A fiesta, a sunlit terrace, on the beach or by the fireside, the gentle lilt of a guitar drifts through the air. The warm tones of the instrument draw a group of like-minded souls to bond in mutual appreciation of the music. This is an idyllic image that seduces many a romantic visitor to Spain, the birthplace of the modern acoustic guitar. However, the sound doesn’t always tally with the image, and years may be required to learn to produce those sounds. Fortunately, Barcelona is a great place to take a few lessons, be they beginner or advanced, sharpen skills and immerse yourself in guitar culture.
First thing to do is get hold of a guitar. The New Phono store, at Carrer Ample, 35-40, in the Barri Gòtìc, has been selling all kinds of musical instruments for 170 years. The walls are lined with hundreds of guitars that range in price from just under 90 euros to almost 6,000 euros, explained Simon. While the absolute beginner will probably be advised to purchase something towards the lower end of the price scale, the staff suggest that an enthusiast will probably have to spend around 500 euros for a good guitar. They will also help would-be guitarists to choose an instrument according to the type of music they wish to play.
The basic difference between the Spanish classical guitar and one more suited to playing flamenco is the depth of the body and the type of wood. Classical guitars are deeper with a denser, heavier construction, and a smoother more full-bodied sound, while flamenco guitars produce a brighter, more percussive sound, characteristic of the music. Often a flamenco guitar will also feature a pick-guard due to the more aggressive nature of the way it is played. The strings of a modern flamenco or classical guitar are made of a nylon fibre, and neither sheep nor cat gut is called into service in the name of the musicians’ art.
Once furnished with the guitar of choice, it is recommended that the aspiring John Williams or Paco de Lucía find a good teacher and take a few lessons. This year the Taller de Músics on the Carrer Requesens, among the maze of narrow streets above the Rambla del Raval, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It is a haven for musicians of all disciplines and standards, from beginners to professionals. Here they teach flamenco, jazz, latin, rock and blues guitar to budding Buddy Hollies and wanna-be Juan Serranos. The creativity spills out into the street and across to the Jazz Sí club, the Taller’s own café/performance space, which is open to the public every day of the week hosting live performances by students, professors and invited artists.
Antonio Zarco, who leads the flamenco department, said that students come from all over the world, from Japan to Jerez (a town with a reasonable claim to be the birth place of flamenco), to study guitar at the Taller. Some are the children of a generation of Andalucians who immigrated to Catalunya, and who want to connect with the culture of their parents’ homeland. He noted that although students come from a wide range of backgrounds there are still few female students. This, he said, is more likely to be due to custom rather than the suggestion that somehow they lack the strength to play such a forceful type of music. He pointed out that the dancers, the majority of whom are women, require just as much physical and emotional strength as the musicians to perform, and added that, of course, women are welcome to study at the Taller. He said that the intuitive teaching method of flamenco is more akin to that of jazz than classical guitar, which is more disciplined and methodical. Classes are one-on-one and typically consist of an hour’s instruction per week over a three-month period, although the Taller does offer some more intensive courses during the summer.
Further away from the centre of Barcelona, in the city’s Nou Barris, is the brand new, custom designed studio of Joaquín Herrera. Born and raised in the flamenco heartland of Cadiz, in Andalucia, he began playing the guitar seriously at the tender age of just 12 years old. Ever since then he has been dedicated to the development of his own personal style of playing. While he described this as flamenco in its purest and most traditional form, he said that this simply means that it is unadulterated by other types of music rather than an antiquated, stagnant art form. On the contrary, he pointed out that because it is a vibrant, living form of expression reflecting the physical and emotional struggles and joys of daily life, each artist inevitably brings their own personality to the music.
One of the key elements of flamenco culture that he focuses on is the accompaniment of the cantaor or singer. Indeed, during live performances the guitarist together with the dancers, cajon player and palmeros all follow the singer who dictates the mood of the performance. Herrera explains how the palmeros clap and the cajon player beat out the intricate rhythms, or compas, on a special box. As well as teaching these fundamental elements of flamenco, he also tries to help his students to capture and be captured by the spirit of flamenco-el duende.
El duende has variously been described as flamenco’s soul-fire, its elusive and delirious essence, the trance-like fixation, or haunting feeling one may experience while enjoying a flamenco performance, an inner spirit that is released as a result of a performer’s intense emotional involvement with the music, song and dance.
Whether you have it or not, the guitar can be a source of pleasure and relaxation for you and those around you. Stop walking by your neighbourhood music store. Take the time to stop and go in. Look over their guitars, heft one, strum its strings, see what it has to say to you, and what it might allow you to say to others. Then, perhaps one night at a fiesta on a sunlit terrace, or a beach by the fire…