Anybody who's ever picked up a guitar more than once or twice can appreciate tremendously that formidable construct of wood and steel that has been called "the little orchestra" by no less an authority than the master guitarist, Andres Segovia.
And anyone who's stayed with the instrument of gypsies and rockers, troubadours and courtiers, beyond the proverbial three chords—through bouts of sore, bleeding, or blistered fingertips (John Lennon counted himself among the latter); endured seemingly endless plateaus of frustrating arpeggios and inversions; and emerged (like myself) eventually with something like a religious respect for people who can really play—well, anybody who really gets the guitar deserves to sit down in front of the collected works of the flamenco Grand Master, Sabicas.
He taught himself.
Agustín Castellón Campos was born in 1912 to gypsy parents in Pamplona, Spain. Nicknamed Sabicas (little beans)—perhaps in reference to his small fingers—as a child, there is absolutely no extant record of his ever having had a single music lesson in the formal sense of the word.
Like all gypsy guitarists who excel in flamenco, arguably the world's most difficult guitar technique, Sabicas absorbed the elaborate formalities and basic ornamentations of his art in the streets, and in the households of his extended gypsy family.
He made his professional debut at the age of ten. By seventeen he had appeared at El Teatro el Dorado in Madrid, and at 22 he was cheered like a champion by thousands of patrons in Seville's Maestranza bull ring.
Sabicas accompanied Spain's grande dame of flamenco, La Niña de los Peines, as a young man, but it was his long-term association with Carmen Amaya, Spain's most famous flamenco dancer, that brought the guitarist to world prominence.
Sabicas and Amaya were lovers, and as Spain fell precipitously into civil war during the 30's, the couple left the country and toured the Americas.
Never a particularly sentimental man, Sabicas never again lived in his homeland. It is this fact—the black sheep abroad, playing for payos (non-gypsies), for American Presidents(!), for the Movies(!)—that, more than anything else, turned many of Spain's deeply traditional flamenco musicians against him.
For his own part, Sabicas credited travel and the experience of other kinds of music as major influences upon his art. Like the great contemporary and well-traveled flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucia, Sabicas never compartmentalized his muse, and ironically, his adaptation of South American folksongs as well as his performances alongside many western musicians had the happy effect of enriching the ancient Spanish gypsy tradition.
Flamenco is a deeply traditional art form, but just as the gypsy is eventually assimilated into society in one form or another, his music has always borrowed and transmuted the music of the people and places he's seen. Flamencos sailed with Columbus, and brought Cuban rhythms back to Spain. Paco de Lucia embraced the music of Brazil and flamenco ultimately became the richer for it.
More than any other flamenco artist before him, Sabicas was the world's flamenco ambassador. He introduced American musicians to seemingly impossible guitar techniques, and at the same time he was instrumental in the careers of de Lucia and the wondrous Serranito, not to mention every other flamenco guitarist since.
Modestly, Sabicas credited the great Ramon Montoya as well as Manolo de Huelva as his most important influences. Perhaps more than anything else, these older musicians symbolize the essence of Sabicas's conflicted legacy, for they could not have been more different: Montoya was the father of the modern gypsy flamenco guitar, yet he played in a lyrical and melodic non-gypsy style, while Manolo de Huelva was himself a payo, a man without a single drop of gypsy blood, who played in what we have come to recognize as the dark, brooding, fiercely rhythmic and fiery gypsy style.
"I love listening to them, their recordings," said Sabicas. "I used to say to myself, 'If only I could play like that!' I admired them very much. I listened, but I never copied from them. Ever since I started playing, I always did it my own way. I played whatever sounded right to me, and it seems it also sounded right to others."
Personally, the music of Sabicas sounds awesomely, almost terrifyingly "right" to me. No guitarist since—with the possible exception of Paco de Lucia—has played with such simultaneous grace and fire. His arpeggios are without equal, supernaturally fast and accurate, and his tremolo, that delicate lilt that floats above the melody in flamenco music, is positively other-worldly.
His precision, his intonation, his assimilation and reinvention of traditional flamenco motifs are nothing less than extraordinary. I put Sabicas on the CD player for the sheer joy of perfection in technique. His playing is, simply, immaculate.
Sabicas lived in Mexico City during the early 50's and eventually he moved to New York City, where he continued to record.
He died in Manhattan in 1990 at the age of 78.
The guitar is, of course, very fickle, and you must be with it all the time, as much as you can, and even that is not enough. Sometimes, after you have been practicing a certain piece for hours, you still make mistakes. ‘Why am I making a mistake?’ you ask yourself. ‘My fingers are all right. Why?’
I have always found the guitar to be very difficult."
—Agustín Castellón Campos