Spanish guitarist Paco Peña (born 1942) is known for his continued contributions to and explorations of flamenco music. He has recorded frequently, but appears to be in his element when performing in front of an audience, which could be anywhere throughout the world.
Acoustic Guitar noted in a 2002 interview that Peña "is known all over the world for the depth and intelligence of his music and for the breadth of his work as a collaborator, composer, and producer. His primary vehicle has always been the flamenco cuadro, a small ensemble including guitar, singers and dancers and his primary focus has always been on flamenco puro, pure flamenco… . However, he has never treated flamenco as something to be kept sacrosanct and separate from other forms of music and has shared the bill with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Joe Pass to Leo Kottke."
Childhood Devoted to Learning Guitar
Peña was born in Cordóba, Spain, in 1942 and grew up in Andalucía. He was one of nine children, one brother and seven sisters included. Peña recalled in that same Acoustic Guitar interview that his "mother had a vegetable stall in the market. We lived in a Casa de Vecinos, a house shared by about ten families. We had one very small room upstairs, and one room downstairs. The families lived in various bits of the house and we all shared one toilet and one kitchen," he said. "In that situation, people made their own entertainment, and the kind of entertainment they made was a kind of flamenco or whatever was going on in the popular music of the time. The inclination of any young child was to join in."
Peña explained this music to the UCLA Daily Bruin, "Flamenco is similar to the blues… . It has a tinge of sadness, an element of fight and rebellion. It is pain and suffering with explosions of great happiness. It is a symbol of Spain."
Peña's brother had begun playing guitar, which prompted him to start playing as well. Peña was not formally tutored in the art of guitar; he learned from his brother or friends and neighbors. He joined in with whomever was playing or singing in the neighborhood for fun. Peña was inspired by other musicians he heard on the radio, namely Elvis Presley and Paul Anka. His desire was to emulate them and other successful musicians.
His only musical education came at age nine, when he joined a rondalla, or folk ensemble. He contends his future successes were directly correlated to his desire and talent, which made others in the community invite him to play or participate in concerts. Peña was playing guitar whenever he could with whomever would ask him to play or accompany them.
Peña told Acoustic Guitar, "the thing was to just join in and make mistakes. That's the way you learn flamenco. I don't want to sound sad or dramatic, but I didn't have any money for lessons. I had a friend, about my age, who played guitar in the market square. He had a teacher. He was learning bits from his teacher and I was learning bits from him. You try to absorb what you can."
By some accounts, Peña began his professional career at the age of 12. He was involved in a government program designed to keep the traditions of various folk music and dances in Spain alive. It was during tours throughout Spain, as a part of this program, that he was hired to tour with a flamenco company. Peña was still attending school, but two years later, he was forced to leave school to help the family. He worked for a notary and in a hardware store while continuing to play.
Knowing that he wanted to pursue a career as a flamenco guitarist, he left for Madrid, then played clubs in the Costa Brava. Performers playing in the Costa Brava had a relatively easy life which consisted of playing guitar each night for about an hour-and-a-half. Days were spent meeting women at the beach and eating good food, but that was not enough.
Embarked on Career as Soloist
During a tour, he had been asked to perform a solo, which was atypical within the Spanish flamenco tradition. Peña began to wonder about the possibility of becoming a successful solo performer. In retrospect, he told the UCLA Daily Bruin in 1996 that his experience as part of a company left him "disillusioned." He says he "expected people to be perfect, which was stupid, and when I saw that some people were not seeking artistic endeavors, I felt I was wasting my time and decided to play on my own." As for the transition to performing solo, he says it was "all quite by accident."
Peña ultimately moved to London with a flamenco company at the age of 24. Recalling his only solo appearance, the guitarist was tentative about performing alone, but says everything fell into place quickly. "I had a job waiting for me when I arrived. I was the main attraction at Restaurante Antonio in Covent Garden in London. Of course, my intention was to push on. Eventually, a manager saw me and one thing led to another," he told Acoustic Guitar. "I was fascinated with the idea of being a professional, of being able to convince [an audience] with what I was doing."
One of his first big performances was at a "guitar in" at London's Royal Festival Hall. Jimi Hendrix was the headlining performer. Peña made his solo debut at Wigmore Hall, also in London. Of that performance, Peña told Mixdown Monthly that he was "quite unprepared for the experience of that event. It was very dramatic, because I was quite young, and in a way quite innocent about showbiz and all that."
About this same time, he began learning technique from other guitarists, both classical and flamenco. He ultimately decided he needed to change his playing technique dramatically in order to improve his playing. Among the other players whom he credits as inspiration include Niño Ricardo, Ramón Montoya—who had been long dead, but whose recordings were an important learning tool—, and Sabicas. "I didn't learn directly from them, but everything I played was in a way touched by their music. But it was always trying to be my music," he told Acoustic Guitar. "I studied their music, listening to their recordings. I discovered a lot about their personalities through their music, what motivated them, and I fell in love, even more strongly, with their contribution."
Attained Notoriety Abroad and at Home
In 1970, he organized his first flamenco touring company named Flamenco Puro. Since, he has been continually active in creating learning and performing opportunities for those interested in flamenco. He is the founder of a course leading to a degree in flamenco guitar at the Conservatory of Rotterdam, in which he is still actively involved. Peña founded the International Guitar Festival in Cordóba in 1980. His newest troupe, Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company has toured throughout the world in various productions, each of which seems to generate critical acclaim for their dance and music fusion.
The Connecticut Classical Guitar Society in announcing a performance called Peña not simply a guitarist and composer, but also "dramatist, producer and artistic mentor" who "embodies both authenticity and innovation in flamenco." For five consecutive years, readers of American Guitar magazine voted Peña as "Best Flamenco Guitarist of the Year."
In a 1994 review in American Record Guide, William Ellis called Peña "simply the finest flamenco guitarist of his generation: breath-taking technique, passion to spare, and an ear for compositional improvisation few peers can match." Ellis also wrote that although "Paco De Lucia may have the name from his cross-over forays into jazz and pop …Peña is the real deal, committed to the purity of cante flamenco." Ironically, it was Peña who was named one of Billboard magazine's Top 10 Crossover Artists of 1988.
Peña composes almost all the music he plays. Perhaps his best known work to date is Misa Flamenco, a flamenco-styled mass commissioned for a festival of religious music held in Poland. The piece was performed in collaboration with other flamenco artists as well as the renown Choir of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a renowned British choral group, in 1991. It was later seen at the 1992 EXPO in Seville, Spain, then in worldwide performances. In 1997 Peña was given the Oficial de la Cruz de la Orden del Merito Civil by Spain's King Juan Carlos.
Remained True to Flamenco
In a 2002 review of his Paco Peña Dance Company's Voces y Ecos or Voices and Echoes, UK reviewer Nadine Meisner wrote in the Independent that the production is "a perfect fusion of flamenco connoisseurship and stage knowhow." Of this same show, Sanjoy Roy wrote in The Guardian that it "is no picture-postcard tour of gypsy exotica… . Instead, it realises Peža's open vision of flamenco's diversity while remaining true to its soul."
Reviewers have also noted with performances such as these by Paco Peña, "the dark soul of flamenco … is not just safe but vibrantly alive," Jenny Gilbert commented in the Independent. "Despite appearances—the man is small, quiet, and cuts an almost absurdly modest figure hunched over his instrument on stage—the Cordóba-born musician knows just where to locate the [essence] of his native art form."
Peña told Mixdown Magazine in 1999 he owns about 20 guitars "because through the years I have gone buying guitars, hoping to find something really good." The one he plays most is a Spanish guitar built by Gerundino that he plays "endlessly, and still enjoy[s] it the most." Many of his instruments are custom-made. Peña prefers an instrument that combines the best of the flamenco style guitar and classical guitar. These have very different sounds and construction. "It's sort of intimate and difficult to explain, but fundamentally what is important is the sound." He goes on to say, "some guitars sing to you, and some may sound very loud but don't have the sweet quality that you want to express."
Life-Long Loves: Musical Collaboration, Travel
Peña has been very frank about his life-long love for playing—or, as he calls it, "linking"—with other performers. He says this linking is a creative recharging and learning process. He has played with a variety of other individuals and groups from a wide variety of backgrounds and musical traditions, including Inti-Illimani, a Chilean group; John Williams; and Peter Gabriel.
Peña makes his home in London, but still has family in Córdoba, where he keeps a second home. He told the UCLA Daily Bruin he enjoys touring. "Traveling exposes you to different people from whom you can learn. My travel experiences come back to my music. In fact, everything inspires my musical compositions. Flamenco deals with serious emotions of mankind, and I feel I am in tune with my music in that sense."
American Record Guide, May-June 1994.
Europe Intelligence Wire (From The Guardian ), October 22, 2002.
Europe Intelligence Wire (From The Independent ), October 21, 2002.
"Interview with Paco Peña," reposted from Acoustic Guitar, May 2000, http://www.mojacarflamenco.com/pacopena.html (January 22, 2003).
"MUSIC: Mixed music and dance troupe to captivate audiences at Wadsworth," UCLA Daily Bruin, November 15, 1996, http://www.dailybruin.ucla.edu/db/issues/96/11.15/ae.pena.html (January 27, 2003).
"Paco Peña: Beyond the Frets of Mortal Man," Mixdown Monthly, October 6, 1999, http://www.users.bigpond.com/apertout/Pe%F1a2.htm (January 27, 2003).
"Paco Peña Brings Flamenco Troupe Here," Northwestern University News Release, November 18, 2002, http://www.northwestern.edu/univ-relations/media_relations/releases/11_2002/pacopena_text (January 21, 2003).
"Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company: Paco Peña—Guitarist,"Connecticut Classical Guitar Society, http://www.ccgs.org/concerts02/paco.html (January 27, 2003).
"Paco Peña," Flamenco World website, http://www.flamencoworld.com/autores/resena.sql?idautor=244 (January 21, 2003).
"Well, at least it sounds good…, " Independent UK, October 20, 2002 http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/theatre/reviews/story.jsp?story=344684 (January 27, 2003).