Forget about the romance and mystique of running away to join a Gypsy caravan. While he's attained singular status as the only American completely embraced by the flamenco musicians of Andalusia, guitarist David Serva rejects any clichéd notion that he's lived out a childhood fantasy.
"I had no plan to be anything," says Serva, 72, from his home in southern Spain. "It was just living day to day."
Performing Friday at Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa and Sunday at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage as part of the 8th Annual Bay Area Flamenco Festival, Serva delivers a dose of pure flamenco with a cast of Gypsy musicians and dancers from Andalusia, including Jose "El Duende" Galvez, Kina Mendez, Javier Heredia, and Luis
"It's not rehearsed," says the Berkeley native. "It's improvised by people who know what they're doing. It's an adventure."
Serva may not have planned it, but his life has unfolded like a Hemingway novel, from his first arrival in Spain in the late 1950s, when the country was ruled by Gen. Francisco Franco and still shadowed by the brutal civil war. Born David Jones, the son of a UC Berkeley political science professor, Serva adopted the Spanish surname as a teenager entranced by flamenco. When his father received a two-year teaching position in Bologna, he hitched a ride on the first class passage over to Europe and ended up making his first trip to Spain at 17.
"The last concentration camp closed in 1957, and I got there in 1958," Serva says. "If Spain was still in the 19th century, the small towns in Andalusia were in the 18th century.
"But I didn't have any problems. The dollar was worth lots of money, and I was a foreigner. The secret police questioned me a little bit and scared me, but nothing too serious."
It was on his second trip to Spain in 1962 that Serva encountered Gypsy guitar legend Diego del Gastor while visiting his little town outside Seville, Morón de La Frontera. Taken with the young American, who had already mastered his style by listening to a privately made recording, Gastor took Serva under his wing. He became such an integral part of the insular scene in Andalusia (and later Madrid) that he played with many of the art form's giants, including Manuel Agujetas, Juan Talega, Manolito de Maria, La Perla de Cadiz, Miguel Funi, Mario Maya, and Blanca del Rey.
"I think the main thing was David had a remarkable ability to understand the culture," says Paul Shalmy, a veteran journalist and editor who lived in Spain for two decades and shared many experiences with Serva. Shalmy hosts a Thursday panel discussion at La Peña in Berkeley focusing on a slide show of photos curated by guitarist Steve Kahn documenting the experience of Americans who traveled to Spain in the 1960s and '70s seeking out flamenco.
"Where a lot of people went there saying I've got to get the notes, he was after learning how to accompany the cante," Shalmy continues, referring to flamenco vocalists. "He was wasn't so much after being an individual superstar guitarist, but I think he's one of America's most accomplished unknown musicians. It's weird because he just followed his own North Star, and that's where it took him. In flamenco circles, he's mythical."
A supremely generous teacher, Serva has done more than any other American to spread knowledge and appreciation of flamenco. Throughout the 1960s, he was a fixture at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, where he inculcated a generation of guitarists into the art form's mysteries.
He was featured as a guitarist in the original Tony Award-winning Broadway production of "Man of La Mancha" and served for several years as lead guitarist in the popular company Noche Flamenca. Even in Spain, Serva became a revered mentor addressed as Tio David by younger musicians who knew that the quality of a player's notes and the poetry of his phrasing is far more important than the velocity of his lines.
He acknowledges that virtuosity has become the coin of the realm for guitarists, though he's skeptical that technical prowess means the music has evolved.
"Maybe devolved, depending how you see it," Serva says. "It's definitely changed enormously. When I was first in Spain, there were two extremely good guitarists, one in Spain and one in New York, Sabicus. You could look three months for a good guitarist and not find one. Now you could look for five months and not find a bad one."