SABICAS, BRIEF REFLECTIONS ON GENIUS
Alberto García Reyes
1912. The second industrial revolution was in its final throwers, with a workers'
movement of social nature which arose with the expressed aim of confronting nineteenth
century capitalism which had brought so much suffering to the lowest classes.
The Marxist utopia, the ideas of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and Russia's social democracy,
which would later be divided into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, had not yet reached
Spain which was hoping for a revolution "from a position of power",
in accordance with the conservative ideas of Antonio Maura who had replaced Sagasta,
and by implication, bipartisanism.
It is possible that this social, political and economic situation would drive
that crying voice that was first heard at number 4 Mañueta Street in Pamplona,
towards the political beliefs that years later would lead him into exile. Agustín
Castellón Campos, Sabicas, saw first light between San Fermín festivities
and gypsies, in the city that Hemingway would soon popularize with his journalist's
pen. Almost nothing is known about Agustín's early years. But there is
one clarifying bit of information: out in Jarauta, Arrochatea or Villaba, towns
where he lived as a child, the guitar was beckoning when he was barely strong
enough to lift it. His parents bought him his first guitar for 17 pesetas and
only two years later he made his stage debut. It was in the Gayarre theater, where
he played on the occasion of a military swearing-in ceremony. From that point
on, Sabicas, who earned the nickname from his early fondness for eating raw broadbeans,
or "habas" - el Niño de las Habicas (the broadbean kid) - was
never again able to tear himself away from the six strings.
Even so, one of the main factors in his rapid development was the move to Madrid
when he was only ten years old. Manuel Bonet took no time in discovering him and
had him debut in the Eldorado theater with the company of Chelito. And one can't
overlook the family ties which bound Sabicas to the maestro Ramón Montoya,
a relative of his mother's, if we are to understand the tendency don Agustín
showed toward the concert flamenco guitar. In his early professional years he
was a diehard Montoya follower. But the thirties brought about a radical change
in him. He accompanied the most important singers of the moment - Juan Valderrama,
Carbonerillo, Antonio el de la Calzá... - making recordings where he appears
as Niño Sabicas, helping him to create a much more personal way of playing,
with an unmistakeable and inimitable right-hand technique.
Nevertheless, the turning point in his professional career as well as in his
personal life was brought on by the Spanish Civil War. Agustín, who had
always been his own man, looked across the seas with glazed eyes, yearning for
that which would be many years in coming to Spain: freedom. Exile was practically
a necessity. And at this point he crossed paths with none other than Carmen Amaya.
Together they made the journey overseas to South America to tour the entire continent,
thus distancing themselves from the political turmoil in Spain. But Sabicas grew
fond of that land and in the mid-fifties he moved to New York to give solo guitar
That's where Paco de Lucía discovered him during his first tour with
the dancer José Greco, according to statements gathered by Juan José
Téllez: "That's where I discovered Sabicas and Mario Escudero, because
at that time in Spain we were all learning from Niño Ricardo, who was the
guitarist who taught our whole generation, he was everyone's maestro. Sabicas
and Escudero were practically unknown here, until later on when we began to get
their records made in America. In Sabicas I saw a new way of playing, a new approach...".
Sabicas in Buenos Aires, 1939
On the back of the record jacket of a recording made in 1961 by the maestro
from Pamplona appeared the following: "Sabicas is always among flamenco people,
whether he's in New York, on one of his journeys, or in his house in Mexico City.
He spends his days and nights playing, and he enjoys receiving the visit of other
guitarists. There is no sign of the traditional envy with regard to teaching others
his original falsetas, but rather quite the contrary, he spends hours teaching
them. But as one guitarist lamented, after one of these sessions he knows perfectly
well that no one else but he can play that music correctly".
This text gives an idea of the personality of Agustín Castellón,
who had his mind sufficiently broadened in America that he made the first known
recorded attempt at fusion, "Rock Encounter" (Polygram, 1966), together
with Joe Beck. The result was not very satisfactory according to the musician
himself who would later say: "I like neither rock nor jazz. I did it because
my brother Diego wanted to open up other fields in order to sell more".
Be that as it may, the fact is, Sabicas forged the link between the flamenco
guitar of years ago, and the present. Paco de Lucía, in those same declarations
made to Juan José Téllez corroborates: "Until I discovered
Sabicas I thought Niño Ricardo was god, and I learned from him one way
or another, but when I met Sabicas I realized there was more to the guitar. With
Sabicas I discovered a clarity of sound I had never heard before, as well as speed
I had not known up to that point, in other words, another way of playing. From
that point on, it's not that that I forgot about Ricardo, but I was able to add
Sabicas' way of playing to my learning experience, and I transformed it to make
The relationship don Agustín maintained during those years with jazz
greats such as Charles Mingus, Ben E. King, Gil Evans, Thelonius Monk and Miles
Davis was also very important. Sabicas was treated by the record companies as
just another member of the gang, and his records were distributed worldwide.
He wouldn't go back to Spain until 1967, returning periodically after that
time. Twenty years later his native country gave him the first national tribute,
in Madrid, where the doors of the Teatro Royal were opened for him. Earlier, in
1982, Pamplona dedicated its San Fermín fiesta to him. These were heady
times for the brilliant guitarist who went on to record with Enrique Morente one
year before his death. Early in 1990 the news came as a shock: "Sabicas passes
away in Bronx hospital". On April 14 New York looked on as the gypsy from
Pamplona left us forever.
Ever since then, Agustín Castellón Campos has been remembered
for many reasons, whether for having been a maestro of Paco de Lucía, whether
as an irreplaceable fixture in the history of flamenco, or simply as a collector
of ties. The fact remains that thanks to his searing scales, his early dabbling
in the harmonic revolution, his hammered picado technique, and his great knowledge
of cante, Sabicas deserves to be at the top of flamenco history. The words of
la Niña de la Puebla who he accompanied on numerous occasions before the
war are a telling document: "Whenever I would do something new with the cante,
he would read me with a single look". That was maestro Agustín, slave
and master at the same time, someone who never gave up, nor in spirit, nor in
practice, his search for perfection.