MADRID, Spain — Paco de Lucia, who died at age 66 on Wednesday, was the greatest flamenco guitarist of recent times and a tireless innovator who broke down musical barriers throughout a career that spanned half a century. He revolutionized the sound of flamenco, opening it up to a new, mainstream audience and global success.
“He was the best there has ever been, he was an immense musician,” said flamenco dancer Juan Andres Maya. “I think all flamenco artists — be they guitarists, singers or dancers — were inspired by his inexhaustible ability to come up with new ideas.”
The guitarist died after suffering a heart attack in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, his family said. In recent years, he had divided his time between his home there and his native Spain.
Paco de Lucia was born Francisco Sanchez in the city of Algeciras, in the southern region of Andalusia, the heartland of flamenco music. But he was not of typical flamenco stock: Unlike most of the genre’s biggest names, he was a “payo,” or non-gypsy and his mother was Portuguese.
Nevertheless, his family shared many of the hardships of post-war Andalusia with their gypsy neighbors.
“We were starving and my father didn’t know what to do to keep us going,” de Lucia once said. “Flamenco artists, like all musicians from a roots tradition, have always had an empty refrigerator.”
His father’s solution was to take the young Paco out of school at the age of 11 and, having identified his unusual talent, make him practice the guitar for hours each day until he’d mastered flamenco’s technical rudiments.
The child prodigy became an adolescent sensation, often accompanying his singer brother, Pepe. But it was his longstanding partnership with the extravagantly talented gypsy singer Camaron de la Isla that would cement his reputation.
The duo recorded a string of albums throughout the seventies that drew from traditional flamenco sources while pushing the music in new directions, sometimes toward rock. With their long hair, hipster clothes and cigarettes constantly dangling from their lips, the two became cultural icons in Spain.
“The flamenco world soon bowed at the feet of the two artists,” wrote de Lucia’s biographer Paco Sevilla. “Young people worshipped them, taking every note… as gospel. Each subsequent album would jar flamenco onto a new path.”
The guitarist’s parallel solo career was also creating waves. A hypnotic instrumental he recorded in 1973 called “Entre dos aguas” became a massive hit and helped spread flamenco’s popularity abroad. Its unusual sound, which included an electric bass and bongos, was revolutionary and, coming at the tail end of Francisco Franco’s right-wing dictatorship, it became part of the soundtrack for a country in upheaval.
“At the historical and political moment that Spain was going through in 1973, two years away from the coming of democracy,” wrote musician and academic Diana Perez Custodio, “‘Entre dos aguas’ worked as a manifesto, a declaration of intent, showing that flamenco can and should change, and that it is able to connect with the young.”
De Lucia was also looking beyond the boundaries of his native flamenco. He recorded and toured with jazz guitarists Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin and, despite being unable to read music, he performed classical pieces.
The purists demurred, warning that the virtuoso from Algeciras was diluting Andalusia’s cherished musical heritage. “You can never leave flamenco,” warned his former mentor, Sabicas, himself a legendary guitarist. “If you take on another style, if you want to do something else, you will lose what you have.”
The younger man’s reply was terse: “Sabicas thinks that there should be no evolution, that [flamenco] should be monotonous and always sound old-fashioned.”
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De Lucia, who was known for his humility, could also be fiercely defensive about the music with which he grew up. In 1989, he withdrew from a festival in Seville, in southern Spain, at the last moment because his name was far below those of opera singer Placido Domingo and pop crooner Julio Iglesias on the billing.
“I was filled with anger, not because it was an insult to me, but because it was an insult to flamenco,” he said.
One of his greatest achievements was to give flamenco respectability after decades of being dismissed by many Spaniards as a lesser musical form. He received the Prince of Asturias award for the Arts in 2004 and an honorary doctorate from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2010.
Three days or mourning have been declared in Algeciras.
“No one has done more for flamenco than Paco,” said singer Jose Merce. There won’t be another musician like him, Merce added, “for another 200 years.”