last ten months, he says. And right away, he admits he’s a nut.
"Yes, flamenco’s an obsession with me. Forever I'll love it. It’s the kind of thing that stays with you. You know, you might say it's a cultural thing. And some of us are a little nuts about the culture. And we tend to want to promulgate it, to enhance it, to uplift it. And so this was my tidbit.”
“I said, when I retire. I’m going to build something that reflects the greatness of Spain and elevate flamenco if I can. Sophisticate it. Like they did with the tango. Because I hate to see flamenco always down in the Mickey Mouse places. It deserves a better stature.
“I planned it at home for approximately four years. But it took me only six months to build it. Once the planning was all done, it was a lot easier to put it together. And I physically did a great deal of the work with my son, my grandson, and so on. You can see the architecture, the uniqueness of it."
Son. Grandson. In the Tablao are pictures of Ballardo as a young man in World War II. Fie looks good today for a man in his 70s. A thick, full head of hair. It’s white, but it’s real hair and it’s his. Fie has a handsome, classic profile. He’s slim and looks fit. His office is crowded with what look like pieces of the building, Spanish hats on plastic-foam heads, bullfight stuff, flamenco stuff, filing cabinets full of bullfight and flamenco stuff. The walls. The carpet. The pictures. The posters. The calendars. All Spanish.
The interior is all gold and fleshy gold details. He points to plaster roses in octagons that ornament the ceiling. The centers of the roses in some of the octagons are the sprinkler heads of the emergency sprinkler system. Yes, he's thought of every detail. Every detail is a treasure. The details like sparkling treasure crowd the big spaces of the tablao with intricate barroco. Fingertips and toes and lips and noses seem to be poking out of the walls and columns and ceilings.
“One wall is devoted to the history of the bullfight,” Ballardo says. We approach a wall of bullfight posters and framed pictures. He waves his hand toward some space. “And over here I’m going to put — I haven’t gotten around to it — the head of a bull. I’m reserving that space to get a real good head.”
“Who sculpted the dancers and bullfighters outside?”
“I did that," Ballardo answers.
ASK THE SPANISH
“My parents were born in Sevilla," Ballardo says. “I was born here, in San Francisco, but I grew up in the Argentine, first 15 years or so. They were immigrants, but somehow they couldn't establish themselves, they weren’t comfortable, so they moved to Argentina.
“I heard flamenco since I was a child. I probably heard more flamenco than I heard tangos.
“Flamenco is a very captivating music. A person who likes flamenco, for the most part, doesn’t know the difference between a sevillana and a siguiriya. It’s just the totality of those sounds are so magnificent, so enticing, hypnotizing. You’ll find a lot of the people, particularly Germans, that go down to Spain, they get enamored with just the sounds and the meaning that goes with the flamenco. So I had no idea what it was that they were playing, but I loved the sounds."
What was it about the sound or the times or us that attracted Americans to flamenco so deeply they would want to build buildings to it, want to learn to play the guitar or dance the dance? Ask a Spaniard. What was the attraction for a Spaniard? )uan Serrano, the guitarist that folksinger Theodore Bikel made famous when he said, “His hand is full of fingers,” on the back of Serrano’s first Elektra album, Ole! La Mano!, tells me. “My father was a flamenco guitarist, a professional, very well-known in Spain. My mother was a flamenco singer. Her name was Cecilia, but she was very well-known in the flamenco world as Nina de la Sierra. That was her professional name. She was also from Cordoba. Sierra means 'mountain country.’ So ‘Country Girl’ is what it means.
“My father’s name was Antonio El del Lunar. Of course, his name was Antonio Serrano. El del Lunar means The boy with the beauty mark.’ It’s traditional to give those kinds of nicknames to the flamenco people, bullfighters. This comes from the gypsy history, I mean, from the Arabic history. My father did not have any beauty mark. My grandmother had the beauty mark. But traditionally there live in one small area maybe three or four boys named Antonio. Now when you say, 'Call Antonio!’ Which one? Of course, they don’t like the last name, so they say, ‘This boy down there, the one whose mother has the beauty mark.’
“You say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know, the beauty-marked boy.’ And that’s how you acquire the nickname.
“Anyway,” Serrano continues, “my mother was a flamenco singer, and my father was a good guitarist, and this was the only music I heard in my home from the time that I was born. When the war starts in Spain, the civil war, with Franco, my brother and I, we have to stay with my grandmother. For two years I was a little baby without seeing my parents.
“When they came back to Cordoba in 1939, of course, they have to rehearse continually and practice performing. And I became interested in it since I was a little baby. When I was nine years old, he say, ‘Do you want to learn?’
“I say, ‘Oh, sure!’ And I start to play at this moment. I think it was my father who give me all the influence, and always he advise me about the technique, to make it very clear technique."
Inside his temple to flamenco, Ballardo, the Spaniard born in San Francisco and raised in Argentina, says, “I’d like to dance with a passion, but no, no, I sort of restrict myself to fooling around. I’ve always thought that flamenco reminded me a lot of the tango.
“In the early days in Argentina, the tango was for people like gypsies who were not of good repute — pura pananda, no? Lowlife. Very lowlife. And the sophisticated people of any educational level wouldn’t dream of dancing it. But somehow it went to Europe. It went to France and Spain and other countries in Europe, and the sound of the mandolin fascinated the people there. It just proliferated through there, and the educated people accepted it, and before you know it, it was being danced at the high levels of society. So by the time it came back, it was already an accepted thing. So now the Argentines said, ‘Well, if they can do it, so can we.’ And they weren’t inhibited by that negative thought that if that bumpkin dances it, I don’t want to dance it.”
THE MEANING OF TABLAO”
Alone in his restaurant, Ballardo demystifies the words flamencos use to be flamenco.
“Well, to begin with, tablao is not a correct word. The correct word is tablado. But the problem is that the gypsy generally is not a cultured group' in its totality. They haven’t had the schooling to elucidate the language clearly. And they begin to eat words. And it’s not just the gypsies. In Sevilla you’ll find lot of the people who will say el soldao instead of soldado. Cantaor instead of cantador.
“The origin of tablao is tabla. A tabla is a board. A tablao is a lot of boards, suggesting that this is where you danced, on the boards. As opposed to the original gypsies that were playing on the anvil — por martinete. This was their instrument. They had no other instrument at the time. And you have songs that required no guitar or anything else, and that’s the real gypsy music. Carceleras is in many ways similar to what we had in this country with the blacks. They developed the blues. They were persecuted. The gypsies developed carceleras, and the guys in the serranias, running away, serranas, and so on. This language of agony translated into an art, and the gypsies did it quite well. And it survives today.
“There are so many misconceptions about the origins of flamenco. The gypsies did not create flamenco, contrary to many people who call it gypsy music. They certainly enhanced flamenco.”
Around every corner, on the walls and ceilings of every nook and cranny of his Tablao Flamenco are pictures of guitarists, dancers, singers — posters, matchbook covers, telling the history of flamenco and bullfighting and Ballardo’s life story.
“As you can see from those pictures, I flew B-24s during the war. I was in China. Kunming. Luyen and Chengdu. We handled all of China down to the Sea of Japan.
“And so I came back from the Second World War and got married in New York, had a bunch of children. Three girls and one boy.
“I’m an engineer. Originally graduated an electrical engineer and then shifted to architectural and industrial. I was 14 years with Sperry Gyroscope Company. That’s the boy up there in Vietnam. This is my smallest grandchild. That’s my enjoyment.
“The weather here resembles parts of the south of Spain. You’ll find that many of the palm trees that we have here came from Spain and from Las Islas Balearas. Even the tequila.”
He says something to make me wonder if maybe Tablao Flamenco closed because he drove the customers away.
“I was my own best customer. There were a couple of occasions where I had problems with the customers, and they would tell the waiter, ‘The customer’s always right.’ And they’d come to me, and I’d say, ‘No, excuse me, not in this place. I’m right.’ In other words, ‘Don’t come back.’ I had guys who would be yapping when we had a soled going on. I’d just tell the waiter, ‘Go tell ’em to shut up. And if they don’t like it? Leave!’ And, you know, that’s not good business. But that’s me. And I have to pay a penalty, whatever it is.”
Maria del Rosario, called “Charo” Monge-Romero, is the president of the Pena Andaluza, a San Diego organization devoted to the celebration of Spanish culture. She sings flamenco. When Tablao Flamenco was open, she sang there with her husband, Yuris Zeltins, playing the guitar. The idea of addressing Ballardo as “Don Francisco” offends her.
“I was three years old when I had my first flamenco dress made,” she says, describing a childhood full of the grit and mystery of flamenco. “And it was made of a cape of a bullfighter. My father wanted to be a bullfighter. He tried, but he runs and the bull runs after him. And he gave it up. But he had the cape. And my mother made my first flamenco dress with his cape.
“In Sevilla where I was bom, (from the time) you are born, you are taken to every place. Everything that’s happening, you go. Go to the theater? The baby’s going. Go to the movies? The baby’s going. Every procession. Every feria.
“The feria is the week after Easter, and it’s five days. You go in the morning and you see the horses parade. That is mostly for children. And you take them to the casetaleo dance, and they eat, and you take them to the different rides that they have for kids and all that. Like a carnival. And then 11 or 12 at night, you put them in bed, you have somebody to watch them. Sometimes you take them with you, but that’s when the feria starts for the grown-ups, around midnight. And then it goes on until 6 or 7 in the morning.
“And Holy Week, it’s the same thing. You take those kids. You put ’em on your shoulder and you tell them, ‘Tell the Virgin that she’s pretty.’ And so they grow up and they become costaleros, the ones that take the floats out. It’s like a chain. It’s a traditional thing.
“And when I had my first flamenco dress made, I was three years old, I already knew how to go like this....” Charo strikes a pose with her hands. “And I already knew how to turn around. And my children were the same way, because I was brought up with the ferias since I was born.
“And one of the things that we promote with the children since they’re born is, we teach them how to do palmas. And you know, I have my granddaughter, and she was three months old, and every time I say 'Ole! Ole! Ole! Baila!,’ she goes..." and Charo Monge does palmas like her granddaughter. “And so you grow up with this thing in your head.
“Flamenco became more serious for me when I was about 13 years old. That’s when my father started taking me to things that were like festivals, but they weren’t really festivals, in Sevilla. But the flamenco was very isolated. It was just at fiestas, private fiestas. The people that had a lot of money hired a few gypsies. And they used to get in one of the rooms there and party for three days. And [the performers] would get paid.
“My mother never liked flamenco. So I grew up between two people. One of them loved zarzuela and could play it, which was my mother. I learned all of them and used to act and sing and do everything. And the other one was my father, who loved flamenco all his life and had to sort of hide it. And he used to bring flamencos to the house, gypsies or something, and my mother used to tell us we had to go upstairs because she didn’t want us around those people. So she always put the flamenco down!
“I used to sing when I was three years old. I used to sing a little bit of 'La Tarraga.’ And the sevillanas that were popular at the time. I used to sit on my porch and sing. And some people would come and listen.
“I just started singing, and there was this woman called Encarnacion Vargas in Sevilla who wanted me to sing for her classes. I think I was 16, 17, 18. And I started singing for her. And I sang saetas since I was 14 years old. Por martinete."
Por martinete. She sang to a hammer beating on an anvil.
“A saeta is a song that is only sung in Holy Week. And it’s sung to the Virgin and to Jesus Christ. Through the passion of the whole week, the Stations of the Cross. And it’s done in different ways. You can do it por martinete. Or you can do the typical saeta sevillana, which is a little different. You have to have that particular voice that is very saetera. You have big, big singers that will not do saetas well. And then you have the people that will do a wonderful saeta and not be able to sing an alegrta or buleria or anything like that. And people have dedicated their lives to the Holy Week to sing the saeta, and they don’t sing anything else. So they weren’t singers, they were saeteros.
“That was actually what I started doing seriously before anything else. And when I was 19 years old, I sang to my Virgin of my barrio for the very first time. Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.
“And then as I was growing up, it was evolving. Antonio Mairena was the one that made it into a profession instead of just a way of surviving for some of the people. I think he gained a lot of respect for flamenco by making it into a profession where, when you get old — 65 years old — you will get a retirement. Before that, if you say, ‘Okay, I'll work for 35 years singing in tablaos,’ they would say, ‘That’s not a profession.’ You didn’t qualify to get a pension. So that is when flamenco was becoming more ‘uptown.’ People still looked down on it. Like, if you were a girl and wanted to be a dancer, your family will not let you, because that is a bad thing. That was only for prostitutes and people that were on the streets.
“But now it’s getting to the point where you can be a very nice girl from a high-class family and — ” She thinks a moment and says, “They still would rather have you do another career. You know the type of people that are attracted to flamenco.”
The Blue Guitar in Pacific Beach is famous among guitarists because of the builder/repairman Yuris Zeltins.
The face is John Carradine, the voice is Lee Marvin without the homicidal menace. Sweet Lee Marvin. He sits on a stool at a narrow workbench just long enough and wide enough to hold a guitar and a few tools, his ashtray, and his Thermos of coffee. On the wall on the other side of the workbench he has tacked a few snapshots: Yuris as a younger man, playing with his hero Juan Habichucla; playing for his wife, Charo Monge.
“For me flamenco was an attraction because, similar to the blues, I think it attracts people that are lost. Who can’t find a place. The normal thing doesn’t quite fit."
He talks about the legends of San Diego flamenco guitarists. “Bob Turner disappeared. He was working at Convair or something. He was into surfboards. [David] Cheney and Turner, and the last legend was Joe Trotter. The early legends. And they were all surfers. I wasn’t a surfer, so I wasn’t in that camp. I was in another camp with nonsurfer types. Surfers were into playing in their coffeehouses and all that.
“I didn’t ever have many friends. I mainly was an intellectual. Not really a loner. I had a Chinese friend in high school. Lost touch with him entirely. He was short, but he was such a good basketball player, it used to piss me off. He was really, really intelligent, but he wasn’t intellectual. I had some lesser friends that were intellectual and they'd be really off out in space. There was one who was an algebra freak. That was so weird I didn’t even want to deal with it.
“I guess I was looking for something when I figured out architecture wasn’t the answer.
“I liked architecture. But I worked for a consulting engineer and found out the reality of actually working out in the real world as an architect. It wasn’t anything like just designing stuff. I found out how somebody actually gets work to do, and the schmoozing you have to do. And a regular engineer that did not want to be involved with the getting of the job and all of that, you end up basically a drone. And very boring work, f felt my chances at succeeding at that were very poor.
“So I got stuck on the guitar. It got worse and worse, and now I’m totally committed to it. I think the guitar is the best instrument there is in all its qualities. And flamenco is one of the uses of it. (Flamenco’s) not the reason I’m involved with guitars. I just like guitars, period.
“The first thing I did, I had to get myself a guitar, because, on Sabicas’s record jacket I saw this thing that was yellow, was sitting on a chair. And I said, 'God! That’s the real thing!’ I had this Stella guitar.”
Sabicas was the king of flamenco guitar in the ’50s and ’60s. Carlos Montoya was more famous in America, but Sabicas was the king. Stella guitars, on the other hand, were American plywood painted an odd brown.
“And I went downtown to ask how much a flamenco guitar was, and they had a Velasquez from a New York catalog. It was $600. Back whenever it was, in ’61, $600 was an incredible amount of money. I basically choked on it and said, ‘I can’t afford that. I’ll build my own.’
“Nobody knew how to make ’em. There weren’t any books. So I had to figure it out. I love challenges like that. I ended up buying wood at the lumberyard and then couldn’t figure out how to bend the stuff. People told me stories that were just fantasies. They had no idea. Ultimately I ended up using two-by-fours on a piece of plywood that I had nailed to it and bent the sides that way, with a water hose in the sunlight. Didn’t know how to use tools and, in fact, I still have one of the tools I used when I built the first one.”
He takes down a knife. “I used that to cut the ledge for the binding and the purfling [edging], and that’s just something that my father had and it still works. It’s a great old tool.”
Yuris has been up the last three or four days and nights playing at a feria his wife Charo organized in Orange County. He’s just gotten back to San Diego at 5:30 this morning. His voice is low.
“I like working with my hands and all of that. And I like the challenge of just figuring all this stuff out. There’s no place you can learn. And I think that’s the same with all the people involved with this stuff. In the flamenco, in the guitar business.
“I taught myself to play from records and what I could observe from people, what I could logic out from different people’s approaches.”
Learning to play flamenco guitar by playing flamenco records slow and tuning the guitar low was a private, even a mystical act. Everyone seemed to discover it and do it in private. And slowly their ears and their fingers became fast. And the act became repeatable, and scientific, and real.
THE MUSIC OF THE SURFERS
Paco Sevilla was 19 when flamenco struck him. “For me the attraction was, I thought flamenco guitar was something nobody in the world was doing and that if I even knew how to play it simply, I would be the only one in the world that could do it. Carlos Montoya and me. That’s how naive I was. I didn’t know everybody on the beach was playing it.
“I didn’t discover Yuris and the whole little clique until I’d been playing for over a year. So the attraction for me came through the guitar, and the interest in the song and dance came because it was presented as a challenge. The singer and dancer are free to improvise, and the challenge is to be knowledgeable enough to follow that.
“It was like an acquired taste. But I know other people who have heard flamenco singing one time and went crazy over it. And that is really bizarre! Dancing, I could see. Guitar, hear it one time, and go, ‘Oh! It’s beautiful! I have to learn to do that.’ Singing? Not that common.
“I know of one case where a troupe went up to Alaska, and an Eskimo heard them and decided in that instant he was going to be a flamenco guitarist and moved down to the United States, moved in with the people who had toured up there, and studied flamenco guitar! So it can hit like that."
By coincidence, a dancer, Deanna Padilla, a Spaniard horn and raised in Australia, calls, and Paco asks what turned her on to flamenco.
He hands the phone to me and I hear her say excitedly, “...anger which I wasn’t allowed...crying was okay. Anger was not. It upset all these emotions, and I just went nuts. I couldn’t watch the whole thing. I went and sat down outside and tried to get my breath.”
Later Paco Sevilla tells me what she was talking about. “We had a trio with her and a singer for a while. She kind of comes in and out of flamenco. She’s got a hairdressing business. How she got into it, she said she saw Carmen Amaya dance. By the time the show was halfway over, she had to go out into the lobby, and she just cried. She said she had learned all her life that women don’t show strong emotion. And to see a woman onstage expressing all that passion and anger, in Carmen Amaya particularly, just overwhelmed her. So there was someone with a flamenco soul just waiting to happen.
“I was a teenager and I saw somebody picking guitar with their fingers. Just something at a party. That was the time when flamenco was the music of the surfers. That was before the Beach Boys. There was hardly a surfer that didn’t pick at flamenco. There were always guitars on the beach, and everyone was doing something, pseudo-whatever, not serious flamenco. But our first gods of flamenco guitar in San Diego were surfers David Cheney and Joe Trotter. David had lived with the gypsies for years in the caves of Granada. So when he came back, he was everybody’s idol.”
SAN DIEGO SURFER/
“In the ’60s, when David was in his prime, there was a small group of people playing. The people who owned the El Cid in Los Angeles, Clark and Margarita Allen, used to perform down here often. There was quite a cult in the ’60s around Cheney. There were people who were going to Moron and came back with all that music and astounded us with that.
“Every coffeehouse had somebody playing flamenco — or semi-flamenco. And there were flamenco records in every drugstore, every food market, for 99 cents. I’ve got stacks of records from those years. Not so often the big names. You wouldn’t find Juan Serrano there. There were these off-labels. A famous guitarist would make a record under another name, and it would be in the 99-cent bin. Flamenco was everywhere. Carlos Montoya was big and used to come to San Diego State. Sabicas came here in the ’60s and had 12 people in the audience and never came back. Carlos Montoya could always fill the Civic Theatre. We had a few Jose Greco [shows], I think.”
Yuris Zeltins remembers David Cheney and growls about him in his deep voice.
“Cheney was sort of a legend. There was this whole aura about him because he had been to Granada with the gypsies. He used to play solo guitar.”
I was hoping Cheney would be here in San Diego, still playing.
I heard him play at the Holiday Inn here in 1967. I remember the year because it was the last year I had a steady job. I went up to him at the bar, held out my hand, he held out his hand. As I took his hand to shake it, he turned his head, and I had this limp hand in my hand. David )ones, a legendary player in his own right, now living and playing in Spain under the name David Serva, grinned when I told him.
“That’s the flamenco handshake,” he said.
“That’s not the flamenco handshake!” Freddie the Filipino-American flamenco player says with an edge. “That’s not flamenco!" Freddie lived with the gypsies too. “The flamenco handshake is the abrazo! They embrace you. It’s family.”
That’s the American flamenco dream. Flamenco, the music of gypsies, spectacular party music for the outcasts of Spain, was the music of introverted American rebels. Now, after Franco’s dead and Spain is a democracy and tourist mecca, everyone tells me flamenco isn’t gypsy music. It’s Spanish music spiked with gypsy zap. If flamenco’s not gypsy music, was living with the gypsies a waste?
“Did David Cheney play here?" I ask Francisco Ballardo. “No, he didn’t,” Ballardo says. Around the stage, looking up toward the balcony, his voice expands through space and warms all the plump gaud and barroco clinging to the walls. “But I know David quite well. David used to live in one of the houses I own in La Jolla. And David was a very good self-concentrated player. But he played for himself. And that’s the opposite of what I think they should do if they really want to have any following. It's so important to leave something behind that people can remember you for. Something substantive. And an artist that can please the public is somebody that’s going to be remembered.
“I once told him, ‘I love your playing, but you’re a lousy artist as far as playing for the public.’ He might have taken it kind of badly at the time, but it’s still a reality. He’d just as soon be a beachcomber someplace and play. I really enjoyed hearing him play. The guy’s good. And he’s very pleasant too. I got along with him real well. I knew his wife Kelly and his son, who’s now a big boy. I think they’re living in Baja someplace.”
Ballardo knows Joe Trotter, too. He’s got pictures. Files. Filing cabinets. He’s an engineer. Whew!
“Joe Trotter is a biologist," he says. “He was very good. He loved the music. He is a gringo also. And he used to play with Cheney. He recognized something I advised all flamenco people to do. Find some vocation, something else to do to make your living, and use this flamenco to enjoy your soul. Because flamenco does not — nor any other art for that part — provide you with a reasonable living standard. And he was smart enough to go to school, study biology, and he works for the Salk Institute. He’s very good. He came here when I was open. So you’ll find, most of the people involved in flamenco gravitated here at one time or the other.”
So why do I get the impression nobody playing, singing, or dancing in San Diego will work for Ballardo again?
THE GENIUS WHO GOT BORED WITH FLAMENCO
“Joe Trotter was considered a genius,” Yuris says, “and maybe he was, or is. He got involved in flamenco and somehow got ahead of everybody. He had material coming out of his ears. And he could just play and play and play. He got a reputation in Los Angeles. People were just in awe of his abilities. And he went to Spain. He took some lessons from Mario Escudero, and he transcribed pieces from Sabicas’s album Flamenco Puro, and Mario Escudero, from one of his classic albums. And he did just a perfect job of them. It’s like a classic in the field.
“Prior to that, they had [transcribed] Sabicas the [wayj used in those days to copyright something. They would hire somebody with relative pitch, somebody’d play the piece of music, and the guy sits there and writes the music down as he hears it.
“Well, this guy is a piano guy, and when he wrote Sabicas down, he got all the notes, but he knew nothing about guitar.
So it wasn’t written for guitar, and there was no way to play it. He didn’t understand the rhythm. He had to translate the rhythms however he could translate it, and it was totally useless for anybody. He didn’t know that there was such a thing as a capo that you put on the guitar. So he wrote open notes that were not possible on the guitar. He got ’em in the wrong octaves.
“And Joe did a brilliant transcription of all the music. He got paid very little for it. But it established his abilities. It was a feat to do it that accurately and that well. Anyway, he got bored with flamenco.
“But Joe came in one day and he had these ways of seeing through the chaff, seeing the basic ideas behind stuff. He took an old silencio for an alegria and he converted it into a modern form like magic. He said, ‘All you do is...’ — you know, typical genius stuff — ‘All you do is, do this! You can do that to all of the material.’ And he converted all this old music into modern stuff, with all these other possibilities, on the spot! His kind of mind is just too much.
“This is just too simple for him. It’s boring to him and his musical abilities. Yeah, a local legend.”
Paco Sevilla thinks a moment on Joe Trotter and says, “That was about when Juan Serrano came over from Cordoba, and he was the darling of society. I remember there were articles on Juan Serrano’s cookbook in Good Housekeeping. He was a very handsome, good-looking guy. So he was just picked up. He became it for a while.”
The slim and very handsome Juan Serrano thinks a moment and says, “In this country I came in 1961. I came because Ed Sullivan — I performed on his television show in New York. And from there I went to Vegas with him also."
Juan Serrano’s been a flamenco hit in America ever since. He now lives in Fresno and is head of the guitar program in the music department at Fresno State, the only California university offering courses in flamenco guitar.
Several flamenco guitarists from Spain made their homes in America till Franco died. I ask the great guitarist the obvious question, “Has flamenco changed since Franco died?”
“Yes! It’s changed in many different ways. I am not political. I never get involved in political for anything. The only politician I knew in Spain was Franco, because I was born during the Franco years. I was born in 1936. This was when the Spanish Civil War started. For me, was good, because I grew up in the country [when] the people respect each other. Was no crime. Was no thief. Was nothing like that.
“Of course, I agree also, today, some people say the Spaniard was not free. In my opinion, the Spaniard, they had every kind of freedom. The only freedom that they did not have was they could not talk about politics. And they cannot talk against the government.
“You walk out and you come back home late, anytime, and nobody ever bothered you. Nobody bothered you at three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock in the morning. You go with money, you go with jewelry, nobody bothered you. This was good. I believe that because the people didn’t have freedom of the press — you know, the writing and things like that — maybe those artists, the poets, the people that create, they was very limited because they was afraid to express themselves. This is a possibility. And maybe this halt the art in Spain for a long time.
“Some of the biggest artists like Picasso, they move and live in France. Pablo Casals was the best cellist in the world. He lived over here, in Puerto Rico. Segovia was the greatest classical guitarist but was always on tour. I think all those people go from Spain. After Franco died, they say, ‘Now we are free. Everybody do whatever they want. Democracy.’ I really don’t know if democracy is better or worse, because now we have democracy in Spain and the people steal, the people kill each other. But the art grows a lot because the people have the freedom to create, talk, and write whatever they want. Spain now is marveling in everything. In the music, even in flamenco.
“For a long time, I think from the beginning of the flamenco history, our biggest influence was the Arabic and the Jews and was the gypsy, and we keep this tradition and maintain that. Even, every ten years have some kind of evolution. For example, the flamenco music until the time of Ramon Montoya, in the ’30s and ’40s, was all traditional, was just rasgueado and some accompaniment.”
The rasgueado is the most flamenco of sounds to come from the flamenco guitar. A dry, clattering snarl, like the snare on a snare drum. Nasty, metallic, the rasgueado spits the beats.
“Ramon Montoya made the first step in the evolution of flamenco guitar, because he was a friend of some classical guitaristas and he took ideas from them. He took some melodies from the classical and applied it to the flamenco. He started to play more clear notes. He worry more about the melody and not only the rhythm. This was a big evolution.
“Later, few years after, was another evolution. Nino Ricardo started to create so many compositions to apply to the flamenco, then there’s many other new people, they started to learn from this. Sabicas make a big evolution because he create so many beautiful techniques, so many beautiful compositions. I don’t want to talk about myself, but I, of course, offer something, because I came with a different technique, and the scales, and the very fast runs. And at this time, maybe 20 years ago, Paco de Lucia make another big impact because he start to apply many influences of jazz to the flamenco guitar.
“And this why, I think, you’re talking about evolution in the guitar. I think it’s because of the freedom of the people. More freedom to travel. More freedom to do whatever you want to do. Paco de Lucia traveled to different countries. I traveled to different countries. And we have a big impact in Spain with jazz and rock and roll. All those kinds of influence we take and put in flamenco. You have to know also, people now performing jazz [are] taking the flamenco influence, then add rasgueado. Even the classical, they put the rasgueado in classical. I am very happy about that, of course, because you enrich the music.
“The rhythms predominate in the flamenco. But when people talk about flamenco [today], they only talk about the melody. This is funny. I am writing right now another book with Jose Elgorriaga, and we discover so many things like that. For example, when they say, ‘Oh, yeah, the soleares or the siguiriyas or any of those traditional song, or primitive song, and then they start to talk [about how] this came from Jewish and Arabic. If you listen to somebody from the synagogue sing, the rabbi, it remind you right away of the singing the flamenco people sing. It’s true! I laving a lot of influence.
“But nobody talk about the rhythms. Flamenco, for centuries, nobody worried about the melodies, was only the rhythm. And of course, we sing the rhythm. In siguiriya it’s tron iron tron. Tititi ton. Tititi ton. We start to study and research and we say okay, where did the rhythm come from? We discover the rhythm originally come from Africa.
“The rhythm came because, in the century when Cristobal Colon came to America, all the slaves, they come from Spain over here. The black people from Africa. And to come from Africa, they have to come through Cadiz and Sevilla. That is where flamenco was developed.
“I imagine those people leave the rhythm [in Spain] because their connection was drumming. In drumming, one hand have one rhythm, the other hand have the other. And they play those kinds of syncopations, and I think, in this case, what we’re really doing with our music, with the guitar we apply different syncopations, but the rhythm come through with the drumming, even our rasgueado. Rrrrrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrrrr.
“For flamenco guitar, for many years, our mission was only to accompany. We don’t have to worry about the melody. We worry only about to keep a good rhythm to accompany the dancer and the song. The guitarist always depend on the singer or the dancer.
“For example, if you go to any big producer, if you are a singer, the producer hires you. You select your own guitarist. You hire me. If you don’t like me, you fire me and hire somebody else.
“When the guitar started to make a big impact, and we started to play in the concert form, of course, we have to worry more about the melody than the rhythm or make a combination of both. And this is when the flamenco guitar started to become more popular and strong, and we started looking for more influences. If you find something from jazz, and it has a beautiful melody, and you can make improvisations and transfer it to the flamenco rhythm, what you do is enrich the music. You don’t lose anything. Many people say, ‘Yeah, b»t it’s not traditional anymore.’ What did we do to the tradition? We keep the rhythm, we keep the form. We can change the melody.”
“I remember you did an ‘Autumn Leaves’ bulerias," I say politely and cautiously, for the song became a joke among American flamencos and was proof of how young the 20th-century art of solo flamenco guitar really was. It seemed a young American, non-gypsy, non-Spaniard could, with a good guitar, a stack of flamenco records, lessons from everyone that played, hard work, ten hours of practice a day, and personal magic, not just mimic the great players and play their great solos well, but an American could learn everything there was to know about flamenco and the guitar and create flamenco, go to Spain, become the flamenco phenom of the moment in Spain, and make the gypsies and the Spaniards want to play like you.
“ ‘Autumn Leaves’ bulerias” made all the Americans suddenly feel like the traditional flamenco establishment.
“Suppose the new generation, they don’t know anything about ‘Autumn Leaves,’ ” Serrano says, “and 50 years from now, somebody listen to the flamenco in the music. They’re not going to say, ‘This isn’t flamenco.’ They’re not going to study the roots. They’re not going to discover that it came from something else and I changed a little part, a little melody, make it more ornament, make it more grace note, something, so it become more flamenco. Originally it was not flamenco. It was a popular song from the United States.
“At this time, maybe all the flamenco people were very traditionalist. They did not accept. At this point they criticized me! ‘He went too far this time. This has nothing to do with flamenco!’ They say that I was very modern. I was trying to keep my tradition, only my idea is some beautiful melody. Why not? I say, This is American, this is beautiful, and I live in America, and all of it is so beautiful, I'm going to do it in bulcria. And American people love it. Later I did the same thing with another piece, and the people love it now. They believe that it was traditional flamenco.
“Are you familiar with Ernesto Lecuona? He was the great composer from Cuba. He composed ‘Maleguerta.’ But he also composed a piece called ‘Andalucia.’ It’s beautiful! I make an arrangement in bulcria, and I record it. When I play ‘Andalucia’ over here, some people say, ‘Oh, I love “The Breeze and I" that you played.’ I was confused. I don’t know anything about ‘The Breeze and I.’ It was because many years ago, they make in Hollywood a movie, and they (use for) the background music this music from Ernesto Lecuona. And American people recognize this theme (as) ‘The Breeze and I.’
“If 20 years after today, somebody who don’t know anything about Lecuona, ‘Andalucia,’ ‘Breeze and I,’ they listen to this record, (they’ll think), ‘How beautiful a flamenco piece.’ The same thing with ‘Autumn Leaves.’ ”
AN AMERICAN IN SPAIN
Sooner or later, every American who took his or her relationship with flamenco seriously went to Spain and raised the ante for being an American flamenco. Paco Sevilla went to Spain. Who did he study with in Spain?
“Nobody,” Paco Sevilla answers. “I was totally ignorant. I mean, a couple of miles away from where I was, everybody was fanatically studying with Diego del Castor. Because people kept showing up and saying, ‘Oh, down in this place, in this Moron de la Frontera, all these guys are doing this thing. And I didn't know from a hill of beans, even though I’d read Don Pohren’s book The Art of Flamenco. That was sort of the bible for everybody in those days. And he talked about Diego del Castor all the time.
“When I was in Madrid, I had some lessons with Paco de Lucia. He was 16. And also studied with other people who were studying with him. We would all trade things that we learned. He was good. Nobody knew he was going to be number one at that time. And the whole family would study together. The father would sit around pounding out the rhythm on the table and commanding each one of them, 'Improvise! Improvise! Improvise!’
“Mostly I just lived in the places. My Spanish wasn’t very good. I would mostly spend ten hours a day playing the guitar rather than talking with people. So by the end of the year, I wasn’t that much better.
“But in Sevilla I had one teacher, a man named Manolo Carmona. And he was a pretty old man at that time. He blew me away when I heard him.
“Twenty years later I went back, and a flamenco magazine said they had just had an homage to this man. He was 87 years old and still alive. And so I went and searched for him and found him out in his little town outside of Sevilla. And he came to the door dressed in his pajamas, and he was just real down and everything. He remembered me right away, because he would always make me come out to this town. And he always told me, ‘Tell everybody I taught you everything you know,’ like anything I knew before I wasn’t supposed to say. Then he’d take me around to the barber shop and all these places and have me play. He’d say, 'My student!' I wasn’t that great, but he was proud of it.
“So I went back there and his wife was dying. He said he’d been sitting by her bedside, and he hadn’t touched the guitar in two months. But he said, ‘Okay, come on, let’s go’ and got his guitar, and we went downstairs and shut the door. And the guy blew me away all over again. He played incredible! Eighty-seven years old, and he just played amazing. He said that after he retired is when he learned to play the guitar.
“And I could hardly play. I hadn’t touched the guitar for a week and I was stiff, and I did a terrible job of showing how I played. And he hadn’t played in all this time and just tons of notes came pouring out of the guitar.
“And what was so touching was, this guy was 87, right? And he says, ‘These hands are better than they ever were. They’re the hands of a kid. And nobody wants me.’ He’s old. His music is not up-to-date with Paco de Lucia and all this kind of stuff. Nobody wants to listen to him. Nothing he can do, yet he can play incredibly.”
SPANIARDS IN AMERICA
What his name was when he was an Irish-American college kid in San Diego Paco Sevilla doesn’t say and doesn’t want to say.
Whatever his name was, he became Paco Sevilla and began making a living playing the flamenco guitar. More amazing, he still makes a living as a flamenco guitarist in San Diego. How did he do it? How does he do it?
“I was in college for almost 13 years because I was having so much fun. I’m taking time out to go to Spain and all that kind of stuff. And just fiddling around with the guitar, I was not really making much money. Then I started teaching school. Then we began to have dancers for the first time.
“A woman who was born here in El Cajon, Juana de Alba, whose name pops up frequently in the history, she had been touring with her dancer husband Raul, and they’d been in Spain for years touring, and in Mexico. She was the first dancer I ever encountered, and she was really the first one in San Diego that I knew of. Actually there was another. There was Debbie Rey, ’Reina,’ whom I met right around that time and started playing for Bazaar del Mundo. They just gave us our 20-year pins, for playing 20 years in Old Town.
“But she had her own way of doing things. She had her own school, and she kept her students sort of isolated. This is Reina. Debbie.
“Juana was the opposite, very sociable. So with her, I learned my first dance accompaniment. I had learned a little bit in Spain. And we started to do little shows and performances. And then at the same time I started working with Reina, and she had just come from many years with Jose Greco. And so she had a lot of different things to teach me.
“And then one of Juana's students became my girlfriend. And she began to learn very rapidly. And we started to work together, and that’s when the money started coming in. She was a good hustler. Her name was Rosala. She looked very gypsy. She was dark. Mexican-lrish. Born here. So I sort of helped her from her early stages and learned along with her as she would be learning and would go to Los Angeles to study with different people. That’s a good way for guitarists to learn is to be in on it while dancers are learning. You learn along with them.
“I made my living in those days with many, many solo jobs. Mission Valley, union jobs in the big hotels, even, at one point, with the name up on the billboard in front. It was kind of a joke as far as the job went. Because I was not a nightclub performer. I didn’t want to tell jokes.
“In the late ’70s, I did some touring with three big companies. One through Mexico. One with the Boston Flamenco Company, we toured every state east of the Mississippi River over a three-month period, an ordeal which I would never repeat.”
The Boston Flamenco Company? The mystery of American flamenco deepens.
Paco Sevilla continues, “And then I toured all the western states with a woman called Maruja Vargas, who came from Arizona. So there was a lot of that going on.
“I went (back) to Spain again in ’77 and then after that went every two or three years. I was with Rosala. And she made it so much fun because she could get in anywhere. I’d send her into the bar first, and she’d come out later after all the gypsies were around her, and friends. ‘Come on in.’ So she was excellent, because I’m a little bit more introverted and a little bit more inhibited. So she got us into everything. So it was really a lot of fun.”
“When we came back, Juana dc Alba had started having some parties at her home.
“It was probably three or four years where it was just excellent. There were whole families. Everybody brought food, so it was just an orgy of food. There was kids running around everywhere, dancing.
“And we started finding Spaniards that had been professional dancers in their youth in Spain. Older people. Middle-aged people. People who had never done anything professional but could sing a little bit. So out of those parties grew a whole flock of separate dance companies. Juanita Franco came out of retirement. Julia Romera Romero, who was really up in years, and her daughter started teaching, and they started working. At the same time, a bunch of Spaniards inspired by this group formed the Casa de Esparia, which still exists, totally separate. And these were people who were not particularly interested in flamenco. They would come to these parties because Spanish people were there and it was Spanish."
LOVE AND FLAMENCO
“I met Yuris at a juerga," Charo says. “The juergn was one of those beautiful juergas that used to happen here years ago. I think it was ’67? Or maybe ’69 or something. I’m not very good with dates.
“But I remember I walked into that place, and there were people playing and dancing sevillanas, which I’m very demanding about. I don’t think anybody does the sevillanas well. In the first place the sevillana was never considered an important dance, because it was a secondhand dance. It’s a folkloric dance from Sevilla. And there is a particular way the Sevillanos have of doing them. You will see all these great dancers doing sevillanas, and it will not mean anything to me. And then you see somebody on the street in Sevilla doing sevillanas who’s never been to school, and they do it in a way we really enjoy it. And it's based on a rhythm that is very strong. The sevillanas normally has a good rhythm.
“So I met Yuris, and I saw him, and he was playing. There were a lot of people in the place. And I wasn’t attracted to the man as a man, but the way he was playing the guitar — I had just arrived to the United States. And it really got me. Yeah, it got me. I said I’d like to know where he’s from. Why is he playing that way? And he’s not one of the greatest players. Paco Sevilla was there. There was another man, kind of cold, Joe Trotter. Yes, David Cheney was there.
“Yuris was the only one that got to me. And he still does when he plays. He was a person. I could see what this man was by the way he was playing and his attitude.
“And this is not just me. I did four nights of concerts with Pepe Habichuela, Pepe Carmona. And Pepe was saying the same thing. ‘Yuris, I know you don’t sound like a Spaniard. Fine! You don’t know much of these things, but your playing really gets to me.’ And it got me. It got me!
“And I went to him, and I said hi, and we talked. And since then I like him better than anybody else! Every time I went to the juerga, I was hoping he would be there so he could play for me.”
“Charo sings,” Yuris says, “and she performs in San Francisco, Phoenix, Los Angeles. We used to work in clubs and things like that, but we don’t do that anymore.
“In the early days, Juana, with Paco, formed the ‘Jaleista’ newsletter, out of which grew the Jaleo magazine. And everybody was friends with everybody then, because we all had a mutual fascination or love for flamenco. People really, really liked it. Everybody had a great time. We got to meet Spaniards that enjoyed it. And we held a juerga every month at a different person’s house. And it was fabulous! Food! And music!
“Charo was here with her husband, who was stationed here, and she came to it, because she misses Spain so much. Ultimately that’s why she formed the Pena Andaluza, along with another woman, Mari Verdugo. And she formed the Coro Rociero, which is basically trying to re-create the culture of Spain.
“She is so Spanish it’s ridiculous. And a lot of Spaniards here, you know, slowly they don’t know how to cook the old things anymore. The tastes change. All kinds of things change. And pretty soon, if they don’t speak Spanish to you, you don’t notice that they’re not anything but American. They may still have Spanish roots and blood. But there’s no real outlet, no community, and that’s what she’s done to a degree. And we have a lot of members in the Pena that really miss Spain, and they’re stuck here. And they recognize the activities that we do as being very, very Spanish. And the Coro Rociero has really become a sort of ambassador of Spanish culture, outside of flamenco.
“Coro is like chorus or choral group, and ‘Rocio’ is a Virgin, in Huelva, in Spain. And annually there is a pilgrimage to her similar to the Semana Santa, when they take all the saints out of the church and there are these processions.
“But in this case, you trek across swamps and rivers and in wagons with horses, in costume, to make yourself presentable to the Virgin. And you may do penance because you promised her you’re going to whatever if she helps you out in this situation. They want to do honor to her and see her and praise her and all of this stuff. So they sing about her.
“And they make up sevillanas. And that’s what sevillanas Rocias are all about. The event. And the Virgin. They compare her beauty to this other Virgin. The songs are about what happens and what the event was like going to Rocio and things like that. And it’s become an extremely popular thing. People from Europe come, from northern Spain. It’s a monstrous thing now, where it was a very exclusive thing at one time.
“And Charo is now the president of the Pena Andaluza. And we just finished a feria de Sevilla, which we did this weekend in Long Beach. And we had a concurso de sevillanas, which is like a contest. We had a group of girls come from Mexicali for the contest, and they won first prize. And there must have been 40 or 50 of them all dancing sevillanas at once. Beautiful! Beautiful!
“And they flew off at four this morning to Seville to go to the real fair."
“Sevillanas is a popular form,” Yuris Zeltins says.
“Flamenco’s a very narrow aspect of Spain. It really gives a distorted view of what Spaniards are about. And the coro when it sings, it sings melodies — regular melody. Not cante flamenco. The sevillanas could be considered a part of flamenco or not, depends on whatever your prejudice is. It’s flamenco-like at the minimum, but it’s also more typically representative of the culture of Seville and Spain than flamenco is. There are people in Spain who don’t like flamenco and they’ll dance sevillanas.
“It used to be, the only way you could get to meet, you were chaperoned. The classy were chaperoned. The young girl’s going to be a virgin. Big deal, right? So how could you get together with a girl? Well, you can dance with her. And it evolved into a beautiful dance between a man and a woman. It used to be essentially like courting. So the woman would show off her things, and the beautiful woman is showing off her womanhood! And you're just drooling all over the place, because she's so beautiful in the way she moves. Embodiment of all woman! Right there! It’s that kind of a thing when it’s danced well.
“And at the feria is when they do all the new sevillanas. The new-style dresses. The new way of dancing. They change every year. It’s not like you think of it here, eternal. There is a basic thing, but the way it’s done every year, it’s different. So if you do it like they did it last year, come on, you’re hokey!
“The girls that were from Mexicali, performing at the feria, they came last year and saw what our club was doing, and they were going, ‘Wow! We’ve never seen anything like this! We wanta come!’ Because they are attracted to Spanish culture.
“The cultural differences between the girls from America and the girls from Mexico is big. The girls from Mexicali were literally, sincerely enjoying dancing. You could see it in their faces. The girls from America were performing.
“And I think this is the kind of thing that really attracts people to dance. On the positive side. On the positive side you see somebody making something beautiful with their bodies.
“There’s one of our members of the club from Seville, and he dances sevillanas, to me, very romantically. If I wanted to be really romantic, I could only dream of dancing like he does. To me, it’s almost like making love to a woman, the way he dances, where other people dance very masculine and showing off somebody’s manhood. And there’s different ways of doing that. Subtly or beautifully or aggressively. Sevillanas is capable of doing all of those things if you understand it well enough, are in the culture, have the feeling for it, there it is! It’s available to you. Being in the culture it is available. Here, you learn it as a thing, and you don’t get exposed to it in all its variety, all its expressions, and you can't enjoy it in the same way. And you can only dream about its possibilities. It’s alive in Spain. Here, it’s something you read about in the books, see on a video. We’re in China. We are in China!
“Anyhow, I’m attracted to the Pena because of the membership of the real people. And I enjoy participating with them to do something that is closer to re-creating what’s over in Spain."
SEVILLE IN LONG BEACH
“The fair in Seville is an annual event. And what they do at the fair in Seville is, everybody belongs to a caseta. There are hundreds of casetas on the fairgrounds in Seville." Yuris groans and smokes. “A caseta is a tent with traditional decorations on it, flowers, paper flowers and paper balls, and it’s lit up at night. They have at the entrance, all made out of light bulbs, some architectural reflection of the city of Seville. The night before the official opening, when they’ve done all the work of setting everything up at midnight, they have a lumbrao. where they turn on all the lights. And that’s what we did. And then you eat fried fish and you have a caldo, which is a sort of a soup, broth. So this is the first time we really had a lumbrao in our fair.
“Charo planned it. She organized it. She doesn’t want to get Americanized. She wants to remain Spanish. She would rather live in Spain. No question about it. She’s stuck here because she’s married to me.
“So we worked all Friday setting that up, and then Saturday at noon we started, and we finished Sunday night, and we got back at five o’clock this morning. And it was beautifully successful. We had Andalusian horses, just like you saw in the Disney movies. We had Spanish music playing and the Andalusian horses doing their thing for the people at the fair. And when they exited in the horses’ van, all the people there just clapped when the truck was leaving. It was just beautiful. Just beautiful.”
“The idea was to do a fiesta every month. And in order to coordinate that, Juana had a little one-page announcement that would be sent out. The ‘Jaleista.’ So talking with me, I thought, why not turn this into a little newsletter. And so it started out a couple of pages, mostly it was announcements, and we said, *Oh, let’s put in some little articles and some information about flamenco.’ There had been a flamenco newsletter before, put out by people in New York. That’s sort of the original ancestor, the first one, because people were fanatic, real flamenco fanatics back there. They hand-set it, one lead at time, on a press they had in the basement, so it would come out with all the words crooked and everything. But lots of good information for what was available at the time.
“I had a real urge to write. I’d also been always kind of a pack rat of information in everything. So I amassed a lot of books, magazines, anything to do with flamenco. It was everywhere, boxes and boxes, records and tapes. So I took over the editor’s job, and we started building this thing, and we published the only national English-language flamenco magazine for 12 years. Jaleo. ”
“When I was in the Army at Fort Ord, I went to San Francisco on the weekends to see the flamenco up there and hang out at Warren’s.
“There were some factions already, way back. And in the spirit of camaraderie I tried to bring some people together that never wanted to be together, and they didn’t find the experience really good. I mean, I went to San Francisco and there’s when David Jones was back from one of his concerts. Anyway, his wife danced, and then he had, I think, another American woman singing. La Conja. And it was very, very nice. I really had a great time listening to David Jones play.
“And there was a little fiesta. Jeff Chinn came to the thing and brought his old Esteso. And David was playing. And I started doing palmas. And it really got me that the factionalism, in a sense, is sort of protecting the core integrity of this sacrosanct personality that has arrived in San Francisco. He’s a hero! And this [other] guy comes over and says, ‘No, no no! You’re going to mess things up. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ And this is a party! I was offended. I can understand how the guy felt, but it didn’t make me feel good.
“For me, what I finally arrived at, to do flamenco here. I can listen to a tape of an American playing and a Spaniard playing. And I can hear which one’s the American and which one’s the Spaniard. It’s obvious! Singing—there’s no hope of an American singing. There is some possibility of an American dancing.
“And for me it’s somewhat tolerable, an American playing. But — if a guy in China wanted to learn the blues, he could get all the records he wanted to and learn. But you can understand, singing-wise, he wouldn’t have a chance. Very similar analogy. Playing the guitar, blues, he could get all the notes. Just like an American can get all the notes in flamenco. And he can be technically extremely good! And still something real is missing that only comes from the guy that’s grown up with this stuff.
“When a guitarist or singer or a performer here performs, they have to tune out their own culture. Literally tune it out and tune in to this other thing. And it’s not a natural reaction. That difference, to me, is significant. And I find, philosophically, the whole thing of taking yourself seriously in this: bullshit! Total bullshit! It’s impossible to intellectually or philosophically justify that there’s something really valid that I’m doing except — I enjoy it. And that’s it. The performance of it should have a lot of what a person should think of themselves as an aficionado. Nothing more. That’s all. Just a fan! You can’t take yourself seriously.
“David Jones is the great exception to that kind of a thing. He’s imbued himself with Spain. He lives there, performs there. And he’s ultimately been accepted by the people there. He’s respected, from what I hear, by other guitarists. I still find David to be an American-sounding guitarist, regardless. But he’s accomplished, and so unique, it’s enjoyable because of his uniqueness.
“I don’t have enough to contribute, as he does. Nor do I live there. Were I to live there, I could see where I might be, had I his talent, I might accomplish what he has. I don't particularly want to devote my life to flamenco as he has. I think it’s a hard road. You gotta be crazy.”
“Make sure when talking to Yuris you take everything with a grain of salt. He’s very dogmatic. Americans can’t play. Americans can’t build. Americans can’t, Americans can’t, Americans can’t,” Paco Sevilla says. “Oh, of course, David Jones, you can hardly call him an American guitarist. Because he’s spent basically all his adult life in Spain playing with the best people in the best places, so whatever was left of being an American player, he’s lost a long time ago.
“Other than that, there are so many really good players. Just in the United States in general, some of the most famous ones. Guillermo Rios..."
“Is he American?" I ask.
Paco Sevilla covers his mouth and whispers, “Bill Gooden.”
"Guitars and woman, to my mind, arc so analogous to each other that everything, every way you can describe a guitar, you can describe a woman or vice versa."
Whoa! I’m impressed. Guillermo Rios is one guitarist no one badmouths. Freddie Mejia plays a bulerias in E minor full of mystery, surprise, and humor he learned from Guillermo Rios.
“In New York, Arturo Martinez — excellent. Pedro Cortez. These are these people’s real names, but they’re Americans. There’s a couple down in Texas.
“But as far as good players, Bruce Patterson, down here in San Diego, was one of the top people on the West Coast for a long time. I don’t know if he still keeps up to the same level he was at one time. But he’s excellent!
“What happens is, though, people in Spain still have an advantage. No matter how good you get over here, if you get a gypsy guitarist — the gypsies aren’t necessarily the best soloists. All of the top-named soloists are non-gypsy, from Paco de Lucia on down, everybody I can think of. The guys that are really leading flamenco into the new world are non-gypsy, with one possible exception, maybe Pepe Habichuela.
“The gypsies tend to go more in for the accompanying. And those guys, like in everything they do, their singing, their dancing, it’s sort of like in certain kinds of music here, black people — there’s just something inherent in their vocal quality. No, it’s not in their vocal quality, that’s insane. There’s just something inherent in what they like, and the strength that they’re able to put into what they do, that’s not imitatable. It’s just so unique. They like rough, abrupt — things that change abruptly, none of this mellow, pretty kind of thing. Things that are full of surprises and sudden changes in mood and tempo. Same with the singing. The singing just comes out hard and emotional.
“And you get some non-gypsy guy who sings perfect, clear, but the voice is too good, and singing’s too perfect. It doesn’t communicate. And you see it in the guitar and the dance, and so that’s probably the only thing that’s missing. There are plenty of guitarists here that could go to Spain and hold their own. But not in that field. Same with the dancing. Plenty of dancers that are superb and would put to shame many of the dancers working professionally in Spain. So you grew up in the suburbs of Spain and you took dance lessons, ballet first and then Spanish dance. You’re not going to be any better, in fact you’re going to be worse than an American who grew up and liked flamenco from the beginning.
“I remember in the late 70s I went up and performed in Los Angeles, and all the flamencos from L.A. came. Who were these intruders coming from outside? Right? And they sat there with their arms crossed, frowning through the whole thing. Somebody said to me after that, ‘I didn’t know there was any flamenco in San Diego.’
“So, what happened was, with this magazine that spread out, people all over the world began to think San Diego was some kind of mecca, some kind of center, which we never really were. Paco de Lucia didn’t stop here on his recent tour. Paco performed in Tijuana, and he didn’t advertise here or anything, so people up here knew by word of mouth. So we had to convince people all the time, although we seemed like the center of activity. All our parties would be in the magazine. Pictures would make it seem like there were dozens of people. People would write and want to come here to study, and we’d say, ‘No, no. Go to Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York.’
“We had the man who built the Tablao Flamenco here — what can I say without being overly negative? He kind of took the thing, and — he was a great lover of rules. He incorporated us. It seems like once his era came, everything became, ‘Let’s not allow this, we shouldn’t allow that....'
“At their board meetings they would decide these issues.
They would call me up on the telephone and say, The board has decided that cover of Jaleo has to feature somebody from San Diego.’ And I’d say, ’Find a new editor.’ Click. A little while later would come the phone call, ‘Well, okay.’ So he never did like me. I played in his club a little while. We were at each other.
“His wife told me not long ago that they go in the Tablao every night and add a little more gold paint to this or that.”
Ballardo is proud of the stage and its acoustics. “The design of the stage was something like a drum,” he says. “The suspension virtually is right on the border, so that your frequency changes as you approach the center, it’s a low frequency. So a person doing zapateado, for instance, can very quickly feel their way and perform where they wish."
He turns and waves his arm across the lights and crests below the balcony.
“All of these lights represent the Spanish conquest in the Western Hemisphere. These are all the 21 republics. And of course I included Portugal; one of the dancers is a Portuguese girl. Angelita. She used to kid me, ‘You gotta put Portugal up there!’ Angelita’s quite good. Very versatile, no question about it.
“From here you can see the geometrical patterns that were laid down. And in the bar. Everything in the bar, all the wines and all the cognacs are from Spain.”
CAN AMERICANS DO FLAMENCO?
“For centuries in Spain the people believed that only gypsies can do. Then Spain believe it’s not necessarily gypsy, but every Andalusian; only they can do that because they live with the gypsies in Andalusia. After that, then they start to say no, everybody in Spain can do it, because one of the most popular and great flamenco singers, he was from Valencia. Valencia is in the northern part of Spain. Later, one very good guitarist was from Pamplona. Pamplona is Basque. This is Sabicas. Sabicas was gypsy, but he was Basque. Later came many other people like that.
“This is like everything I was talking about. Evolution. The people accept more and more and more. Now I have a message over here from a guitarist who lives in Los Angeles. I think he's Italian descent. He’s making a living with the guitar. And I admire him, and I went to see the show and he played. He’s good. He accompanied one flamenco singer from Spain called Chinin de Triana. They’re playing now at El Cid in Los Angeles. Is many Japanese people that play wonderful guitar.
“Later, [Spaniards] begin to accept that everybody in Spain can do it if they have had the influence. But later came people from France. They live in France and come and study in Spain, then went back, and they played wonderful! And they started to accept also the people in Europe.
“Now there’s many American guitarists that play wonderful. Many American and Japanese guitarists that are professional! That play good, then write music, and then recording. And we accept it, everybody can do it."
“Here in this university I have many students that are Oriental. I have some Chinese. I have from Indonesia. I have from Korea. Hmong. I have many different students that are coming here. And they are wonderful! Smart! And they love it. They don’t want classical. I also teach classical. They want flamenco! Because this is what they like. They have a feeling for flamenco.
“Now one thing that I say is there is a possibility that the feeling will not be the same. The heart. Why? Maybe because this is our youth, our principal or beginning. For me, when we talk about siguiriyas, I understand the siguiriyas in the way that I study when I was a little boy. And I see the tragedy or the problem that many gypsy have. I feel in this way. Some American people, maybe, they only read about that. And when you say to some American people, ‘Play siguiriyas,’ he wants to dramatize, but it’s maybe not with the same feeling. For siguiriyas, the issue ought to be sad. It has to be serious. I don’t have to be serious, because I feel it to be like that. This is my feeling.
“I am sure that the feeling and the emotion are habit. But technically and professionally, they can do, no matter from where. I have many students over here that have been performing professionally that are great.”
“Anybody, no matter where they’re from, can become as good or better than the best. There’s no such thing as, ‘It’s in the blood.’ The blood’s all red. It’s an emotional expression to say it’s gotta be in the blood.
“I gotta tell you a story. I go to Spain about every 4 years. And about 8 or 12 years ago, this is just about the time that El Cojo died. Enrique Cojo. And I was looking for his studio, his teaching studio, his academy, I think he called it. And I couldn’t find it. I got the address and I went to the address, and I said, this couldn’t possibly be it, so I went to the corner and asked, 'jDonde esta la academia del Enrique Cojo?' And that was it. So I went back. And the guitarists and the dancers were all Japanese! But speaking Spanish!
“And in the conversation they pointed out to me that they were making guitars. They’re interested in flamenco in Japan, and as a matter of history, they had won one of the contests of sevillanas in Sevilla! A concurso de sevillanas. So, I was very impressed by that reality."
When he first opened, Ballardo says, “I had Paco Sevilla at the beginning, and I think he was here for about six months.
“The guy’s a good player, he’s a good technician, there’s no question about it, but a technician. I remember once I had a juerga in my house, and I told Juana, whom I admire very much, ‘Juana, I have to tell you that you and Paco are super excellent technicians.’
“She said, ‘What do you mean by that?’
“ ‘Honey, there’s no offense, I’m just telling you. In my book, I don’t call you artists.’ An artist would be Rodrigo in playing the guitar, and for dancing one of the many that we have here — Spaniards.
“Paco Sevilla, whose real name is Bill Stanley, is, in my opinion, nothing like Rodrigo. He’s a technician. Rodrigo’s an artist. In flamenco, like in anything else, you can become awfully good by sheer practice. But if you lack that, those movements, that whatever it is that makes you a complete person and you feel it and you’re radiating —
“A good dancer here in San Diego, a superbly good dancer is Juanita Franco. She is, for my money, probably the best performer of the solea. Juanita Franco is from Sevilla.
“Rodrigo. I have to say that this guy has the versatility. You know, the dexterity of your fingers can dictate how fast they can move. And some people just don’t have the muscular capacity.
“Then I brought David de Alba from Los Angeles. And that was a big plus. Because David is amenable to the people. You see, you could be having some wine downstairs. He comes to you and he responds, and if you ask him to play something, he’ll do it. Which is a little unusual. Most of these guys are so self-centered, you know, they somehow just have an ego that trips them. And this is an unfortunate characteristic of any artist, I think. As an artist, you should dedicate yourself to public relations, because that’s what you are. You’re there for the people!”
As much as one loves flamenco, as long as one loves flamenco, it doesn’t always love one back.
“Toward the end of that, after about five or six years, I backed out of Jaleo magazine. Money was always a problem, and we’d end up waiting longer and longer to publish. You had to use every penny you had to put out an issue. Now you gotta wait for new subscribers to build up. As the years went by, volunteer help became nonexistent. And so we had to start to pay people to type, pay people to collate. Now you’re up to 600, 700 subscribers. There’s too much for one person to sit folding and stapling, so you have it done. And it went from a monthly to bimonthly, to a quarterly, to a six-monthly, and I said, ‘This isn’t going anywhere, Juana. I want out.’
“So I got out except to write articles and help edit. I didn’t want to be responsible for all the financial hassles at the end of it. And she fought it out for another three or four years all by herself. And she went off the deep end. She’s moved to Redding, California, and wants nothing to do with flamenco. When she comes down, she doesn’t even want to hear it. After a whole lifetime. When she finally burnt out, it was just total. She couldn’t even bring herself to get out the last issue that was almost done. It was like something snapped, you know? It was inevitable, because I’ve felt it in me. It is too much to be everything.”
The domed tower that faces the freeway and attracts the attention of drivers? “That’s the mirador,” Ballardo says. “In Spain, the castles always had a mirador. Traditionally, when you had a mirador, it was used to make sure you could see the enemy from a long distance. And they normally had one of these in every corner. A watchtower.”
He’s proud of the dressing rooms he designed for his artists. “This is where the artists normally would change. They have a bathroom here. A service. And they had their air conditioning, because, as you probably know, they have so much clothing, and the dance is so rigorous that they sweat a lot more than somebody sitting out there having some wine. So they can adjust their climatic conditions to fit that.
“All the history here,” he says pointing to a mural covered with the names of Spanish and American flamencos. “These are some of the people who performed here," he says, pointing out pictures surrounding the mural. “This is Luanna. This is David de Alba. This is Juana, his mother. This is the gypsy and Rodrigo. And she is a Mexican who used to dance quite well, she got married.” His finger lingers over a snap of a singer. “Rosa de Huelva, to me, is probably the best singer in California. She’s a nut, but she’s the best singer. She got the versatility, the range. She can sing you a tango with a style that would make you think she was an Argentine. And then she can come over and sing Mexican folkloric and yet stay with heavy stuff in flamenco. Siguiriyas.
“Anyway, this painting was done originally by a Swedish person who devoted his life to making castanets. He was a very good friend of Juana de Alba. And he didn’t know what to do with this. And I said, ‘Okay, I will put it here and I will continue the original purpose,’ which was to acknowledge artists.
“When I go to Spain, I normally go to a non-tourist place," he says. “Tourists don’t even know how to find it. And this is where you have the artists of substance. Camaron de la Isla. He’s dead now. He was there that night. Tomatito. He’s a very good guitarist. A very good guitarist.
“These are guys who restrict themselves pretty much to an area. They love to be drinking wine in a pena, for example, and they like the competition that they have in Spain every year. This is their specialty, they want to excel and they want to compete. It is not the same thing as being theatrical, playing in a place in Madrid or here. It’s a different feeling for them.
“Somehow playing in a juerga, or in one of those contests, they’re really playing, for the most part, for themselves. And they know that the people listening are all avid enthusiasts. But when they come to a place like this, for example, they already know that 75 percent of the people haven’t the slightest idea and are just curious. What they don’t recognize, and they ought to recognize is, that’s how you interest people in becoming an aficionado. Now, see, this is a perception of theirs that is missing.”
Ballardo’s contribution to flamenco was to be a setting, a place, a temple for flamenco to rise above juergas and serve up an arte flamenco fit to astound and entertain an audience uneducated in flamenco. Here flamenco would become entertainment for the sophisticated.
“At a juerga, you can loosen up and do nice things. I love juergas myself,” Ballardo says. “You can be crazy and do little things.
“Yuris is a very nice person. He has no pretensions of being a great guitarist. You know, he’ll tell ya. That’s what I like about this guy. He has a level of humility that is not normally found among artists. So, he’ll tell ya, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ ”
THE FLAMENCO GUITAR
“The guitar. Oh, yeah, that I think I can contribute something much more valid,” Yuris says, and lights up another cigarette. He means the guitar as a musical instrument, the building and repairing of guitars and the theory of guitar-making. “That’s a little more open thing. And I can take that seriously. The flamenco. I seriously love it, but I can’t take myself seriously.”
I ask the loaded question, “Can an American make a flamenco guitar as good as the best Spanish-made flamenco?”
“No! No way. The operative word is ‘not good.’ Back to China. The Chinese can do better Chinese stuff than any American. Because what you appreciate in a guitar — what I appreciate in a flamenco guitar, is that it’s a flamenco guitar. Who knows about flamenco? What flamenco sounds like? [Someone] that makes guitars and is interested in flamenco and knows flamenco from when he was born. So he has an idea of what a guitar should sound like in his heart! My wife can hear when I am playing a Spanish guitar, not something else. Us dummies here, we, you know — ‘Guitar! Wow!’ We haven’t heard a nylon-stringed guitar all our lives. We don’t listen to nylon-string guitar music, from when we’re little kids. We got into it after puberty!
“We grew up on rock ’n’ roll and stuff like that. Maybe heard Andres Segovia — once, and always heard it on records. Not live! Not right there next door to you! Or across the street! Or every week. It’s all around you. Or your neighbor plays. A whole rich culture of what a flamenco guitar should be. There isn’t an American that knows that! They have ideas. You may like them. But come on. The best any American can do is consider themselves a fan.
“I have no intention of ever making a flamenco guitar. Flamenco guitar should be from Spain.”
Gene Clark, Warren White, Lester DeVoe?
“Yeah, those are the first-generation American makers. All self-taught, by hook or crook they figured it out. I’m among those, but I haven’t done much making because I’ve got the shop, I end up repairing. And the things that I’ve made — I did a lot of steel-strings there, for a while. Steel-string cutaway jazz guitars. Way before anybody was making cutaways, we were doing these. We were going to do a production thing out of them, you know, hippie-style, and —
“Warren, I think, to me, was better than any of those guys. Warren was the best of the early guys. Never played a Gene Clark. I’ve worked on a Gene Clark. It was made in New York. A local guy owned it, and the neck was so thin! It was an okay guitar. But it’s from the early period.
“Lester DeVoe. Yeah, I’ve seen three of his guitars. In a way I was very impressed with all three. But personally, the last one I saw, I was very, very impressed with that one. A flamenco. I said, ‘My God! This is very good.’ Next day, I said, ‘I don’t like it. I was surprised at myself that I didn’t like it. I was so impressed with it, and I’m still impressed with it in an objective sense. But personally, I — ehh...’’ Yuris shrugs. “That’s normal. Because there is no objective good at all. None! To me it’s all a matter of. You like? You like it! You don’t like it? You don’t like it! Who’s to say why?”
Learning flamenco is moral philosophy. In a couple of sentences he’s reinvented the empirical method and taken it as far as it can go.
“There was an old guy that died, the old guy in San Francisco, the first maker up there — Gabriel Souza. There’s somebody locally that has one of his guitars. And he was okay. But to me the best was Warren White.
“Warren worked for me for about a year. And we had some problems eventually. Then he went up to San Jose and disappeared in the mountains. Called me in the middle of the night many times, drunk out of his head. I used to own a Warren White. He made it for me to pay the debt that he owed me. And I sold that to Paco Sevilla. Beautiful guitar. Wonderful. My brother has a classical he made. And I’m currently repairing another guitar he made, which ultimately started falling apart, and I’m making a new top for it. I knew Warren for many years.
“Now I play a guitar by a guy that used to work for me. His name was Roger Knight. He wanted to learn how to make a guitar, so I showed him how. Gave him a top that I’d started the inlay of, the mosaic. And he more or less followed my directions. And it was just like the typical first guitar of anybody's. And it looked like a bunch of pieces that were stuck together instead of a guitar.
“But I liked the sound of it. And so I bought it from him. Two hundred bucks. And then I fixed up the top and the end of the fingerboard to make it look more decent. I left the rest of it the way it was. Nobody would see that. But it was so bad-looking. And I still play it. And that was back in the late ’60s.
“And it’s got power. Incredible power. Very sharp sounding, even to this day. It hasn’t lost any of its brilliance. And it plays nice and easy and so on. The only thing that I miss is the Spanish sound. It just doesn’t have a flamenco sound. It sounds like what you would describe as a typical flamenco. But once you learn what the sound really is, it’s not it! It’s different. Somebody else just can’t do it.
“One day I had a Marcelo Barbero, and I took it home. My wife was in the bathroom putting on her makeup, and I played it in the living room, and she ran out of the bathroom and said, 'That’s a Spanish guitar!’ She knew I was not playing my other guitar. I went, ‘How did you know I was playing a different guitar?’
“And she said, ‘Sounds Spanish.'
“She’s from Seville. She sings flamenco. And in my opinion, which I don’t believe in this case is prejudiced, she’s the best female singer in California. No question! But everybody will tell you whatever story they want. But I believe I’m telling you objectively. And seriously.
“Joaquin Amador wanted me to make him a guitar. And so I had my guitar that Roger made. And I didn’t really want to make him a guitar, because I didn’t think a non-Spaniard should make one. And he was pushing and pushing and pushing. And God! I felt guilty as hell. I’ve never built a flamenco guitar. I don’t want to. I don’t think it’s the right thing.
“ ‘No, no, never mind! Your first flamenco guitar will be great!’
“He’s got me talked into it. So what’s he going to want? What am I going to do? I’ll just use my guitar. I’ll tape him criticizing my guitar. What he likes and what he doesn’t. Then I’ll have a baseline to see which direction it is.
“He didn’t like the basses on it. He said, ‘The basses aren’t deep enough.’
“And then I remember playing Juan’s and Pepe’s guitars. And I remember hearing the way they sounded. There’s sort of a very difficult combination of depth and clarity and brilliance that’s just a — it’s like, until you taste it, you don’t know what it tastes like. You have to experience it in a really fine instrument to have a really good idea of what that is. In an instrument that’s medium, you start picking up on superfluous things and you get misled. I thought I knew a lot about guitars. But these experiences really taught me a lot. And I grew to have an appreciation, really, of what a Spanish maker can do and does when he does a really first-rate guitar. I’ve heard an Arcangel Fernandez negra that just has a quality in it that... you know, it’s an emotional quality in a guitar. It’s not good or bad. It’s a thing that you just can’t help it, this is beautiful!
“So the sound of a flamenco guitar is like that. It’s actually indescribable. Why do you love this woman? Guitars and woman, to my mind, are so analogous to each other that everything, every way you can describe a guitar, you can describe a woman or vice versa.
“Classical guitar, however, is a different thing,” Yuris says. “Non-Spaniards can make good and great classical guitars.”
If an American wants to buy a good American flamenco and asks for a recommendation, who?
“If you were asking for recommendations, I wouldn’t! I’d buy a Japanese flamenco guitar. Tamura would be an excellent recommendation, if they were available. That’s in the old days. And now it depends on which company’s offering one.
“I don’t know prices that well. I really don’t. I can’t tell you that. We’re not doing that kind of stuff. It ends up all rock n roll out there.” He indicates the guitars on display in the showroom through the doorway. “What would I guess?” he asks himself and answers, “I would guess somewhere in the $600, $800 range. Somewhere in there. Beyond that you’re not going to get anything better out of the Japanese that’s worth spending your money on. Maybe they have stuff that’s up higher. Maybe it is okay. Because the difficulty is that to find a guitar is the biggest problem, not to pay for it. That’s one.
“Second, now the Spaniards have recently come up, because they became a part of the European Economic Community. What happened was the Japanese got really good at making a consistent, nice product. Good value for the money.
“The Japanese started really dominating the lower end of the market, and guitars in Spain made in Valencia used to be all the factory guitars, then Barcelona. And the Spanish government figured, ‘What have we got to sell to the world?’ So they helped out to get them up to snuff. And of course, they recognized it themselves, so that now there’s Manuel Rodriguez, who is now distributed by Fender. It’s a factory guitar. I don’t know what the prices are now. But initially their pricing was very good. Now stuff is coming out of Valencia under all kinds of different names. Estuve is another name from Spain. You get what you pay for. It’s not a first-class guitar, but not bad!
“In Los Angeles, if you want to spend more money there’s two guys up in L.A., both Mexicans, who, I think, make very nice guitars. Huipe and Vasquez. Not Valdez; that’s a more expensive guitar.
“I’ve met Arturo Valdez, and he’s a nice guy! Benito Palacios has one of his guitars. Very, very impressive! He’s in a very similar situation to me, he’s got a shop and all this. He’s got more time to make than I have. I'm trying to get to that point, I’m setting up a studio at my house to build there."
“Guitars. I have several, of course,” Juan Serrano says. “But the guitar that I play right now, the guitar I played at my last concert, is by Juan Montero. From Cordoba. It’s a beautiful instrument. I have several, but this particular one — I went on tour and I perform in Cordoba. This guitar-maker came to show me his work. And I fall in love with it because it was so beautiful. And he’s one of the few that still do everything by hand.
“I have one American-made guitar I like very much. I have one that was made in Los Angeles. And it’s a very good guitar by Arturo Valdez. He’s on Sunset. I played over there in Pasadena. I played a few months ago over at the Ambassador Auditorium. And Arturo, he had this guitar and he made it for me, and the sound is a very good flamenco. And I think he make it with, I don’t know what kind of wood, looked like redwood from California. But the sound is very good. And I use it and I am very happy to have this one.”
California redwood? Arturo Valdez has had his shop on Sunset since 1965 and still makes his living building guitars. He studied classical guitar for three years, then heard flamenco and took up flamenco. He says the guitar he made for Serrano is a classical guitar, with the neck aligned for flamenco action. The top is made of cedar pine, sometimes called Spanish pine. And the sides and back are made of a Mexican dark wood similar to rosewood, palo escrito, sometimes called Mexican rosewood. He says Juan Serrano’s playing is “a gift of God” and tells the story of a Chinese architect from Hong Kong walking into his shop while he was setting up a flamenco guitar.
“Oh, you’re playing flamenco, the Chinese said. “Let’s go into one of the teaching rooms and play a little.” To Arturo Valdez’s surprise, “He was pretty good.” The Chinese had been a student at USC, then heard flamenco for the first time in Fresno, and the player was Juan Serrano. The Chinese immediately dropped out of USC and transferred to Fresno State to study flamenco with Juan Serrano. Now, in Hong Kong, the Chinese architect gathers crowds playing flamenco.
Valdez is one of the few American guitar-makers of the ’60s who hasn’t gone crazy or burnt out or otherwise disappeared with money in their pockets for guitars they will never build. There were a lot of them, and, like Valdez, the guitar-builders admired the music of Juan Serrano. One was Warren White. The same Warren White who worked a while in Yuris Zeltins’s shop.
“I used to have one that was by somebody that was in San Francisco,” Serrano says. “I don’t have it anymore. His name was Warren White. And I used to have one that was made by Richard Schneider. And this was in Detroit.”
“Do you still have the Warren White?” I ask.
“No, I give to one nephew of mine that play.”
“Ah,” I say. Warren White was the guitar-maker you loved or hated.
“Sometimes — I don’t know,” Juan Serrano says, in a slower rhythm. He picks his words carefully, restrains the emotion. “Warren White was a nice guy, a friend of mine, but . sometimes I think, some Americans — I mean, I don’t want to put it in this way. I don’t want to say anything bad about any American, no.
“Sometimes what happened, for example, here comes some American guitar-maker that starts to make a guitar right now. He’s new. He makes three or four guitars only. And with them talking, sometimes it’s like they know more about guitar than any Spaniard.
“[It] does not mean because today you make one guitar you’re going to do better than everybody else in Spain. Sometimes they have a good success because they make two or three guitars and it’s good! No question. It’s good. We use. And right away coming into their head, ‘Oh, I’m the best!’ Then they start to treat the people in a different way. They don’t treat the people good.
“I find out later that he have to retire. He have to close the shop he had on Broadway in San Francisco. I think later he work just as a common carpenter for some kind of company to make doors or something like that. It’s a shame because he was a very good hand-craftsman."
Paco Sevilla likes American builders.
He says, “I have a very beautiful guitar that made me get rid of all my Spanish guitars, built by a guy named Benito Huipe, in Los Angeles.
“My first guitar was made by Warren White. Not my first guitar, actually. I think I owned the last guitar that he ever built. He came down here to San Diego and worked with Yuris in the Blue Guitar for a year. He built three guitars. A couple of classicals. And he started a flamenco for Yuris. Then he went bonkers before he got it done and just disappeared. And about a year later I was in the Blue Guitar and Yuris said, ‘Hey, did’ya ever see this?’ And he blows the dust off this body with a two-by-four on it for a neck. Just the raw wood. It hadn’t been finished or anything. And he said, ‘Warren started this.’
“It was very unique, very unusual in many ways. And he said, ‘If you want to finish it, you can buy it.’ So, with his help, I completed it and paid him, I don’t know what, five or six hundred dollars, and it was a tremendous guitar. As far as I know, it would be the last one, in ’74 or somewhere around that time, and now the owner of it is that Paul West.
“Paul is the son of Marisol Fuentes. She’s one of the main singers in town. He plays a little. But he’s not really involved in the flamenco scene at all. He dabbles. He’s a real good musician and likes all kinds of music. He studied from me and learned from me. His mother and I were together for almost ten years.
“I gave the Warren White to him. It eventually had a cedar top, which is very soft, and eventually it broke. I’m very rough on guitars, which is probably why these fingers got damaged. And I broke the top so many times that the sound never really came back. Yuris repaired it as well as he could, but Paul likes it.”
HOW DOES AN AMERICAN FLAMENCO MAKE A LIVING?
“How do I make a living? I give classes," says Yuris Zeltins. “Twenty dollars an hour. A lot of hotel and convention work. I just did duets for a wedding on Sunday. The next night, just did five minutes with a dancer that was paid a tremendous amount of money because we had to be there many hours to wait for that five minutes. And sometimes they want a big group. Then I go out and solicit among the different people. There’s just endless variations. Right now I don’t have a regular monthly income. For eight years, up until about two years ago, I got a grant from the state every year to teach flamenco dance to children in the schools, in the elementary schools. And that was a core income then. I did that with Juanita Franco.
“All last year we had a restaurant in North County, Tapas Papas Fritas, for the whole spring and part of the summer. That was a regular income, that when you add the other things to it, can sometimes, actually, be too much. You have your guitar in your hands all day, every day, seven days a week. It’s too much.
“A couple of years ago I began to lose the use of two fingers. And I now have almost no use of the middle and ring fingers of my right hand. So I’ve had to re-teach my little finger to do what these two used to do. And it’s going slow, but it’s coming along. I can still fool ’em if I’m playing accompaniment. If I'm playing solo, is a little bit less. I’ve had to give up some techniques and certain numbers.
“And the year before that we were all working in Mexico. Charo set that up. It reached such a point of frenzy in Mexico that in one plaza there were three restaurants featuring competing flamenco groups. This was called Plaza Fiesta in Tijuana. And the crowds of young Mexicans — it became a singles place — they were filling this whole plaza. It was just like a shopping center, packed with people. And the drugs came. And the crime came. And there was a killing. And the whole thing got shut down. And three years later it’s still a dead place. Most of the stores are closed. They can’t get it going again.”
“I think it was ’91 when I started,” Charo says. “It lasted a year and a half. The owner of this tablao is from Spain. And before he opened the tablao he told me, he said, 'Charo, I want you to help me with this. And so I advised him on the decorations on the tablao itself. And then he did something that no one does. He said to me, ‘Look! Tell me how much you want a week. And you bring whoever you want, whenever you want. And you do your shows however you want. And I don’t want to hear about it.’ And this why I agreed to run the tablao.
“I had classical and originals on Wednesday. I had flamencos. I had two different guitarists working. So the people wouldn’t be bored with the same group. I had five dancers. I had a male dancer. And I had three singers. So I wanted to, you know, normally what the people do here is, they get a job, and she sings and her husband plays and that’s it! But to me, the most important thing is — and that’s why I’m in the Pena Andaluza — is to promote what I love so much, what to me is the most important thing in the world and that is to spread, to show our culture. And a big part of Andalusian culture is flamenco.
And it was a very beautiful place in Tijuana, in the Plaza de Zapatos. It’s right across the Plaza Rio. And it was very exclusive. We had wonderful customers. And the shows were really good. Because we got good artists once in a while.
“Paco Sevilla, Bruce Patterson, and Yuris were the guitarists. I had to get Morillos once. I had a man from Mexico. His name was Danir. Rodrigo never played for us. He was working somewhere else with his wife. And David de Alba and Rosa de Huelva were performing across the street. And it was very funny, because we would finish our show and go see their show, and then they would finish their show and come and see our show. And they always envied our tablao because they were performing on the street outside of a bar. So they used to come here and say. Boy! This is so beautiful!’
“It was a beautiful place. All made with tiles and carved and painted chairs. Sevillanas chairs. A beautiful place.
“But something happened in the plaza. Somebody killed the nephew of the mayor. Was shot in the head! And died. And the whole plaza was condemned. Nobody wanted to go to that plaza anymore. There were drugs going on. All kinds of stuff, not in our place, but in the area. So everything went down. And when I saw that we were doing shows for the waiters, I called Alfonso, I say, ‘Alfonso, shut this place down. I don’t want to come here and take your money every week and have you losing money. Because this is not going to work.’ And that’s when he closed it. And then he called me last year and said he wanted to start again, and I said, I'm not doing tablaos anymore.’
“In the tablao, there were four guys that came from Jerez de la Frontera. They came in doing palmas in the soled. And I said, ‘Those guys know what they’re doing.’ I said, ‘Come on, where are you from?’
“ ‘Oh, I’m from Jerez.’
“ ‘Come on, get onstage.’ So they got onstage and they started a bulerias. And they said, ‘Tell the guitarist to play por Jerez.' This is a very good guitarist. I said, ‘They want you to play por Jerez. ’
“He said okay.
“And the guys are waiting. ‘Charo, tell him to play por Jerez. ’
“I said, ‘Could you play por Jerez?’ He didn’t answer to me. And finally the guys say, ‘We can’t sing.’ Now, what was the difference? The difference was those guys knew the aire for Jerez. This guy knew the rhythm of bulerias. He didn’t know the aire.
“Nobody can play for Jerez here.”
JUAN SERRANO ON TOR JEREZ”
Juan Serrano gives a quick lesson in what he calls “roots.”
“If they see 'buleria auto de Utrera,’ I don’t care if it’s from Utrera or from Russia. It’s only one bulerias. Bulerias is only the traditional rhythm. Now when the singer sings, he can sing any buleria that he wants, from Utrera or from any other place. The obligation of the guitarist is to have a very good ear and be able to follow all the modulations and the melody. Change chords without losing the rhythm. This is the difficult part.
“When I teach them the buleria, they always make the same chord progressions. Soon as I start to sing, to teach them how to change, I say, ‘In the middle of the phrase, you have to change to a different chord,’ they get lost. Before change to the other chord they stop their right hand. Why? Because they need experience. What is experience? You have to learn the root. Practice this way.
“You can say buleria de Jerez. You can say buleria algolpe. You can say buleria corta. Buleria por arriba. Buleria por medio. There are a hundred different things that I can give you. This is just a flamenco vocabulary. But there is only one bulerias rhythm." He beats on his desk with his knuckles and chants, “Bom bom BOMP. Bom bom BOMP. Bom BOMP. Tatata BOMP. Bom BOMP. BOMP bom BOMP.
“Now you come in with more modem singer. You don’t do Bom bom BOMP. You do BOMP bararomp.... And you can make a syncopation. Or you can do..." He raps the rhythm with his knuckles on his desk, taps his foot on the floor, and makes a noise with his mouth and sounds like a dancer dancing and clapping palmas. “If you count, this is 12 counts, always! No matter how I do. Now, this is the bulerias rhythm. Now you have to know how to apply the chord progression with this rhythm, for the singer.
“When the singer says bulerias, he never knows what he’s going to sing. He maybe starts to sing in one style, and in the middle of the second copla [he changes}. This is why they say bulerias and not buleria. Bulerias means three or four or five different buleria styles or forms in one. The rhythm is the same. But he may be singing one (verse) from Jerez, and the other is going to be from Utrera. The other is going to change to buleria in A minor.
“Someone might say, ‘Play buleria por Caracul. That means play the one that Manolo Caracul used to sing. They give the name of the singer that made popular this bulerias. Say, ‘Play the buleria de Caracul. ’ ‘I don’t know how to play it.’ I play buleria (rhythm), now you sing whatever you want, and I accompany. This is how it works. Many people, they don’t know. They’re confused. ‘Oh-oh, maybe it’s different.’ No. You just play bulerias. Bulerias is only one.”
THE PARTY'S OVER
“The flamenco people always return to someplace to perform as soon as the show was finished, to go with a group of friends and party and take the guitar and play and sing and dance and stay up till six or seven or eight in the morning. I used to do that. And when the people sometimes say, ‘Oh, go to a party!’
“I say, ‘No, I retired that.’ And they say, ‘Oh, Juan Serrano retired from the guitar!’ Oh, come on! I’ll never retire! This is what I do all my life! Practice all day! Teaching! Performing! Compose or recording. This is the way I run my life.
“I say ‘retired’ because you produce a lot less when you are involved in the other way. And you go to a show, and you go to drink and to have a party, and you go to bed the next day eight or nine in the morning. Of course, you’re sleeping all day long, till the evening again, and in the evening you go out to another party. And of course, it’s different, the way you have to work when you have the responsibility like in the university. You have to be here on time. And for me, I have to be here every day about 7:30, 8:00, in my office during the academic year.” Teach by example. Confucius as flamenco guitarist.
Staying up late playing and partying all night long was what I liked about flamenco. It still is. But for Serrano, flamenco is a profession. He’s solidly middle-class but practices and plays the guitar all day and all night long. Fresno reminds him of Cordoba.
“When you finish the university every day, it’s about 2:30, 3:00. And sometimes more. And sometimes, at this time, I have to travel. Because I have to go to perform and come back the next day over here and do it again. And I influence, too, the students. Because if you don’t show your students this kind of discipline, it’s not good for them."
Paco Sevilla makes no claim to living a flamenco lifestyle, but as an educated aficionado, he makes a living. “What really worked for me was, I got the idea to put the equivalent of a radio show on tape, on a 90-minute tape, on a different flamenco subject each time. Either all the music that came from a certain area or town or a particular artist or a whole tape on the dance of alegrias. On that tape I would try to present music from all kinds of sources. Old cylinders, even, from turn of the century, and things like that, to live things that I’ve taped in Spain. Quality — not necessarily great, but of interest in some way, from old records to new. So it would be interesting to guitarists, some solos, some dance things that I’d taped from tablaos in Spain. And lots of cante. And an explanation of who the people are and what’s happening. And I finished the last one of those in 1987, and I’m still selling a lot of those. People just select which ones they want. There were 37 tapes eventually.”
He charges $12.00 for each 90-minute tape, postage included.
The Tablao Flamenco was open for six years. Why had Ballardo closed it? “You know,” he says, “I did all this with a feeling for flamenco, but the reality is I knew from the beginning that you could not make a penny on this. If I could ever break even I’d be very happy, but I never could. I was losing money, about $40,000 a year, $50,000.
“It was very uneconomical for one thing. I was basically subsidizing the customers. Because what they were paying could not carry the expenses and the performers. In sum, the collective amount was not doing it. So I decided, well, I have a lot of things I want to do including being a grand juror. And I want to do some traveling and so on. And I was losing less money being closed than being open. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. And when the economy got bad it was worse.
“And, you know, there are a lot of little personnel problems that you have to deal with. And I just don’t have the mentality for that, in my upbringing, and scientific level, I think differently when it comes to management sort of things, and I try to separate that as much as I can. I’m a good member of an audience because I love flamenco with a passion. But I don’t think I’m a good administrator because of my style. I’m a better administrator of non-artists. I don’t have the patience and the sensitivity.”
The place has been closed three years. It looks ready to go. The tables are set. The floors are swept. Bulbs in every socket. He loves the flamenco, but the only flamenco resounding off the walls is recorded. Ballardo talks of reopening the place but seems to like the place best all to himself.
“I’m still working on it because, where the murals are right now, I want to develop this configuration to put over the murals. This is an Arabic arch. We’ll follow the pattern, but this will be inside, just to dress it up, to give it a frame.
“I still have a lot of things I want to do to the place, but the grand jury’s got me for a whole year. And at 40 hours a week, I just get out, I go home. I change my clothes. And I come here just to fiddle around. I own the medical building, so I have to look and make sure everything’s still on.
“In fact my wife always just puts on a flamenco record downstairs, I go downstairs to have some wine. I drink a bottle of wine every day. Red wine. All my wines are Spanish. Right now I’m drinking Torres.
“Yes, I hope to open it again in the latter part of summer. I have to open it. My liquor license is under custody of the state, and normally they never allow you to be closed for three years. The only reason they gave me this extension is because of the grand jury.
“I might open it again. It depends on how my enthusiasm gets,” he says and seems talking himself out of it.
“And then, when you’re dealing with the flamenco people themselves, they’re very temperamental. And this is basically an artistic characteristic, not just for flamenco, but flamenco especially, and very especially if they happen to be gypsies. They’re out of the world!”
From guitarist Freddie Mejia in San Francisco and guitar-maker-collecfor Marc Silber in Berkeley, I hear that guitar-maker Warren White was found dead in Los Gatos last July. A check turns up obituaries in newspapers ranging from The Hollywood Reporter to The San Francisco Examiner, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Fresno Bee. Divorced. Drunk. Homeless. Fifty-eight years old. July 20th. He was sleeping under a freeway. His sleeping bag caught fire. He died. The obituaries were written for a genius, a Stradivarius. As they say when tuning up fast for a party, “It’s close enough for flamenco.”
The 31-year-old local phenom David de Alba plays modern flamenco at the Cafe Sevilla, conveniently owned by his mother and his wife’s cousin. This is the only steady flamenco action in town. On weekends here, David de Alba plays, his wife Rosa de Huelva sings. David’s older and personally but not professionally estranged wife says, “He’s just a boy, very talented, but has to mature.” And Angelita, a Portuguese-American with a schoolteacher day job, dances. Both David de Alba and his friend Paul West play Takamines, Japanese-made guitars. Negras. Sides and back of dark rosewood instead of the traditional light cypress. The son of Juana de Alba, and Paul West, the son of Marisol Fuentes, play Paco de Lucia’s rumba “Entre Dos Aguas."
There are two good sushi bars in this district. What’s missing is a good straight Chinese restaurant. The only Chinese restaurant open is aptly and sadly named “Beyond Chinese.” The menu is all yuppified Chinese. Walking past the Cafe Sevilla, I find a closed restaurant that announces itself to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in San Diego. Wong’s. A few blocks down there’s a little old building with Chinese features on it. It’s the Chung Wah Wooey Goon. Down the block is another old building. The Ying Hing Merchants and Labor Association. I feel this room was once two storefronts. And in one had been a Chinese laundry. It’s a feeling, not a fact. The fact is the Gaslamp District used to be Chinatown. All that’s left are a few old men and ghosts. A few years from now, behind the facades of these buildings, behind the antique Chinese signs and attempts at Chinese balconies and awnings, will be who knows what? Art galleries? Antique stores? A surf shop? A coffeehouse?
Night. San Diego. About half past dead. Listen. A Chinaman plays flamenco.
WHERE TO FIND IT
The Journal of Flamenco Artistry, 943 Fifth Street, Suite 6, Santa Monica, CA 90403. Editor Greg Case, a player. News of flamenco haps around the world and often a letter from some American player in Spain. Interviews and reminiscences of the giants in flamenco by their American admirers. Articles and reviews by American flamencos. Circulation around 300 to 400. Subscription: 8 issues for S25 or $3 each, where you can find it.
FLAMENCO RECORDINGS, VIDEOS, BOOKS
CATALINA’S, 8808 Girard Avenue, Suite 160, La Jolla, CA 92037; 454-2356. Ibrahim Hammidi, owner of Catalina’s, was born in Lebanon, came to the U.S. in 1954, got his B.A. in engineering in 1956, his Ph.D. in engineering and applied math in 1961. He worked for IBM in L.A., New York, Europe, Denmark, Paris. He bought property in Spain, in the town of Marbella. He didn’t go to a bullfight until 1979 and was turned off. He waited to see flamenco until he could go with someone who knew it. The event lasted from midnight till 5:00 a.m. And they danced sevillanas. It was his very last and very best day in Spain. “It was nice to have been expanded,” he says. He had to try to find more sevillanas. He searched for Spanish guitar music and found Andfes Segovia. Segovia was okay but something was missing. Then a friend said, “You have to hear Paco de Lucia." And Hammidi asked, “Does he play like Andfes Segovia?” and heard Paco de Lucia play flamenco and was hooked from then on.
The prices are a little higher at Catalina’s than Dan Zeff Guitars for the same CDs, but one can play the music before one buys.
PACO SEVILLA, P.O. Box 40331, San Diego, CA 92164; 470-0971
DAN ZEFF GUITARS, 4165 Empis Street, Woodland Hills, CA; (818) 883-7494; fax (818) 340-1650
THE BLUE GUITAR, 1020 Garnet Avenue, San Diego, CA 92109 (Pacific Beach); 272-2171
PENA ANDALUZA EN CALIFORNIA, 3748 1/2 Jewel Street, San Diego, CA 92109 (Pacific Beach)
aire: tune, melody
alegria: Lively, spirited form of cante
buleria: most flexible form of the cante; either rapid and staccato rhythm or sometimes more stately, variations often identified by city of origin or by type of variation cante: categories of flamenco music that share common characteristics, such as mood, rhythm, origin
copla: segment or verse of a song
carceleras: songs that reflect jail life, originally gypsy songs; not danced or played on guitar feria: carnival, fair
jaleo: intricate, rhythmic palmas, finger-snapping, and shouts of encouragement during performances juerga: a get-together of flamenco aficionados, which includes performances palmas: hand clapping
por martinete: rhythm hammered out on an anvil rasgueado: characteristic “flamenco” rasping, thundering effect achieved by running fingers rapidly over guitar strings
saeta: powerful, moving chant-like form of cante sung during Holy Week; probably Jewish origin; not danced or played
serrana: cante form that tells stories of bandits, smugglers, pirates; somewhat slow, grave, emotional
sevillana: gay, lively form of cante, sometimes danced in pairs, and with several singers; popular, spontaneous style of flamenco danced during Seville’s street fairs
siguiriya: cante form considered most intensely physical and emotional; expression of unfalsified emotions engendered by love, hate, jealousy, persecution, tenderness, etc.
soleares: a personal, reflective, or solemn cante form
tablao: flamenco nightclub; literally, a wooden platform
zapateado: dancer’s footwork
zarzuela: Spanish musical comedy
(Adapted from Pohren: The Art of Flamenco)