The lute fantastic

Flamenco owes its existence to the Moors for introducing the oud, a lute, to Spain. This cultural fusion lives on. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
One of my most vivid memories from this year's Dartington music school was the sight of a prominent acoustic guitarist emerging pale and frustrated from a flamenco class. "I've been in there all day, and not managed a single note. I just can't get the sound." His tormentor had been Juan Martin, world-famous guru on flamenco guitar: he'd gone to the fountain-head, and come away thirsty. But he went back religiously day after day, till that elusive sound came through.

Martin himself is full of surprises. He contributed the theme for Cynthia Payne's fictionalised life-story, Personal Services, and his was the music that gave Brando's latest film, Don Juan De Marco, its gilded aura. He has a new trick up his sleeve for the Queen Elizabeth Hall this Sunday: a joint recital with the Arab lutenist Adel Salameh, in which the pair will demonstrate how closely the indigenous musics of southern Spain and northern Africa resemble each other.

Martin hails from Malaga, but he's not a gypsy and he learnt his art the hard way, playing for singers and dancers, and acquiring the techniques of his hero Nino Ricardo by imitating his records at half-speed. He quotes another of his mentors: "You must spend 20 years playing for dance, and 20 more for singing. Then you may be ready to play solo." He was a frequent collaborator with El Camaron, the supreme master of "cracked" flamenco singing who died as he had lived, high on drugs and that mystical communion known as duende.

"Flamenco," Martin claims, "has always been a fusion, with Hebraic, Arabic and Christian cultures all blending." Maybe the name originated with the Spanish Jews who migrated to Flanders; maybe it's a corruption of the Arabic words felag (a fugitive) and mengu (peasant); no one knows. "Originally we had the Phrygian mode" - and he picks out an octave corresponding to the white notes on the piano starting with E. "Then came the South American mode, a sweeter, lighter sound. And then came the rumba. Flamenco has always been open to new sounds. If it likes what it hears, it takes it on board."

It's also an endangered species, prey to other things besides tourism. "The biggest threat comes from the record companies, which are trying to force flamenco players - and some are giving in to this pressure - to use chords and sounds that relate to contemporary American music." He plays a phrase of neutered flamenco, then a snatch of the real thing. "It's like comparing a Bach fugue with a Strauss waltz. Alien worlds."

But Sunday's concert will be a return to roots. "If the Moors hadn't brought the oud to Spain, we would never have had the guitar." Even the word "lute" comes from it - from the Arabic al 'ud, "the wood" - and its descendants now include the Greek laouto and bouzouki, and the Turkish saz. "Some of the things Adel will play are very similar to the flamenco that I remember hearing in Andalusian villages before the modern world caught up with them."

On one hand, there's a chair of flamencology at Jerez. On the other, there are flamenco musicians teaming up with jazz-rock guitarists such as John McLaughlin and Chick Corea. Conserving and incorporating: flamenco has always harboured complementary tendencies, and Martin's new escapade embodies them both.

n Juan Martin and Adel Salameh play the QEH, London SE1, Sunday 7.45pm. Booking: 0171-960 4206