Paco Peña on Patrias, The Artistic Process, Nationality and BREXIT

Paco Peña's PATRIAS. Photo by Andy Phillipson

Paco Peña’s PATRIAS. Photo by Andy Phillipson

Paco Peña (born 1 June 1942) is regarded as one of the world’s foremost traditional flamenco players. I interviewed this unassuming gentleman genius about his forthcoming production at Sadler’s Wells.

CE:   Can you tell me about the research you did for Patrias, or is it more that the knowledge of Lorca and his background and works have always been part of your life?

PP:   You are right about the fact that Lorca is a great influence. Not only on me, but on anyone connected with flamenco and Andalusia. The sensitivity of that artist is great and has been a huge influence and my contact with him has been inspirational. I have total admiration of the depth of his depiction of my culture, so he has influenced me throughout my life. Not personally, but rather in the way that, inevitably, anyone connected with flamenco has lived it [Lorca’s influence] as much as me. I am, and always have been, fascinated by the way his abstract constructions go so deeply to the core of sensitive issues that make the people we are.

CE:   Can you tell me a little about the research you undertook?

PP:   I was asked to prepare something along the lines of the century anniversary of the First World War. I always felt Lorca was important, and am of course very sensitive to the war, so the two elements were known to me, but not in the depth that was required [to create this work]. So I did a lot on research on those times.

CE:   How long did this take you?

PP:   (Laughs). When Jonathan Mills asked me, perhaps 6 or 8 months prior, I started thinking. He is a very sensitive musician, I think it was his last year in Edinburgh and was involved in the spirit of Lorca and the duende so he was really quite sensitive [in terms of what he said to me]. He didn’t want to tell me anything specific. He didn’t tell me what to do, simply that the war was a presence in his festival. He asked what I could do. We discussed Lorca and the work a little.

CE:   Was the creative process different to normal?

PP:   Yes it was. As you can imagine there is quite a lot of intellectual content. I suppose as an artist you throw out your ideas [and look for] whatever [comes back]. With me I have been with my company for years, I know what aspects of the dance I can explore, what fascinates me and what inspires me. In this case there was much more poetry and rigour. The universality of  war [in general]  was epitomised by [Lorca’s treatment of] this tragic war. [I thought about] all of that. There are records, books of course and fundamentally there are many poems of the times. Also many Spanish writers have commented on the Spanish Civil War and Lorca’s treatment of it. I especially found inspiration from the Spanish poets and researched much more than I had done before [because I needed the research to inform more than] music, choreography and dance. The three are exciting in themselves, but this [multi media production] was a step further.

Paco Peña's PATRIAS. Photo by Andy Phillipson

Paco Peña’s PATRIAS. Photo by Andy Phillipson

CE:   Can you explain how it evolved? Did it grow in your head after that?

PP:   Yes, it did [grow], I cannot deny that. I soon looked at the possibility of projecting the tragic image of Lorca dying and of the beauty of his poetry. To a large extent I [wanted to] to look at his music. Many songs came from traditional tunes. They were actually rescued from being lost by Lorca’s new words. I also went through an archive that includes recordings of Lorca doing those songs with a famous singer. They are beautiful, sensitive and a lovely presentation of Lorca’s intentions. Obviously I put them in the show, then I continued to develop the pieces. My work grows that way. Some pieces promise content and you just have to immerse yourself. What you find in them sometimes leads to abstract or other wonderful developments of your ideas. It’s hard work but it is fascinating work.

Also poets like Pablo Neruda from Chile had so much to say. Neruda suffered so strongly the horrible injustice of Lorca’s murder. His poetry on the subject is kind of bleeding. He uses wonderful words, evocative of Spanish life. I knew Neruda of course, in detail his books, and poems, it makes me cry to discover such sensitivity of feeling from someone who is not Spanish but feels Spain so deeply. Neruda says it a million times better than me. All those discoveries helped with [my work which had] Lorca as the central proposition.

CE:   Can you explain the evolution of this work?

PP:   That’s a very good question. I don’t pretend do be any kind of director. I have worked with Jude Kelly for a long time. She advises me and is hands-on in a lot [of what I do]. In a way, your experience subtly gives you the structure you want to create in music and even in theatrical terms. Music is so evocative and so suggestive. If you want to create an atmosphere that leads to a stirring, sentiment [where you take them to a stage set]. If you want to lead peoples’ feelings from there you take them to another stage [set]. Each floor, each stage creates an atmosphere that leads those feelings in different directions. So the structure usually comes to me. Without meaning in any sense to boast, that sort of thing is pretty well established in my head. [For] the scenography or the development of actual improvement in movement, I love to have the help of Jude to lead me along. She was wonderfully creative when she came to rehearsals.

CE:   How do you manage the duality expressed by Lorca?

PP:   Oh gosh. I have wonderful friends who are clever and sensitive and well disposed. They helped with the duality, particularly of the philosophies that helped the war to happen. Ian Gibson is a wonderful man and I’ve known him for many years. I asked him if he might comment. He knows so much about Lorca, Spain and the war. It’s wonderful to get someone like that to point me to interesting reading.

Tono (Juan Antonio) Masoliver used to be a teacher in London. He now lives in Barcelona. He is a great writer and poet and Tono alerted me to something I knew anyway, although it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind when I was making the piece. Spain was divided, there were war than one Spain. Patria (meaning homeland) was so associated with the Franco era and the cry of the nationalists, he pointed out that I ran the danger of having it interpreted as a banner. Tono talked about the 2 Spains, and how there are writers prior to the Franco era who describe it as more than one place in terms of philosophies. Clearly I couldn’t use the world Patria (homeland) so used it in the plural (homelands). That made it clear that I was talking not about Franco but about my people, the Spanish people. What Tono said opened possibilities to me and from that awareness grew a subtle alertness of looking for the same characteristics in anything else that I was reading, whether music history or other fact.

Paco Peña's PATRIAS. Photo by Andy Phillipson

Paco Peña’s PATRIAS. Photo by Andy Phillipson

CE:   Can you talk about the extent you believe Music and art are able to heal and communicate?

PP:   You know that both the question and the answer are in your question? Of course I believe that music is able to get to you and get you sensitive to things in a more acute way. Perhaps in a way that you reflect on things, or plan to do things better. On the other hand it can be used also as a rallying cry for the wrong ideas, certainly for the wrong philosophies. They might not intrinsically be to the good for some people. Also in the show, I have music [that was] used cleverly by nationalists to proclaim who they were and to stir up the young people they wanted to give of their lives. The republicans also used it. Depending on how you are leaning, music and art moves you into action in your body and in your insides. Of course it is a wonderful sensitive medium to help you try and mobilise such things. However I wouldn’t go as far as to say it makes any true difference until and unless people are convinced themselves.

CE:   Even the website says parallels may be drawn between the Spanish Civil War and conflicts in the world today – for instance we can think about such issues as the intervention of foreign powers in civil war, and the recruitment of volunteer fighters from around the world. Given this what do you have to say about the referendum?

PP:   Oh well what a pity, what has happened is a big tragedy. Obviously I don’t agree with the Leave campaign. This is universal. I reject this idea of immigrants being a toxic thing. I cannot believe that people who have nothing but offer their work is a bad thing anywhere. I don’t hold a British passport – I’m Spanish – but still it’s a really bad tragedy. I think many years of tolerance and the way young people are – they are European – all that has been thrown away. I really am in pain for what has come.

This is not to do with the question of war. In terms of war I don’t mind saying that wonderful number of English came to Spain because they wanted to defend democracy and the democratic government that was threatened and attacked. I praise and thank the people who have lost their lives because they were fighting for democracy.

CE:   Do you have a Jondo for England? Or an Alegrias?

I hope this does justice to your question but in my experience I think that people there [in the UK] respond to integrity and depth of thought and feeling, not necessarily to happy depictions or situations. It is not about jondo or alegrias. People are made happy by observing quality and commitment.
PATRIAS runs at Sadler’s Wells from July 12th to 16th