Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A flamenco master

The Spanish flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela was in Egypt for only two days, but Reham El-Adawi managed to spend some time with him

A flamenco master
A flamenco master
Al-Ahram Weekly

The flamenco guitar virtuoso Pepe Habichuela commemorated his 60th birthday with a concert tour that started in Cairo and moved onto Beirut and Amman. Born José Antonio Carmona, Pepe is known by a combination of his nickname with the name of his grandfather, Habichuela. His troupe, who accompanied him to the Cairo Opera House Small Hall thanks to the Cervantes Institute’s organisational acumen, includes a singer, Rafita de Madrid, a dancer, Karen Lugo and a percussionist, Bandolero. Together they mesmerised the Small Hall. Pepe’s playing was vivid and vigorous, Rafita’s powerful voice and Karen’s sensual performance complemented it perfectly along with the vibrant beats of Bandolero. 

Pepe, who has been playing for over 40 years, says that of all his audiences the Japanese have proved the most “perfect”. Not only because the young in Japan love and play the guitar, but also, he says, “a lot of the Japanese people I met learned Spanish so as to know how to sing flamenco; they are very hard workers and love Spanish flamenco so much.” He added that he was thrilled to see Turkish people respond emotionally to his performance when he gave his first concert ever in Istanbul. “I believe that flamenco is one of the most respected musical genres in the entire world.” And so, playing alongside such jazz musicians as Dave Holland and Don Cherry, Pepe had a largely positive experience. “I am not specialised in jazz and actually it is the jazz musicians who approached me to create this fantastic mélange between jazz and flamenco guitar. Black jazz, performed by black Americans, has got links with the flamenco guitar music, so I gave a number of concerts across Europe.” 

Pepe also collaborated with Indian musicians, including the British-Indian composer and producer Nitin Sawhney, whose work combines Asian influences with elements of jazz and electronica, Indian sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar (the half-sister of jazz singer Norah Jones) and the Bollywood Strings band, and his feeling is that “the rhythm of Indian music is entirely different from Spanish music, still Indian musicians adopt it because it adds a very special flavour to their music when combined with it. It’s an internationally appealing music genre. What makes the Bollywood Strings band unique is that they perform golden classics and the latest Bollywood songs without the conventional band setup of keyboards, drum kits etc, and their music has a great, vibrant blend of western and ethnic vibes”. A six-member band comprising three classically trained vocalists and three musicians playing guitar, bass guitar and cajon/dholak, the Bollywood Strings have a combined musical experience of over 150 years covering different genres. “Within their repertoire of songs they have used the western style of A-cappella and produced amazing versions of Hindi songs...” 

Compared to classical guitarists, “flamenco guitarists focus on the various rhythmic variations and chord changes needed for flamenco song forms. They learn to embellish a singer’s melody or create nice chord (harmonic) changes to dramatise a singer’s verse. There are many things to learn about each song form, and flamenco guitarists spend a lot of time learning how to create the right feel or texture for each. On the other hand, classical guitarists develop a much softer touch in every technique, developing excellent reading skills as well as a detailed understanding of the aesthetic and appropriate interpretation for music of each period whether early Baroque, classical or contemporary,” Pepe explains. Gypsy music is theoretically not the same as flamenco, Pepe goes on to explain, but it is “so deeply rooted in history and it is so well mixed with flamenco that today both are almost the same”. 

“One of the major differences between the two kind of guitarists is emphasis. While classical relies on melody and harmony, flamenco relies on rhythm. In flamenco, rhythm is usually far more important than executing a nice melody. In classical, you can get by not playing the rhythm as well, but playing the melody or harmony well. Flamenco guitarists are typically able to improvise within a song form, taking a certain flash of technique and contrasting it with another, or learning different chord progressions to solo, over or within. Classical guitarists, and this is only a generalisation, don’t spend much of their time learning to improvise. There are always exceptions though.” Pepe himself is a student of Enrique Morente. “I owe hima lot for teaching me all about the traditional flamenco guitar and how to feel the songs while Sabica, who was a guitar genius and passed away ten years ago, taught me two types of flamenco called seguidillas and alegrias as he gained his fame for playing them...”

Pepe has given concerts in Dubai, Kuwait and Amman but this is his first visit to Cairo and Beirut. “Unfortunately, I have very limited time on this tour because I just arrived yesterday and today I will present my concert at the Cairo Opera House and will be heading for Beirut tomorrow morning, so I didn’t have any time to visit Egypt’s remarkable historical sites or tourist attractions. Next time, it will be as a tourist that I come to Egypt.”

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