“The key [to success] is to have been born like a Gypsy. I’ve had the childhood of a Gypsy child.” It’s rare to hear anyone boast about such an upbringing but those are the words of Paco de Lucía, the world’s most renowned flamenco guitarist, who died in Mexico yesterday.
Though he grew up around Gitanos (the Romani community in Spain), the famed musician – born Francisco Sánchez Gómez – wasn’t actually one of them. And yet his art brought Romani culture into the mainstream. In a country where less than a decade ago 40 per cent of people still admitted they would be “extremely” bothered to have Gypsy neighbours, his legacy matters not only in wider cultural terms but also to the community that taught him his craft.
It would be simplistic and unfair to reduce Spain’s Romani people to musical folklore. And yet in the 1960s, at the time when Paco de Lucía started recording his first albums, flamenco itself was shunned – much like the community it is so closely tied to. His father, a guitarist too, struggled to make ends meet, performing at private parties for the wealthy of Andalusia. And, despite training for hours on end as a child, Paco de Lucía never learned to read music. Even after receiving Spain’s highest cultural distinction – the Prince of Asturias Award for Arts – he still needed to memorise each of the songs he wanted to play. In that sense, his success lies not only in the fact that he made Gypsy music known to the world, but in that he also managed to make Spain proud of previously outcast know-how.
Of course, Paco de Lucía’s life is much more than just a tale of Gypsy success. As an artist he repeatedly tested the boundaries of traditional flamenco, crossing over into classical, jazz and even country music. At the end of his career he had been praised as a musical revolutionary far beyond Spanish folk music both at home and abroad. And yet his sound always kept the nostalgic, volatile quality of flamenco Gitano.
The Gypsy community has lost one of its finest ambassadors, and its most beautiful voice.
Daphnée Denis is a producer for Monocle 24.