Mario Pacheco was not a musician, but as a record producer and entrepreneur he was one of the most influential figures within the world of flamenco music in the last 30 years.
In the early 1980s Pacheco was the founder of the Nuevos Medios record company, which offered a home to some of the key artists in the newly developing flamenco-fusion movement, like Ketama, Pepe Habichuela, Martirio and Pata Negra.
Nuevos Medios's most iconic record internationally was arguably the album Songhai, Ketama's collaboration with folk musician Danny Thompson (a former member of Pentangle who has also played regularly with Richard Thompson) and Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate. The result was a glorious – and highly innovative – mixture of flamenco and African music, underpinned by Thompson's folk-influenced double-bass playing. Rave reviews for the LP came from as far afield as the International Herald Tribune. "It was as if we invented world music," argued Pacheco in an interview a few years back, "without even having to leave our own back yard in Madrid."
Pacheco was always at pains to insist that he did not invent flamenco-fusion, also known as "new flamenco" – rather that he gave what was a delicate musical plant a secure place to flourish. With Nuevos Medios to support them, Ketama's impact on the music scene was huge: in the early 1990s, sales of their LPs ran into the hundreds of thousands and brought a vast new young audience to flamenco. Simultaneously, their fusion with it of different styles – pop, Brazilian music, jazz, reggae and even, improbably, hip-hop and house – gained Spain's most deep-rooted music a new lease of life.
At the same time, thanks to the new tendency, flamenco's previous association with a grotesquely caricatured folk tradition, distorted by the Franco regime as part of a clichéd, export-only vision of Spain as the land of bullfighting, religious processions and siestas, withered away. It started to draw more strongly on its rich social roots, particularly amongst the gypsy community.
"Flamenco just used to be heard in parties and on the streets, but suddenly it became more cultural," Pacheco once reflected. "The middle-classes could listen to it without being worried that it would remind them of what a miserable country Spain used to be." In an interview published in El País after his death, he added, "It was simple: [we made music with] gypsies who listened to Prince. I always said we were the Motown of flamenco, and Ketama, who played the rhythm section to almost everything, were the Booker T & the MG's."
Backed with money from the family of artist Joan Miró ("When Miró drew us the company logo, with two Bic biros, one red and one blue, that was our first big hit," said Pacheco), Nuevos Medios did not just work with flamenco-fusion. Apart from backing big Spanish pop groups of the 1980s like Golpes Bajos, jazz artists such as Carles Benavent and Joan Amargós or Latin American singer Chavela Vargas, Pacheco's company was also the distributor of legendary labels such as Rough Trade (his big dream, he once said, was to make an album with a re-formed version of The Smiths), Stax, ECM, Cherry Red and Factory.
He was also behind some of the most unlikely – but impressive – collaborations. Songhai was the outstanding example, but in 2006 he also introduced guitarist Pepe Habichuela to British jazz bassist Dave Holland. The pair have worked on various projects and LPs since then, and their concerts last summer in the Barbican and their LP, Hands, brought rave reviews.
Nor was Pacheco only a producer: born in 1950 in Madrid, from a very young age he worked as a photographer and travelled to Britain in the late Sixties, with one high point a visit to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. "I had one roll of film and a Rolleiflex, hardly appropriate for sitting in a [photographer's] trench full of people," he once told El País newspaper. "But then the Moody Blues walked past, then Jethro Tull, then loads more, and finally I managed to get Hendrix in a perfect pose."
However, his best-known shot remains that of the flamenco star Camaró* de la Isla on his breakthrough LP, La Leyenda del Tiempo ("The legend of time", 1979), just before he founded Nuevos Medios.
"Mario Pacheco was somebody with vision, someone who pulled off the impossible out of nowhere and managed to make it work," one of flamenco's current crop of top young talents, Marina Heredia, told The Independent. "Other musical companies have followed in his trail, but Mario Pacheco was the first, a real pioneer."
"No other record company did so much for flamenco as Nuevos Medios," Raimundo Amador, a founding member of Pata Negra, added in El País, "or for a people who have been slightly misunderstood. When nobody else wanted us, Mario was the one who realised what we were worth."
Mario Pacheco, record producer and photographer: born Madrid 6 November 1950; died Madrid 26 November 2010.