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Spanish virtuosos Josemi Carmona and Antonio Serrano: ‘Flamenco is a way of life’

Flamenco/jazz maestro Antonio Serrano and his fellow Spaniard, guitarist Josemi Carmona, who recently performed at the Jodhpur RIFF festival and at Depot 29 in Delhi, unravel the history of the chromatic harmonica, the future of flamenco, and whether they really are gypsies

Amitava Sanyal Oct 30, 2015
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 Spanish virtuosos Josemi Carmona and Antoni Serrano  recently perform at Jodhpur's RIFF festival. Photo: Kavi Bhansali

Spanish virtuosos Josemi Carmona and Antoni Serrano recently performed at Jodhpur’s RIFF festival. Photo: Kavi Bhansali

Antonio Serrano, a maestro of jazz and flamenco on the chromatic harmonica, is a protégé of the great Larry Adler. Josemi Carmona is a guitarist hailing from one of the well-known flamenco gypsy clans of Spain. Amitava Sanyal watched them perform together at the Jodhpur RIFF and at Depot 29 in Delhi before speaking to them on their musical journeys ”“ and a brief history of the chromatic harmonica.

Antonio, how did you pick your instrument?
Antonio Serrano (A.S): I went to the first World Harmonica Championship in Jersey [in 1987]. It was the first time I saw real professionals playing the harmonica and realized that you could make a living with the instrument. I was pretty young [13] at the time, but I decided I would become a harmonica player.

How did the harmonica become so popular in Europe towards the middle of the twentieth century?
A.S: In the 50s and 60s there were a lot of harmonica bands. The instrument got really popular during the World Wars ”“ it was an instrument that every soldier could take with him. Hohner, which is the main brand, sold millions of harmonicas in those days. It became popular all around the world.

Josemi, is it the family tradition that brought you to the guitar?
Josemi Carmona (J.C): I started very young ”“ my father, Pepe Habichuela, was my teacher. I belong to a family that’s important in the flamenco guitar world.

Why has flamenco always been such a family tradition?
J.C: It is a way of life, no? Music is such an important part of gypsy families, especially for those in Spain. There’s music at every birthday, baptism, wedding or any other family gathering. And also in the dark moments, which expresses the blues side ”“ like in the older, deeper flamenco styles of Siguiriyas, Bulerías and Soleá.

A.S: I am not a gypsy, so such a tradition wasn’t there in my family.

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Antonio, how did your relationship with Larry Adler, who spotted you at the Harmonica Championship, develop?
A.S: He was very kind to me. I played with him three or four times. He came to Spain to teach me for a week and then I spent a couple of days in his house in London. He was always curious about my studies, what I was listening to. He would always speak of music with a lot of passion and a lot of love. That is the most important thing I learned from him ”“ not to think so much about the business or professional side of it, but to really like the music and take it seriously. He never spoke to me about anything to do with the business; he was very passionate about the art. That’s something I have carried with me all these years.

You consider Larry Adler to be one of the three pillars of the chromatic harmonica. What did he bring to it?
A.S: He managed to meet really good classical composers and make them believe that the harmonica could be a symphonic instrument. He took it really high. Before Larry Adler, it was more of a popular instrument. People played Broadway music and the blues, but it wasn’t a classical instrument. Larry played at such a high level that he could convince people like Heitor Villa-Lobos, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Benjamin that the harmonica was a good instrument to write music for.

Why do you consider Toots Thielemans to be another pillar of the chromatic harmonica?
A.S: Toots was the first harmonica player to translate jazz language into the instrument. Chromatic harmonica is a very tricky instrument. The phrasing is very difficult because you are blowing and sucking, so it’s very difficult to play legato. Toots developed a technique to do it… He is the history of jazz ”“ he has been around since the 30s. So the first jazz he heard was probably Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. He must have had some influence.

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And what about the third pillar, Stevie Wonder?
A.S: Well, the chromatic harmonica is a melodic instrument, you know, and then we have the blues harp, which is a very flexible instrument. With a blues harp, you can produce the inflections and dynamics you need to play expressive music. In the chromatic harmonica it’s difficult to acquire that expression. I think Stevie Wonder managed to really play the blues on a chromatic harmonica. He was the first. Although Toots Thielemans plays the blues, he does it in a more jazz-oriented way. Larry Adler also played the blues ”“ in an elegant, sophisticated way. But Stevie Wonder really played the blues in a different way.

J.C: Stevie Wonder is a gypsy at heart. It is in his blood. [Laughs]

Josemi, where do you think flamenco is headed, with all its new interpretations going on?
J.C: Flamenco has a huge corpus. So every flamenco musician, even when experimenting, tries to preserve the core traditions. Flamenco will always be flamenco, though it’s going to be influenced by lots of different styles. Flamenco is not an intellectual music, its heart is going to stay where it is.

It has probably not been as intellectualised as some other musical traditions, like tango.
A.S: Yes, many styles have been intellectualised too much, like tango or jazz. It is different to find something of, say, Louis Armstrong in the new players. The most modern people from New York don’t sound anything near Armstrong.
But flamenco has a will to stay sounding like itself. Because it has a very powerful energy, which is more powerful than the intellectual part of music.

Josemi, what has Antonio’s instrument done to the world of flamenco?
J.C: More than his instrument ”“ it’s obvious that he plays it very well ”“ his contribution to flamenco has more to do with his personality and his love for music.

So, Antonio, you are a gypsy after all.
J.C: A little. Just a little. [Laughs]


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