Back to guitar page
Interviewed by Paul Magnussen (Aug 1982)
"When I was growing up, nobody had heard of Sabicas, because he was living in America, but one day a record of his appeared in the shops, called Flamenco Puro, which created a fantastic stir among all the guitarists. His stunning precision and his ambitious musical ideas, and above all, the ability to do with his fingers everything that he thought, and do it so well, actually put the flamenco guitar on a new plane."
This tribute from Paco Pena ('Guitar', Jan '80) is a fair description of the impact of a man who has become truly a legend in his own time.
Agustin Castellon was gypsy-born in Pamplona, Navarre, in 1917. He began playing guitar when he was only five years old, making his first appearance in public at the age of nine at the Teatro Ballare, where soldiers swore the Oath of Allegiance. Shortly after this he went to Madrid with his family and began his artistic career, taking his stage-name (with a twist of humour) -from the phonetic sound of his nickname: as a child he was very fond of broad beans (haba in Spanish), and always went about with a pocketful. Thus he became known as 'Las Habicas (Little Beans).
For the next ten years he played his guitar all over Spain. Then in 1935 he went to Buenos Aires with his family where he found Carmen Amaya. He was her guitarist for the next decade (including her sensational New York debut in 1942 which catapulted her to international stardom), touring with her throughout North and South America. When Miss Amaya returned to Spain in 1945, Sabicas stayed on in Latin America for another ten years, giving concerts in the Latin capitals and working in a number of films. Then, in 1955, he moved on to New York. He finally returned to Spain for the first time in more than thirty years in the summer of 1967 to attend the fourth Week of Flamenco studies which was part of the National Plan of Spanish Festivals. During the festival, he was awarded the Medal of the Week, a recognition that has been given only to two others, Pastora Iperla and Manolo Caracol.
In 1968 he visited England for the first and only time, playing to a capacity audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall that seemed like a Who's Who of the British guitar world.
Today Sabicas lives in the Spanish-speaking part of Manhattan, three blocks from his friend, cousin and colleague, Mario Escudero. Although now semi-retired, his powers are still undiminished, as evinced at a recent sellout concert at New York Town Hall, when the audience demanded five encores and gave him a standing ovation.
At my expressions of interest, Sabicas recalled his youth in Madrid, where he heard and met all the great artists of the time.
"There was a very good restaurant especially for flamencos, called Villa Rosa - this was around 1930 or All the great artists were there, Juanito Mojama, Jose Cepero, guitarists Perico el del Lunar, Manolo & Pepe de Bardajoz Antonio Perez Antonio Chacon was there too, although I never saw him, I just heard his records. Ramon Montoya was family of ours, on my mother's side. We grew up with him: I used to go to Villa Rosa and we played together. I knew him very well. Later I also met Nino Gloria and Aurelio de Cadiz and all the greatest singers of that time.
In Seville I met Manuel Torre, and Nina de los Peines whose husband Pepe Pinto engaged me for her company. There has been no great singer than Nina de los Pienes, everybody loved her. She and her brother Tomas were both superb artists, they're remembered as the greatest in flamenco.
Manuel Torre at his best was marvellous, historically he was the greatest of them all - at least up to the present. But flamenco is not always the same, sometimes when you think you're worst is when you're actually best. And when you really want to be great is when you can't do anything right, whether it's singing, dancing or guitar. So you-never know when it's going to be good. Also, in public you have to sing in a different way. In a juerga, in private, that's the situation when the artist gives everything he's got, when (if he's feeling good) he will really let go. In public you can't experiment to see if something will come off.
Manuel Torre was a man who sang very badly twenty nine days a month, and then suddenly for one hour he was the greatest of the lot."
Did you know Nino Ricardo?
Nino Ricardo and I practically grew up together. I met him when I was a child, the first time I saw Nina de los Peines, Ricardo was accompanying her. So we discovered each other, and after that we were always like brothers, always together. He was a great guitarist, who always played very well with tremendous feeling, and a marvellous person too.
Your styles of playing are quite different, though.
Yes, at that time the guitar, as much as singing and dancing, was very personal. Any guitarist you heard, you could always identify his individual style - they were all different from each other. My playing had no similarity to anybody else's, I just started playing my own way; and that's how I continue, making up my own material and doing my own thing.
Did you play as a soloist at that time?
Yes, I was the first to play solo guitar. I was a boy when I started, but I saw the possibilities and knew that was what I wanted to do. They treated me as rather a joke at first, because flamenco guitar had never been played that way before, but I didn't care what they said: I was only nine or ten, but I kept at it. Nowadays as you can see everyone wants to play solo.
Your 'Flamenco Puro' album made a big impact.
Right. People liked it, but to tell he truth I've made so many I can't remember what was on it. That was when the kids started to copy me,
How many records have you made?
Fifty-two, Fifty three, something like that.
The Sabicas and Escudero discs were the first recordings of a flamenco guitar duo, weren't they?
Yes, we wanted to do something totally unique, and do it so well it would never be bettered.
How, did you meet Carmen Amaya?
We met when we were both children in Barcelona. I went to work there and I saw her dance one day - she was very young too. I became good friends with her and her family. Afterwards, of course, she became the phenomenon that everybody knows.
Was that a difficult time for flamenco?
Rather more difficult than today. Flamenco didn't have the position that it has now: most artists made a living from juergas. Some made public performances, but most just did the best they could. It's only in the last twenty or twenty-five years that flamenco has paid adequately.
How did you come to settle in the United States?
The family came to Buenos Aires to work. I was with my parents and my brother, and we got together there with Carmen Amaya. From there we came to the U.S. and things started to look up. I liked the country very much, so from then on, even though I went out sometimes to do concerts, I stayed put. I was out of Spain for thirty years.
Do you feel out of touch?
Yes, well of course one misses the mother country (terruno). But I go to Spain on vacation and stay there for a while.
How many concerts do you do a year, these days?
Not very many. I don't like travelling, particularly in aeroplanes. And anyway I can't take the amount of travel any more that I used to.
What advice would you give to young guitarists? Can a non-Spaniard hope to play flamenco well?
Of course. But flamenco is one hundred per cent atmosphere, and if you are alone without the atmosphere, you won't get anywhere. You must mix every day with people that sing, dance or play. Atmosphere is everything, that's how you get there. If you don't do that, you'll have a lot of technique (muchos dedos) but you won't know how to use it.
What do you think of the new young guitarists, like Paco de Lucia, Manolo Sanlucar ... ?
Very nice: they do more now on the guitar than could ever be done before, they're good craftsmen. But the solera* of the older generation can't be found today, and I don't think it will ever come again.
* (solera - The quality that comes with maturity, as in great wine)
Sabicas - a selected discography
Sabicas' records may be broadly divided into two categories, those he has made as a soloist and those with other people. Of the solo albums, it can probably be said that Sabicas has never made a bad one. As well as serious flamenco, several of them include arrangements of Latin folk tunes or other materials which has caught the artist's fancy. They often feature multi-tracking of startling complexity and precision (particularly effective in stereo), and are usually very attractive listening although comparatively lightweight. Any of these would be good introduction to Sabicas or to the flamenco guitar for the non-aficianado.
The cooperative efforts vary greatly, according to the quality of the other artists and the nature of the music: this is why, although Sabicas' playing is always of high standard, some of these only rate one asterisk.
The choice may seem arbitrary, but I have tried to include Sabicas' very best albums, those currcntly available, and a representative cross-section of the remainder.
Ratings: (All ratings are, of course, subjective)
*** Very good
* Don't bother
**** Flamenco Puro (Columbia WL154 (U.S.A.))
This is the revolutionary record referred to by Paco in the introduction. Deleted in its original form, I am told it has been reissued by Musical Heritage in the States, but have been unable to trace the firm or the record number. A good alternative is the Elektra set.
**** Sabicas (Elektra (U.S.A.))
Volume I (EKL117)
Volume 2 (EKL121)
Volume 3 (EKL145)
Volumes I & 3 contain much of the same material (albeit rearranged) as Flamenco Puro, being recorded about the same time. Volume 2, however, is a romp through anything that has chanced to take the protagonist's fancy, including Czardas (Monti), Malaguena (Lecuona), Grand Jota (Tarrega) and Capriccio Espagnol (Rimsky Korsakov), all played with great glee and abandon.
**** Flamenco! (with Carmen Amaya)(Brunswick LAT8240 (U.K.), Coral MI 8173 (U.S.A.), MCA MI 8.173 (Spain)
**** Queen of the Gypsies, (with Carmen Amaya) (Brunswick LAT8150 (U.K.)
These albums, combining two of the greatest artists of the century, have properly been cited as the records that best convey the total atmosphere of flamenco. 'Queen of the Gypsies' covers the more serious side of flamenco, and 'Flamenco!' the lighter.
**** El Rey de Flamenco (HMV CSD3513 (U.K.); Hispavox HP 90-02 (Spain))
Particularly outstanding for its creativity, this album contains the famous 'Zapateado en Re'.
**** The Fantastic Guitars of Sabicas and Escudero (Decca DL78795 U.S.A.)
Las Fabulosas Guitarras de Sabicas y Escudero (MCA S21.253 (Spain))
This, the first recording of a flamenco guitar duo, remains easily the best ever made.
*** Sabicas y Escudero, (Musidisc CV1049 (France), Montilla FM-105S (Spain))
Although not the equal of 'Fantastic Guitars', still leaves most other flamenco duos for dead.
**** Flamenco!! (Polydor 2385044 (Spain))
Mostly single tracked. Worth buying for the beautiful Rondena alone.
*** Flaming Flamenco Guitar (Hallmark HM616 (U.K.))
Budget priced and (although neither thc sleeve nor the label, says so), in stereo. Contains Lecuona's Malaguena and Tarrega's Gran Jota.
** Tres guitarras tiene Sabicas (Hispavox I8- 1129 (Spanish))
Very lightweight, but interesting as a lesson, in arranging for three, four or even five guitars, as well as amusing versions of 'La Cumparsita' and 'Bell Bird'.
** The Art of the Guitar (Everest 3395 (U.S.A.))
Still obtainable. Lightweight but very pleasant.
** Deux Concertos pur Guitare et Orchestre (Erato STE50144 (France))
One side contains Sabicas playing 'Concierto en Flamenco', a joint composition by the artist and Federico Moreno Torroba. Although this work has its moments, it cannot really be considered a success (the guitar part was recorded first, and the orchestra material tailored to it and dubbed in afterwards). The other side features the Concierto de Castille by Torroba, plaved by Renata Tarrago, which is very pleasant though not profound.
* Festival Gitana (Xtra 1029 (U.K.))
(with Los Trianeros) (Elektra EKL149 (U.S.A.)
Still obtainable in the U.S. The group is a cuadro featuring singers Domingo Alvarado and Enrique Montoya. If you like the work of these singers, this record may appeal to you.
*** Sixteen Immortal Performances (ABC-Paramount ABCS-735 (U.S.A.))
A good sample of some of Sabicas's best work.
*** Flamenco! (Command RS931SD (U.S.A.), Hispavox HH 10-326 (Spain))
(2 tracks each with Serranito, Manuel Cano, Luis Maravilla, Pepe Martinez, Melchor de Marchena, Nino Ricardo)
As good a cross-section of solo flamenco guitar and guitarists as you're likely to find.