For anyone who plays flamenco guitar, going to Spain is like climbing aboard the mother ship. You're not sure what they're going to do to you there, but you know you're going to be talking about it incessantly. So let me tell you about my trip.
Katerina and I decided to arrange some time in Spain that would allow us to study as much flamenco guitar and dance as possible. After much planning and correspondence on the Internet, we managed to create a 13-week trip with 12 weeks of classes in three different cities.
Our studies began with the Córdoba Guitar Festival. For two weeks a year, Córdoba becomes Guitar Town. There are concerts, lectures, expositions, and classes in flamenco and classical guitar, flamenco dance, guitar building, composition, and performance. The town swarms with students from Europe, the Americas, and Asia, all there to study with some of the best teachers in the world in a casual atmosphere. The largest contingent of students are those who come to take part in Manolo Sanlúcar's course "Naturaleza y Forma de la Guitarra Flamenco" (Nature and Form of the Flamenco Guitar). Sanlúcar is on a mission to create a fully developed flamenco guitar pedagogy. Each year in Córdoba, and in smaller classes in his hometown of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, he presents a continually evolving course that includes lectures on the roots of flamenco, instruction in flamenco technique, and one-on-one lessons in a master class setting.
This year there were 40 of us. Before arriving, we had all submitted taped samples of our playing that Sanlúcar used to separate us into four levels. I was fortunate enough to be classed in the highly coveted second-from-the-bottom level. Sanlúcar shared the teaching duties with fellow flamenco guitarists Manolo Franco and José Antonio Rodriguez. Each group of students rotated among the various teachers so that all the students got to work with all the teachers. Franco and Rodriguez taught us introductions to three rítmico palos--alegrías, bulerías, and soleáres--and three arrítimico palos--malagueñas, tarantas, and grana'inas.. The week ended with classes in which students worked on accompanying a singer and a dancer. In the afternoons, Sanlúcar taught us technical exercises and flamenco history and conducted an ongoing master class. Each student would play until he or she had done something that merited a discussion.
The cruel alphabet forced me to go second in the master class. I played two pieces. On the first, I did better than I thought; on the second, worse than I thought. I won't tell you what I did that merited a discussion, but I'll never do it again. Ever.
Aside from this intensive flamenco course, there were shorter courses that were equally fascinating. Leo Brouwer taught a seminar in composition for the guitar. Lutenist Paul O'Dette taught a course in Renaissance and Baroque music for lute and vihuela. Francisco Santiago Marín taught a course in guitar construction that turned into a course in emergency repair when one student dropped his brand-new instrument.
As intense as our days studying were, our nights were equally intense. There were concerts by artists including Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Paul O'Dette, flamenco dancer Sara Baras, flamenco/fusion group Radio Tarifa, flamenco singer Estrella Morente, classical guitarists Manuel Barrueco and Pepe Romero, and, of course, Manolo Sanlúcar. All concerts were free or cheap to students.
After those ten days in Córdoba, we took the train to Granada where we'd signed up for two weeks of classes at Carmen de las Cuevas (Garden of the Caves), a language and flamenco school in the Alta Albaicín, the ancient Gypsy quarter on a hill facing the Alhambra. Flamenco dance and guitar lessons are actually conducted inside the two caves. In front of the caves are rooms built to accommodate other classes and the office. Language classes are conducted in a series of rooms built into the hill above the caves.
About ten of us studied for two hours a day with Alfredo Mesa, a talented young guitarist who lives and works in the neighborhood. The students came from Spain, Europe, and the U.S., some studying both guitar and the Spanish language at the same time.
In two weeks Mesa taught us a fandango and an alegrías and presented a number of technical exercises. For our final exam, we played the fandango and accompanied a dancer in the alegrías. The class was at an "intermediate" level, which is more like "advanced beginning" in U.S. terms. The advanced classes are all at a very high professional level, and in between intermediate and advanced are private lessons.
Much of the pleasure of studying in Granada comes simply from living there. The accommodations the school arranges are in homes in the neighborhood, some of which are free-standing buildings with courtyards or patios, some that include rooms that are partial caves. Many of the roads in the area are too steep or narrow for cars. You get the sense that you've entered a very ancient way of life that just happens to include MTV and a washing machine.There are small buses to take you down to the central city or up the opposite hill to the Alhambra, the palace fortress the Moors left in 1492.
The last and longest leg of our stay was in Jerez de la Frontera in western Andalusia. Jerez is known equally well for its wine (it's where the word sherry comes from), its horses, and its flamenco. Notwithstanding all that Córdoba and Granada have to offer, Jerez is the most intensely flamenco town I've ever been in. Whereas other towns have places where you can find great flamenco, in Jerez great flamenco finds you. You can't avoid it. There are at least a couple of first-class concerts every week as well as shows put on by a dozen local peñas (clubs), and, if all else fails, bars where you can find impromptu jam sessions.
We had arranged for an apartment and lessons through Duendelenguas, an immersion language school that offers lessons in Spanish and arranges flamenco guitar, dance, or singing lessons as well as accommodation. Katerina signed up for a series of workshops with five different teachers, while I signed up for seven weeks of lessons with Manuel Lozano, "El Carbonero."
El Carbonero's guitar shop and studio face each other across Calle San Miguel near the center of Jerez. In the shop you can buy guitars, tapes, books, cajóns, and accessories. Across the street, his studio is laid out to match the inspired chaos of his teaching method. You enter the practice room directly from the street and sit down in one of the two rows of chairs arranged against the walls. There can be up to ten students at once, beginners and advanced, Spaniards and foreigners, children and adults, everyone banging away at their guitars. The cacophony occasionally draws in passing tourists. El Carbonero teaches at the far end of the room, behind soundproof glass.
Calling students in one by one, he shows them each a short piece of music to work on--no scores, no workbooks, just him playing something and you playing it back, or trying to. He jokes, mocks, teases, shouts, and wills you into playing the passage correctly. Somehow you do get it almost right and he sends you back out into the practice room to practice amid the noise of all the others. Within a two-hour period you might be in and out of the studio four times, the last time to record Carbonero playing the passage himself so you can work on it at home and be ready to present it the next day.
The school is open for three-hour sessions each morning and afternoon. You can sign up for one hour a week or six hours a day--however much you think you can stand. I went for two hours a day and learned a combination of solos and vocal accompaniment patterns. I got to try out what I'd learned at the weekly accompaniment class. The class sits in a circle and each student in turn enters the hot seat next to the singer, Nazaret Soto or her sister Aroa, and accompanies a traditional form. You accompany the best you can while El Carbonero pushes or pulls you along with his guitar. It's the only such class I've ever heard of and an extraordinary chance to learn to work with singers.
I realize that I haven't even mentioned that in all of these cities, the classes were entirely in Spanish. That's probably because it doesn't matter that much. Although it helps to know at least some Spanish, it's not absolutely necessary since the subject is the guitar. The teacher plays and you imitate. In the group classes, there's always someone bilingual enough to help you out.