Interview with Marco Van Doornum
We had an opportunity to interview Marco Van Doornum. Hawaii loves this brilliant international guitarist! He is not only an exceptional guitarist but also an excellent teacher. We were able to listen him play at some concerts in Hawaii and also to learn from his compás/palmas & guitar workshops. He has been very generous in sharing his knowledge of flamenco and has brought chispas (sparks) to in the life of island flamenco lovers.
1) What made you interested in flamenco? What is particular about flamenco for you?
Ok, so what made me interested in flamenco is that I used to play jazz and classical guitar, but it never felt 100% right. I was always looking for something else, and my uncle Tomás who is from Barcelona introduced me to flamenco - Carmen Amaya and Sabicas. And from that moment I heard the rhythm I really felt that’s what I want to learn. So, that’s when I started doing flamenco, it felt more comfortable to me than blues and jazz, which I liked but it never felt 100%. I knew I liked the guitar, I love the guitar, but those styles were not what I was looking for. When I heard flamenco, ah yeah! I related to it. It was my uncle who got me into that.
2) How did you start playing flamenco? Where did you learn flamenco?
So, what happened was when I heard the flamenco, I bought a book. I think it was a very old book. I think it’s still available, Juan Martin - flamenco: el arte of gitano flamenco something like that. I bought that. That was a very good book, still is a good book. It introduces you to learn basic techniques, concepts and different palos. I heard traditional techniques that are still applicable in a modern context. So, for flamenco today, it’s good.
And then, I looked for teachers; the teacher that I found at that time who was kind of known in Australia. Because back in those days Australia used to have pretty good flamenco scenes, it still sort of does, but a lot of old generations like my uncle who got away from Spain because of Franco and emigrated to Australia, a little bit like United States. So there were dance schools in Sydney. He mentioned several people; he mentioned a particular lady Diana Reyes. So I looked for her school and I called her up and asked if I came down. She said, “yeah, yeah, alright, come down.” So I came down one day. I did not know anything about accompaniment. I was very young. I just started. At that time there was another guitarist there who had been around a lot longer, and he knew a lot more. I had a guitarist who was accompanying the class who I could learn from, and I had a teacher who’ve involved in flamenco for a long time and she had a good reputation, so that was good.
3) How was/is flamenco in Australia?
So when I started, I think flamenco was very good, there were a lot of good people that came from good background in flamenco. So, I think I was very lucky. There were some tablaos to play at. I could study and work and play in dance schools and learn authentic flamenco, you know, and go to tablaos and sit as a second or third guitar player behind the people that knew what they were doing and dancers who knew what they were doing; so I could learn flamenco in a way that was good to the traditions of flamenco, you know, to understand the basics and learn about accompaniment. Because really as a guitarist, you need to know that you can’t start from a solo career, and it doesn’t work that way in flamenco. You start playing in a dance class, developing accompanying with singing and dancing; later in your career, 30 or 40 years later, you become a solo guitarist because all the materials you learned come form accompaniment, from interpretations of dance and singing. So, if you don’t have that, how can you be an authentic solo guitarist? You can’t if you don't have the background of the forms of flamenco.
On top of learning to accompany dance and singing, it gives you technique, which is applicable to play solo guitar; it gives you spontaneity and it gives you the kind of technique with the right kind of touch. It’s very important; it’s absolutely integral. It’s impossible in my opinion to go from being a solo guitarist in flamenco, just being a solo guitarist. It just doesn’t work; it needs to go though that the whole apprenticeship of accompanying dance and singing and going to dance schools, you know, starting to work with dancers with shows, doing accompaniment singing of flamenco with dance because singing with dance is a little different from solo singing.
Eventually then what happens is that you specialize; you specialize to play dance, you specialized to play singing. You become maybe a soloist. Some people never become a solo guitarist. Some people specialize with singing, some people specialize working for dance. Some people become solo guitarists. So, it’s very unique to the flamenco guitar that whole road that you might take; but in my opinion it’s impossible to go “oh I’m gonna to start play flamenco and become a solo guitarist tomorrow.” It doesn’t work that. It’s different from Jazz, and its different from classical guitar.
Because the flamenco guitar extends from the accompaniment, that where comes from, without that there is no such a thing as flamenco. It’s not a musical genre; classical guitar is all about music, extended from that genres and compositions, and I guess in jazz guitar there is accompaniment side too, but it’s different from flamenco. You are dealing with songs, which are compositions; whereas flamenco you are not dealing songs but you are dealing with styles; and there is no code progressions as such. So, it’s different roots. Guitarists need to take to be authentic, so to speak.
4) Who has been your great influence?
My greatest influence? I don’t really have influences. So, the funny thing is that I have people I like and I studied like perhaps Paco de Lucia, of course. But there was a lot of time in my flamenco career I appreciated Paco and I loved what he did but I wouldn’t say I idolized him. I wouldn’t say that I ever thought he was the best, although of course I acknowledge him as the best. But it’s hard to explain. I always liked someone for something maybe or maybe I didn’t like other thing they did. My influence is just everything in the world of flamenco. If I heard guitarists I liked, I would try to study with what he was doing, but I don’t have one influence or model my whole career on someone, or my whole style of playing. And also, I never came from a flamenco background. I came from jazz, classical and rock roll background, so my influence when was younger was nothing. I started really young playing instruments, but nothing to do flamenco. I was influenced by jazz, rock n roll and classical players. So, I don’t have one single influence. As for me, there’s no such a thing as one influence. I’ve never really loved even in normal music one band or one artist. It’s always been like something of this artist or something from that artist. I don’t like everything. You know what I mean? It’s a little bit like that in flamenco I like the way that guy does that. I like the way that person does that. But it doesn’t mean I follow everything that they do.
5) How did you develop your style?
That’s a good question. I think style is something that takes a lot of time to develop. So, I think, when I was younger, I just wanted to be like Paco de Lucia, Tomatito or Vicente Amigo, you know. That’s great because that pushes your techniques and that pushes your understandings, but ultimately, it’s impossible to be like those players. Through that you eventually find your own style, especially in flamenco because in flamenco traditionally nothing is notated. We are just talking guitar, and nothing is notated. So, to learn to be a good flamenco guitar player, you have to use your ears a lot, you have to do a lot of transcribing, not only in a jazz sense way you have to notate everything, put everything in scores but also listening to materials try to work out what the guitar player does.
When you think of a traditional way of studying guitar, you go to someone’s house, you learn what they play, you usually record what they play, and you go home you try to interpret that. It’s never the same. Because it’s not notated, nothing 100% solidified. So, eventually the whole process in flamenco is whether is consciously or not is developing your own style because if I learn something from a teacher I learn to play it essentially I learn to play differently. Say, for example, in my solo guitar repertoires most of my pieces extend from the pieces that I might have learned 20 or 25 years ago that have changed. And I would honestly say 90% of things I learned directly from teachers I don’t play any more. So, the things that I learned are pretty special in my opinion. For me I stayed with those pieces of music and developed them, and they become my own.
For example, once I learned particular falseta from a teacher when I was 18 years old I learned and liked the falseta, I don’t know why, but I like it. But I could not play 100% like him. So I go through months where I play it and I go through months I don’t and months I learn it again but changes a little bit. Maybe I can do a little bit differently. Then I was 35 years old when I saw the same teacher again. First I started with him when I was 17 and learned one phrase, one piece of music, obviously I recorded it, nothing notated. “Hey, Marco here is a piece of music. You like it?” “Can you show me?” I learned it the best I can that he teaches to me and at home I tried to learn it. From 17 or18 to I saw him again when I was 35 to 36, and he asked me to play some stuff, and I actually played that piece of music. And he was very impressed. “I love the way you developed or changed that piece. I really like it.” He recognized it. He recognized the nuts and bolt but he could see it was not his any more; something is different now. I think that’s essentially what the flamenco is. It’s not only the guitar but also dance as well. I think singing maybe a little more traditional, but singing perhaps as well. That exemplifies what the process is.
So, I think only in the last few years I could say that I found my style. I started to find my own voice. Before that I didn’t use to think about that. I want to play that good, I want to be technical. I want that technique. Only in last few years, yeah, I think I got my own style. And I know what works for me, and what doesn’t work. I know the sound - I can hear the sound I want. I can hear the sound that I think it’s good sound. So, obviously that changes. But I think eventually as an artist at least in flamenco keep dedicating your time and time to it, eventually you find your style. But it’s going to take a long long time. “Tomorrow I want to be like this.” If you are saying, “Tomorrow I want to be like Pace de Lucia,” you are not on the right track yet. It’s now normal to do that especially when you are young. I’m not saying people don't do that. But I'm saying that’s a bit of young way of thinking of things, you know.
See, the great thing of flamenco is that nothing is set. In classical guitar, what I understand and what I studied it’s about interpreting what composers wrote and trying to give justice to that. While flamenco you don’t get a lot of respect from interpreting Paco de Lucia perfectly. People would say, “that’s good but Paco plays it better.” If you took something from Paco and changed it to a way, which has something of your personality, even if it doesn’t have to note perfect, or you can make mistakes, people give you some respect. That’s essentially what flamenco is. It’s a very live form; you are not dealing with dead music. You are dealing with live music. You have to make your own. You are alive. You are not learning from some composers who are dead and trying to give the justice. Change it. Make it your way, you know. Don’t play like him, because, for example, Paco de Lucia, he is not alive any more. Nobody can play like him. You might play a note perfect. But he’s got his own personality in his style of music.
It’s like someone is saying why in music do we have this. Actually you don’t have this in an art form like fine art like painting. No one tries to copy Van Gogh paining. And say, Oh look, I’ve done to Van Gogh painting exactly like Van Gogh and 100% perfect. No one does that. Why would you do in music? Why would you try to create Mozart or Bach 100%. I spent a long time trying to do that, tying to exactly like Bach and the guitar and things like that. It’s never ending. You never got there. It’s just ridiculous. I think you spend too much time missing the real aspect of being a musician. Anyway, this is whole another level. Flamenco is about being alive; making music that is alive. So I think it’s important, look, when you are young you never know; you are just trying to be perfect and have good technique and be better than next guitar player. But if you stick at it, eventually you get to grow your style, and that’s going be and that’ll make you who you are, you know, and you can pin point what that is. It’s unique for every person. Yeah, a long question!
6) Please tell me about your experience of living and studying in Spain.
I think it’s extremely important. And if you are in flamenco, studying in Spain, you just have to do it. It’s the mecca of the art form, but I think there is also a lot of down side to it. I haven’t been to Spain since 2009 and I’m really having that urge to go back, which is a good thing. But, again, it’s like a style; you have to go through a lot of things and experience a lot of things before you eventually you work out where you are at, and even then you never work out that still change in time any way, but at least to be a bit more secure where you fit into everything.
So, the problem for me with studying guitar in Spain was that most of time you just go to a guitar guy and you sit in his room and he shows you falsetas, and there is no context and there is no meaning. It’s like if you are trying to learn a language, and you sit in a room with someone and all they teach you formal academic sentence structures and then you try use them in the street and nobody speaks like that. You don’t know where to put this sentence and you don’t know where you put that sentence. So because learning music is like a language, 100% like a language, it’s got to have a meaning; people have to understand it, specially in flamenco where you are an accompanist, so you have to read what somebody is saying, somebody has to read what you are saying. If I’m speaking German and if you are speaking French, we just can’t read each other. No matter how well I speak French or German, if we don't speak the same language together, it just don’t go anywhere. So, that‘s a problem with Spain for me.
There are some places now in flamenco like Cristina Heeren where you can go and you can go a series of steps to learn flamenco. I think it’s helpful. I think this thing also kills a little bit of romantic side, the mystery of flamenco slowly. I think something like jazz or classical, again in my opinion, part of the romanticism with it is gone because it’s whole academic now; it’s whole formulated, it’s got structures and everything. Flamenco is so difficult. “Why do you do this?” “Well, I don’t know.” Everyone got different opinions. That makes the art form mysterious. Everyone talks about the mystery of flamenco. It’s not that mysterious. It really isn’t. It’s just that things just not that articulated well. So it’s hard for people to learn outside of the art form to come in and pin point what to do and how to do it. But really it’s a basic art form in my opinion. Things are very very simple. Once you understand the simplicity of it, you understand the complexity of it. But, how to learn those things is a mystery. It’s only because the way it’s taught, you know. So, you spend decades as guitarists learning all these falsetas that are totally waste of time. And you never gonna to play them perfectly and you don’t know when to play them property. And there is no proper teaching of technique; what technique works and how technique should be. It’s all very abstract. “Oh I do like that.” “Why do you like that?” “I don’t know. That’s the way I do it.” It’s changing a little bit now. But really, I learned most of my stuff that is useful for flamenco is not in Spain.
So, but all that said, it’s hugely important because that where the bottomline is. That’s where it comes from. Whether you go there is a big mystery of what to learn it and how to learn it. It doesn’t matter. You still have to experience it. Because that where it comes from that where you taste. You taste it. Maybe you don’t know tasting. That’s where you taste it. That’s the only place in the world you can really taste it. You can have great experiences, professional experiences in other countries like in Japan or in New York and things like that but you never really taste it. It’s only in a little circle. You know what I mean? Where in Andalucía that’s where you taste it. It doesn’t matter your technique or your ability. Anyone who is into it, you taste it. That’s that, you know. So, here you go.
7) What made you to live in New York as a flamenco artist?
The first thing is I couldn’t live in Europe. I had too many problems with visas, even though my father was Dutch. The Dutch was too strict with the immigration process, and so living in Spain I always lived illegally. I always ended up having a lot of problems leaving the country because I overstayed. Months and months and months… I got sick of dealing with it. I was in London for a long time and I was basically not illegal, but it was hard to get work and I missed a lot of work because I didn’t have visa. “I want to give you a job, but you need to invoice us.”
So, I got sick of it and I moved back to Australia and I had an opportunity to come to the United States. It is a long story, but I always knew that flamenco was a very big thing in New York. It’s got a big history. I already knew that from the past. So, when the opportunity came, I thought “Ah, I’ll give it go to see what happens.” There are little tablaos and there are good level artists in NY and people coming from Spain all the time. It’s very dynamic with flamenco. And also, there people are very open to giving and people are trying, you know, to see how you go. So, if you got some ability and you know what you are talking about, people give you a try. So it’s a very dynamic scene. There are big dance companies there, and they always have a lot of work. So, it’s very unique place in the world of flamenco in my opinion. So that’s why I went there. I live there for a long time and had great experience. I learned a lot; I learned a lot about really playing flamenco, by doing for a job, working in a situation where there was no rehearsal, and working with professional artists from Spain. And yah, sometime you might just totally bombed out, but you learn from that experience and you gonna get another experience hopefully soon. And eventually you get better and better at that. People start calling you more, and you are going on tour, working with a big company on tours, which are good cause you solidify your technique. I think those experiences are impossible in Spain. So, see? It’s different levels - learning levels. And then you have to get away from that learning level, and make the information you’ve learned practical. You have to be using it.
In Spain I just thought there is no chance to use it. I’m just a perpetual student. I’m just going to Amor de Dios, I’m playing in a dance class, going to a teacher and learning. It’s not what flamenco is. And it’s not going anywhere. It’s really learning flamenco is on the job training. You have to be on the job and you have to be in the scene and you have to be doing it. And you have to learn what works, it’s like having stamina to be able to play for a dance for 15 minutes or 20 minutes, you know, learn how to have that stamina; where to play hard, where to play soft, how to balance yourself. You can only learn playing in live. What falsetas work; you need to have falsetas which ones are going to work. If you are only doing all these fancy Paco de Lucia and Vicent Amigo falsetas and all the other ones you’ve learned from your teachers and if you go to tablaos, its gonna fall on your face, because that stuff not going to work, you know what I mean? You need falsetas that cut through the noise of dance and palmas of the scene. And you need technique that you can penetrate. You know what I mean? You could only learn that, as Pepa Molina says, in Flamenco University – in tablaos.
Unfortunately, in Spain there are so many guitarists, and so many families in flamenco they keep the work on their own before somebody else. So it’s just very difficult unless you are fortunate to live there decades and decades, and maybe you might get a job once every year. But really, so that’s why I went to New York. Good cities I think are Tokyo, maybe Berlin and Amsterdam. There are cities that you could probably work at with good level of people. You need to work with good level of people. You need to work with people who know what they are doing.
8) What does performing give you?
That’s a difficult question. Ok, so, performing used to be like, ah, I said used to, it still is, I guess, it’s extremely important because it’s like what is all about, you know. It gives me the energy, but I don’t know, it's a phase. I love performing, and I like it. I don’t know if it is a NY thing, but these days I like just going to the gig and performing. The whole rehearsal thing kills me a little bit now; so much effort to go rehearsals, so much effort to learn all these materials. It’s great and I love it, because having something really perfect is really good, you know, but I do like the spontaneity of just no rehearsal. And everybody has to speak more basic language of flamenco. You can’t have the dancers doing all these weird stuff because it’s not going to work. The guitarist doesn’t know. You have to do basic and traditional flamenco. The language needs to be really simple. To me that’s what I like the most. That’s what I really like the most. So, if I can perform like that, I love it.
The whole idea of rehearsing really does my heading these days, but it’s just the way it is. But yeah, so actually lately the whole rehearsal thing kills a bit of the performance thing for me. Huh, it’s a bit sad, isn’t it? But look, when I do a good performance even after all rehearsals, it’s amazing. It gives me a purpose to all hard work. It’s the opportunity to express. It’s something you work really hard at. It’s like learning another language, it’s like say you spend all 10 years learning a language, like French or Spanish, and then going to another country and actually speaking it. That’s what is like. Yeah, except now, rehearsal is like getting on that airplane and spending a long whole flight and having to organize the hotel, having to organize the flight. That’s what the process of rehearsal is right now. Still it’s good when you get there and it’s done, but the whole process is like, oh my God, you know, it’s a little bit draining.
9) What does teaching give you?
I don’t teach very much. So, it’s a similar thing. It’s like passing the knowledge on to other people to see people grow and learn to understand it. So, I guess it's a sense of fulfillment.
10) You traveled across the world studying, performing and teaching. How did you end up living in Hawaii part time for the last two years?
Because I always grew up in the ocean, and I’ve always been very influenced by the ocean. It’s always been a major part of my life, for most of my life. So, New York City, London and Madrid were very difficult for me because it’s not near the ocean. Although after a while I forget about it and I just do my thing, but I’m always like missing it, feeling that things to be near the ocean. So, when for the first time I went to Spain, I went to Spain with two surfboards, my clothes and my guitar. I landed in Barcelona. Nobody knew what you are looking at because I had big surfboard bags and surfboards, and of course I ended up in Cádiz, and I stayed in Cádiz in months and months, a long time in Cádiz because Cádiz is a surfing town and very famous for flamenco. So, I was comfortable in Cádiz, and I liked it. I got to know the whole coast and I taught surfing down there. And that was the thing. So it’s always a massive part of my life.
So, New York City was great, cause getting on a subway and you can still be at Atlantic Ocean and go surfing, but it’s a mission. So, after living what for 5 and 6 years in New York City, Aiko, my wife, always wanted to come to Hawaii. We always had a plan. Let’s go there to see, either here or San Diego. We just came here. Two years is not very long. We haven’t been here for full two years. We go away and come back. It’s also close to Australia. So, it’s still very easy to go to Australia and do shows there, because I got some things in Australia that I do a lot with Pepa Molia. It’s still accessible. I can be in Australia tomorrow, very quickly and very cheaply. In Hawaii life style is centered around the ocean. That’s that. That’s how I ended up here. I guess it was a stepping-stone to be little bit more close to Australia. Spain is the mecca for flamenco. Hawaii is the mecca for surfing, you know. Unfortunately, of course, flamenco is a little bit low side here, but people are still interested and it’s still fun. Yeah, different sort things happening here - different things.
11) What do you enjoy most of flamenco? What is your flamenco? What flamenco means to you?
I like accompanying most, I think. I like playing for singing and dancing. Not just singing, but singing and dancing, that’s what I like. I enjoyed just practicing the guitar, just being at home, just practicing, learning things, writing music that I wanted. Developing my technique is very meditative, and I spend a lot time every day doing that. That’s something I really love. Just playing the guitar, it doesn’t have to be for audience, developing something; creating a little piece of music, or developing new technique for accompaniment.
I like anything that’s authentic flamenco. For example, Paco de Lucia did some stuff with Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin. It’s a modern fusion, but still his side of element of flamenco is still authentic. While other artists who are famous for playing a type of flamenco, it's not authentic. I’m not into that. So I’m totally into what Paco did because he authentic in the art form. His knowledge is just second to none. He brought into another element. His part is, he is still playing flamenco, you know. And then I like really traditional flamenco as well, straight from Carmen Amaya and Sabicas; to me as long as it’s flamenco, you know, as long as it’s not something else. It doesn’t matter where it is comes from. It could be a guitarist or a singer from Japan, or could be a guitarist, singer and dancer from Spain. It doesn’t matter, if I think it’s good. And there are a lot of good artists who don’t come from Spain - a lot of good artists. And I appreciate that very much. Sometime I appreciate it more. Because I know how much work you have to put in to get good, cause usually its more than someone from Spain who was brought up with it, so if you are an outside artist.
For me flamenco is very multi-culture. Look at the history where it comes from. It’s not just about being Spanish. History and culture is huge. It’s a multicultural progressive art form in my opinion. And so, I’m just into authentic flamenco; so it doesn’t matter if it’s traditional or it doesn’t matter if it’s modern. As far as it’s authentic, and I like the sound of it. That’s enough for me, you know. So, look at the singer Duquende, there is a lot of modern, sometimes weird stuff. I love it. And you get some singers just sing really traditional flamenco – amazing and great! I think I’m not into one or the other. Some people are like - ah, Paco is not flamenco. Tomatito is not flamenco. Why? I can’t understand that conservative thinking, which is a big part of flamenco. There is a lot of conservatism in flamenco. It has to be like this. It’s only that. I’m not into that. Obviously there is a line that we can draw. We can say this person is not playing flamenco, you know? In my opinion if we take Paco de Lucia or Josemi, for example, he is playing a lot of modern stuff. But it is flamenco. From their background and training, they are flamencos. They know about flamenco. They know what it is. It’s great. So, if flamenco was only one thing, it would be boring. As long as it’s true to its root somehow, I enjoy it. As long as the roots are somewhere there, that might be like, for example, Tomatito might be playing Bésame mucho, you know, nothing to do with flamenco but his technique in a way, he phrase the rhythm, and the way he articulates codes and his interpretation. That’s only a flamenco would do it like that. That becomes flamenco, you know what I’m saying? Someone might have different technique in another genre of music, but they won’t do it like Tomatito because they don’t have that understanding of flamenco in it. Sure, it might be good, I’m not saying it’s bad with other artist doing, but what I’m saying is that Tomatito playing a piece of music that’s not flamenco, right, it sill putting a flamenco element into it. It’s like flamenco is a color, and only flamenco knows that how to make that color. He’s taking that color and he’s putting it into there. That’s a flamenco stamp, you know. Even though it’s not a palo of flamenco. It’s still got the technique and phrasing and everything that makes it flamenco. You could get a good dancer, let’s say, Belen Maya, she knows flamenco inside out. Maybe she might dance a piece of music that’s got nothing to do with flamenco, like a Michael Jackson piece, but all her body movement, her arm movement, all training come through. Although the piece is not flamenco, she is flamenco, and that makes flamenco element. It does not make a flamenco dance, but makes flamenco elements, that only person who studied flamenco can give. So, there you go.