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Paco Peña

Paco Peña

Spanish guitarist Paco Peña (born 1942) is known for his continued contributions to and explorations of flamenco music. He has recorded frequently, but appears to be in his element when performing in front of an audience, which could be anywhere throughout the world.

Acoustic Guitar noted in a 2002 interview that Peña "is known all over the world for the depth and intelligence of his music and for the breadth of his work as a collaborator, composer, and producer. His primary vehicle has always been the flamenco cuadro, a small ensemble including guitar, singers and dancers and his primary focus has always been on flamenco puro, pure flamenco… . However, he has never treated flamenco as something to be kept sacrosanct and separate from other forms of music and has shared the bill with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Joe Pass to Leo Kottke."

Childhood Devoted to Learning Guitar

Peña was born in Cordóba, Spain, in 1942 and grew up in Andalucía. He was one of nine children, one brother and seven sisters included. Peña recalled in that same Acoustic Guitar interview that his "mother had a vegetable stall in the market. We lived in a Casa de Vecinos, a house shared by about ten families. We had one very small room upstairs, and one room downstairs. The families lived in various bits of the house and we all shared one toilet and one kitchen," he said. "In that situation, people made their own entertainment, and the kind of entertainment they made was a kind of flamenco or whatever was going on in the popular music of the time. The inclination of any young child was to join in."

Peña explained this music to the UCLA Daily Bruin, "Flamenco is similar to the blues… . It has a tinge of sadness, an element of fight and rebellion. It is pain and suffering with explosions of great happiness. It is a symbol of Spain."

Peña's brother had begun playing guitar, which prompted him to start playing as well. Peña was not formally tutored in the art of guitar; he learned from his brother or friends and neighbors. He joined in with whomever was playing or singing in the neighborhood for fun. Peña was inspired by other musicians he heard on the radio, namely Elvis Presley and Paul Anka. His desire was to emulate them and other successful musicians.

His only musical education came at age nine, when he joined a rondalla, or folk ensemble. He contends his future successes were directly correlated to his desire and talent, which made others in the community invite him to play or participate in concerts. Peña was playing guitar whenever he could with whomever would ask him to play or accompany them.

Peña told Acoustic Guitar, "the thing was to just join in and make mistakes. That's the way you learn flamenco. I don't want to sound sad or dramatic, but I didn't have any money for lessons. I had a friend, about my age, who played guitar in the market square. He had a teacher. He was learning bits from his teacher and I was learning bits from him. You try to absorb what you can."

By some accounts, Peña began his professional career at the age of 12. He was involved in a government program designed to keep the traditions of various folk music and dances in Spain alive. It was during tours throughout Spain, as a part of this program, that he was hired to tour with a flamenco company. Peña was still attending school, but two years later, he was forced to leave school to help the family. He worked for a notary and in a hardware store while continuing to play.

Knowing that he wanted to pursue a career as a flamenco guitarist, he left for Madrid, then played clubs in the Costa Brava. Performers playing in the Costa Brava had a relatively easy life which consisted of playing guitar each night for about an hour-and-a-half. Days were spent meeting women at the beach and eating good food, but that was not enough.

Embarked on Career as Soloist

During a tour, he had been asked to perform a solo, which was atypical within the Spanish flamenco tradition. Peña began to wonder about the possibility of becoming a successful solo performer. In retrospect, he told the UCLA Daily Bruin in 1996 that his experience as part of a company left him "disillusioned." He says he "expected people to be perfect, which was stupid, and when I saw that some people were not seeking artistic endeavors, I felt I was wasting my time and decided to play on my own." As for the transition to performing solo, he says it was "all quite by accident."

Peña ultimately moved to London with a flamenco company at the age of 24. Recalling his only solo appearance, the guitarist was tentative about performing alone, but says everything fell into place quickly. "I had a job waiting for me when I arrived. I was the main attraction at Restaurante Antonio in Covent Garden in London. Of course, my intention was to push on. Eventually, a manager saw me and one thing led to another," he told Acoustic Guitar. "I was fascinated with the idea of being a professional, of being able to convince [an audience] with what I was doing."

One of his first big performances was at a "guitar in" at London's Royal Festival Hall. Jimi Hendrix was the headlining performer. Peña made his solo debut at Wigmore Hall, also in London. Of that performance, Peña told Mixdown Monthly that he was "quite unprepared for the experience of that event. It was very dramatic, because I was quite young, and in a way quite innocent about showbiz and all that."

About this same time, he began learning technique from other guitarists, both classical and flamenco. He ultimately decided he needed to change his playing technique dramatically in order to improve his playing. Among the other players whom he credits as inspiration include Niño Ricardo, Ramón Montoya—who had been long dead, but whose recordings were an important learning tool—, and Sabicas. "I didn't learn directly from them, but everything I played was in a way touched by their music. But it was always trying to be my music," he told Acoustic Guitar. "I studied their music, listening to their recordings. I discovered a lot about their personalities through their music, what motivated them, and I fell in love, even more strongly, with their contribution."

Attained Notoriety Abroad and at Home

In 1970, he organized his first flamenco touring company named Flamenco Puro. Since, he has been continually active in creating learning and performing opportunities for those interested in flamenco. He is the founder of a course leading to a degree in flamenco guitar at the Conservatory of Rotterdam, in which he is still actively involved. Peña founded the International Guitar Festival in Cordóba in 1980. His newest troupe, Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company has toured throughout the world in various productions, each of which seems to generate critical acclaim for their dance and music fusion.

The Connecticut Classical Guitar Society in announcing a performance called Peña not simply a guitarist and composer, but also "dramatist, producer and artistic mentor" who "embodies both authenticity and innovation in flamenco." For five consecutive years, readers of American Guitar magazine voted Peña as "Best Flamenco Guitarist of the Year."

In a 1994 review in American Record Guide, William Ellis called Peña "simply the finest flamenco guitarist of his generation: breath-taking technique, passion to spare, and an ear for compositional improvisation few peers can match." Ellis also wrote that although "Paco De Lucia may have the name from his cross-over forays into jazz and pop …Peña is the real deal, committed to the purity of cante flamenco." Ironically, it was Peña who was named one of Billboard magazine's Top 10 Crossover Artists of 1988.

Peña composes almost all the music he plays. Perhaps his best known work to date is Misa Flamenco, a flamenco-styled mass commissioned for a festival of religious music held in Poland. The piece was performed in collaboration with other flamenco artists as well as the renown Choir of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a renowned British choral group, in 1991. It was later seen at the 1992 EXPO in Seville, Spain, then in worldwide performances. In 1997 Peña was given the Oficial de la Cruz de la Orden del Merito Civil by Spain's King Juan Carlos.

Remained True to Flamenco

In a 2002 review of his Paco Peña Dance Company's Voces y Ecos or Voices and Echoes, UK reviewer Nadine Meisner wrote in the Independent that the production is "a perfect fusion of flamenco connoisseurship and stage knowhow." Of this same show, Sanjoy Roy wrote in The Guardian that it "is no picture-postcard tour of gypsy exotica… . Instead, it realises Peža's open vision of flamenco's diversity while remaining true to its soul."

Reviewers have also noted with performances such as these by Paco Peña, "the dark soul of flamenco … is not just safe but vibrantly alive," Jenny Gilbert commented in the Independent. "Despite appearances—the man is small, quiet, and cuts an almost absurdly modest figure hunched over his instrument on stage—the Cordóba-born musician knows just where to locate the [essence] of his native art form."

Peña told Mixdown Magazine in 1999 he owns about 20 guitars "because through the years I have gone buying guitars, hoping to find something really good." The one he plays most is a Spanish guitar built by Gerundino that he plays "endlessly, and still enjoy[s] it the most." Many of his instruments are custom-made. Peña prefers an instrument that combines the best of the flamenco style guitar and classical guitar. These have very different sounds and construction. "It's sort of intimate and difficult to explain, but fundamentally what is important is the sound." He goes on to say, "some guitars sing to you, and some may sound very loud but don't have the sweet quality that you want to express."

Life-Long Loves: Musical Collaboration, Travel

Peña has been very frank about his life-long love for playing—or, as he calls it, "linking"—with other performers. He says this linking is a creative recharging and learning process. He has played with a variety of other individuals and groups from a wide variety of backgrounds and musical traditions, including Inti-Illimani, a Chilean group; John Williams; and Peter Gabriel.

Peña makes his home in London, but still has family in Córdoba, where he keeps a second home. He told the UCLA Daily Bruin he enjoys touring. "Traveling exposes you to different people from whom you can learn. My travel experiences come back to my music. In fact, everything inspires my musical compositions. Flamenco deals with serious emotions of mankind, and I feel I am in tune with my music in that sense."


American Record Guide, May-June 1994.

Europe Intelligence Wire (From The Guardian ), October 22, 2002.

Europe Intelligence Wire (From The Independent ), October 21, 2002.


"Interview with Paco Peña," reposted from Acoustic Guitar, May 2000, (January 22, 2003).

"MUSIC: Mixed music and dance troupe to captivate audiences at Wadsworth," UCLA Daily Bruin, November 15, 1996, (January 27, 2003).

"Paco Peña: Beyond the Frets of Mortal Man," Mixdown Monthly, October 6, 1999, (January 27, 2003).

"Paco Peña Brings Flamenco Troupe Here," Northwestern University News Release, November 18, 2002, (January 21, 2003).

"Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company: Paco Peña—Guitarist,"Connecticut Classical Guitar Society, (January 27, 2003).

"Paco Peña," Flamenco World website, (January 21, 2003).

"Well, at least it sounds good…, " Independent UK, October 20, 2002 (January 27, 2003). □

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Pena, Paco

Paco Pena

Flamenco guitarist

Paco Pena's long career in flamenco began when he first picked up his brother's guitar around the age of six. Singing, dancing, and celebrating the ups and downs of life through musical expression were long a part of his life. Steeped in the experiences of his youth, Pena's dedication to the art and history of flamenco culture and music has guided him through more than thirty years of performance. He has won numerous awards for his guitar playing and presented audience-pleasing performances that have introduced people all over the world to the intricacies of flamenco singing, dancing, and guitar playing. In reviewing a 2000 show for the Evening Mail in Birmingham, England, Dave Freak wrote of Pena, "The … dexterity of his fingers was little short of breathtaking, his mastery of both his guitar and flamenco unquestionable."

Pena was born Francisco Pena Perez on June 1, 1946, in Cordoba, Spain. He was the youngest child of nine, which included seven sisters. His family was poor and lived in shared housing with nine other families. Pena described the house to Michael Church of the Independent, " [We] rented two rooms of an old house … sharing a toilet and tub with nine other families … we were like one very big family. Every birth, marriage or bereavement involved everyone. And we were surrounded by music—sung and played, not out of a radio." Growing up in those conditions, Pena was deeply influenced by the way music permeated daily life.

Shy as a young child, Pena found that by playing guitar he could connect with the people around him much easier. He also found that it enriched his life, giving it some meaning. He explained to Arminta Wallace of the Irish Times, "For me it was a pretty significant tool in my communication with people. So I took it really seriously. I just played and played and played." He described to Church the joy he found in performing, staying out late at night, playing his guitar in the street, happy to know that what he was doing was pleasing those who listened. By age 12, Pena was performing for money. Throughout his teens he played and toured with small flamenco groups. His goal eventually was to see the world and continue playing guitar. He told Annie Taylor of the Guardian, "My dreams were not focused in Cordoba. Playing guitar and moving on was my fascination."

Found His Way to London

In the late 1960s, Pena found himself performing in England as accompanist for a group of dancers on tour. His solo debut in England came in 1968 when he played at London's Wigmore Hall. That same year he opened for Jimi Hendrix when he played at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1968, he also released his first album, The Incredible Paco Pena. Two years later he founded the Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company. Through this collaborations with other flamenco performers Pena has created touring theater events that bring to light different aspects of flamenco culture.

Throughout the 1970s, Pena worked with his flamenco company while also releasing several albums, including Paco Pena Presents the Art of Flamenco, Art of Flamenco Guitar, and Fabulous Flamenco. Pena's goal has always been to bring the art and history of flamenco to the world. In fact, Pena is well versed in the historical events that fused together to create what he considers to be one of the most passionate forms of music. Mitch Potter related Pena's discussion of that history in the Toronto Star, "Flamenco at its purest … emerged in the early 19th century from a poverty-stricken melting pot of Gypsies, Moors, Jews and Spaniards in southern Spain's Andalucia region. It was originally an expression of song and dance that poignantly mirrored the people's brutal persecution." Pena's most successful album was Flamenco Guitar Music of Montoya and Ricardo. Released in 1987, it was acclaimed by the critics, with sales that put it on the Billboard charts for 30 weeks. At one point the album was in the Top 10 chart for crossover artists.

Flamenco's Past and Future

Pena made a home for himself in London while also maintaining ties to his birthplace of Cordoba. In 1981, Pena founded the Centro Flamenco Paco Pena in Cordoba, Spain, which became one of the leading schools of flamenco. He explained his motivation for opening the center on his website, "I wanted to build a bridge between the rest of the world and the region of my birth. For anyone wanting to learn flamenco, seeking to appreciate it to the full, there is no substitute for the potent atmosphere of Andalucía."

For the Record …

Born on June 1, 1946, in Cordoba, Spain.

Professional debut, age 12; solo debut in London, Wigmore Hall, 1968; formed Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company, 1970; founded Centro Flamenco Paco Pena, became artistic director of Cordoba International Guitar Festival, 1981; became professor of flamenco, Rotterdam Conservatoire, 1985; collaborative album with composer John Williams and Chilean group Inti-Illimani Fragments of a Dream released, 1987; North American premiere of Misa Flamenca, 1993; debuted Musa Gitana, 1999; premiered Flamenco Requiem: In Praise of the Earth, Salisbury Festival, 2004; headlined Hispanic and Latin-American Guitar Extravaganza, 2005.

Awards: Ramon Montoya prize, best concert guitarist, 1983; Guitar Player Magazine, best flamenco guitarist, 1989–93; King of Spain, Civil Order of Merit Cross, 1997.

Addresses: Management—MPM London, Ste. 20, 1 Prince of Wales Rd., London, NW5 3LW, phone: 44-20-7681-7475, fax: 44-20-7681-7476, email: Website—Paco Pena Official Website:

Pena often pulls performers for his flamenco company from the students who come to the flamenco center. It is with the flamenco company that Pena has created some of his most important and challenging works. Pena described on his website the importance of the collaborative effort that is part of his flamenco company, "The depth of feeling—and the tragedy of flamenco's history—is always there. We take flamenco very seriously, not least the singing. The singers are the greatest source of inspiration for all of us, whether dancers or guitarists." At first their performances were limited to London and small festivals throughout Europe. Soon the company was touring and performing in Australia, Israel, and Hong Kong. Eventually, the company went on to create grander works.

In 1991, Pena created the work called Misa Flamenca. Based on the Catholic Mass, the performance integrated flamenco with a classical choir, thus bringing together two of the main ingredients that helped form Pena as a child—flamenco and Catholicism. The performance premiered in London at the Royal Festival Hall. Misa Flamenca was then taken on a world tour. Its North American debut was in 1993, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Other touring theatrical shows by Pena include Musa Gitana, which premiered in 1999, and Voces y Ecos, which was directed by Jude Kelly. His other touring shows include A Compas! and Requiem Flamenco.

Pena has also worked outside of his flamenco troupe, branching out for solo tours and performances at festivals around the world. He has also teamed up with composer John Williams and the formerly exiled Chilean music grouped called Inti-Illimani. In 1988, the collaboration produced the album Fragments of a Dream. They also released an album in 1990 called Leyenda. In 2000, this unlikely collaborative group went on tour together. As late as the mid-2000s, he was part of a trio of acts featured at the Hispanic and Latin-American Guitar Extravaganza in Daytona, Florida.

Pena's talent is not only evident in his guitar-playing ability, which garnered him Guitar Player Magazine awards numerous years in a row for best flamenco guitarist, but also in a number of other areas. He is a teacher and mentor to rising talents in flamenco. He has composed and produced critically acclaimed theater pieces. He is also one of traditional flamenco's most vocal and dedicated proponents.

Selected discography

The Incredible Paco Pena, Fontana, 1968.
(With Los Maracuchos) Carnival, Fontana, 1969.
Paco Pena Presents the Art of Flamenco, CBS, 1970; reissued, Sony, 1995.
Flamenco Puro Live, Decca, 1971; reissued, 1997.
Art of Flamenco Guitar, Decca, 1972.
Fabulous Flamenco!, Decca, 1975; reissued 1991.
Flamenco from Spain, Decca, 1977.
La Gitarra Flamenca, Decca, 1977.
The Flamenco World of Paco Pena, Decca, 1978.
Paco Pena Live in London, Decca, 1979.
Paco Pena Flamenco Company: Live at Sadler's Wells, Decca, 1980.
Flamenco Vivo: Live in Munich, Aconcagua, 1981.
(With Paco Lucia) Paco Doble, Phillips, 1983.
Flamenco Guitar Music of Ramon Montoya and Nino Ricardo, Nimbus, 1987.
Azahara, Nimbus, 1988.
(With John Williams and Inti-Illimani) Fragments of a Dream, CBS, 1988.
(With Eduardo Falu) Encuentro, Nimbus, 1989.
(With John Williams and Inti-Illimani) Leyenda, CBS, 1990.
Misa Flamenca, Nimbus, 1991.
The Art of Paco Pena, Nimbus, 1993.
Arte Y Pasion, Live in Concert Nimbus, 1999.
(With The Losadas) Paco Pena Flamenco Guitar, Nimbus, 2000.
Paco Pena Flamenco Master, Manteca Records, 2003.



Birmingham Post (Birmingham, UK), May 3, 2004, p 13.

Evening Mail (Birmingham, UK), July 12, 2000, p. 23.

Guardian (Manchester, UK), November 10, 1997, p. 2.

Independent (London), April 17, 2006, p. 41.

Irish Times (Dublin), July 3, 2006, p. 12.

New York Times, May 18, 1987, p. C.16.

Times (London), October 16, 2002, p. 19.

Toronto Star, April 14, 1989, p. D8; April 20, 1989, p. C2.

Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, BC), February 26, 2005, p. D5.


Paco Pena Official Website, (November 5, 2006).

"Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company," A&L News Release,–2004/pr/pena.asp (November 5, 2006).

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