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Diego Amaya Flores del Gastor
Photo © David George


The Mass Delusion of the Gringos and Guiris:
Diego del Gastor, Morón de la Frontera
and the Foreign Phenomenon

An essay by Brook Zern

Americans are a strange people. Naive. Gullible. Drug-addled. Hopelessly romantic. Easily manipulated by clever marketing, or deluded by the hype of cynical myth-makers.

That must be why a bunch of us, along with some other foreign flamenco aficionados, found ourselves in the dusty Andalusian town of Morón de la Frontera in the 1960's, in dark bars and dingy rooms, listening spellbound to the guitar of Diego del Gastor as he played for extraordinary singers, or for us, or for himself.

We believed that this man, more than any other guitarist, could express something fundamental about flamenco — something that revealed the incandescent and transcendent truth of this incomparable art.

We had heard other fine players, of course. Before we fully understood the magnificence of flamenco song — the true heart of the art — we had fallen in love with flamenco through the music of those acclaimed geniuses.

My case may be representative. I had studied the virtuoso styles of Sabicas and Mario Escudero in New York, then gone to Spain to find Pepe Martinez, Nino Ricardo, Perico del Lunar, Juan Maya, Manuel Morao, Melchor de Marchena and other giants of the tradition.

I treasured their great music, and always would. But when I heard Diego del Gastor, it seemed that I was hearing the flamenco guitar for the first time.

It was an eerie feeling — and yet I'd experienced this first-time sensation once before. It was at a bullfight in Seville, with a notoriously erratic matador named Curro Romero. Witnessing Romero on that magical afternoon, the eye of the mind dilated; time was mysteriously suspended; the event seemed to happen on a different plane, vastly more real than mere reality; it was at once joyous and terrifying.

For me — for many of us — the music of Diego del Gastor had this same effect. This was simply flamenco guitar of a different order.

Or so it seemed. Now, of course, some experts who were not there insist we were merely confused.

Many outstanding artists and respected authorities in Spain — people who certainly know more about flamenco than I and whom I deeply respect — insist that the whole phenomenon of Diego and Morón was absurdly overblown. Oh, he had a certain way with his simple music, they say, but really he was nothing special.

They say that there were surely other guitarists in other towns who played just as well or better, and who could have convinced us — gullible as we were — that they were equally special.

Or they say that we were seduced by marketing tricks. After all, they say, it was an American who first wrote that Diego was a rare genius, and we foolishly assumed it was true. As for Diego's other foibles — his refusal to accept a recording offer from the prestigious Philips label, his insistence on remaining near Morón, his unwillingness to audition for promoters and join the professional circuit to be judged by countless artists and aficionados — surely, they say, these were just cunning ploys intended to build an undeserved legend.

Or that we were simply susceptible to Diego's undeniable personal charm — that perhaps it was an obvious dignity, a generosity of spirit, an indomitable independence, a willingness to share his wealth of deep humanity, a personal charisma that led us to believe his music must be as extraordinary as he was.

Or that we were simply victims of a delusion — a bunch of hippies, too high on hashish or LSD to know what was happening. Yet some of us didn't use any drugs, or even drink wine, so perhaps it was something in the water that made us believe that this man and his music were beyond brilliant.

Or that we simply didn't know how to listen, or what to listen for. Diego's accompaniment of singers was too insistent, assertive, even intrusive, they say. He didn't know his place. Instead of assuming a strictly secondary role, they say he brought the guitar so far forward that he reduced the singer's capacity to express the powerful truth of the flamenco's central element, the song.

Or they say Diego was a very limited guitarist. They note that he tended to play just a few of flamenco's many forms — mainly the soleares, siguiriyas and bulerías that were dominant in Morón — and rarely played dozens of others in which he had little interest. They say his technique, too, was limited. He thumbed lines to punch out runs where others might use tremolos or other more sophisticated techniques. He didn't play amazingly fast, he didn't play very many notes, he rarely used the upper register of the guitar.

Or that his music was insular, antiquated, failing to draw on the latest trends and currents in the music of the rest of the world. He never used the sophisticated chord inversions, suspensions and substitutions from jazz and rock and bossa nova, or the new scales and complex counter-rhythms that would soon change forever the sound and essence of flamenco guitar, virtually eradicating his style and all the other styles that came before.

Ah, well. It seems that we, the innocent and impressionable gringos and other foreigners or guiris who studied with and loved Diego del Gastor in Morón, were simply fooled. We just didn't know any better. It seems we simply succumbed to a rare form of mass hysteria. We fell for a romantic story, and wasted years learning inferior guitar music.

And yet...

And yet sometimes, when I remember Diego del Gastor with Fernanda de Utrera, playing for her eternal soleá all night and far into the next day, following every word and line, pushing her beyond her always immense emotive reach, Fernanda, radiant, seeming to glow from inside, the two of them lost in a strange feedback loop, a symbiotic lock that carried them to ever-higher expressive peaks...

...or accompanying Manolito de la María, the owner of the soleá de Alcalá, with the enormous respect and support that this singer needed, punctuating the verses with a few sparse falsetas that revealed the heart and soul of the soleá...

...or accompanying Juan Talega, his toque exactly reflecting the gravity and depth of Talega's immense siguiriyas and soleares that seemed to erupt from the core of the earth like magma...

...or working with Joselero, his brother-in-law, who loved confronting this singular guitar in a mano-a-mano challenge where both men knew every nuance of the other's expressive capabilities...

...or intensifying the eerie, bottomless echo of the tragic deep song of Perrate, or El Lebrijano, or La Piriñaca, or El Chocolate; or bouncing his astounding uptempo bulerías falsetas against the sheer exuberance of great festeros like Miguel Funi or Fernandillo or Ansonini, carrying their songs and dances into realms that went beyond joy...

...or accompanying inexperienced or weak singers, when he deliberately faded into the strictly secondary guiding role that some consider the only proper role for any guitarist in any circumstance.

...or playing solo, playing for no one, playing for himself, playing for our tape recorders, playing from some distant past into some distant future, ceaselessly seeking exactly the right touch, exactly the right note, exactly the right chord, exactly the right sound, and sometimes finding it all, all at once...

Then I recall that his music embodied its own kind of fusion. Instead of trying to mix disparate musical traditions from different countries, Diego blended different aspects of Andalusia's flamenco tradition: the old and new, the lyrical and the direct, the timeless and the timely, the sad and the joyful. He believed — no, he knew for a fact — that Andalusia did not need any help from Brazil or Beirut, New Orleans or New York or New Delhi, to create valid and good flamenco. These alien elements might increase a guitarist's popularity, of course — but Diego never cared how popular his music might be.

I recall that the result was always, always uniquely and utterly his own, totally original, seemingly effortless, constantly evolving, and imbued with his own unmistakable personal stamp — un sello propio e inconfundible, to use the Spanish phrase. There were hundreds of distinctive falsetas, but his art had only one function: the direct transmission of pure feeling and sheer emotion.

And sometimes, remembering all this, I think that perhaps those of us who fell into the orbit of Diego del Gastor and Morón de la Frontera were not really fooled at all; that this man really was the finest flamenco guitarist we would ever hear; and that we were simply fortunate beyond measure to be at that place at that time, and it really doesn't matter what anyone else may say.

Journalist Brook Zern, who has written about flamenco in The New York Times, Guitar Review and many other American and Spanish publications, is a guitar aficionado dividing his time between New York and Andalusia. He is the director of the Flamenco Center USA, and frequently speaks about the art on radio programs and at cultural conferences, music festivals and universities.

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