That Wordless Man

By: José Manuel Simián

I was probably 11 years old when I first saw Paco de Lucía. My parents took my sister and I to Teatro Oriente, and because I had been told to put on my nice pants and a shirt, I knew this was a big deal.

It was not only my first “adult” concert, but also my first real music concert in any sense. This was Pinochet's Chile, the mid-80s, and the country’s cultural life left much to be desired — to put it mildly. My parents listened to pop music like everyone else, but were not music snobs of any kind, and certainly not flamenco connoisseurs. But they wanted to give us the best possible education, and this was a world-class opportunity to do so.

So there I sat as the lights went out, in the soft but uncomfortable crimson seats of that old theater, trying to be as smart as I could, the best possible student on this important night. Little did I know that intelligence had nothing to do with what was about to happen.

Because Paco de Lucía’s music shook me in ways I still can't put into words. It was not just beautiful. It was mysterious. It was sacred. And the long-haired guitarist at the center of the stark stage was clearly some sort of prophet in the whole thing.

I didn’t immediately become a flamenco aficionado. I probably didn’t buy a Paco de Lucía cassette tape or CD (I was already into rock and roll) until I discovered Friday Night in San Francisco several years later. But I never missed an opportunity to catch Paco de Lucía live after that, as if I had made a personal pact with him. And every single time, I had the same otherworldly experience.

More importantly, that first Paco de Lucía concert became the standard against which I judged every other musical event for years to come — not to mention the “guitar gods” of the time. Be it rock, jazz, blues or classical music, if it didn’t involve some transformative moment, it was pointless. And as a young adult, when an actor infatuated with García Lorca began to explain to me what “duende” meant — a notion I was completely unaware of — I immediately knew she was talking about what Paco de Lucía had exposed me to on that night.

Now Paco de Lucía is unexpectedly gone, and we are at a loss for words when trying to explain what his music meant to us. But that was precisely the point of his art. He didn’t need words to convey the deepest mysteries of humankind. Just his fingers and a guitar.

José Manuel Simián is the Executive Editor of Manero. He used to be a lawyer and is probably listening to Bob Dylan as you read this.