Diego Guerrero Photo by Alejandro Lopez, courtesy of Fundarte

Like jazz, perhaps a distant cousin, flamenco began as regional music of a displaced, desperately poor and disenfranchised people. And like jazz, flamenco began as fusion, a mix of new sounds and instruments and whatever memories had been saved and brought along. It was music shaped by survival strategies.
The one constant was change.
In spite of it, perhaps because of it, arguments between ”purists” and innovators in flamenco has been, as it was in jazz, part of the tradition.
The music of singer, guitarist, composer, and arranger Diego Guerrero, 37, is firmly rooted in flamenco but informed by elements of Afro-Cuban music, jazz, salsa, and pop. His debut recording, Vengo Caminando (2016), was nominated to a Latin Grammy.

Dealing with the purists “is easy: I don’t care for them and they don’t care for me,” he said in a recent interview. “Think of Andalusia under Islamic rule. For 800 years Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side. It has been a place for Africans, Arabs, gypsies, Castilians. Think about the history of flamenco. To argue that flamenco must be kept pure it’s a contradiction in terms.”

Born in Huelva, in the heart of Andalusia, conservatory-trained Guerrero grew up surrounded by flamenco and Gypsy culture. But then, he is part of a generation of artists who grew up listening to the explorations of unimpeachable artists and groups such as Paco de Lucia, Camarón de la Isla, Enrique Morente, Ketama, and Barbería del Sur.
For them, and many other flamenco artists since, honoring the tradition is to always be on the move.

In 2004, Guerrero was approached by Brazilian percussionist Rubem Dantas — a key sideman of Paco de Lucia, and the musician credited with bringing the Peruvian cajón to flamenco — to write and arrange for his big band. The experience led to Guerrero´s move to Madrid and the creation of the Flamenco Small Band. Beginning in 2014 and for the next three years, every Wednesday, Guerrero hosted a Flamenco Jam at Madrid´s Café Berlin.

“The jam session is a jazz concept. The jam session in flamenco is la juerga,” explained Guerrero in a recent interview. “This was a mix of both ideas. We had musicians from everywhere, and not just jazz musicians and flamencos. Many projects came out of those sessions.”

Guerrero and his quartet, comprising Nasrine Rahmani, percussion, JuanFe Pérez, bass, and Jose Maria Pedraza “Petaca,” piano; are part of Flamenco Rave II – Nuevo Flamenco. The show, also featuring flutist and saxophonist Sergio de Lope; singer María Terremoto; and guitarist Miguel Ángel Cortés, is presented in Miami by Fundarte, March 9  & 10, 2019 at Miami-Dade County Auditorium.

Question: You had a formal, classical music education, what got you interested in flamenco?

Diego Guerrero: As a kid, I was part of chirigotas (Carnival groups) and comparsas in Carnival and also romerias (open-air religious festivities). There was always music around and of course plenty of guitar music. One of the central styles of flamenco is the fandango de Huelva, and its birthplace is Alosno, a town 10 kilometers from my house. So it was all around me. But for 10 years at the conservatory, I studied classical guitar, from Bach to Leo Brower —but I wasn´t happy.

My father was a music lover, and a big fan of Camarón. He is for us is what [John] Coltrane is for sax players: a god. But when Camarón died [July 2, 1992] was when I really got to know about him. He was in all the news, the radio, TV played videos of him they had never played while he was alive, because whatever image people outside of Spain have, in Spain flamenco is the music of a minority. But I fell in love with Camarón and flamenco and started to hang out with gypsies and jumped into their culture head first. The gypsies have a very distinct sound, be them from Bulgaria or Spain, and no matter where they are from, once they get to a place they adapt.
They have contributed a lot to my music — but more importantly, to my way of approaching life.

Question: How did the experience with Rubem Dantas’s big band shaped your jump from flamenco to jazz?

Diego Guerrero: I was studying classical composition and orchestration when Rubem called to see if I’d be interested in writing for the band and I said ‘Of course!” And that’s when I really got to try out my true calling: take flamenco and all these other styles and create a bridge of communication between people and cultures. In that band, there were people from all over and all kinds of musical backgrounds and I felt I was the interpreter, the translator. And one of the first things I had to translate was the sound of the flamenco guitar to the big band. Flamenco music is not written out. Most flamenco musicians don’t read music, so I had to create the score because they don’t exist in flamenco.

Question: And that experience in time led you to form the Flamenco Small Band. What was the idea behind it?

Diego Guerrero: (chuckles) We called it the Small Band because there was no money for a Big Band. We were 10 or 11 and it featured a vocal quintet, which was another novelty in flamenco.
That band was the personification of the idea of mixing different cultures. We had Dan Ben Lior, a guitarist from Israel; Alex Oliveira, and Afro-Brazilian singer; four or five Gypsies and few non-Gypsies … let’s say that when you saw the group, you got what was our intention.

Question: The late trumpeter and conga player Jerry Gonzalez became a mentor and friend. What was his contribution to your development?

Diego Guerrero: Jerry is key in this process. He heard an arrangement I did of “Zyryab,” a Paco de Lucia song, for the Flamenco Small Band and he called me. He knew me from the Big Band, because he played with us sometimes, but he didn’t really know me. But after he heard that arrangement he wanted to meet me and so he came to my place in Granada and from then on when he got tired of Madrid — and he got very well-known there — he would escape to my place. With him, it was listening and talking and listening and watching videos and more listening, 24 hours a day. He was my personal Berklee, especially in everything that has to do with Afro-Caribbean music and jazz. I’ve always loved jazz but I’m not of the culture, I’m not a jazz player, and Jerry had all that incorporated. But he didn’t just influence me. He has had an enormous influence on many Spanish musicians — and in flamenco.

Question: You play guitar but also sing, which is unusual in flamenco. Do you see yourself as a cantaor who happens to play guitar or a guitarist who sings?

Diego Guerrero: (Chuckles) I started to sing with the Small Band, out of need, not an avocation. I was not hearing what I wanted. I might sound like a cantaor because I idolized Camarón and my voice might have a bit of a Gypsy sound because that´s what I´ve been living. But I don’t consider myself one. [Afro-Cuban] rumba, for example, has three major styles. Flamenco has many, many styles and a true cantaor has to know that language. Those are the flamenco standards. No, I´m not a cantaor, I´m just a flamenco musician.

Flamenco Rave II – Nuevo Flamenco featuring Sergio de Lope; Diego Guerrero; María Terremoto; and Miguel Ángel Cortés with Dani Bonilla and Lucía Álvarez “La Piñona”, among others.  Presented by Fundarte March 9 – 8:30 p.m. & 10, 2019 – 6:00 p.m. Miami Dade County Auditorium.