A daring Dutchman. Interview with flamenco guitarist Tino van der Sman.

“Make sure to master the profession of ‘tocaor’ first. That is where the essence of flamenco can be found.” Tino van der Sman is a Dutch guitarist and composer in the Spanish flamenco scene. Read on and learn from the maestro.

Cover photo by Tino van der Sman © 2017
A Dutch version of this interview will be published in the next Mundo Flamenco nr.42, 2018. 

Tino van der Sman teaching his guitar students © John FluryTino van der Sman teaching his guitar students. Photo © John Flury

Boy, was I surprised when I first came to Seville fifteen years ago and walked in on a tall, blond guitarist playing amazing flamenco music on stage. Could it be possible? Was he a Dutch guy, respected in the orthodox flamenco city of Seville? To my delight the answer turned out to be ‘yes’. 

Tino van der Sman has become a very successful flamenco professional who composes his own music and produces that of other artists. His oeuvre comprises four cd’s with the collaboration of renowned flamenco singers like Miguel Poveda, Rocío Márquez and guitarist Miguel Ángel Cortés. Tino also loves to accompany dancers and worked with internationally acclaimed artists like Israel Galván, Rafael Campallo and Leonor Leal.

Although he has been living and working in Seville for eighteen years now, Tino reveals that he still feels audacious, being a flamenco guitarist in Spain, prying into flamenco culture with an insatiable hunger for more.

Outsider art

CD cover of Tino van der Sman's latest album 'Curioso Impertinente', released January 16, 2016 © Félix Vázquez, Daniel Pérez Galisteo, Feikje Boertjens. 
CD cover of Tino van der Sman’s latest album ‘Curioso Impertinente’, released January 16, 2016. Photo © Félix Vázquez and Daniel Pérez Galisteo. Design by Feikje Boertjens. 

What does the title of your latest cd ‘Curioso Impertinente’ refer to?

“It tributes the romantic travellers who studied Spain and its culture in the 19th century and whom writer Richard Ford called ‘impertinently curious persons’. He was an Englishman portraying Andalusia and I am a Dutchman portraying flamenco. You could call me impertinent for daring to live and work here in Spain for twenty years, diving head first into flamenco and interpreting it my way.”

Do you feel that as a foreigner, you are being treated differently from other flamenco guitarists in Spain?

“As a foreigner I can see flamenco from a different angle with a different view. But I do feel very much part of the flamenco community here and especially the people I work with.

There are probably people around who do not want to work with me, but that is their problem and I don’t take much notice. Being a foreigner is also my trademark and it comes with a lot of advantages. Everyone knows who I am and I get recognised on the street.

“Being a foreigner is my trademark”

A disadvantage is that foreign organisers do not want to hire me, because they prefer Spaniards. Here in Seville my latest cd was received well though. People say I have a very personal way of composing.”

A personal style

Not only am I a fan of Tino, just because he prooves everyone who says foreigners can’t play flamenco wrong. But I also love his music, because it transmits both flamenco tradition and Tino’s personal form of art and craftmanship. I would mark his style as ‘romantic with soniquete y salero (romantic with groove and gusto).

How would you describe your style of composing yourself?

“I would call it melodic. And maybe it is not always very flamenco, except when it comes to interpretation. Take the song ‘Jardín Antiguo’ from my latest cd ‘Curioso Impertinente’. Its melody is not flamenco at all, but the power and earthly feel of flamenco is there, and I will always use that in my compositions.”

Do you work intuitively when composing or do you start with technique?

“I always start out with intuition, but in my experience that leads to roads I have traveled before. At least, that is what I am experiencing right now. If you keep following the beaten track, you will stay in your comfort zone. Adding technique might get you out of there. So I always try to complicate my creation with technical study afterwards.”

Tino van der Sman Dutch Flamenco Bienial 2017 Annemiek Rooymans
Tino van der Sman at VI Dutch Flamenco Biennial 2017. Photo © Annemiek Rooymans. 

Where do you get your inspiration from?

“According to the Hinduists inspiration comes from the ‘akasha field’, which is the fifth element after earth, fire, water and air. That is where I believe inspiration comes from.

And I listen to a lot of music other than flamenco that can offer me something I do not posses myself, like jazz. This is how I try to intellectualise and deepen my music with melodies, scales and chords that don’t come natural to me.

In the case of the composition ‘Jardin Antiguo’ dancer Cristina Hall showed me poems of Luís Cernuda and Armenian songs that I used for the melody.

I also look for music that is ‘unstable’, because my compositions tend to lead to music with a melodic and harmonic logic that sometimes makes it over-sweet. So I try to add irregularities or chromaticism. Like in the rumba ‘Curiosos impertinentes’. But you can hear it more clearly in my new pieces.”

“Intuition leads to roads I have traveled before.”

Are you planning on making a new cd?

“Yes, my goal is to make three new cd’s next year. One will be my own cd, which I have finished halfway. It will be a flamenco cd, but I am going to use as few palos (flamenco styles) as possible. They limit me and I want to break free from them. My view on flamenco in that sense may be somewhat more open than that of others.

Another cd will be with soul singer Esther Weekes and the third one a collaboration with flamenco singer Vicente Gelo, which will contain new arrangements of Sephardic music.”

Tino van der Sman presenting his latest cd in Seville 20th of april 2017 with Tamara López dancing. Video and sound: Félix Vázquez.

Guitar students asking the maestro

Tino started playing when he was eleven years old and studied with many teachers from Paco Peña, Gerardo Núñez, Manolo Franco to Miguel Ángel Cortés and Paco Jarana. Since 2000 Tino has been a teacher himself. One of Tino’s students has a question about the production of sound.

Are there two schools of flamenco guitar players when it comes to sound? On the one hand guitarists with a higher bridge height and long nails, like Moraíto, who had a very powerful way of playing, and on the other hand the guitarists with a lower bridge height and shorter nails, who play faster?

Tino Sanlucar John Flury
Tino van der Sman with students at a fiesta during flamenco festival organised by guitarist Gerardo Nuñez and dancer Carmen Cortés in San Lúcar. Photo © John Flury.

“Flamenco would be very boring if there were only two types of players. There are many different styles and I do not think they coincide with the length of the nails or the height of the strings from the guitar. What does matter is the thickness of the nail though.

The more material you put on your nail, like glue or gel, the thicker the nail will be and the more ‘plastic’ it will sound, like ‘clicking’. Finding your way with this is always a challenge. I am right in between, by the way, my nails are medium length and my strings are at medium height. But I doubt that it has anything to do with beauty of sound.

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A more general divide is the one between ‘guitarists’  and ‘tocaores’ (a flamenco term for ‘guitar player’). ‘Guitarists’ are composers. They busy themselves with technique and virtuosity.

‘Tocaores’ accompany flamenco singing and dancing. This is a high esteemed profession in Andalusia. You cannot become a guitarist if you don’t know the craft of ‘tocaor’. All flamenco guitarists we know have learned that profession and you can hear it in their music.”

Experience the essence of flamenco

Tino van der Sman accompanying flamenco singer José Valencia on Dutch television during VI Dutch Flamenco Biennial 2017

Do you have tips for those who want to become professional flamenco guitarists?

“Firstly, make sure you master the profession of tocaor. That is where the essence of flamenco can be found. I take the liberty of using my creativity to depart from the usual image of flamenco, but I experienced the essence first and am able to play traditionally when I want to.

I don’t think that traditional playing suits me, however much I love it. Trying to play traditional flamenco guitar is like being a foreigner that uses a flamenco nickname on stage, it feels inappropriate.

Moreover, there is less work for traditional flamenco guitarists. My strength lies in being different and that is more commercially viable. I prefer to keep developing a broader perspective on flamenco and life. That will also guarantee collaboration with people whom I have affinity with.

Secondly, make sure your Spanish is in order. I am strongly convinced that the Spanish language is intertwined with flamenco music. It seems unlikely to me that one could learn how to play the flamenco guitar without knowing Spanish.”

In february 2018 Tino van der Sman will be participating in an international project called ‘Flamenconautas‘ for the XXII Flamenco Festival of Jerez with dancer Javier Latorre.

Listen to all of Tino’s cd’s online here.

Interview with Tino van der Sman by onlineflamenco.net where you can get online classes from Tino himself.

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