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  • Writer's pictureDidier Bahuaud

Gypsy Rhythm

Updated: Feb 26, 2022

Fingers shouldn’t be able to move so fast.

Ronald Radford’s digits pick and strum guitar strings with an agility that defies logic. Notes melt together in an intricate net of emotions that talk of a faraway land where men are caballeros and women wear long, red robes that twirl around as they dance to their favorite Flamenco song.

Radford’s right cheek rests on the guitar’s wooden body. His eyes are closed in silent concentration. He is immobile, except for his left hand moving purposefully up and down the guitar’s neck, and his right hand strumming, picking, tapping in the bewitching rhythm of a Spanish Flamenco.

“Rhythm is very important in Flamenco because of the dancing,” he told Smith-Cotton students during his performance Wednesday.

Flamenco dancers mark the rhythm of a song by tapping their hard-heel boots on the floor. Radford reproduces that sound by tapping the guitar’s body while playing. Radford uses no pick — except the home-grown kind.

“Flamenco guitar players have the strongest nails in the world,” he said. “And that’s because we coat them with super glue. Please, don’t try this at home.”

Radford was invited by the high school’s Spanish Club as part of Foreign Language Week. He said Flamenco is the most popular music style in Spain. Originally a traditional form of folk music performed by Gypsies, Flamenco’s distinctive signature is also found in modern Spanish pop music.

“By the way, it’s Flamenco, not flamingo,” he joked. “One you can play on the guitar. The other, you find in a zoo.”

Born in California, Radford grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and currently lives in Ballwin, Mo. Music became a part of his life early on. Radford picked up the ukelele when he was 7, then learned the piano and later played cello in an orchestra.

At 14, he started strumming blues and jazz on a guitar, but it wasn’t until his mother bought a record by Carlos Montoya that he discovered the charms of Flamenco.

"I fell in love with it,” he said. “I was driving everyone crazy at home by playing the same record over and over.”

Radford was lucky enough to meet Montoya backstage after one of the artist’s concert.

“I had enough guts to bring my guitar with me and I actually played for him what I’d learned from listening to his records,” he said.

Montoya was impressed and took Radford under his wing. The aspiring musician also studied classical guitar with Andres Segovia. His efforts paid off. Radford earned a Fulbright scholarship in Flamenco — the only one ever to be awarded — and went to Spain where he traveled thousands of miles studying the music of the Spanish Gypsies.

Bradford recalls attending a fair and wanting to be allowed inside a tent where a party was raging. As he waited outside, wondering what to do, a group of kids came up to him.

“They looked like they were looking for trouble,” he said. “When they saw I had a guitar, the leader told me in Spanish that he wanted me to play so he could sing.

“Well, my Spanish wasn’t very good then, and I guess I had a mental block. I could only reply a very clever, ‘Si.’ When the boy started singing, though, it was incredible all the emotions that were pouring out of him. His friends started clapping and snapping fingers and pretty soon, we had our own party going on.”

And that’s Flamenco.

— Published in "The Sedalia Democrat," March 1996

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