Abu Dhabi Festival 2017:‘Flamenco needs to be kept alive anyway, and it will be,’ says Tomatito
José Fernández Torres, better known as Tomatito, is one of the handful of remaining musical trailblazers credited with reviving flamenco’s fortunes in the late 20th century.
The 58-year-old guitarist’s name is synonymous with two great icons of the tradition – Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía – and since their death, a greater weight has inevitably shifted onto Tomatito’s shoulders. He performs tomorrow at New York University Abu Dhabi as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.
Born in Almería in 1958 into a musical gipsy family, Tomatito began playing the guitar “before I could even walk”, he jokes, and first appeared on stage at the age of 10.
“There were so many guitarists in my family that I had no choice,” says Tomatito.
“I fell in love with the instrument at the age you usually fall in love for the first time – in my early teens. I loved the positioning of body, hands, head and all the gestures. However, that quickly becomes secondary, and you must focus on making a beautiful sound. I’m still striving to do that.”
In 1970, his father, also a guitarist, moved the family to Málaga, where his young son became a regular accompanist and soloist at the city’s thriving flamenco clubs.
It is here that the legendary de Lucía – arguably the best-known flamenco-guitar maestro ever – encountered the teenage talent, 11 years his junior. The meeting set off a chain of events, which saw Tomatito working with both de Lucia and legendary singer de la Isla for the next two decades.
“Several figures are responsible for my ‘discovery’, which, in fact, was not so much a discovery but an opportunity,” says Tomatito. “I was 15 and knew nothing of the world.”
“Paco showed me the rest of the flamenco sphere, that the guitar is a universal instrument, and he brought that to the world, opening the door for others like me.”
Tomatito would accompany de la Isla until his death in 1992 – often also alongside de Lucía – recording numerous influential albums, beginning with the 1979 hit La Leyenda del Tiempo (The Legend of Time). To Tomatito, no singer can rival his former employer.
“No one in the flamenco world can ever match his cante [singing] for its magical, lyrical quality,” he adds.
“He did not want fame and fortune, he only wanted to get elderly gipsies to share old songs with him.”
The seminal recordings these three men created played a pivotal role in bringing flamenco music – part of a wider Andalusian folk culture dated to the 18th century – back to the limelight in the 1970s and 1980s, considered the genre’s “second golden age”.
Following de la Isla’s death, Tomatito embarked on a highly celebrated solo career, with three of his six solo albums winning the Latin Grammy for Best Flamenco Album, an honour he also shared in 2000 with pianist Michel Camilo for Spain, the first of two duet releases recorded with the pianist.
Tomatito’s solo work has at times taken on shades of jazz, a genre he credits being introduced to by de Lucía, following the latter’s role in an all-star guitar trio alongside fusion masters John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola. Tomatito says his own jazz journey began after hearing six-string pioneers Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery, before embracing the later fusions of Pat Metheny and George Benson.
“Jazz was a language I knew I would never speak fluently,” he admits. “But jazz is instantly recognisable as a form of music that comes straight from the soul, like flamenco, and therefore I can make myself understood in that idiom.”
With de Lucía passing away in 2014 of a heart attack at the age of 66, Tomatito says the greatest lesson he learnt from the virtuoso and mentor was humility.
“Paco was the most modest and humble person I have ever met,” he adds. “Rather than a mentor, I would use the term ‘guiding light’. Everything that he was deserves to be emulated by all flamenco guitarists.”
Since then, Tomatito has become an anointed heir to keeping de Lucía’s legacy alive. It’s an honour he shouldered uncomfortably.
“Flamenco needs to be kept alive anyway, and it will be,” says Tomatito.
“Others want to take [the tradition] into other dimensions and mix it with different elements. My responsibility within this trend is to re-vindicate the type of flamenco that I play – ‘flamenco puro gitano’ – or pure gipsy flamenco.”
This return to his roots is evident on Tomatito’s last album, Soy Flamenco, which also forms the name of the concert he will present in Abu Dhabi. Released in 2013, it featured a guest turn which marked one of de Lucia’s final recordings, but mortality seems to rank low among Tomatito’s concerns.
“Gipsies try not to think of the future – we live for today, because that is all we have really,” he says.
“I was already a grandfather at 40 and it won’t be long before I become a great grandfather. I’m not worried about age, and as long as my wife feeds me like she does, I should last.”
•Tomatito performs as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at NYUAD Arts Center tomorrow from 8pm. There are no more free tickets, but standby tickets are likely to be available