Homenaje a Juan del Gastor

The first time I met Juan del Gastor was at Carl’s home in Berkeley. This must have been in 2003 or 2004. I had booked a private lesson with him to learn Flamenco guitar. My flamenco mentor, Kenny, had really played him up, and told me that this was the guy to learn from, so I had high expectations.

I did not speak any Spanish, and Juan did not speak any English, so we got off to a great start. Each of us mumbled something in our own respective languages, but he said something that made a big impression on me. He said something that included the words sangre (blood) and mismo (the same). And then he put his arm next to mine. And I understood right away what he meant.

You see, Juan is authentic gypsy. Gypsies defined flamenco over the years of nomadic life: the gitano in canté gitano – flamenco –  means ‘gypsy’. And the gypsies’ origin is in India, where I am from as well. When he put his arm next to mine, our arms looked the same. And that is what he was saying – we are of the same blood. We are the same.

Juan’s real name is Juan Gomez Amaya. He is known as Juan del Gastor because of his uncle, the flamenco legend Diego del Gastor (1908-1973). After Diego died on July 7, 1973, his guitar legacy was carried on by the four sobrinos (nephews) – Diego de Morón, Austin Ríos Amaya, and the brothers Paco and Juan del Gastor.

Over the years, I learnt a lot from Juan. He taught me many of Diego’s falsetas. Every time he came to the US, there would be some sort of event, a fiesta, or a music program, and I would take lessons from him. But every time, it was a remembrance of Diego, and Juan was the man who would deliver Diego’s legacy. I recall thinking that living always in Diego’s long shadow must have been tough for Juan. On the one hand, being associated with the legend had brought him a lot of good things he would not have got otherwise – a following in the US, some fame, and probably a lot more money than he would have made selling fish in Sevilla. But any time anyone said anything about Juan, it was always as Diego’s this, Diego’s that ….

At the end of 2006, Kenny stopped coming down to the South Bay for his lessons and story sessions (more about that in a future blog). And my flamenco guitar playing started unravelling. I did travel to Sevilla in 2007, for the Fería de Abril, and took many lessons from Juan during that trip. I also met his wife Luci, who took me to various peñas unknown to the tourists, for some authentic gypsy flamenco. But my involvement kept reducing, and in 2010, I stopped playing the guitar completely, focusing on Argentine Tango instead. I could do tango at night, after my family activities were done.

And so, I did not meet Juan any more for many years.

Recently, as you may know from another blog post of mine, I turned 50. It so happened that the very next day, Juan, along with a bunch of others, including Kenny, were doing a show at La Peña in Berkeley. So of course I had to go. I felt very lucky that the timing was so good. At the concert, I met Luci and we chatted a bit, remembering old times. But Juan and Kenny were in the room at the back where the artists were, and I could not talk to them.

Of course there was the photo of Diego in the corner, as usual, since this was all in his memory. But I felt this time, something was different. Juan’s singing was different, and at some point in the middle, I noticed something that stood out: he was playing a falseta that was clearly all his own. This was definitely not Diego – not a single note of his in this falseta. I spoke to Luci about it afterwards, I told her the falseta was really pretty, and so different – she told me that Juan gets nervous on stage, and sometimes he just plays anything. She couldn’t really recall anything different or special. I will likely never know what it was, but I felt a strange elation nevertheless. Diego’s shadow was long, but not infinite, and Juan had stepped outside it. And it was beautiful.

Here are some memories of Juan over the years.

Diego’s Homenaje at the Thirsty Bear in 2005 – Juan playing guitar:

Juan dancing with Luci at the homenaje:

And some canté:

With Juan in 2006. I’m looking sheepish because I had a tough lesson.

The famous Spanish band Son de la Frontera performed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in early 2007. After the concert, we all went to Carl’s house in Berkeley and partied through the night until it was time for them to go to the airport in the morning and take their flight back to Madrid. Here’s Juan playing the guitar.

Another shot from that same fiesta:

Juan with my youngest son – for some reason the latter was quite apprehensive of Juan. Probably from the energetic way he played the guitar.

Juan in his home in Sevilla, when I visited there in 2007.


And finally, Juan at the concert at La Peña on July 8, 2018. You can see Kenny too, under the ‘L’. It was a fabulous concert – I hope there are many many more!

What Makes Reggae, well, *Reggae*?

I love Reggae music. It’s my absolute favourite type of music. There’s something about it – it’s clearly the music of ordinary people, which gives it depth, and the rhythm is just addictive. You just cannot stand still when you hear it.

What’s so special about reggae rhythm? At first look, it’s just the regular 4/4 beat. But it’s somehow different at the same time. And even within reggae, the pop style of UB40 for example, is very different from the roots reggae of Bob Marley. This got me wondering.

Then, a few months ago, I saw the 2012 documentary ‘Marley’. It is an amazing mosaic of the life of an amazing man. And I understate it severely when I say ‘amazing’. It was available on Netflix for a while, but I see that it has now gone away, at least here in the USA. You can still buy it from Amazon, or watch it in low-resolution here. I highly recommend purchasing and keeping it, it’s that good.

From this documentary, I learnt about how reggae came to be, and how it is different. A typical 4/4 beat emphasizes the first beat the most, and the 3rd as well. Here’s a good example, Bohemian Rhapsody by the popular rock band Queen. You can clearly hear the 1-2-3-4 if you look for places where the drums start, as they do at 02:00 in the video.

In this case, the numeral in bold and italics is the strongest beat, and the numeral in bold alone is strong too. We could represent it like this pictorially:

The thicker and longer the line, the stronger the beat. You can imagine beating a drum with a severity equal to the weight and length of the arrow.

In reggae, it is the off beat (#2) that is emphasized, as well as two next beats. The ‘2’ and ‘4’ are typically guitar, and the ‘3’ is the base drum. Now the beat is 1-234. Bunny Livingston, one of the original Wailers, explains it really well in this short clip from ‘Marley’:

So in our pictorial representation, this is what the reggae beat would look like:

This reggae beat was discovered most likely by accident. Bob Andy, the recording artist of Studio 1 where Bob Marley and the Wailers did many of their early recordings, said that there was some equipment they had brought from the USA, which they tried one day. It was a tape delay, and it caused an echo of the guitar strum, which led to the ‘chekke’ sound typical of the reggae guitar. Carlton Davis, session drummer of the Wailers talks about this sound in ‘Marley’. And  you hear it clearly in the Bob Marley song that follows as well:

The drum beat comes on the ‘3’ and is usually quite strong, which is why is is 1-234. The ‘chekke’ comes on the ‘2’ and often on the ‘4’ as well. And the bass guitar also comes in on the ‘2’ and ‘4’. Aston Barrett, bass guitarist of the Wailers explains it here:

This is what makes reggae unique. This idea of guitar and drums is really important. If you switch the two, drums on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ and guitar on the ‘3’, it sounds totally different, as you can hear in this song from the 70s by The Police:

So, now that you understand the reggae beat, let’s leave you with a very nice reggae song from Steel Pulse. Enjoy!