Today’s flamenco guitar, as symbolised by the figure of Paco de Lucía, has its roots in the ‘fabulous Sabicas’ (El fabuloso Sabicas was the title of a documentary made about him in 2012). The Roma from Navarre was a virtuoso guitarist who opened up new horizons for flamenco sounds, despite having a personal life and artistic career that was for the most part removed from any kind of Spanish flamenco environment.
When the civil war of 1936 divided Spain in half, many Spaniards sought refuge on the other side of the Atlantic, and among them was Agustín Castellón Campos, known as ‘Sabicas’.
He came into the world in Pamplona on 16 March 1912, as the son of Agustín Castellón Gabarri and Rafaela Campos Bermúdez, a Roma family of street vendors. At the tender age of five he showed an interest in the guitar. Attracted by its sound as played by a neighbouring amateur, he asked his father to buy him one that he had seen in a shop window. Although at 17 pesetas it was considered to be too expensive a toy, the boy insisted and ultimately got his guitar. Never did the father imagine that this small instrument would become a lifelong companion for his son, who made it his profession and artistic identity.
A natural talent for music and many dedicated hours of practice made Agustín a child prodigy admired by everyone who heard him. He debuted aged just seven at Teatro Gayarre in his home city, and three years later an impresario named Bonet presented him at Teatro El Dorado in Madrid. Perhaps at the time he was viewed more as a curiosity than as a musician – when in the middle of fandanguillos he would raise his right hand and continue with only the left, he would always be applauded. Later on, everyone understood that was proof of his prodigious technique, which formed the basis of his historic contribution to flamenco guitar.
It was around this time that he adopted his artistic name: ‘Sabicas’. It all had to do with his love of broad beans, which are called habas in Spanish. His mother started calling him ‘Habicas’, and that evolved into ‘Sabicas’.
In his early phase, as is to be expected, various influences from two greats of the era can be heard: his uncle, Ramón Montoya, and Manolo de Huelva, the source from whom he borrowed to create a fresh style of his own. As far as Sabicas was concerned, the flamenco guitar was no longer there merely to accompany singers, but rather became valued as a solo instrument.
There followed recitals, and of course he also accompanied the highest-paid singers of the time (Niña de La Puebla, Juanito Valderrama and El Carbonerillo) in various companies that toured throughout Spain. These are the years of the Ópera Flamenca as a format for presenting shows: a combination of lyrical song, flamenco and humour, cleverly arranged to satisfy the tastes of a broad, heterogeneous audience.
And so his artistic career followed the usual trajectory of any flamenco musician until the fateful civil war threw the entire country into turmoil from 1936 to 1939. Sabicas was one of many affected by the circumstances, and he left for the Americas, where he lived until the end of his life – first in Argentina, then Mexico and finally New York. This phase of his life represented a major change in direction for his career. He left behind the flamenco comings and goings in his homeland in order to strike out into new artistic territory. He rubbed shoulders with great producers and Latin American and American musicians with whom he shared stages and successes. At the same time, recording companies became interested in his music, and he made nearly forty records, the most noteworthy being Flamenco Puro (1961) and El Rey del Flamenco (1965), two outstanding works of flamenco guitar. He also opened the door to the fusion between flamenco and rock music with the record Rock Encounter, made with Joe Beck in 1966, although it was not released until 1970.
Sabicas was the great genius of his time, although he remained unknown to the majority of Spain’s flamenco community. His tireless hours of study, along with a prodigious technical capacity, allowed him to reach a clarity of sound and speed of execution that had been previously unknown.
He only returned to Spain in 1967, preceded by universal recognition and a body of work that contained surprising revolutionary elements, both in creativity and interpretation. There is no doubt that Sabicas marked a ‘before and after’ in flamenco guitar.
Followers of his music such as Paco de Lucía will carry on his example to subsequent generations, representing one of the most important musical expressions in Spanish culture.
Now recognised and admired in Spain as well as by flamenco followers on five continents, Agustín Castellón Campos ‘Sabicas’ passed away on 14 April 1990 in New York City. His remains were transported to his hometown of Pamplona, where they were interred near those of his family.