Tony Blair to be strummed along by the mild man of flamenco

Louise Levene on the Prime Minister's move to take lessons from Paco Pena
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The Independent Online
PACO PENA may not be in the Top Ten, like some of Tony Blair's other photo opportunities, but in arranging to have lessons from the guitar master he has lighted on an art form that has been enjoying a surge in popularity.

One has visions of Mr Blair in skintight strides strutting round Cherie, her body encased in ruffles, rose between teeth. Non-Spaniards associate flamenco with dancing but it is rooted in the music. Though the guitar wasn't there at the beginning, it has become the chief instrument in authentic flamenco sound.

You certainly couldn't ask for a better teacher than Paco Pena. Mr Blair will spend his Easter break in Cordoba, in the home of a man who has become a minor deity in flamenco circles. Pena, though not a gypsy, was born in Andalusia 55 years ago and at the age of six began playing on his brother's guitar, determined to copy the Nino Ricardo numbers he heard on the radio. Now he and Paco de Lucia are the leading living exponents of the flamenco guitar worldwide.

His recordings are sold everywhere, his company of musicians and dancers tours internationally and he has houses in London, Cordoba and the Netherlands. Pena's wife is Dutch and he has taught flamenco at the Rotterdam Conservatory for years. His success in teaching North Europeans to play the music of the warm South is testament to his belief that you don't need to be an Andalusian to play like one. He has said: "I don't believe that it's a question of blood ... It doesn't matter how much talent you have, how much sensitivity you have, it's about the culture. If you're Anglo-Saxon but born in Andalusia, then you're Andalusian." Mr Blair was not born in Andalusia but he practises a lot. He has been taking odd lessons from Pena at his villa in London's Kentish Town for years and the men are clearly friends.

In the past, flamenco's international success was pegged to individuals (usually dancers) with a lot of talent and a good publicist such as Antonio and Jose Greco in the forties and fifties Antonio Gades in the sixties and seventies. Pena, the mild man of flamenco, who has been performing in Britain since the early 70s, sat quietly behind his guitar while his delicate fingers caress the strings.

Unlike the hypemeister Joaquin Cortes, his career has been free of attention- seeking, a steady flame rather than a dazzling flash. He became famous and stayed famous purely because his work was so good. Flamenco is perhaps not the only skill Mr Blair can learn from him.