When the guitarist Manitas de Plata became an international star in the 1960s, his was the name most widely associated with flamenco. At the time, music was classified as either popular or classical: the term “world music” had not been coined and the wizardry of the Gypsy from the south of France was regarded as both high culture and light entertainment.
Admirers marvelled at his fluency and virtuosity in a musical language that few understood. The improvisational drama, the ebb and flow of his flamenco-derived music was a long way from the grid structures of western music. But nor did he follow the strictures of pure flamenco. This indifference to convention also ran through his personal life: he was viewed both as a celebrity who partied with Brigitte Bardot and Pablo Picasso, and as an illiterate troubadour who was said to have fathered dozens of children.
The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Manitas de Plata
in celebration of his life in music
August 7 at 1pm EST
He was born Ricardo Baliardo in Sète (then Cette), on the Mediterranean coast, south-west of Montpellier. The name Manitas de Plata (little silver hands) was bestowed on him as a self-taught prodigy in his Gypsy community. In his sleeve notes for De Plata’s debut album in 1965, the US journalist Vincent Sheean wrote that the musician had “learned from the instrument everything it has to teach … he lives in his music as the fish lives in the sea”.
The path to worldwide acclaim was not straightforward. In 1955 the engineer Marc Aubort recorded De Plata at the annual Gypsy festival of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue. Aubort made attempts to contact him asking for permission to release the recordings, but his letters, addressed to “Mr Manitas de Plata”, never reached the guitarist.
De Plata’s reputation blossomed in southern France – Jean Cocteau was an early admirer – and in 1961 an article in Time magazine reignited the interest of E Alan Silver, a producer who had heard Aubort’s unreleased recordings. Shortly afterwards Silver attended an exhibition of photographs by Lucien Clergue, which included striking black and white pictures of Gypsy families from the region, and asked the young French photographer how to contact De Plata.
Clergue warned Silver that the guitarist refused to record for fear of being cheated, but agreed that they should attempt to convince him to bring his music to a far wider public. Since De Plata refused to travel, Silver had to ship hefty recording equipment to southern France to record in a medieval chapel in Arles. The atmosphere of those debut recordings, made in 1963 and released on the Vanguard label as Gypsy Flamenco (1965) and Olé (1966) is intimate and thrilling.
The tracks, recorded before a small audience of friends and family, range from the short, exuberant Sevillanas to the long, intense Levantes. Some songs feature his cousin José Reyes and son Manéro Baliardo. Flamenco aficionados see his music as separate from the genre – he was French rather than Spanish, and his unpredictable improvisations depart from the formal structures of the compás, the metric conventions that enable Flamenco singers, dancers and musicians to perform together. De Plata achieved prominence as a unique individual who made his own rules.
The well-connected Clergue became De Plata’s manager for a while and in 1964 introduced him to Picasso, who inscribed his guitar. De Plata would later supply the soundtrack to Clergue’s documentary Pablo Picasso: War, Peace, Love.
The Gypsy Flamenco LP came out with a cover endorsement by John Steinbeck – “a great and savage artist”– and the guitarist’s international career took off. He performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and gave a concert in honour of human rights at the United Nations (where he and Reyes used secretary general U Thant’s office as a changing room).
In his entertaining Dalí in New York (1965), the film-maker Jack Bond showed Reyes and De Plata performing for Salvador Dalí while he painted an image of Don Quixote. De Plata also appeared on television variety shows fronted by Julie Felix and Val Doonican, and at the 1968 Royal Variety Performance in London, alongside the Supremes and Morecambe and Wise.
Those early recorded collaborations with Reyes marked the beginning of a dynasty – in the early 1980s De Plata’s son Tonino, Jacques (Paco) and Maurice (Diego) Baliardo, alongside Reyes’s sons Nicolas, André, Canut, Paul and Patchaï, founded the Gipsy Kings. After a slow start, the they became million-selling world-music stars.
In some respects De Plata’s music was like the blues, thrillingly alien with a vinegary dash of melancholy that spoke both to cultured concert-goers and careworn suburbanites dreaming of the Camargue. Yet, unlike the blues, which inspired thousands of young hopefuls to pick up a guitar and wail, the flamenco-derived improvisations of De Plata elicited awe and admiration rather than imitation.
Source: the guardian