In Search of a Most Excellent Guitar

When eleven o’clock came, Don Quixote found a guitar in his chamber; he tried it, opened the window, and perceived that some persons were walking in the garden; and having passed his fingers over the frets of the guitar and tuned it as well as he could, he spat and cleared his chest, and then with a voice a little hoarse but full-toned, he sang the following ballad, which he had himself that day composed…

—Cervantes, Don Quixote, Chapter XLVI, translated by John Ormsby

For years I had heard that Córdoba is a city filled with master guitar-makers and -players. Now here I was on a sunny winter morning, standing in the Plaza del Potro, the “potter’s plaza,” in old Córdoba, a place described by Cervantes in Don Quixote. Cervantes made his hero both a guitarist and a singer of ballads. As I am also a guitarist and singer of ballads, I hoped that day to find a most excellent guitar.

Jaime Peña Aragon. Photo by Geoffrey Clarfield.

Near the Plaza I entered a two-story house with a courtyard dedicated to interactive exhibits about the history and practice of flamenco and, above all, to the remarkable career of the Andalusian singer and guitarist Fosforito. I sat entranced, watching a long video where he gives a sincere oral history of his life: the poor son of a village-based flamenco singer, he won four awards at the Córdoba Flamenco Festival in 1956, launching a dazzling career that has yet to end.

I went to the man at the entrance and in simple Spanish asked if he could give me directions to a guitar maker’s studio, or guitarrería. He looked at me and said, “No!” Then he smiled, got up, went with me to the entrance of the museum that looks on to the plaza, and pointed to a wall a mere 100 feet towards the start of the plaza. “There,” he said.

I walked down the edge of the square, looked at the wall, turned the corner of the building, and there it was. A door opened onto a workshop as narrow as a subway car that could barely hold two people. In the back lay a glass case filled with finished guitars; guitars in various stages of construction hung from the ceiling.

A youngish-looking man, in his forties I’d have guessed, was working on a guitar. I greeted him as he put it down to say hello. I soon found that he had lived in London for a number of years, and so we quickly moved to English for my convenience. I explained to him that I was a guitarist and music journalist. I asked if I could play one of his guitars.

I took off my coat and arranged the chairs so that nothing could touch or scratch the instrument. I played a very simple flamenco piece called “Peteneras,” and then tuned the bass E string down to D. I then played my version of the 18th-century blind Irish harpist O’Carolan’s piece called “Big Fairy, Little Fairy.” It was a most excellent guitar, an acoustic gem. My quest to find such a guitar had been successful. But what of the quest to make such a guitar?

After chatting about Spain and the ongoing financial and employment crisis, I asked the man his name. “Jaime Peña Aragon,” he said. “Peña, Peña, Peña,” I said. “Why is that name so familiar?” He then told me, “My uncle is Paco Peña, the famous flamenco guitarist! Do you know who he is?” I answered, “Do I know who Jimi Hendrix was? Do I know who Eric Clapton is?”

Jaime Peña Aragon was born on February 14, 1974. He has deep roots in Andalusia. His parents were born in Córdoba in the 1940s. On his mother’s side he traces his family back to Cabra, a village about a half-hour drive from Córdoba. He knows little about, and has had little contact with, his father’s side of the family.

He is the youngest of three siblings. His eldest sister, Silvia, is the mother of a young, up-and-coming flamenco guitarist named David Leiva, whom he assures me will soon be famous. His elder brother Carlos has been his partner in the design and making of a wide range of musical instruments over the past two decades, including guitars.

Jaime comes from a large extended Andalusian family. His maternal grandmother gave birth to nine children, including his uncle Paco Peña, the world-famous guitarist. Growing up was not easy in Jaime’s family. His mother and father argued constantly, and after they divorced, he and his siblings experienced various conflicts with his mother, a woman of shifting moods.

This strife was offset by the closeness Jaime experienced with his mother’s extended family. His grandmother Rosario managed to raise her nine children despite the fact that she could neither read nor write. Her husband, Antonio, was a clever hustler who travelled widely and always managed to make money in times of turmoil, such as during and after the Spanish Civil War. He would come home, make her pregnant, and continue his rambling.

In those days Andalusians were generally uneducated, persecuted by landowners, and torn apart by the Spanish Civil War. And for Spaniards, the suffering and destruction has had a knock-on effect across the generations, as they never experienced an allied liberation from fascism as the Italians did. Franco simply died in 1975, a year after Jaime was born, when the rest of Europe was happily living in the late 20th century.

Jaime and his siblings grew up in a simple Andalusian house, with two rooms slept in by many, a bathroom they shared with neighboring families, and a courtyard where people would sit, talk, eat, and socialize. It was here that Jaime remembers listening to his uncle Paco play the guitar while his aunts sang Christmas carols, sevillanas, and fandangos and “laughed so hard that they managed to forget their hunger.”

After he had finished high school and his military service (obligatory at the time), Jaime tells me, “I entered the world of wood. I got a job in an antiques restoration shop as a wood carver in training. In the morning I worked at wood. In the afternoon I made up for some missed courses in high school, and at night I took courses in order to get in to college. I did this for a few years, without any feeling of mastery. I then took the opportunity to move to London, England, for two years working on restoring antiques.”

At the same time, Jaime’s elder brother Carlos and a close mutual friend, Manuel Parrado, had also been exploring the world of wood. Together, they decided to set up a studio to make musical instruments. One would think that they would have focused on flamenco guitars, but that is not what happened.

By the time they were in their mid-twenties, Jaime, Carlos, and Manuel had been smitten by the Celtic music revival. They set off to make Celtic instruments and other instruments used in the growing Early Music revival, with Carlos bringing his interest in instrument construction along with his former study of the classical oboe. They also began performing Celtic music in an informal ensemble.

In their first studio in Córdoba they managed to construct a version of the traditional Irish bagpipe, which sold very well. They attracted some very high-end clients and got to know the piper Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains fame. With some help from other Spanish clients, the brothers and their friend decided to head for the capital city and set up shop nearby. As Andalusians who had moved to central Spain making Celtic instruments and playing the music on the side, Jaime admits that he felt like “a Martian on Venus.”

In the village of Guadarrama, near Madrid, they manufactured Asturian and Galician bagpipes. (Northern Spain has an ancient tradition of bagpipe playing, one that can be heard on Alan Lomax’s Spanish recordings.) They also constructed Baroque oboes, Baroque traverse flutes, Irish bagpipes, whistles in different keys, and then, inevitably, they started to experiment making guitars.

It was actually their uncle Paco who encouraged them. It was obvious to him, as Jaime says, that “we had been raised with the sound of the guitar during our childhood and younger years. You could say that the guitar runs through our veins and blood. But our first guitars were experiments, and we did not make them to sell.”

Jaime, Carlos, and Manuel were doing just fine near Madrid. For them, like many Andalusians in the music business, Madrid is the New York of Spain, and they had arrived. They felt they would soon be recognized as the master craftsmen they were becoming. In his optimism, Jaime apprenticed himself to the well-known sculptor Roberto Reula and managed to sell some of his pieces in Madrid.

All of the post-Franco European optimism that was so much part of the ’90s collapsed during the latest Spanish economic implosion. All of a sudden, orders dried up, credit became tight, and they had to shrink their nascent factory. It was a traumatic blow to all three of them. Like so many other Spaniards who had become entrepreneurs in the new European economy, they had trusted the system, and the system had let them down. Manuel and Carlos stayed near Madrid and downsized their workshop. Jaime moved back to Córdoba vowing to make guitars, only guitars. Their European dream was over.

When Jaime began to focus on making guitars after his return to Córdoba, one of the great flamenco centers of the south, he began to take a renewed interest in flamenco as an art form. He tells me that it was a return to something from his childhood. He recalls that all aspects of the music were part of his upbringing, like the air he breathed.

He remembers that, when his extended family would get together for Christmas, the gatherings were major musical events. “We would often sing the Christmas carols of Ramón Medina and many other traditional flamenco pieces. My uncle Paco would accompany us and then we would all go off to the Grand Mosque/Cathedral and celebrate midnight mass. By the way, these extended family gatherings often number over sixty people. We still do them.”

Jaime was not left to his own devices as he began to establish his own guitarrería in Córdoba, home to some of Spain’s most famous guitar makers, such as Manuel Reyes. He has a great mentor in his uncle Paco. “Along with my wood carving mentors, such as Pedro Sanchez and my first teacher, Aurelio Sanchez, Paco’s understanding of the guitar is vast and complex. He will talk to me about a guitar’s sound, comparing it to kinds of bells, or some other sonic phenomena. He also knows that guitars can be made with a different basic volume, and this depends as much on how the guitarist wants to use it as the nature of the instrument. At the end of the day, I listen to him, but I have to take into account the needs of my clients because, simply put, I have to sell guitars!”

The longer Jaime has stayed in Córdoba, the more he has experienced the flamenco world. He tells me that flamenco is a wide and deep musical universe and that you can die without knowing or having experienced all aspects of it. He feels that he is a fairly competent aficionado, and he sits on the board of an association for the promotion of flamenco that his uncle Paco has established.

The association promotes large concerts as well as intimate flamenco gatherings called juergas and a contest for young singers, dancers, and guitarists, for in the past it has often been through public contests that new stars like Fosforito have emerged as new giants in the flamenco firmament. Jaime feels that his added value as a guitar maker is that he also plays and lives in the musical environment where this remarkable art form began and continues to thrive.

Many guitar makers are unable to articulate the process by which they create a guitar, but Jaime has given it much thought. He tells me, “I make guitars like a collage artist. I start making the different parts independently, and then pay special attention to the construction of the soundboard for each and every instrument. Oddly enough, sometimes I spend more time on one part and sometimes on another. It is hard to predict. I am not always happy with the result because I am always experimenting and doing something new to each and every guitar. I feel that there are times when I am taking two steps forward and one step back, but that is the only path to greatness. I share my results with my brother Carlos. He is an expert, very intuitive, and gives good advice.”

Jaime feels that despite all of this diversity, his guitars have a distinctive sound. They reflect his workshop. Every once in a while he is surprised that he has made an instrument that has an extraordinary sound. He laments that it is often impossible to know just why, but he keeps on striving for excellence.

Jaime explains that the classical guitar is known for its “round and perfect sound.” But Jaime sees himself as a bit of a rebel. Yes, he is making flamenco guitars, but guitars that share something with the classical version. On one occasion Jaime gave his brother Carlos one of his finished pieces to play. Carlos told him it was a “classic.” Paco was there at the time and this made him laugh. He told the two of them that in his opinion, “a good guitar is a good guitar!”

Jaime tells me that he learns more about guitars and their nature from each and every one of his clients, but he points out that even a good guitarist can make a bad guitar sound good. He believes that the world of music is evolving and so is the related world of guitar construction. For example, he explains that in general, flamenco guitars have lower bridges than do classical guitars, meaning that the strings are closer to the sound hole and the fret board. At the same time, each musician brings his or her own playing style to the guitar, and this in itself has an effect on the ergonomics of the instrument. This is not made any easier by the fact that really good guitarists speak very abstractly about the sound of a guitar, how it feels and what it means for them. Jaime has to turn those words into wood.

He tells me, “That transition to making guitars here in Córdoba was hard and stressful, but there is much emotional, familial, and historical justice in what I am doing now . . . I am an Andalusian with deep roots here and with the music called flamenco. This chapter of my life has not yet closed. Paco, Carlos, and myself have many projects that we want to do. Because of the economic downturn, we cannot do all of them, but we hope to do them all one day. I want to enlarge the workshop, work with others, and make guitars in what I consider to be this most beautiful of cities, Córdoba.”

As I left Jaime’s studio, I walked across the Plaza del Potro, towards the Guadalquivir River, and back to my hotel. Thinking of Jaime’s struggle to make a most excellent guitar, I recalled the words of the Spanish poet García Lorca who once wrote,

The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him from three strong voices: the voice of death, with all its foreboding, the voice of love, and the voice of art.

Jaime Peña Aragon has listened to all of these voices. You can hear them in his guitars.

Contributor

Geoffrey Clarfield

GEOFFREY CLARFIELD is the Consultant for Research and Development for the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) in Manhattan.

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