Spain, formerly of the Reconquista and the great Armada, has suffered with a dramatic inferiority complex since the Spanish American War’s territorial losses. She struggled through the early 20th century with internal rebellion, both on the Iberian Peninsula in Barcelona and across the Strait of Gibraltar in Morocco. Spain then endured over a decade of military dictatorship until the Second Spanish Republic’s establishment in 1931. There were to be municipal elections and proper constitutional governance. This lasted until a wave of assassinations, perpetrated by the Falange (Spain’s equivalent to Italy’s Fascists), on republic leaders.
Then, Civil War.
Spain was a poor, agrarian state during the depression era. Wartime territorial losses had sapped much of its wealth. If one lesson from history is axiomatic, it is that a poor and underserved society will be more susceptible to reactionary nationalism than a comfortable one. The global economic depression exacerbated these issues until an attempted coup in July, 1936.
The following three years of combat are an embarrassing and wanton chapter in European history, soon to be surpassed by the total war of the 1940s. The Falange, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco and buoyed by the far-right Portuguese Estado Novo, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, prevailed against the Republicans.
Thirty-six years of military dictatorship followed. Though officially neutral in World War II, Spain provided material support to the Axis powers. Franco set Spanish time as UTC +1, to be aligned with Hitler’s Germany. The post-war years were defined by oppression, both political and creative, sexism, and oddly enough, economic growth. That was America’s doing. Franco was a virulent anti-communist, and we were willing to overlook anything else in favor of that one key characteristic. Spain was considered so isolated from the rest of Europe, prompting a Frenchman to say that “Africa starts at the Pyrénées”.
Flamenco had been a part of Spanish, particularly Andalusian, culture since the 18th century. In the 19th century, as its central instrument was refined into what we now call a classical guitar, flamenco developed as an art form.
Spain never had the cultural cachet in Europe that the British, French, Germans, and Italians enjoyed. Development of uniquely Spanish creativity was stalled for two main reasons. The Iberian Peninsula had largely and variously been under Moorish rule for nearly eight hundred years from 711 until the fall of Granada in 1492. The Peninsula was then divided amongst distinct indigenous nations, divided culturally and linguistically. Christian repopulation, aggressive overseas imperialism, and attempts at unification were prioritized over creative pursuit. Spain did produce notable cultural figures, but in each era they were followers of European ideals established elsewhere.
Spain’s most important cultural export is not a body of work, but an instrument. The guitar, drawn from divergent chordophone influences and refined into today’s ubiquitous and defining instrument, is largely an Iberian creation. Flamenco, a Spanish musical invention, on a guitar, Spain’s national instrument, is that most Spanish of cultural pursuits.
And nobody played it better than Paco De Lucia, who died today at age 66. He was the undisputed master of his craft, and widely regarded as one of the finest guitarists in any discipline.
De Lucia was born in the province of Cadiz in Mediterranean Spain in 1947. Starting at age five, his father forced him into as many as twelve hours a day of daily practice. His father had grand ambitions for his son, much like Leopold Mozart did for his. Paco was on the radio at age 11. He toured America at age 15.
De Lucia assimilated all musical influences, redefining traditional flamenco into “new flamenco” via the absorption of jazz and other contemporary influences. His novel chord voicings and frequent use of non-scale tones in melodic lines have become the vocabulary of modern Spanish guitar playing. He is the point where classical, jazz, and bossa nova meet – a confluence made possible by an unlimited musical vocabulary and skill with both hands that exceeds generic technical virtuosity.
His artistic temperament can be analogized into a template for modern Spain. He sought influences from everywhere, rejecting the geographic and relative cultural isolation that had defined Spain for centuries. He sought cooperation with foreign musicians, collaborating most notably with Americans and Brits, two of Spain’s fiercest imperial-era rivals.
His model is important. He took something distinctly Spanish and in melding it with ideas from the best of his contemporaries, he brought the form to its zenith. Spain, as a nation, can do the same thing.
Spain’s days as a dominant global power ended in the 19th century. They are not coming back. The Marshall Plan firmly established that Germany, France, and the UK would be the dominant players in Europe, with France and Germany commanding the Eurozone. America delivered aid to Spain as part of the containment policy, but Spanish emigration and general corruption muted the benefits after 1975.
Paco De Lucia’s playing was worldly yet still distinctly Spanish. He was never the most famous guitarist in the world, but amongst people who can tell the difference, he was known to be one of the best.
Spain is enjoying an increase in prestige in this era of Spanish international athletic dominance. This provides significant leverage. Through international economic cooperation (starting with putting itself back in the right time zone) and implementation of practices embraced by more stable economies historically, can accelerate its recovery, well over one hundred years in the making.